A Proper Stoic

John Bayley

  • Duff Cooper: The Authorised Biography by John Charmley
    Weidenfeld, 265 pp, £12.95, April 1986, ISBN 0 297 78857 4

There is a moment in À La Recherche du Temps Perdu when Swann visits the Duchesse de Guermantes and finds her going to a party. He blurts out that he is mortally ill and may not be seeing her again. She ignores this news and gives him a smiling farewell as she gets into her carriage. E.M. Forster thought the scene one of the most odious in the novel, or rather in the Novel, and he seems to assume, rather naively, that Proust is as shocked by the incident as he is. Forster’s reaction suggests the existence of two categories, a Guermantes one and a Forster one, with absolutely no understanding of each other, or of each other’s values. Indeed the Forster class would deny that the Guermantes class had any values worth speaking of.

But according to her own conception of things the Duchesse behaved with perfect propriety. There was a time and a place for everything, and one did not bother people who were just about to do something important to them with the news that one was dying. This is an unfashionable attitude today. Forster, like the pale Galilean, has conquered, and in the context both of art and of social behaviour we take it for granted that the right thing is to be caring and compassionate and warm at all seasons, always ready to listen to anyone’s account of how they became a drug addict or a terrorist or a single parent. In the contemporary theatre we do little else, as if by attending to the play we were practising for our correct social role. The theatre, and art generally, have abandoned all notion of what Proust’s duchess would instinctively have thought of as propriety, and the conception of social life which she embodied has equally vanished.

Rather surprisingly, perhaps, she was practising a version of stoicism. Society, in the old smart sense, was founded on it, while Forsterian private life has no use for it at all. Society stoicism certainly has its comical side. There are some persons, even today, who give one the impression that if someone were run over in the street before them they would simply go on talking about when Dodie was going to the Bahamas or who had been at Chin Chin’s wedding. More accurately, one has the impression that nobody could be run over while they were discussing their affairs: that social life was just not arranged that way, or if it were one should take no notice. But society stoicism is far from always being practised at other people’s expense. It can be a form of civilisation in itself – certainly a contribution to civilisation. This admirable and instructive biography is about a stoic who was also an epicurean, two philosophies once not infrequently found together; and, like all good biographies, it conveys as much or more about the world the subject lived in as about the man himself.

In that respect, it reminded me of Rupert Hart-Davis’s biography of Hugh Walpole, which can be read with pleasure and profit again and again though it is not entirely easy to see why. Neither Hugh Walpole nor Duff Cooper (who turns out to have been Rupert Hart-Davis’s uncle) were particularly remarkable people, neither geniuses nor ‘great men’. But perhaps this is the reason why they are interesting to read about, when their lives and circumstances are fully and intelligently investigated. A sort of wholly distinct individuality comes over, like a smell or a flavour, and it is one that no novelist could invent, or use for the composition of a character. I have no idea whether Duff Cooper has in fact been used by a novelist – possibly by his friend Nancy Mitford, whose novels I have never succeeded in reading – but certainly Somerset Maugham’s portrait of Hugh Walpole as Alroy Kear, in Cakes and Ale, is about as wide of the mark as it is possible to get. A novelist in any case has an axe to grind, and a special effect to produce, which is quite different from the actuality of that smell or flavour. It is there the good biographer scores, presenting an impression as far removed from the novelist’s portrait as it is from the travesty figures cooked up by the pseudo-novelist biographer like Lytton Strachey.

Stoicism with Duff Cooper was a very different affair from what it was with the Duchesse de Guermantes, but the two would have got on, and understood each other, for he was not at all like Swann and even less like Proust himself. A literary parallel would be Stendhal’s young hero Lucien Leuwen, though it would be difficult to imagine him transposed into the English social scene. Duff Cooper had the same great capacity for enjoying life, which is not uncommon: much less common was his ability to do so in such a way that the people he came in contact with enjoyed it too. This was not a matter of sympathy, or having the gift of intimacy, but more a sort of ‘ray’, like Stiva Oblonsky’s in Anna Karenina. Yet obviously Duff Cooper was no more like Stiva than like Stendhal’s hero. His biographer, who does not sound as if he would be much impressed by social success and glamour, has obviously become very attached to his subject, and as a man rather than as a subject.

