Speaking well

Christopher Ricks

  • Cyril Connolly: Journal and Memoir by David Pryce-Jones
    Collins, 304 pp, £12.50, July 1983, ISBN 0 333 32827 2
  • J.B. Yeats: Letters to His Son W.B. Yeats and Others, 1869-1922 edited with a memoir by Joseph Hone
    Secker, 296 pp, £7.95, May 1983, ISBN 0 436 59205 3

Unlike the publication in 1975 of the touching acute letters of Cyril Connolly to Noel Blakiston, the publication of Connolly’s Journal (1928-1937) does not serve him, except right. He found D.H. Lawrence insufficiently magnanimous (‘Notice how carefully Lawrence refuses to recognise virtue in anyone but himself’), and his sponsor David Pryce-Jones now finds F.R. Leavis much the same, so it may be legitimate to cite the famous excoriation of Bloomsbury that was voiced by Lawrence and amplified by Leavis: ‘they talked endlessly, but endlessly – and never, never a good thing said. They are cased each in a hard littte shell of his own and out of this they talk words. There is never for one second any outgoing of feeling and no reverence, not a crumb or grain of reverence: I cannot stand it.’ The reason why ‘never a good thing said’ was such a good thing to say is that it aligns speaking well with speaking well of others. In that world, a very special thrill attached to speaking ill of one’s friends.

Mr Pryce-Jones could reasonably retort that Connolly’s allegiances were by no means with Bloomsbury but with that distinct district Chelsea. Certainly there is evidence of the malicious rage which, for instance, Virginia Woolf vented upon, for instance, Cyril Connolly. ‘There we spent one night, unfortunately with baboon Conolly [sic] and his gollywog slug wife Jean to bring in the roar of the Chelsea omnibus.’ ‘We spent a night with the Bowens, where, to our horror, we found the Connollys – a less appetising pair I have never seen out of the Zoo, and the apes are considerably preferable to Cyril. She has the face of a golliwog and they brought the reek of Chelsea with them.’ One knows what Pryce-Jones means when he then murmurs about ‘the fine sensibility of feeling and expression for which Virginia Woolf is celebrated’. But the trouble is that his own sarcasm (not irony) has some of the flat brutality of the Bloomsbury world.

Woolf’s remarks about the Connollys’ appearance are indeed detestable, and don’t even have the flat-tongued straight face with which an Oxford friend of Connolly, gazing upon the most porcine of all Connolly photographs, once murmured: ‘It’s a pity he’s not as nice as he looks.’ In that mode of feline understatement, nothing can overtake the words of Kenneth Clark (who was all eyes), that ‘Cyril was not conventionally handsome.’ The crayon sketch of Connolly on the jacket, by Augustus John, is no oil painting. But what might make us reluctant to spring to Connolly’s defence is that he said the same sort of thing about others, while characteristically mingling it with self-disgust: ‘Back in London met Princess Bibesco and did not care for her much, her egoism is as tiresome and her appearance about as unprepossessing as my own.’ Evelyn Waugh being ‘our valued friend’, ‘it amused me to hear Peter laughing at Evelyn’s “provincial little Arnold Bennett arriviste appearance”.’

If Chelsea (and Oxford) might be at odds with Bloomsbury (and Cambridge) for territorial competitive reasons, the two were at one when it came to making bad blood. ‘Never tell lies,’ the young Connolly had adjured himself, except ‘to damage the character of a friend’. He lived down to this, and so did they all. The hero of his novel The Rock Pool recalled the boredom of college life and ‘the quiet afternoons spent running up bills in shops, which formed his only exercise’, but Connolly was even more exercised in running down people.

In theory and even in practice, there was to be the solidarity of sodality and sodomy, but no front ever remained undivided. The Memoir and the Journal alike witness to the febrile frailty of the friendships. A typical progress is to begin by delighting in, say, Harold Nicolson for not being an owl (‘Sexually, I represent a buffer state,’ said the old buffer-bugger), and to end with dark mutterings: ‘Most unpleasant memory of last six months was drink with Nicolson in Café Royal. He must have been trying to humiliate me. Is enemy and shall be considered so.’

Connolly has his regrets: ‘How stale, fatigued, third rate, is the vocabulary of defamation.’ But they don’t move him to try something larger than defamation, he simply tries to enlarge its vocabulary. So the next page has this: ‘Pretentious lunch with Lady Bonham Carter – Madame de Margerie like a nightmare, hotted-up Lady Colefax.’ Then this: ‘a three-cornered conversation with Elizabeth [Bowen] on the awfulness of women writers and the nastiness of her friend Mrs Woolf’. ‘There is something wrong with a world in which one meets Mrs Lowinsky and Roger Hinks and Mrs Royde-Smith. They smell of middlebrow.’

The Journal will record sayings without comment and with delectation; to be worthy of record, an exchange should crushingly compact several reputations into the smallest space. ‘Logan [Pearsall Smith] said of Hardy’s second wife that she had tried first to get off with George Moore – or so he said. “George Moore would have said that of the Virgin Mary,” said B.B. [Berenson], “if he’d ever heard of her.” ’ But is it witty or humorous to predicate that George Moore hadn’t heard of the Virgin Mary?

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