Sunday, 29 August 2010

Alice, Violet & then there was Camilla...

Funny things run in families, don't they? With me, it's the nose.  Not something I'm thrilled about to be honest.  But the older I get, the more I notice the nose... It is the exact spit of my mother's, my uncles AND my great aunts.  Others get luckier and inherit the fabulously glossy chestnut curls, or the swan like neck, but, no, I get the nose.  Ho hum.  Well, of course in the case of the Keppels - it seems to be Royal lovers, but in the case of Camilla, she actually got to marry her prince. If Camilla has inherited anything from Alice Keppel and her daughter Violet let's hope for her sake it is an ability to be happy, as I think Mrs Keppel was, unlike her poor daughter - the lover of Vita, the lady novelist, the spoilt darling - Violet.
After Sissinghurst, I re-read a novel by Violet Trefusis (who was the of course the daughter of the infamous Mrs Alice Keppel, who was the consort of the lusty King Edward V11) the novel in question was Challenge, and a jolly good read it is too... as are all her novels if read with an eye for the period and if one is in a forgiving mood about the huge amounts of snobbishness and casual racism that was rife then.
But - oh Violet - what a life!
In the wonderful biography by Diana Souhami - Mrs Keppel and Her Daughter, the most unlikely facts are thrown up.  One of them is the simply appalling upbringing of Bertie, the Prince of Wales.   Amongst his other extensive lessons were housekeeping, drill, archeology, gymnastics, calculating, drawing and - wait for it- bricklaying - which went on for seven hours a day six days a week (no wonder he went so badly off the rails as soon as he could)  He had the most awful reports from tutors 'commonly averse to learning', 'wilful inattention' and 'anti-studious practices', which could easily have been my school report too, so I sympathise madly.
Of course by the time he got together with the voluptuous Mrs Keppel, Violet was in the nursery - though in later life, she dropped not very subtle hints that he was her father, claiming they had the same jaw line (family noses all over again) But this was not the case.  She was not of royal blood.  She could play with the Royal whiskers by the nursery fire and slide buttered crumpets down 'Kingy's' trousered legs. But she could not be his daughter.
Violet was dandled on laps, dressed in frills, taught French, music and art.  What else did she need?  Obviously she was going to marry well and that was considered more than enough.
Mrs Keppel was a shrewd judge of character and a money making machine.  Her wealth, even by Edwardian standards, was huge.  She was sensual and greedy and controlling, and covered all of this with the most amazing mask of manners.  That was the way things were done.  Etiquette ruled. The laws of class were upheld.  Adultery was too common to be remarked upon, lovers being allotted joining rooms at weekends away.  Fortunes were won and lost at the gaming tables, gentlemen shot pheasants, drank claret and the women were trained to amuse and quaff champagne, smile at risque jokes whilst wincing at the tightness of corsets.  Servants outnumbered guests, but were seen and not heard.  Just like the children. 
But Violet proved to be no ordinary child.
She'd already chosen a priceless Doge's ring at an antique shop (making the owner blanch with dismay as he expected her to choose a doll) and her waywardness started early.
She was the temptress, the witch, the seducer who longed to be seduced, by Vita.  It is a sad story of it's time.  Violet and Vita lead a tortured love affair, high on passion and romance, fuelled by forbidden love - then Mrs Keppel steps in and promptly arranges a marriage to Denys Trefusis.
Poor Violet.
She expected Vita (married and with two small children herself) to save her.  But she couldn't even save herself.  Her life was not what she expected it to be.  Still wealthy, still attractive and talented but with no discipline or ties, Violet drifted into obscurity, becoming a bore and a joke to her friends.  She returned from her beloved France at the start of the war, leaving her adored home (Vita and Violet both bought towers, which I'm sure Freud would be chortling at) and then had to endure being recognised as Princess Sasha in Virginia Woolf's love-book ot Vita - Orlando. Sasha IS Violet.  Deceitful, lying, duplicitous but no-one could resist such a siren.  At least, it seems that no well born, high bred lesbian in England did. Violet had many conquests, but there was only one love in her heart and that remained unrequited.  She had lost Vita to her husbnad, her children, her garden.  Violet was left with nothing.
This is a wonderful book, giving clear insights to the manners and morals of the day. The heart-breaking letters are re-produced leaving one with a real sense of the passion that the two women went through and the turmoil and torment they caused for their families.
These are the words that Violet wrote about herself.
Accross my life only one word will be written: -"Waste"- Waste of Love, Waste of Talent, Waste of Enterprise.
I think she was wrong. Her books are more readable than Vita's.  Her life was frittered away rather than wasted, but there's nothing wrong with a bit of frippery now and again...

