- White Mischief by James Fox
Cape, 293 pp, £8.95, November 1982, ISBN 0 224 01731 4
- Earth to Earth by John Cornwell
Allen Lane, 174 pp, £7.95, October 1982, ISBN 0 7139 1045 3
The story goes something like this. A ruthless aristocratic seducer of other people’s wives begins an affair with the bride (of a couple of months’ standing) of an acquaintance. The husband, who is 18 years older than the seducer, and no less than thirty years older than his wife, is alternately furious and complaisant, morose and ‘understanding’, vengeful and jocular. Everybody drinks a great deal, and everybody exchanges confidences, or what pass for confidences. A series of taunting, anonymous letters is delivered to the husband. He tells his servants and the police that a housebreaker has stolen a couple of revolvers from him. A few days later he agrees to let his wife go: indeed, at a last dinner together with her and her lover, he raises a formal toast to them and wishes them every happiness and the birth of an heir. In the early hours of the next morning, two miles from the marital home, the lover is found dead in his car. He has been shot through the ear at close range. Later that day the husband lights a bonfire near the house: in this bonfire he tries to burn, among other things, a pair of gym shoes and a blood-stained golf-stocking. He is arrested, charged with murder, and stands trial for his life. An inept prosecution and a brilliant defence result in his being acquitted. Eighteen months after the acquittal, having in the meantime been systematically ostracised by most of those who had previously been his friends, he commits suicide.
Thirty years later James Fox gets together with Cyril Connolly (whom he describes as a ‘revered luminary of the world of letters’) and writes an article on the murder for the Sunday Times Magazine. A further decade passes and Fox writes the book under review, in which the circumstances of the murder, the biographies of the individuals involved in it, and the society in which they lived, are once again described in great detail. He has interviewed or corresponded with everyone alive who was connected with the story; he has read all the documents; he has repeatedly visited all the sites connected with the crime. This time, he believes the mystery is at last solved.
And alas, it turns out to be no mystery at all. The husband, the prime suspect, the only person charged with the crime, was indeed the murderer. Or so it would seem. No wonder the author himself, after what he believes to be the final, clinching interview, admits to a feeling of depression and anti-climax. ‘The structure of the mystery,’ he tells us, ‘had collapsed.’ It is true that no new hard evidence, in the way of letters, guns, fingerprints, matching golf-stockings or anything else, has been found: the author’s certainty rests ultimately on the evidence previously available and on what he has since been told by the most cogent of the witnesses he has managed to track down. But it seems unlikely that anyone will ever be able to come forward with a more convincing explanation of the crime than that to be found here. The irony, as Fox himself realises, is that what he has established with such difficulty is what most people who knew the trio at the time (and many who did not) assumed to be the truth, all along.
So why should the unravelling of this non-mystery have become an obsession for Connolly and Fox alike? Why should the publication of the original article in the Sunday Times have produced such a flood of letters both to the paper and to the authors? Why should this be the third book devoted wholly or in large part to the tale? Well, let me proffer some names, and let the reader judge for himself whether he feels a prickling of interest in the case which it might not otherwise have roused. Josslyn Hay, 22nd Earl of Erroll (the murdered man). Sir John Henry (‘Jock’) Delves Broughton (the presumed murderer). Diana, Broughton’s second wife, who was later to become successively the wife of Gilbert de Préville Colvile and of Tom, the fourth Baron Delamere. Gwladys, Lady Delamere (Tom’s stepmother, wife of the third Baron, who broke the news to Broughton that ‘Joss is wildly in love with Diana’). Plus a number of walk-on, climb-on or lie-down roles for assorted ex-Etonian or Brigade of Guards adulterers, big-game hunters, boozers, drug-takers and their lady friends – Alice, Molly, Idina, Nancy, June and so forth. (Poppy, one is disappointed to learn, is not the name of yet another ambitious or aristocratic lovely, but merely that of the detective who investigated the crime.) To these names must be added others: the White Highlands of Kenya; Happy Valley, where wealthy and dissolute characters like those mentioned above owned and intermittently farmed their colossal estates; the famous or notorious Muthaiga Club in Nairobi, where they gathered for special occasions; Torr’s Hotel and the Norfolk; Karen, the suburb of Nairobi named after Karen Blixen, on the outskirts of which, in January 1941, Erroll was shot dead.
‘All the flagrant, forgotten scandals of the Muthaiga Club, fights, adulteries, arson, bankruptcies, card-sharping, insanity, suicide, even duels – the whole Restoration scene re-enacted by farmers, eight thousand feet above the steaming seaboard.’ That is how Evelyn Waugh, who passed through Kenya at the beginning of the Thirties, was nostalgically to recall what he had found there. This sentence is not quoted in White Mischief, though Waugh’s name is invoked a couple of times in the book, and its title alludes to one of his most famous novels. Unlike Waugh, however, James Fox lets his syntax and his metaphors go into a wobble whenever he gets excited:
Happy Valley was the byword for this way of life. Rumours circulated about endless orgies, of wife swapping, drinking and stripping, often embellished in the heat of gossip... In Kenya’s white community [the murder] is still talked about as if it had happened yesterday. The virus of speculation has become endemic, and even today the place is alive with experts.
