Bohemians: The Glamorous Outcasts 
by Elizabeth Wilson.
Tauris, 288 pp., £11.99, October 2002, 1 86064 782 0
Show More
Quentin & Philip 
by Andrew Barrow.
Macmillan, 559 pp., £18.99, November 2002, 0 333 78051 5
Show More
Show More

There are maps both in Elizabeth Wilson’s book, which deals with bohemians in general, and in Andrew Barrow’s, which is a study of two in particular, but the street plans of Soho, Paris or Munich are not much use as a guide to the subject. Bohemia is a country of the mind, a flying island that may land anywhere and take off again just as quickly. No sooner have the upwardly mobile middle classes discovered it, in Greenwich Village or Montparnasse, than it is gone, vanishing on contact with gentrification. Conversely, it may flourish in unlikely places, in country towns and even suburbs.

The subjects of Barrow’s ‘double portrait’, his friends Quentin Crisp and the surrealist poet Philip O’Connor, were both children of the Home Counties. Crisp, who began life as Denis Pratt, found his way to bohemia from the Pooterland of Egmont Road, Sutton. O’Connor spent a significant part of his tumultuous life in Dorking, a fact which the local historian June Spong was understandably disinclined to believe when Barrow approached her for his research. Mrs Spong thought O’Connor’s memories ‘mostly fantasy’ and was prepared to grant only that he might have visited Surrey ‘at some time in his life’.

The bohemian spirit operates along different lines from those that propel the mainstream of society, and according to other impulses. Therefore, while bohemians are often conspicuous, they may equally well be invisible to the ordinary eye, passing through conventions like ghosts through walls, unseen because unimaginable. Nothing like that could happen in Dorking. The whole idea of the bohemian is slippery to the grip of an organising mind. The OED senses a certain impropriety in the word itself, concluding its definition on a note of exasperation: ‘Used with much latitude, with or without reference to morals.’

‘With or without reference to morals’ would have been a better subtitle for Wilson’s book than ‘the glamorous outcasts’, a cliché that reflects the outsider’s – or rather the insider’s – view of bohemia. The reality is more complicated and ambiguous. There is glamour, but it is the flip-side of the poverty and failure that are essential to the bohemian ethos, as, too, is tedium, though of a peculiar sort. ‘Day after uneventful day,’ Quentin Crisp remembered, writing about Soho in the late 1920s, ‘night after loveless night, we sat in this café buying each other cups of tea, combing each other’s hair and trying on each other’s lipsticks.’

Crisp eventually went from poverty to stardom with, he commented, no intervening experience of ordinary life. For bohemians either extreme will do, and they are as often heroes as outcasts. Crisp was first an outcast and then a star; Oscar Wilde went the other way, while Byron was both at the same time. Whatever the experience of individuals, the essence of bohemia as an idea, which is Wilson’s real subject, is a critique of middle-class values, a love-hate relationship between inside and out in which each needs the other to feed its fantasies. Crisp felt a certain longing for the ‘carpet-slipper set up’ of ordinary life, and said that if only he could have had a sex change he would have been a cosy unremarkable woman and run a wool shop. At the same time he knew that not ‘everything by the fireside is permanent, peaceful. The terrible truth is that the people on the inside are trying to get out.’