Tuesday, 17 August 2010


I definitely became very Vita-ish, there's no denying it.  And who who wouldn't? Climbing the creaking wooden steps to her writing room in the tower at Sissinghust I was filled with excitement (and annoyance if I'm honest, that I wasn't on my way to have tea with her, but had to share her with the hordes - probably a very Vita like emotion.) Peering through the archway into her double room - where she famously tumbled Violet and later Virginia - felt a tiny bit voyeuristic, to be honest...but I soon got over it.  The divan looked small and shabby, the room was gloomy (the windows too high to be distracted with the glorious views) the writing desk small, and the hearth looked inadequate for anything but a mild autumn day, and how on earth would you carry anything up there? (answer of course - you didn't.  You had servants) A rush up the spiral steps to be blown around by the teasing wind of an English August afternoon and the magical view of her garden.  Bee-hives, apple trees, statues, riots of flowers, and of course the famous White Garden. I was practically elbowing other Vita acolytes out of my way to rush down the tower again and explore the grounds.
Heroically ignoring the many broken armed tourists (really, at one point I thought there was some sort of one armed convention going on the amount of splints, plasters and slings I saw) I whizzed up and down walkways of  pleached limes, box hedges, parterres, and burst upon the White Garden - and oh, my goodness, it was like being on the inside of a glass of champagne.  Bubbly and frothy and exciting and joyous.... and satisfyingly formal.  This wasn't a garden to lounge around in with flip flops, oh no.  Or to share, I suspect.  This was a private joy made by the woman who wore pearls casually 'the size of pigeons eggs' around her aristocratic neck, who treasured a priceless Doges ring, who was daughter of the estate known as Knole, and who fascinated some of the most fascinating people (men and women) of her time.
What was it about her that held people in thrall?  Staring at her portrait inside the main house, it's hard to tell.  Certainly she was beautiful, although the ravages of time were not kind to her, but perhaps she didn't care by then, living for her garden and her writing. The grandness helped of course (what first attracted you to the millionaire?) But really, I don't mean the wealth - I mean the grandness of her very being.  This is the woman who had Leopards as part of her heraldic past, who once saw a stag breathing hot air into a frosty room at the end of a corridor in the enormous Gothic castle of her childhood home, it's antlers wreathed in ivy, snow falling outside, with the caress of ermine at her neck.  Goodness, me the glamour of it all! Hers was a stern beauty worn carelessly, issues ordered from her lips, without a doubt or hesitation that they would be carried out.
But then - the revelation of her intense love of her family.  The love certainly of her husband, her sons, her friends was not something that I had suspected till I read Portrait of a Marriage by Nigel Nicolson. I could not imagine Vita being, well, being cosy. Choosing jewels in Paris - yes.  Striding in daring trousers through fields with a dog? Yes.Toasting crumpets round the nursery fire? No.  But is would seem that I was wrong, this book sets it all straight.
There are wonderful letters, snippets of history, and the remarkable tender portrait of a woman who we think we know.  But we don't.  Do read it.
Poor old Violet Trefusis doesn't come over too well in it, but I shall deal with her at a later date.
A keeper.