So if you want your stripping embellished in the heat of gossip, this is the book for you. Here is John Carberry (born John Evans-Freke, later to become Lord Carberry, later still to abandon his title) bombarding with ‘medium-sized rocks’, from his aeroplane, the car in which his wife and her current lover are escaping from his farm for an illicit weekend. Here is Jack Soames drilling holes ‘in the roof above the guest bedrooms and peering down at them’. (Which just goes to show how far gossip can be embellished, especially in the heat: given the way houses were built in colonial Africa, surely even the most mutually entranced of couples would have heard their host clambering about on the roof above them.) Here, according to ‘Lizzie’ Lezard, another flamboyant character in the drama, is Alice de Trafford smearing ‘with her vaginal juices’ the sheet which covered Erroll’s body as it lay in the Nairobi morgue, and saying as she did so: ‘Now you’re mine forever.’ All this and wild landscapes, pet lion cubs, noble Masai tribesmen, faithful Somali houseboys in tropical gear, disappearing pearl necklaces, and other such excitements: not to mention those reassuring, indispensable gusts or bouts of moral disapproval on the part of the author without which our enjoyment of the whole affair could not possibly be complete.
Lezard, the transmitter or inventor of the mortuary scene described above, was a South African; so, more importantly, was Harry Morris, the effective and self-important advocate who secured Broughton’s acquittal. All this helped to make the case quite as big an event in the South Africa of my childhood as it must have been back ‘home’ in Britain. I can just remember seeing the headlines and pictures in the papers, and hearing the adults talk about it; I can remember, too, how convinced they all were that Broughton had managed to get off chiefly because the members of the British upper class stuck together so closely at times of crisis. True, they shot each other in the ear from time to time, but that was clearly a different matter from having the common hangman come along and string up one of their own. Considering how irremediably petty-bourgeois was the English-speaking society of my home-town, Kimberley, it is worth mentioning that we had living among us a close family connection of Lezard’s: an elderly gentleman who bore the title of Major, given to him for who knows what services in who knows which war. He did his best to raise the tone of the place. He wore a pair of pince-nez on top of a lengthy nose, spoke in a grand manner to all who approached him, and was driven about in a brougham-like vehicle of drawing-room dimensions, made of polished metal below, canvas above, and bent, brown, jointed wood between. For us that sufficed. But the truly dedicated snob always has available to him an endless number of shifts and stratagems. In their innocence, the townsfolk of Kimberley could never have conceived the involuted cunning of a snobbery which would eventually lead Diana, Lady Delamere, the woman who had been at the very heart of the affair, to speak of it to James Fox, decades later, in tones of haughty amazement and contempt. The whole event, she thought, was something that ‘happened only to housemaids’.
That remark suggests what one might well have guessed anyway: that whatever miseries the inhabitants of Happy Valley went through, they were always sustained by the flattering conviction that others, outsiders, their social inferiors, were looking at them with envy, or admiration, or moral outrage, or a mixture of all these emotions. If, by contrast, one wants to know what real solitude or isolation can do to a small group of people who do not have such a resource at their disposal, one might do worse than look at Earth to Earth, which describes the extinction a few years ago of a Devon farming family by the name of Luxton. The book is preposterously overwritten in parts and irritatingly piano in others, but the story it tells is an affecting one: all the more so, somehow, when one compares it with White Mischief. The lordly colonists of Happy Valley looked for trouble and found it, in full measure; in their secluded West Country combe, the wretched Luxtons tried hard to hide away from the whole word. They tried so hard, in fact, that grisly trouble had no choice but to come to them.
The family consisted of two brothers and a sister, who lived on a substantial farm, near Winkleigh in mid-Devon, which they had inherited from their father; the family had been settled in that part of the world for centuries. None of the last three Luxtons married. In his youth the younger brother, Alan, had been a member of the local Young Farmers Club and the Labour Party, and had courted a local girl; his sister Frances, too, had had her admirers; the older brother, the senior member of the family, had always been reclusive by temperament.
Largely at the insistence of his brother, who feared that marriage would mean breaking up the patrimony, Alan brought his engagement to his girlfriend to an end; then he had a breakdown of some sort; thereafter, he was subject to spells of intermittent insanity. The older brother’s reclusiveness now had the warrant, as it were, which it had needed. He shut himself and his brother on the farm, and they simply never left it; Frances looked after them both; she transacted what little business they had with the outside world. Sometimes she even went away on holidays, but she always came back. She had nowhere else to go. The farm was run exactly as it had been in their father’s day: they used no machines and lived as much as they could on their own produce; they treated the one or two labourers they employed with an extraordinary miserliness. Years went by, in this fashion; then decades. The house fell apart. The neighbours muttered of incest. Then the older brother’s health began to go. He had always been the dominant one among them. What were they to do now? The question was resolved in melodramatic style. After a row about the possibility of their selling the farm, the younger brother shot himself. Thereupon the older brother took another shotgun and killed his sister. Then he turned the gun on himself.
So in the end the Luxtons also made their way into the national newspapers. Now, like Erroll and his crew, they and their sad tale have advanced to the dignity of hardback.