“Lord Berners whispers with a delicate malice in his own enchanting pianissimo.” Times Literary Supplement
“First Childhood and A Distant Prospect are quietly remarkable volumes of autobiography– alive with unforgotten terrors and unforgiven indignities.” Alan Hollinghurst
Lord Berners, Gerald Hugh Tyrwhitt-Wilson, Baron (1885-1950) was a composer, poet, painter, novelist and conspicuous aesthete. Most of his writings, with the exception of The Girls of Radcliff Hall, originally published under the pseudonym Adella Quebec, are available from Turtle Point Press either through Consortium or as on-demand editions from Lightening Print / Ingram.
We are pleased to offer excerpts or opening paragraphs of several of his books. We hope that the wit, understatement, and precision of style of this most colorful eccentric personality, the model for Lord Merlin in Nancy Mitford’s The Pursuit of Love will send you, beloved reader, in pursuit of these enchanting books.
Table of Selections:
Neighbors, an Excerpt from First Childhood
An excerpt from Dresden
An Excerpt from Mr Pidger, one of six novellas in Collected Tales and Fantasies
An excerpt from The Chateau de Résenlieu
an Excerpt from First Childhood
Available: On Demand from Ingram / Lightening Print
About four miles from my home there lived an elderly lady, Mrs. Lafontaine, and her companion, Miss Goby. They were fond of children, and I was often invited to go over and spend the afternoon with them. At that time I had never been abroad, and these two ladies represented to my eager imagination the glamour of foreign travel. Each year they went for a sketching tour on the Continent and brought back portfolios filled with water-colours of France, Switzerland or Italy, executed with a skilful combination of accuracy and romance.
Mrs. Lafontaine and her companion belonged to a certain type of Englishwoman that is still happily to be met with on the Continent. They both had the slightly prominent teeth of the traditional “fille d’Albion” of French caricature. Their high fringes were surmounted by hats perched at an angle that made them look as though they were about to loop the loop. Their movements were brisk and decided; their voices loud and authoritative. One could visualize them moving through foreign crowds, oblivious of mockery, wholly concentrated on the enjoyment of “being abroad.”
For them the Continent had still the flavour of the eighteenth century Grand Tour, with perhaps a touch of Mark Twain’s Innocents Abroad. For them Germany was still the Germany of Goethe; France, the France of the first English settlers on the Riviera; and Switzerland, devoid of sanatoriums and winter sports, the Switzerland of edelweiss, William Tell and the Merry Swiss Boy.
Mrs. Lafontaine’s house was called “Rose Hill.” It stood as its name implied, on a hill and its trellised porches were festooned with roses. The interior of the house had a very pronounced Italian atmosphere. The rooms were filled with mosaic cabinets, striped fabrics from Sorrento, inlaid wooden boxes, painted Venetian furniture, goblets and chandeliers of Murano glass. In the hall there was a stone fire-place transported from Bologna. The food also was in the Italian style, and one had risotto, macaroni and, a delicacy I particularly delighted in, raisins folded in vine leaves and tasting of wedding cake.
In the summer the two ladies would sometimes take me with them to picnic by the river side. We would drive down through the park in a pony-chaise followed by a footman in another cart carrying the tea things and sketching appliances. The sketches they made of the neighbourhood had the same romantic qualities as those painted abroad. I was very happy in their company, and I looked up to “Rose Hill” as to a little Valhalla of art and culture.
As I grew older I began to discover that most of my companions considered Mrs. Lafontaine and Miss Goby to be figures of fun. I grew to be ashamed of my friendship with the two ladies of “Rose Hill.” As I passed from childhood to adolescence I lost my independence of spirit. My judgment became more and more influenced by public opinion. I began to refuse their invitations. After I went to school I saw very little of my former friends and the memory of all the happy afternoons spent at “Rose Hill,” the picnics by the river, the excitement of examining a new batch of Continental landscapes, the delicious Italian food– all this was for the time obliterated by a growing sense of the ridiculous which, in its early stages, made me self-conscious and fearful of being associated with things and people generally considered to be absurd. I was at that time very far from that enlightened stage in which it is possible to combine mockery with affection and to disentangle the sublime from the ridiculous. Not that there was anything very sublime about the two ladies of “Rose Hill,” but there was much that was lovable and, from my own particular point of view, helpful and stimulating.
Mrs. Lafontaine and Miss Goby are dead. But the remembrance of the pleasant hours spent in their company, of all that they meant for me at a certain period of my child-hood, of their kindness and their absurdity, has left in my mind a trail of melancholy and remorse.
There was another neighbour who stood out from the background of more conventional county folk. This was Mr. Vivian Pratt.
Distinctly connected with a ducal family, he enjoyed more consideration than he might otherwise have done. Mr. Vivian Pratt was considered eccentric but amusing. Country people in the ‘nineties were apt to be a little naive with regard to certain aspects of life. It was said of Mr. Pratt that he was rather odd and inclined to effeminacy, but that was all. He had a mincingly ingratiating voice, and he moved with an undulating gait. In walking through a room he looked as though he were avoiding imaginary tables and chairs and he would describe elaborate circles with the middle portion of his body. His clothes had a fashion-plate neatness, and seemed inappropriate to the country. When he appeared on horseback nobody could present a more dapper appearance of horsiness, but his get-up, like that of Miss Lucy Glitters, looked as though it could hardly have weathered a rain-storm.
