Gabriele Annan

  • The Neo-Pagans: Friendship and Love in the Rupert Brooke Circle by Paul Delany
    Macmillan, 270 pp, £14.95, August 1987, ISBN 0 333 44572 4

Bloomsbury on the left, Neo-Pagans on the right, these columns represent, more or less, Paul Delany’s relative definition of the two Edwardian intellectual groups. The first two pairs of adjectives are quoted from his Introduction. Of course, Bloomsbury and the Neo-Pagans had much in common: an educated upper middle-class background; Cambridge – almost all the men went there, and some of the women; at Cambridge, the Bloomsbury men mostly belonged to the Apostles, and so did Rupert Brooke and Ferenc Bekassy, a fringe Neo-Pagan; nervous breakdowns were common in both groups and treated by the same doctors with the same regime – called ‘stuffing’ – in the sense of fattening up; members of both sets recognised one another in the audience at the opera and Diaghilev’s London seasons. If they did not all know one another, at least they knew of one another – in l911, there was a partial, temporary and gingerly link-up, initiated by Virginia Woolf; and all along James Strachey, born to be Bloomsbury but in love with Rupert Brooke, functioned as a sort of inter-coterie courier.

So it’s easy to get confused, and although, like most generalisations, Delany’s compare-and-contrast exercise is contestable on this or that point, it does help to settle the blurry frontiers. It also provides an ideengeschichtlich backbone for his book, which is otherwise gossip recycled – but with enough insight and analysis to hold one’s attention. Besides, Delany both excites and baffles curiosity with reproachful rumblings about tight-fisted owners of papers and other information, as well as too much caution on the part of ‘the guardians’ of Rupert Brooke’s reputation – ‘notably Sir Geoffrey Keynes and Christopher Hassall’. Keynes published Brooke’s letters in 1968 and Hassall the authorised biography in 1964 – though Delany’s bibliography puts it in 1972. John Lehmann’s sympathetic debunking biography of 1980 gets into the bibliography but not into the text.

Delany’s Neo-Pagan era begins in 1907 towards the end of Brooke’s first year at Cambridge. Brooke had won a scholarship to King’s College from stuffy Rugby, where his father was a housemaster. A large proportion of the Neo-Pagans, however, had been educated at progressive, co-educational Bedales. They included Justin Brooke (no relation); the Hungarian aristocrat Bekassy; the Frenchman Jacques Raverat; and Noel Olivier, the youngest of the four daughters of Sir Sydney Olivier, a Fabian Governor-General of Jamaica. The Oliviers were at the very centre of the Neo-Pagan scene and famously beautiful. The other Neo-Pagan girls were plain. They included the cousins Gwen and Frances Darwin, and lumpy, lovable Ka Cox, who was motherly and very sexy. In so far as the Neo-Pagan tragi-comedy has a heroine who goes through reversals of fortune, it is she. Gwen and Frances became, respectively, a minor artist and a minor poet.

In 1911, Brynhild Olivier, the second and most dazzling of all the sisters, ‘came up to Cambridge and the high summer of Neo-Paganism came into full swing. This was the golden age of mass breakfasts under the apple blossoms in the orchard at Grantchester.’ There were amateur dramatic parties, skiing, walking, climbing, sailing and camping parties, from Wales to Norfolk, and from the Alps to the Beaulieu River. The Bedalians were apt to dive nude into any available piece of water and to take off their shoes at the slightest opportunity: this was known as ‘dew-dabbling’. They were adept at pitching tents and cooking on a primus. All this, together with the habit of non-sexual camaraderie between unchaperoned girls and men, they had learnt at school. Delany shows how the Bedales ethos derived from Edward Carpenter and the ‘Simple Life’ community he set up at Millthorpe in 1883, four years before Brooke was born. Carpenter lectured on ‘Neo-Pagan’ ideals and on nailed shoes as ‘leather coffins’. Neo-Pagan activities were very photogenic, as can be seen from the illustrations.

But what was the Neo-Pagan ethos? Delany quotes lavishly from letters full of words like ‘fine’, ‘clean’, ‘splendour’ and ‘youth’. Brooke himself was particularly prone to go on in this way: ‘We’ll be children seventy years instead of seven,’ he wrote. ‘We’ll live Romance, not talk of it. We’ll show the grey, unbelieving age, we’ll teach the whole damn World that there’s a better Heaven than the pale serene Anglican windless harmonium-buzzing Eternity of the Christians, a Heaven in Time, now and forever, ending for each, staying for all, a Heaven of Laughter and Bodies and Flowers and Love and People and Sun and Wind, in the only place we know and care for, ON EARTH.’

It’s a programme for Peter Pan, and Jacques Raverat thought up a rite to go with it: ‘On midsummer day, at night, we’ll make a solemn sacrifice again to the Gods of perpetual youth ... there must be fire; and water, clear spring water poured at sunrise out of a cup of virgin crystal; and wreaths of dog-roses and honeysuckle; and there should be a bird in a cage to set free at dawn and a fair prayer to sing as we dance hand in hand round the leaping fire.’ The virgin crystal and dog-roses are prettily Art Nouveau, but the trouble with the youth business was its concomitant, especially in Brooke’s case: ‘an almost pathological fear of age’.

