Astrid, Clio and Julia

Alan Bell

  • The Wanton Chase by Peter Quennell
    Collins, 192 pp, £8.95, May 1980, ISBN 0 00 216526 0

The Wanton Chase follows on all too directly from The Marble Foot, published four years ago, a volume which took the author through his first 33 years and his first two marriages, covering a worthy parental background and a period of poetical precocity and undergraduate literary acclaim at Balliol, followed by a Japanese literary professorship and a spell at the copywriting desk of an advertising agency. Mr Quennell fitted easily, marital tensions notwithstanding, into the London literary scene which he has long adorned. The second volume of his memoirs opens in 1939, with the author, not uncharacteristically, on a French holiday with a girlfriend and Cyril Connolly, in the course of which Mr Quennell and his nameless companion were stoned in a small provincial town for their immodesty. It was to be the last such excursion for many years, the onset of war soon finding Mr Quennell, confessedly slothful and sedentary by habit, working in the Ministry of Information as a press censor, suppressing facts with the skill that in his advertising days he had devoted to enlarging them.

His contribution to the war effort allowed him plenty of time for furtive literary composition while on duty, for which he was punished by a brief exile to Belfast, a distasteful appointment from which he was rescued by the Ministry of Economic Warfare. Even there the demands on a Temporary Administrative Officer left time for recreation in wartime night-clubs (with hangover cures dispensed by an understanding chemist), and the perpetual caravanserai of contemporary London provided a string of short-lived liaisons. There he found the Scandinavian Astrid (a woman of ‘generous affection’) and her ‘rather dotty little friend’ Julia (who is at least once given as ‘Julie’ – it must have been difficult for the author to keep track of all the pseudonyms). The entanglement with Julia is described at length, with a not ungrateful memory of the pain inflicted by the affair; she seems to have resembled no one so much as Pamela Flitton of A Dance to the Music of Time, not least for her ‘knack, perhaps half-conscious, of distinguishing her lovers’ weakest points, just as certain wasps, accustomed to paralyse their prey, know exactly where to sink their stings’. Conscription as a part-time fireman was a less agreeable diversion – but cumulative inefficiency and displeasing social contacts were alleviated by a not unwelcome summary dismissal. Later, as the war was ending, Mr Quennell felt disposed to let his conscience be pricked by what he had not done, and to comfort himself with romantic thoughts of what he might have done, rejoicing vicariously in the military achievement of some of his friends, to be compared unfavourably with his own less glorious literary and official performance.

Some literary work was indeed to be credited: a regular book-reviewing feature in the Daily Mail, from 1943 (to be retained, throughout the ups and downs of newspaper editors, for 13 years), and the joint direction of the Cornhill Magazine soon afterwards, with History Today to add to his various duties later on. Jobs like these provided a useful background for literary work, for many years giving a regularity in which his biographical work – notably his work on Ruskin – could flourish. (‘Rushkin, Rushkin,’ said Churchill magisterially when he heard of Quennell’s studies, ‘a man with a shingularly unfortunate shex-life.’)

Although this period of his life favoured biographical research, it makes dull material for the autobiographer, who wisely takes refuge in a series of vignettes of friends, a technique he has used earlier in his more skilfully linked occasional essays on literary and social themes, The Sign of the Fish. Many of his portraits are of the beau monde: Lady Cunard and Nancy, Lord Berners, the Duff Coopers, Mrs Fleming and her successive husbands Lord Rothermere and Ian Fleming (who ‘good-naturedly accepted me, no doubt because I was neither a wild bohemian nor a rampant homosexual’). Much of this is ground that others have gone over before, although Mr Quennell usually manages to be fresh, affectionate and grateful. It is sometimes difficult to achieve novelty, especially when Evelyn Waugh’s Diary has left a minefield of disobliging references to be explained away. A visit to the Paris Embassy in 1946 found Waugh much put out by having his bugbear Quennell staying there as an unexpected fellow guest. Since Waugh got in first with the publication of a few well-turned asperities, it is now left to Mr Quennell to explain that he did not suffer from ‘palpitations brought on by sexual excess’: the disorder now has to be rather heavily documented as a mere hangover. (Waugh’s letters, announced for publication in the autumn, may further muddy the water for any future autobiographers among his enemies.) The Paris visit provides several more agreeable recollections, like that of seeing Lady Diana’s Chinese chiropodist ‘move reverentially towards the bottom of the bed’ at her levée in the Princcsse Borghese’s lit de parade, a scene worthy of Mrs Stitch herself.