Saturday, 7 August 2010

Flying the (vintage) Rainbow Flag

What would Cecil Beaton have thought of it?  I have already headed off 3 Sailors, 2 Supermen and a Fireman walking the wrong way towards Pride this weekend.  If I hadn't stopped them they would be in Shoreham by now, missing out on the dubious delights of the Parade (don't get me started on that... long gone are the days of creativity and joyous abandon, now we have sponsored trucks by high street banks happy to take the pink pound) and the shabby entertainment in the tents in the park.  Oh dear.  Although I am, always have been, and undoubtedly always will be a Friend of Dorothy (some would just say Fag Hag of course) I was wondering what the heck Cecil would think?
In the wonderful Beaton in the Sixties, More Unexpurgated Diaries edited by Hugo Vickers, Cecil comes over as a sensitive soul, although obviously a most glorious snob and would have cringed, I think, at the sheer sloppiness of it all.  An elegant, sharp witted creature who was never quite accepted by the people he longed to be accepted by.  A Royal snapper, a set designer, a painter and creator of gardens, he led what must be seen as now, an incredibly priviledged life.  But, oh, how he worked at it. Nothing is left to chance.  The artfully arranged supper, the careless wisp of silk draped over a lamp, the worry of ageing, the fretting over the details... And my goodness, the people he knew.  A positive Who's Who of the rich, the famous, and the infamous.
The critics often use the word 'waspish' with him.  But... what good would be his wonderful diaries if he wasn't a tad waspish?  Certainly I rejoice in knowing that the Queen Mother was too fat to pose for a portrait with her hands in lap, or that she squabbled furiously with Tony Snowdon and Princess Margaret about using a biro to sign a guest book at the London Zoo.  The gossip is really delightful, and matters not that the people involved in the scandles are dead.  The Duke and Duchess of Windsor are described and conversations reported so that I felt I was there.  There, when the Duke (a tiny, weak eyed man) confessed to Cecil that he was too lazy to use the bathroom for a pee sometimes and simply did it out of the window at their residence in Paris.
It wasn't just Royalty, either, though he did have a bellyfull of them.  He chased the new talent, too.  Mick Jagger gets the Cecil Beaton treatment.... His skin is chicken breast white, and of a fine quality. He has enormous in built elegance....He is very gentle with perfect manners.  I was not disappointed.  But then, a few day later round the pool in Tangiers, Mick Jagger walks towards Cecil and he notes...I couldn't believe it was the same person. His face was a white podgy shapelss mess.... He looked like a self-conscious suburban young lady.  Ouch.
And you feel his despair when he meets up with Greta Garbo on a sailing cruise courtesy of a Rothschild private yacht round the Greek Isles. The pair had been romantically involved for decades, but with Cecil it was all talk, really, his persuasions were not heterosexual.  It was her beauty that enslaved him.  But now, after a parting that has lasted years, they are cooped up together on a small yacht and he mourns her lack of substance. She has nothing to fall back on, no conversation, no intimacy, no humour and not much kindness.  They all have to creep around her, terrified of arousing her displeasure. Only once does he glimpse the woman that he had loved all those years, and he cries at the waste of it all.
Probably at no other time in history could Cecil have moved so much with the movers and shakers.  Picasso, Frederick Ashton, Andy Warhol, Barbara Streisand, Coco Channel and Katherine Hepburn all are friends, but none are spared in the diaries.  It's utterly fascinating.  But perhaps even more so are the figures that are not 'names' but hover on the periphery of history.  They too have stories to tell, and the fascination grows.
I can't see Cecil approving of the boys at Pride this weekend, but he no doubt would have his camera to hand, and I bet he would have found the most interesting figure to talk to over a bottle of something delicious in the bar of The Grand.

Sunday, 1 August 2010

Gone to the Dogs...

I can make no excuses.  We've gone dog mad here at Seafront Bookreader. After a very lonely time in the flat without a canine friend, we could bear it no longer and succumbed to the charms of the new puppy.  She is a mixture, but mostly Griffon.  She'll be ready to pick up in two weeks time and we're now dashing round the flat to puppy-proof. (Idle occupation, I am aware....)To while away the time till then I re-read Flush by Virginia Woolf re-published in this rather gorgeous addition by Persephone Books.  The plain and elegant front cover is beautiful enough, in a stern grey - but the end papers are a real delight, with swirling ambers and reds.  Virgina Woolf is one of those writers whose lives I know far more about than her books, to be honest.  I struggled with The Waves, Mrs Dalloway and A Room of One's Own - but Flush - well that was a cinch. The dog in question, is of course, the beloved pet of Poet Elizabeth Barrett Browning. (I will admit that I did think of naming new puppy the same, but then had visions of me calling in the rainy park 'Flush, come here, Flush!' and simply couldn't do it, as the associations with a loo is just a little too much.)
The life of the poet and the dog are intertwined in this wonderful study of calustrophobia and stifling emotions.  Poor Flush is forced into being a lap dog, being fed rich tid-bits from the slim white fingers (marred only by the occasional ink stains) of his mistress.  He has to negotiate the over stuffed and stifling bedroom, full of heavy dark furnture and the light deadening curtains and drapes, the invalid trays and medicines, and sits, cramped on the sofa, just being allowed into Wimple Street for a few breaths of fresh air. It made me question the nature of dogs.
This life is appalling for any dog, but however bad the circumstances, the reward for the human in the equation is unconditional love. The loyalty and sheer good will of dogs, must surely be applauded - or should it? Of course, sometimes they do bite back and it made me long for Flush to do so.
Flush dreams of open meadows and unfettered running, and luckily for him it does come in the well documented flit to Italy.  Of course he then has to suffer sharing his mistress, first with Robert Browning and then the child, and worse was to come.  In the heat of Italy and his unchecked roaming of the streets he develops mange.  The scissors are picked up and he is cruelly shorn of his coat.  Flush looks at his reflection and thinks, What am I now? Nothing. He was nobody, certainly not a cocker spaniel  But as he gazed, his ears bald now, and uncurled, seemed to twitch..... He danced on his nude, attenuated legs.  His spirits rose.  So might a great beauty, rising from a bed of sickness and finding her face eternally disfigured laugh with joy to think that she may never look in the glass agian, or fear a rival beauty.  
Of course the book is a wonderful conceit and talking as a dog is something that only the great writers can do without becoming all Marley and Me ...
If you haven't tackled Virgina Woolf, this is a good place to start.
Now, all I have to do is think of a name for the new dog..... But nothing that conjures up bathrooms.