My grandmother Ada Leverson imagined that the height of bliss would be to sit in a theatre listening to her own dialogue spoken by ‘real live actors’, and much of her life was spent in trying to finish a play. It was always the same play, but as time drew level with her inspiration and threatened to leave it behind, the characters and dialogue had every so often to be brought up to date by radical alteration before the final curtain was reached. Three separate versions survive: they may be seen to correspond with adequate fidelity to the three main ‘acts’ in the drama of her life. The name of her play was The Triflers.
The first version belongs to the 1890s and was conceived as a vehicle for her favourite performer, Charles Hawtrey. She had acquired the English rights in a successful French comedy which satirised the pose of decadence in Fin-de-Siècle society and centred on a ludicrously morbid suicide-pact. Her adaptation was full of paradoxical epigrams in the manner of Oscar Wilde, with five acts, a Duke and a Duchess among the leading parts and a scene set in a conservatory during a ball. This reflects her happiest period, for which she is most often remembered – as an unconventional but respectable literary hostess contributing witty sketches and parodies to fashionable magazines, the dazzled disciple of Wilde who was to prove herself, during and after his disgrace, a loyal and courageous friend.
She was 38 when Wilde died in 1900, and the next twenty years brought other sadnesses. Her marriage ended in separation; her friends became fewer; she suffered from ill health and was harassed by money worries. Yet during this period (between 1907 and 1916) she produced six novels (three of which are about to be reprinted) in which the originality of her sense of the ridiculous finds full expression. She hated writing them and only did so to please her publisher, Grant Richards, with whom, at the time, she was in love. The echoes of Wilde have gone, to be replaced by a celebration of frivolity and inconsequence even more extreme than his, which nonetheless seems to be more deeply rooted in reality. This is the tone of the second version of The Triflers, which was trimmed down to four acts, with an added farcical sub-plot lifted from an unpublished short story of hers about a man whose handwriting is so illegible that it causes endless confusion. Unhappily in love, he innocently confides by letter in a married female friend: ‘I am sick of dancing attendance on that woman and can bear it no more. She is frivolous and heartless, and I shall go to Norway to fish as soon as I can get a pal to go too.’ The recipient cannot make out a word of this, but her husband finds the note and reads the passage as: ‘You are the soul of my existence, you dear woman, and our love is our life. He is frivolous and hateful and we may – word indecipherable – tell the fool to go hang.’ To save her marriage from his furious threats of divorce, the bewildered wife engages a handwriting expert to clear up the mystery, but he complicates matters still further with a third interpretation: ‘I’m quick at making verses and have finished the play in an hour. It is possible and probable that I shall bring it out as soon as I can get a man to go shares.’
After the First World War, Ada Leverson’s company was sought by a younger generation of gifted men (Osbert and Sacheverell Sitwell, Harold and Willie Acton, Ronald Firbank, Raymond Mortimer) who saw her as an intriguing survivor from the faded Yellow Book past. Encouraged by these, she published a slim volume containing her reminiscences of Wilde and his letters to her, for the third time achieving a modest celebrity as the faithful friend whom he had called ‘the Sphinx’. (When Wyndham Lewis put her in The Apes of God as ‘the Sib’ she was the only target of his satirical malice to be clearly delighted, and even flattered, by the attention.) The last version of The Triflers was written in the 1920s as a possible ‘come-back’ for the aging star, Mrs Patrick Campbell. It now had only three acts, butler and footmen had been replaced by the telephone, and the ducal conservatory had become a streamlined modern interior belonging to a young man called the Honourable ‘Daisy’ Vane. ‘Decorations by Bakst,’ the stage directions read. ‘Pictures by Wyndham Lewis, Picasso and Gauguin. Music by Goosens and Stravinsky. Books by Wyndham Lewis, Proust, Stephen Hudson, T. S. Eliot, Osbert Sitwell and Zola.’ But she still couldn’t quite make the last act long enough, and when she died in 1933 she left The Triflers incomplete.
I was nine years old at the time, and was not immediately told of her death. I remember asking after her in an autumn garden and my mother breaking the news. For me it was the first time that the idea of death could be realised as the protracted absence of a member of my own small circle. Before the message reached my brain, tears had spurted out of my eyes. I could not understand how my mother had been able to travel up to London to nurse the patient, make arrangements for the funeral, and be otherwise absorbed, without my having known anything about it. I felt insecure; after an interval I began to miss my grandmother in a straightforward way, and continued to do so until grief was subsumed in curiosity and pride. It is possible that in that garden, nearly fifty years ago, my memories of Ada Leverson, few but vivid, shifted from chaos into the acceptable form in which they have been ever since preserved.