Perhaps the real bohemian is not so much an outcast as somebody who is never ‘in’. O’Connor and Crisp were naturals, not trying to stand apart, merely to find any place at all where they could, if not fit, at least be. O’Connor, who once said he had a mind ‘like a haystack in a gale, only now and then manageable’, could barely face ‘the terrors’ of Putney High Street even after gearing himself up by playing a record of ‘On with the Motley’ from Pagliacci several times over. Like Crisp, he was an outsider even among outsiders. When he lived as a tramp, other, normal tramps avoided him. Crisp was asked to leave homosexual pubs in Soho, and Barrie Stacey, the manager of the As You Like It café, where Crisp regularly held court, ‘hated him on sight’. Long after he had become a fixture and indeed an attraction, Stacey worried that he had a tendency to ‘scare away normal trade’. Despite the fantastic elaboration of his persona, there was nothing affected about Crisp. He lived with strict reference to morals, and where his inclinations were in keeping with the standards of his suburban upbringing, he followed them. He was careful with money, punctual, hard-working (‘the most energetic model in the Home Counties’), unfailingly polite, a moderate drinker and a vehement anti-smoker. Had he been a less truly unusual person he might have nodded more in the direction of what Wilson calls the ‘traditions’ of bohemia to which drunkenness and unreliability are essential. These came as second nature to Philip O’Connor.

The best of several definitions of bohemia offered in Wilson’s book is that it is ‘the performance of personality’, an unswerving living out of the individual self. This makes it a highly ephemeral art form that leaves little more than anecdote behind. Given all of which, there is something perverse, if ultimately rewarding, in her attempt to bring academic analysis to bear on the subject at all. Generalising about individualists is difficult: what they have in common is the least interesting thing about them, and at times the book becomes a mere parade of colourful characters, their relentless oddity blurring into monotony. If bohemia has no mappable geography, neither can it have any consistent sociology. Its economy is, as Barrow puts it, ‘shrouded in mystery’. What it does have, however, is a history – or at least a beginning.

It was the upheaval of the French Revolution that first opened up the necessary cracks in society in which the bohemian might lodge, living, sometimes literally, in the ruins of the Ancien Régime. One of the first bohemians avant la lettre was Eustache-Hyacinthe Langlois. He conformed to the pattern Wilson outlines among the earliest outsiders, in coming from the dispossessed lower-middle, artisan classes. He had been a soldier, like many of those who found themselves adrift in the new order. He became an antiquary. All but penniless, he moved, with his alcoholic wife and a large family, into the abandoned Convent of the Visitation in Rouen. There he made around himself a museum, saving as many medieval fragments and manuscripts as he could from postwar looters, English tourists and iconoclasts.

In his Convent he made copious notes about stained glass and medieval ritual, though little of his work was completed in his lifetime. He assembled his books by sending short paragraphs to the typesetters and adding longer and longer footnotes and amendments to one set of proofs after another until the bottom-heavy text had gathered sufficient mass. Any money not spent on the museum and the printers’ bills was drunk by Mme Langlois. Visitors were sometimes startled to see sheaves of manuscript in Langlois’s study begin to slide and heave as his children, who had been trying to keep warm among them, emerged and ran away down the dark cloisters.

Langlois embodied the bohemian spirit. The museum was an expression of his personality which he inhabited physically and imaginatively, as his fictional contemporary Quasimodo inhabited Notre Dame. Both were, like bohemia itself, projections of the Romantic mind. The chaos of the Revolution made the idea of bohemia possible, but the ever expanding bourgeois society that followed made it necessary for the next generation of artists. Wilson perhaps underestimates how much of bohemia could be found in late Georgian England, in the coffee shops of Soho among the European refugees, in the ramshackle lives of Charles and Mary Lamb and their friends and in the pantisocratic schemes of Southey and Coleridge, but it was in France that the idea burst forth full blown.

There was an element of the theatrical, not to say camp, about the whole business from the beginning. It was already understood that being too effective or organised, having any enthusiasm for ‘getting things done’ as Crisp contemptuously refers to it, was ‘absolutely forbidden’. Les Jeunes France and their sympathisers who set up the famous battle at the opening night of Victor Hugo’s play Hernani were, like their counterparts in Young England, more style than substance. The battle itself was a defence of the Romantic against the Classical theatre but it was as staged as the play, the participants madly self-conscious and strikingly dressed. The fight was regularly re-enacted and became an attraction in its own right.