Fortunately this elevated social record is varied by portraits of Brancusi and Montherlant, and by anecdotes recorded from the survivors of Proust’s salon, a circle Mr Quennell would have found particularly sympathetic. There is also the high bohemian world of contemporary London, with Nina Hamnett and Co, and a mandatory but notably unrevealing section on Burgess and Maclean. Two sections are, however, outstanding: on the landowner and painter Dick Wyndham and the connoisseur-collector Sir Robert Abdy. Wyndham, a man who found relief from his various tensions in the variety and depths of his friendships, comes over well and his qualities are beautifully portrayed here, especially when so well placed against a sketch of his enemy Wyndham Lewis (who savages him in The Apes of God). Abdy, the Francophile Cornishman with a refined and well-satisfied taste for 18th-century objets d’art, had ‘the standards of an Augustan connoisseur’: ‘in one historical age alone would Bertie always feel a stranger – the barbaric age in which he lived.’

Mr Quennell is inclined to share his friend’s yearnings for the 18th century, as can be seen in the spiritual refreshment he derived from the ravaged relics of Georgian architecture in the squares of wartime London, in the constant literary references which view Noël Coward, Ivor Novello and Robert Newton in the light of Garrick’s theatrical world, or his pungent romance with Miss Julia set against Hazlitt’s Liber Amoris. It is not just a world of politesse and enlightenment that is referred to. Boswell (who provides the best of Mr Quennell’s Four Portraits) is particularly sympathetic, and so is Hogarth, on whom there is a neat biographical recapitulation here. Perhaps this taste for a lower life helps to account for the intrusion of a couple of tarts, ‘Mary’and ‘Betsy’, whose visits are chronicled to balance the literary and social eminences elsewhere in the book. The author appears to have enjoyed the conversation of these two part-timers as much as their ministrations, and he gives them both respectful testimonials. Betsy’s ‘untroubled sense of humour was a particularly engaging trait’, he remarks in obituarist’s prose, and Mary it was who patiently explained to him – he considerately passes on the information – what ‘an Arthur J.’ signified in rhyming slang.

‘Arthur J?’ No, a J. Arthur Rank is meant, and the error is not only one of memory but of scansion, a metrical defect rare in a book notable for its rhythmical prose – ‘the spells of halcyon calm that remembered pleasure brings’, and similar felicities of diction that seemed to be less prominent in the previous volume. They are sometimes rather mannered, but never oppressively so, and they heighten the lone of the whole volume to match the innumerable pseudonyms and unidentifying epithets which raise the book above the level of mere factual record. Astrid, Clio, Julia, Perdita; G., at whose bare thighs the French threw their stones, L., who flitted wholesomely but briefly into his life, M., with whom he spent the evening of his 50th birthday; ‘Isabelle’ (his second wife Marcelle Rothé); or ‘the popular young journalist’ who turns out to be Godfrey Winn.

As in The Marble Foot, the effect of such circumlocutions is furtive rather than discreet, and it reduces the impact of some of the narrative. It matches very well, however, the literary quality of the closing pages, in which three moments of illuminating hyperacsthesia are recalled, with appropriate references to Rousseau, Tcheckov (sic) and Hogarth. These simple flashes of aesthetic revelation have helped to heighten Mr Quennell’s sensibility and to give him a special feeling, beyond the dualities of 18th-century civilisation, for the Emperor Antoninus Pius and the sense of aequinimitas that he cherished on his deathbed.