I saw later that in old age she must have been something of a trial to her friends and family, however devoted they may have been in theory, but nothing ever diminished her attraction for children, who responded with enraptured recognition to her dedicated frivolity and shared her serious dread of boredom. She had grown very deaf; she was totally and dangerously impractical (could not, as used to be said, ‘boil a kettle’); although she had once been rich, she was now invariably in debt (having, as also used to be said, ‘absolutely no money-sense whatsoever’); she was both gently demanding and stubbornly independent: yet she always managed to seduce into her orbit people who were happy to wait on her. Her arrivals to stay with my parents in Wiltshire were looked forward to by the whole household (‘Isn’t it funny the way the place seems to cheer up when Mrs Leverson comes on a visit?’), although they were seldom free from worry and sometimes contained an element of slapstick. My grandmother never succeeded in leaving the train at the station where she was expected and, engrossed in a book (‘my little Henry James’) or deep in a doze, would be carried triumphantly beyond it. Whoever had driven in to meet her would then have to return, depressed by a sense of anti-climax, to await a panic-stricken telephone call from Devizes or somewhere even further along the Great Western Railway line. On one famous occasion, a much longer time than usual had elapsed while the telephone remained silent and the anxiety of my parents was becoming acute. At last it rang. ‘Penzance speaking,’ said a distant voice. ‘Sorry to trouble you, but there’s a party here says she’s for Hungerford.’
In this context, ‘party’ meant a funny old lady, but it was a suitable term for my grandmother, who carried an atmosphere of festivity around with her. She loved popular tunes and at any period of her life would be ‘mad about’ some contemporary hit – from The Belle of New York, The Merry Widow, Hello Ragtime! or the early Noel Coward revues. Unable to read music, she played the piano by ear in an enjoyably slapdash way, and when she came to stay the house would be filled with the sound of these irresponsible melodies, which worked on one’s spirits like the concept of a cocktail. At the time of my infancy there had been a currently successful song with a repetitive rhythmic refrain: ‘you are my Chili-Bom-Bom! My Chili-Bom-Bom! My Chili-Bom-Bom!’ Beguiled by its sprightly nonsense, she got it ‘on the brain’ and would sing it to amuse me while dancing me up and down on her lap, so that I came to identify the comical syllables with her desirable presence and, when I wished to indicate her, would babble ‘A-Bom-Bom!’ This stuck, for my brother and myself, as her official name, solving the problem of how to skirt round ‘Grandmother’ (which would have irritated her as a tactless reminder of her age) or any of its diminutives (which would have offended her by their sentimental whimsy; she had forbidden my mother ever to call her ‘Mummy’ because of its disagreeable association with burial customs in ancient Egypt).
These visits never lasted long; I’m afraid they bored her, for her departure always seemed to take place sooner than had been planned. She disliked country life, and would almost immediately succumb to nostalgia for her room at the Washington Hotel in Curzon Street, for the cat awaiting her there, for the amusement of metropolitan gossip, for the reassurance of proximity to Hatchards in Piccadilly and for the stimulation of a possible meeting with Osbert Sitwell, the object of her love. But before she left, a ceremony would have taken place, the recollection of which evokes her personality for me now as potently as ever.
She would read aloud to my brother and me from the Alice books – her favourites as well as ours. This was the greatest of treats but, like most pleasures in youth, cruelly brief: indeed, it was the very intensity of the enjoyment it gave all three of us which set a limit to its duration. In this case, it was not the children who ruined their own fun by getting ‘over-excited’ but the grown-up who soon became physically incapable of continuing, silenced by an uncontrollable fou rire. Some touch of inspired inconsequence, of exquisite absurdity in Lewis Carroll’s text would prove too much for my grandmother. Her short, square body, clothed from neck to ankles in shiny black satin, would start to shake convulsively, rocking the chair we leant on; the wide black brim of the picture hat, worn even indoors over her brightly-dyed golden hair, would quiver in sympathy, then rakishly dip over her whitened face, by now convulsed and weeping in an ecstatic agony of soundless mirth. Then the pale-framed spectacles would slip off her nose to become dangerously entangled with the long necklace of amber beads on her heaving bosom; the clasp of her handbag would burst open, and an overspill of leather spectacle-case, loose cigarettes, cologne-scented handkerchief, powderpuff and mirrored compact, eventually followed by Alice itself, would slowly slither from her lap to the ground. The suddenness, the totality of this collapse from adult responsibility into the childish abandon of wildly infectious laughter made her seem to belong to a third world ruled by magic and jokes. The episode had the arbitrary unreason and challenging glamour of a miraculous transformation scene: it was as if we had gained entry into the book she had been reading from, privileged to penetrate beyond the mystery of print, and in a wonderland through the looking-glass had been comfortably confronted by a benign domestic monster, familiar as the nursery fender, yet foreign as the sphinx.