Artists were closer to the action in 1830 as the July Revolution broke out and Hugo stopped work on Notre Dame for the duration. When the fighting started, a dress rehearsal of Guillaume Tell was in full swing at the Opera and on the line ‘ou l’indépendance ou la mort’, the chorus marched off the stage straight to the barricades in full costume. Crisp, who adored the Blitz and the GIs on the streets of London, would have been in his element.

Puccini’s La Bohème of 1896 is set in ‘about 1830’, and in 1834 the term itself was coined, or rather given its new meaning, having first been used to refer to Gypsies, who were once thought to have come from Bohemia. It was a journalist, Félix Pyat, who identified ‘today’s bohemians’ as ‘young artists’ wishing to live ‘outside their time, with other ideas and other customs’, an existence that renders them ‘bizarre, puts them outside the law, banished from society’. They were not quite that. They were already caught in a symbiotic relationship with the bourgeoisie, the stuff of public fascination, popular art and mythology. Soon they were depicted carousing on the covers of sheet music: ‘Les Bohémiens de Paris, quadrille populaire’. The mutual dependency of insiders and outsiders was established. The press, which has a foot in both camps, Grub Street being somewhere on the undrawable map of bohemia, has been serving it up to shock or amuse readers ever since.

However much it may dislike it, bohemia is always complicit with convention. Its members are too individualistic to take action against the status quo. Anything larger or more formal than a coterie or set is too cramping of style. Quentin Crisp was a disappointment to the Gay Liberation movement, which had hoped to find in him a supporter. On political issues bohemians are ‘bolshie rather than Bolshevik’, as Wilson puts it, and no serious social reformers want anything to do with them.

Marx, whose early days were spent on the fringes of ‘what the French term la bohème’ was particularly disparaging and keen to distance himself. He chose to define bohemia in terms that deprived it of any cultural or intellectual value. The ‘literati’ he admitted into his tally of the ‘indefinite, disintegrated mass’ along with unqualified riff-raff, ‘escaped galley slaves . . . discharged jail-birds . . . organ-grinders, rag pickers . . . tinkers, beggars’.

If, then, bohemia is convention through the looking glass, it must change as conventions change. Until the early 20th century, drugs were legal and homosexuality was not: the social pale described a different area then from that which it encircles now. Each time it shifts, some ways of life are drawn in and others ruled out. According to Wilson, however, the section of society that always finds itself pushed to the edge, whether in or out, is the female part. ‘Oddly’, as she notes with some dryness, the rise of bohemia, with its defiance of social norms, has not done much to free women from the constraints of either the 19th or the 20th century. From Puccini’s Paris to the ‘unrelenting misogyny’ of the Beats they have been, she suggests, cast in a very few roles, most of them supporting, as muses, mistresses, mothers and torchbearers for their male companions.

They were allowed more sexual freedom – men were happy about that – but no part in the action. The idea of the female artist struck almost everyone as absurd or threatening. Wilson’s chapter on women in bohemia is one of her best, but it is a litany of sad tales like that of Georgette Leblanc, the singer and actress who lived with Maeterlinck and worked to promote his operas. Leblanc used also to give him ideas, which he incorporated into his philosophical writings, attributing them to ‘a friend’. When she asked why he didn’t mention her by name, he said it would be ridiculous to credit an actress: people would laugh at him. Then he left her. ‘Women are monsters who are authors,’ Renoir wrote, attacking George Sand. Still in the 1920s, in the interwar bohemia of the New Woman, Floyd Dell, a Freudian and habitué of Greenwich Village, was repelled by the ‘girl artist’: ‘I wanted to be married to a girl who would not put her career before children – or even before me. One artist in the family was enough.’

The women who transcended opposition were usually those who had some independence, either financial or, as lesbians, sexual. A rare few had encouraging husbands or lovers. Even fewer, male or female, questioned the women’s situation. Théophile Gautier dared go so far as to suggest that a woman who wanted to write should not be prevented from doing so by domestic duties. His solution, however, that she might employ a cook, so spectacularly missed the point that it only revealed the depth of the problem. For most of the inhabitants of bohemia, the inversion of middle-class morality translated into ‘women and children last’. If the ultimate bourgeois value is the family, then without it, freed from any sense of guilt about protecting or providing for dependants, the typical bohemian male pursues a zig-zag course of sexual indulgence leaving a trail of wives, mistresses and babies in his wake.

