Jenny Diski

  • Dangerous Muse: A Life of Caroline Blackwood by Nancy Schoenberger
    Weidenfeld, 336 pp, £20.00, June 2001, ISBN 0 297 84101 7

At the age of 86 and with a broken hip, the Marchesa Casa-Maury was interviewed by Caroline Blackwood for her book about the last dreadful days – months, years rather – of the Duchess of Windsor. The Marchesa had been the Duke’s mistress for fifteen years when Wallis Simpson arrived on the scene. Blackwood explained to the old lady how the Duchess was being sequestered in Paris by her lawyer, Maître Suzanne Blum, who was obsessed with her, and that she was officiously being kept alive, although rumoured to be comatose, to have turned black and to have shrivelled to the size of a doll. The ancient Marchesa began shaking with laughter and continued until tears ran down her cheeks. She managed to pull herself together, but as Blackwood was leaving, started to laugh again as she tried to apologise for her behaviour.

I really shouldn’t find it so funny. It’s awful of me to laugh about it. Do you promise you didn’t invent it all? There’s something so comic about the situation. It’s the idea of that horrible old lady being locked up by another horrible old lady.

Blackwood prefaces the book with an author’s note that is perhaps something more than an attempt at a legal disclaimer: ‘The Last of the Duchess is not intended to be read as a straight biographical work. It is an entertainment, an examination of the fatal effects of myth, a dark fairytale.’ All the old ladies were long dead by the time the book saw the light of day, and Caroline Blackwood, though not so very old a lady at 63, was physically wrecked by booze and in fact had only a year to live, so who knows if one horrible old lady really shrieked with laughter about the fate of all the other horrible old ladies? What is certain is that malevolence is in the air.

Most of Blackwood’s fictions or near-fictions are dark fairytales. There are wicked stepmothers, doomed children, malicious harridans, knights in shining wheelchairs and none of them is alive enough to drown out the cackling of their creator: Lady Caroline the baleful. Isherwood met her in Hollywood in the mid-1950s. ‘Caroline was dull, too; because she is only capable of thinking negatively. Confronted by a phenomenon, she asks herself: what is wrong with it?’ ‘Negatively’ easily turned into luridly. ‘If you sat in a car with her, and you were driving, and she was a passenger, at every crossroad she saw someone being run over and being mangled,’ her friend Xandra Hardie recalls. ‘Almost every minute of her life she saw an appalling disaster happening right in front of her eyes . . . that’s the line of somebody who’s involved with alcohol.’ Or perhaps why someone gets involved with alcohol in the first place.

All this makes her prime biographical material. Elemental (not to say, elementary) fictions written by a Guinness heiress with a title from the Anglo-Irish aristocracy give her biographer no end of clues to a wayward, drink-sodden, chaos-creating life. And the disordered, self and other-destructive life offers all manner of interpretations of the fiction. Nancy Schoenberger is not interested in literary criticism; Blackwood’s books are discussed entirely with reference to the life. To do this is to demean a writer, I would have thought, but perhaps Caroline Blackwood’s life-in-its-time is of more interest than her work. These days biography sells, and we may be moving to a point where fiction is seen to be no more than a useful biographical resource.

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