The sexual side of things was difficult for him too: he was not a Bedalian, but an ordinary public schoolboy with homosexual streaks and, worse still, no experience of girls. Along with other early 20th-century groups where men and women were on more or less equal footing, the Neo-Pagans held that

the period between adolescence and marriage should be a sexual moratorium. Their erotic yearnings were not confined to a single beloved, but were shared out among all ... The wheel of sexual choice had begun to spin, but all had agreed to wait a few years before cashing in their stake. Too much sexual commitment could be the enemy of friendship. Prolonged courtship created the group, and the end of courtship would eventually destroy it.

And mark the beginning of middle age too. Still, Delany is at pains to point out that the group broke up well before the beginning of the war, let alone of middle age – which is often held to be responsible for its dispersal.

So, as a group, the Neo-Pagans never did age. Frances Darwin was the first of the women to marry, and she married ‘out’ by choosing the Classical scholar Francis Cornford, 12 years her senior. The first man (probably the one with least homosexual leanings) was Jacques Raverat. He had been deeply involved with Ka Cox, but when she fell for Brooke he quickly proposed to and married Gwen Darwin: this set off an hysterical and unhappy imbroglio between Ka, Rupert and the schoolgirl Noel Olivier to whom Rupert was more or less engaged. Eventually he got Ka to bed with him. She became pregnant and had either a miscarriage or an abortion, while Brooke had a nervous breakdown. His letters became hateful screams thick with words like ‘dirty’, ‘filthy’, ‘unclean’, ‘smirched’ – applied to himself as well as others. The war was a godsend to him, and he welcomed it as a ritual bath with the well-known lines:

To turn, as swimmers into cleanness leaping,
Glad from a world grown old and cold and weary,
Leave the sick hearts that honour could not move,
And half-men and their dirty songs and dreary,
And all the little emptiness of love.

Brooke volunteered for the Forces to get away from the emotional ‘mess’ he had made, and which by now also involved the young actress Cathleen Nesbitt. The whole sequence is charted by Delany, who also explains – it’s not news, but he does it well – how someone who never saw action and died of an infected mosquito bite became ‘the most famous British hero of the war, the only one still alive in the popular imagination. (So alive that nine people out of ten will tell you that Brooke was killed rather than that he died in bed.)’

There is reason to believe that Delany originally intended his book to be about the Olivier sisters. So perhaps its rather sour, aggressive tone is due to disappointed hopes. Certainly, together with Frances Cornford, the Oliviers come out as the most likeable if least knowable actors in the Neo-Pagan drama (Rupert managed to involve himself heavily with Brynhild as well as Noel).

The Raverats retreated into priggery – it’s hard to believe that the woman who in old age produced the funny and enchanting Period Piece could also have written the starchy, abrasive letter she sent to Ka Cox in 1912 (the year charted in a chapter called ‘The Descent’): ‘They are parasites, you know, all of them’ – she means the Stracheys in particular and Bloomsbury in general. ‘I for one am a clean Christian and they disgust me ... You seem to have absolutely no fineness of instinct ...’ This was during the Raverats’ retreat into born-again Christianity. Poor things: they knew by then that Jacques had multiple sclerosis. He was soon to be in a wheelchair, and he died of the disease in 1925. By that time Gwen had become more Darwinian and rational again – but no keener on Rupert Brooke, whose glorification as a national hero left her cold: ‘And if Rupert got 2 dozen Victoria Crosses it wouldn’t change my bottom feeling for him,’ she wrote to Frances Cornford. And to Virginia Woolf:

He was ambitious but he didn’t love things for themselves. All that about bathing and bodies and food was a pose ... He was a schoolmaster, he tried so hard to prevent all his friends whom he considered young and innocent from being enticed into your bawdy houses at Bloomsbury. Of course Bloomsbury dislike him; how could they help it, when he thought them so infinitely corrupt and sinister that no one (except himself) could be trusted to enter their purlieus and come out unsmirched.

But it’s Bloomsbury who come out unsmirched – or at least only very lightly smirched with frivolity and love of gossip – from this book. ‘They remained a group for so long because they had such solid foundations of tolerance and mutual affection,’ Delany says, as well as superiority ‘of character and intellect’. They made their share of emotional messes, but partly, perhaps, because their code allowed for emotional and sexual experiment, they didn’t make such a fuss about them. Besides, they were much better at forgiving than the Neo-Pagans. They have had quite a rough time of it lately: some of it from stern moralists like Himmelfarb, but mostly just because of over-exposure: it’s nice to see them doing a bit better again.

Delany doesn’t seem much more fond of Brooke than Gwen Raverat was – nor of any of the Neo-Pagans. He reminds one from time to time of Brooke’s irresistible beauty, charm and glamour, but the quotations from his letters make him sound a pain – all sententious-ness, hysteria and hot air. Besides, the trouble with the Neo-Pagan creed is not so much that youth, as a programme, is doomed, but that innocence, as a programme, is phoney.