Here, too, Philip O’Connor was a natural. The reader loses track, as O’Connor sometimes seems to have done himself, of the shattered and shattering ménages he formed and broke away from, usually with as much vituperation as possible. The first was with Jean Hore, whom he married in Dorking Register Office in 1941. She was a wealthy but mentally fragile woman whom he left four years later, when he’d spent her fortune, depositing her at a psychiatric hospital with the words: ‘The trouble with you and me, Jean, is that you didn’t have enough money.’ She lived for more than fifty years in mental hospitals until her death.

O’Connor later claimed in his defence that he had stuck with her for some time after the money ran out, but admitted that he had treated her badly ‘according to conventional standards’. Guilt about her haunted him, and found its outlet in ‘flowery tributes’ in his autobiography. This has generally been the fate of the bohemian heroine since the 19th century, to inspire the hero by her tragedy. For Gautier, the epitome of ‘modern love’ was Alexandre Dumas’s Antony, in which the hero stabs his married lover to death in order to preserve her virtue. Any less drastic solution would presumably have been as unthinkable as helping with the washing up.

Not, as Wilson points out, that women in bohemia should be seen exactly as victims. On the whole they have been as uninterested in the suffrage movement and feminism as Crisp was in Gay Liberation. The men could not have behaved as they did had there not been, as she notes with some exasperation, such a ‘glut of female devotion on the market’. Most of O’Connor’s women seem to have forgiven and indeed to have continued to love him. Even Maria Scott, who never saw him again after he left her and their children because she thought ‘he’d say something so awful, so destructive,’ missed him. ‘Philip spoilt me for other men,’ she told Barrow.

Something of that state of mind was harshly illuminated by Caitlin Thomas, adopted daughter of Augustus John and wife of Dylan, in her autobiography, Leftover Life to Kill. She was no Mimi. As promiscuous, drunk and inclined to throw furniture as her husband, she was nevertheless unable to conceive of herself as anything other than the poet’s wife. Of her marriage she wrote: ‘Then I could wholeheartedly revile my fate and say I was meant for better things. But now that I have got better things, and only myself to revile, what do I do but complain about my lack of chains.’ Such dedicated avoidance of personal responsibility, such committed non-achievement, makes the women in a sense even more bohemian than the men, devoting themselves to the performance of someone else’s personality.

Given its Romantic origins, the idea of bohemia must always be tinged with nostalgia; it is always another country. Puccini set it in the past, and each succeeding generation has lamented the decline of the real thing. In fact, the idea of bohemia, like the middle class on which it is contingent, has been expanding throughout its history. As the mainstream gets wider, so the alternatives to it and the number of those wishing or needing to take them proliferate. The difficulty of generalising about them grows, and the value of doing so, perhaps, diminishes. As Wilson comes closer to the present she finds herself ranging further and further, to include hippies and rock stars, the Situationists and the Greens. Any category that includes both Princess Diana and the Bonzo Dog Doo Dah Band is too diffuse.

If bohemia really is vanishing it is not, as the popular myth would suggest, being crushed under the heel of advancing orthodoxy; rather, it is triumphing by becoming ubiquitous. With the late Roy Jenkins’s announcement that ‘the permissive society is the civilised society’ it seemed that inside and outside merged. After that, we could all perform our personalities; everyone could be infamous for fifteen minutes. In their day, the Bloomsbury Group had only to paint the walls white and put up abstract paintings in order to proclaim their difference. Now every home is an ‘interior’. There is nothing even in Margaret Anderson and Jane Heap’s once startling Greenwich Village apartment with its purple, lime and magenta cushions scattered over a ‘large divan bed hung from the ceiling by heavy black chains’ that Laurence Llewellyn-Bowen couldn’t show you how to do in half an hour.