Like many social stoics, Duff Cooper was born half and half. His mother Lady Agnes Duff, from a Scottish family, eloped twice – first with the dashing young Viscount Dupplin, heir to the Earldom of Kinnoul. It seemed a suitable match, and her parents came to accept it. They had a daughter, who later on as ‘Marie Hay’ became a moderately successful historical novelist, who married a relative of General Hindenburg and spent most of her life in Germany. Dupplin, meanwhile, had proved unsatisfactory, for a number of fairly obvious reasons, and the spirited Lady Agnes had gone off with a young man called Herbert Flower. He was the man she really loved, but he died suddenly at the age of 27. Neither parents nor society were at all forgiving, and in getting over her grief Lady Agnes once again showed spirit and resource. She went to London and took a humble job at a hospital, hoping to train as a nurse. While scrubbing floors one day, she was noticed by one of the consulting surgeons, Alfred Cooper, a specialist in bronchial and venereal diseases and a rising man in his profession. His was a typical Victorian success story: skill and reputation was to give him the entrée into fashionable houses, and a friendship with Edward VII which produced a knighthood in 1902. In the meantime he and Lady Agnes had enjoyed a happy and stable marriage and a small family of whom Duff was the youngest, the only boy, apple of his mother’s eye. The story of the floor-scrubbing is no doubt perfectly accurate, as well as appropriate to the stoic world, but may there not have been a bit more to it than that? Cooper had seen Lady Agnes before, probably at a Prince of Wales party, and fallen for her. She was 14 years younger, romantic, destined for some grand match. But the surgeon’s feelings may not have escaped her attention. What more natural than, like an adroit beggarmaid, to seek out in hard times the homely court of this Aesculapian Cophetua, and place herself under his protection?

Lady Agnes’s déclassement was not forgiven by family and monde, however, and so Duff Cooper had a quiet childhood, introduced to the delights of literature at an early age by Sibbie, his only surviving elder sister, who adored him. As a young man he enjoyed literature as much as society, and the chief pleasures of society were the eating and drinking and the sex. He acquired a junior clerkship at the Foreign Office and led a smart life on not much money. All this was changed by the war. The beautiful Diana Manners, the toast of every Guards officer, was working at Guy’s Hospital, and taking her work seriously, though with time off to solace the troops as they went out to be killed. She and Duff were drawn together at first as much by deaths of mutual friends as by an increasing personal friendship. Released by the Foreign Office, Duff got to the front himself in time, and had the ideal Stendhalian war: taking part in a couple of unusually successful attacks and showing great bravery for which he got the DSO, a most unusual award for a subaltern. In the second operation only ten of his platoon remained on their feet, recalling Falstaff’s aside that he had led his ragamuffins where they are peppered, a comment that may have been remembered by Duff and resulted in later years in his book Sergeant Shakespeare, an amusing and perfectly plausible conjecture – based on the Bard’s undoubted familiarity with army life – that he may have seen something of the Low Countries campaign. In any event, Duff Cooper saw just enough, having the luck that sometimes goes with courage, and receiving a very different impression of the war from that of those who had endured it to the point where, in Wilfred Owen’s words,

                    courage leaks like sand
From the best sandbags after years of rain.

Bravery on the battlefield, coolness at the gaming table, gallantry in the boudoir. It may sound banal, but Duff Cooper seems to have observed these proprieties in his own way and with conspicuous success. The Duke of Rutland eventually acquiesced in Duff’s marriage to his youngest daughter, by then a rising star in the fashionable theatre. So began an exceptionally happy marriage, with each partner learning to cultivate excitement and success from the vitality and ambition of the other. From the beginning it seems that Duff was unfaithful, but the proprieties were always observed, and not only observed but actually felt: only one of his ladies, who made herself available to him shortly after the marriage, was apparently resented by his wife, and that was ‘more out of habit than from jealousy’. During the heady years in Paris at the end of the war Louise de Vilmorin, a famous society beauty, practically lived in the British Embassy, but it was all done in such a way that nobody raised an eyebrow. Diana was warmly attached to her. Duff seems to have had only one clandestine affair, with the wife of a diplomat at the American Embassy, and that was because of the lady’s regard for her husband and his career. So successfully was this new set of proprieties observed that the husband remarked to his wife, after some absence or other, that the British Ambassador did not seem to be quite so taken with her as he had been before.