Now, it seems, it is the insider world that offers the reflection; the former outside is the norm. Models are paid more than bishops and often listened to with more respect. Politicians run after singers for their soirées. The huge success of Tate Modern is due largely to its being the former Bankside Power Station, a setting which re-creates within the art establishment the atmosphere of the improvised artist’s studio, thereby finally conquering the locus classicus of bohemia.

This is the view towards which Wilson inclines, that bohemia is now everywhere and so nowhere. Maybe she’s right, or perhaps bohemia is simply always on the move, transforming itself once more out of the reach of organising eyes and minds, invisible as O’Connor in Dorking and still as unacceptable. The real bohemia always remains uncolonised; the real bohemian is uncomfortable to the end. Some people, including Barrow, felt that once Quentin Crisp had been ‘discovered’ he was spoiled, like Soho itself, reduced to a tourist attraction. It is true that when his sexuality ceased to outrage he took to the champagne and peanut circuit with ease, having practised his act on the desert air of Monmouth Street for several decades. Even so, he managed to offend public taste all over again at the age of 90 by commenting that Diana, Princess of Wales was ‘trash’ and had ‘got what she deserved’.

Acceptance never threatened O’Connor’s bohemian status very seriously. The brief fame that followed publication of his Memoirs of a Public Baby guttered under the force of his resolute unclubbability. Wondering whether to unleash him on the Third Programme, Douglas Cleverdon wrote warily to a producer: ‘It would be rather a gamble having him on The Critics; but if The Critics may be considered oysters, Philip O’Connor would be the grit that might produce some pearls.’ The producer seems to have decided that he was more grit than she wanted, and for all the supposed tolerance of half a century later, it is hard to imagine O’Connor politely taking two-and-a-half-minute turns with Kirsty Wark on Newsnight Review.

Barrow’s book is written in an appropriately bohemian way, designed to catch the nuances and quirks of his subjects’ lives and personalities while steering clear of any critical discussion of their works. His narrative wanders on like café conversation. People come and go. The often repeated promise of ‘more later’ about some of them is only erratically kept. He brings himself into the story when he feels inclined, then drops himself again. It is a style that will annoy readers who are inclined to ask where all this is leading, or whether we haven’t already had that bit – but then so will the subjects.

Barrow clearly loved O’Connor, as did others, and he seems puzzled by the widely held opinion that he was better to hear about than actually to know. Yet the more vividly he emerges from Barrow’s book the more intolerable he seems. Even at his most splendid – shouting at two Jehovah’s Witnesses, ‘I am Jehovah and I don’t want any witnesses’ – you’re glad you weren’t there. Drunk, lecherous and paranoid, he turned eventually against Barrow, too, and wrote to mutual friends accusing him of stealing material from his wastepaper basket. This, Barrow concludes with heroic sympathy, was just O’Connor’s ‘roundabout way’ of getting him to write about him. He found Crisp, ultimately, less sympathetic because less knowable. What kind of creature, by the end, inhabited that highly laquered shell, he implies, it was neither possible nor perhaps desirable to discover.

Crisp and O’Connor are safely dead now and embalmed in anecdote. That alone makes them entirely acceptable in the fireside world, while it adds to the romantic notion of bohemia as long ago and far away. The bohemians of the 21st century are undoubtedly out there somewhere still undiscovered, living obscurely, possibly in Surrey, awaiting their biographers.

Send Letters To:

The Editor
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN

Please include name, address, and a telephone number.

Read anywhere with the London Review of Books app, available now from the App Store for Apple devices, Google Play for Android devices and Amazon for your Kindle Fire.

Sign up to our newsletter

For highlights from the latest issue, our archive and the blog, as well as news, events and exclusive promotions.

Newsletter Preferences