Only one person seems to have found Duff Cooper ‘intolerable’ – Evelyn Waugh. The reasons could be interesting. The novelist was, after all, dedicated to a showing-up of the proprieties and to what amounts, in a way, to a sadistic hatred of them. In A Handful of Dust they are all tossed upside down: Tony Last is destroyed by his inability to observe them, as much as by the fact that in the new world no one else does. Christopher Sykes attributed Waugh’s dislike of Duff to sexual envy and jealousy, and John Charmley agrees that it exhibits Waugh ‘in an oddly unfamiliar light’. Waugh may well have been frustrated and made to feel small by not knowing what the Cooper protocol was really like, or what Diana Cooper was about. She did not behave as he thought such ladies should, and he spread the story that she was not a grande amoureuse at all. Her comment when she heard this was characteristically tough. ‘How the hell can he tell if I am or not? Just because I never responded to his dribbling dwarfish little amorous singeries, he need not be so sure.’ What could be more humiliating for Waugh than to have failed to sum up such a distinguished and volatile acquaintance?

Waugh was also a social bully who hated to be given the same treatment, and if he overstepped the mark Duff Cooper apparently gave it to him hot and strong. ‘It’s rotten little rats like you who have brought about the downfall of the country.’ When angry, Duff Cooper had what was known as a ‘veiner’, with a red vein in his forehead pulsing alarmingly. After such a display at the dinner table, however, he at once calmed down and passed the port round. But Waugh would not have forgotten or forgiven. In one respect it is difficult not to feel sympathy with him. He was an artist, after all, and Duff Cooper was not one, or not one in the same sense, though inclined to take it for granted that he was, for those who make a spectacular success out of their lives are apt to assume a parallel prestige in their writings, or have it assumed on their behalf. In prose as in his verses Duff was no more than a dilettante: but, as Proust knew, the beau monde is apt to take over art with the confidence with which they take over other things. Duff was clearly far too sensible consciously to overvalue his achievements as a writer, but the fact that he should be one at all no doubt irked Waugh, who not only had a low threshhold of jealousy but expected the monde and its aristocrats to behave as such and keep to their roles.

Duff’s best books are probably his short biography of Talleyrand and his own autobiography, Old men forget, but he also produced plentiful verse translations, a long biography of Haig, a short and oddly memorable study of the King David of the Bible, and one novel, Operation Heartbreak, about a clandestine war operation in which a body, purporting to be that of a British officer carrying secret documents, was dumped off the coast of Spain to deceive the Germans. As a singleton novel it is done remarkably well, and though the hero does not quite come alive (fittingly perhaps), the conception of him is both moving and effective. He is the body, a decent straightforward soldier who has died of disappointment at being just too young to fight in the first war and just too old for the second. As head of the Security Executive in 1943 Duff had been privy to the operation, and the Cabinet Office chiefs predictably wanted the book stopped when they heard about it.

Successful people often understand unusually well the true nature of disappointment and failure, for it is implicit in their success, and it is this realisation which moves in the background of the short novel. Perhaps to have done brilliantly and achieved much, but not quite so much as some people professed to have thought you would, is harder than to fail. But Duff Cooper seems to have cultivated no melancholy streak, as Proust’s Swann did, and that is typical. He studied rather the stoic art of doing the right thing at the right time, and it paid off at one of his finest moments, when he protested vigorously over Chamberlain’s policy on Czechoslovakia and resigned at the Munich crisis. He died of living too hard but never complained or tried to delay his end. He died at sea, and indeed there is a crowning propriety in the fact that he went on a cruise with his wife, probably knowing he would not come back.