His manners were almost excessive in their courtliness, and he embarrassed my mother by addressing her as “Dear Lady.” His conversation consisted chiefly of the anecdotes relating to London society or the theatrical world. I gathered that my father did not care very much for Mr. Pratt. His behaviour when Mr. Pratt was present and his comments after he had left seemed to suggest that he understood him better than my mother and the rest of the countryside appeared to do. I remember on one occasion when Mr. Pratt said: “I often think that the best things in life are behind us,” my father broke out into a cynical guffaw, which seemed to me to be quite unwarranted by the sentimental character of the remark.
I too did not care very much for Mr. Pratt. Chiefly, I think, because he did not seem to be the least interested in children, and when he came to call he appeared to regard me rather as a nuisance than anything else. However, one day, when I rode over to his house with a note from my mother, he made himself unexpectedly agreeable. I showed me his collection of jade and his orchid houses. When I left he thrust an orchid into my hand. My mother, upon my showing it to her on my return, displayed an unaccountable irritation. She said it was a ridiculous thing to have given to a child. I imagine that the exotic nature of the gift must have aroused for the first time a dim suspicion in her unsophisticated mind.
After this visit I thought a little better of Mr. Pratt. I was accompanied at the time by a rather good-looking groom and I remember telling myself that, after all, he must be a nice man to be so unusually amiable and condescending to servants.
Many years later I came across Mr. Pratt again in Paris just after the war.. He had been working in connection with the Red Cross. The patina of time seemed to have improved him. There were still unmistakable indications for the pathologist, but his voice had grown less mincing; his gait less undulating. The impression I had may have been due to the fact that he was wearing a uniform which, as the term implies, has a tendency to minimize irregular characteristics, or, more probably, because I had grown accustomed to a type which, in the intervening years, had come into its own.
Some excitement was caused in the British colony by the arrival in Dresden of an eccentric peer, the Marquis of Anglesey, and by the announcement that he was going to appear at one of the principal music halls. Since marquises in those days still enjoyed a certain veneration, particularly among the British colony in Dresden, this was considered very eccentric indeed. Mrs. Wray complained that Lord Anglesey was “letting down” the peerage, and Mrs. Mansfield was of the opinion that no Englishman ought to go and see him disgrace himself. It would have been bad enough if he had been going to take the part of Seigfried in the opera house- but to appear at a music hall!
I had heard that Lord Anglesey had previously appeared in other Continental music halls, and that all he did was to show himself on the stage attired in the family jewels. It didn’t sound to me a very exciting performance; however, in spite of Mrs. Mansfield’s injunction, I was determined to go and see it.
If not exactly exciting it was decidedly a strange “turn.” It came between that of a lady with performing pigeons and a company of acrobats. The theatre was darkened. There was a roll on the drums and the curtain went up on Lord Anglesey clad in a white silk tunic, a huge diamond tiara on his head, glittering with necklaces, brooches, bracelets and rings. He stood there for a few minutes motionless, without any mannequin gestures of display. Then the curtain went down again period. No applause followed, only an animated buzz of conversation. The German audience seemed a little disconcerted by the manifestation of British eccentricity. I may say that German audiences even in the music halls were extremely disciplined and well-behaved. Once at the Dresden opera a new tenor, appearing for the first time in the role of Lohengrin, missed his footing on stepping out of the swan-boat and fell headlong on the the stage. His shield and helmet were restored to him by members of the chorus, and the performance was resumed in perfect silence. There was not the sound of the faintest chuckle. Lord Angelsey, I thought, had got off lightly. Imagine the reception of such a display by an English music-hall audience. The press treated the matter with similar restraint. The notices merely commented on the magnificence of the jewels. German propaganda had not yet taken up the subject of British decadence. In later years, poor Lord Angelsy would no doubt have been accused by his compatriots of being in the pay of the German government and of being employed by them to bring the British nation into disrepute.
Madame de Rosen was of a singularly massive build. She was rather short but she made up in width for what she lacked in height. She resembled a perambulating mountain, and as she had white hair and dressed always in white, Henriette had nicknamed her “Mont Blanc.” Monsieur de Rosen had intimated confidentially that his wife was inclined to be exacting in the matter of conjugal duties, and Madame O’ Kerrins said one day “Poor man. He’s obliged to make the ascension three time a week and finds it very exhausting.”
Madame de Rosen’s enormous face reminded one of a pantomime head and was very heavily rouged and powdered. The summer heat had a disastrous effect on her makeup, and on very hot afternoons there would occur a sort of spate of cosmetics. Often, on arriving at the Chateau, she was obliged to retire to Madame O’Kerrin’s bedroom to repair the ravages of the inundations.
Two or three times a week the de Rosens would come up to the Chateau in the afternoon, to play whist with Madame O’Kerrins, Madmoiselle Baghdad, or the Curé, making a fourth. It always amused me to watch them from the balcony coming up the steep path that led to the house, Monsieur de Rosen prancing ahead, continually stopping and looking round impatiently at his wife, like a dog out for a walk with a slow-moving mistress. Nothing would induce her to hurry. She seemed to have confidence in her build and one felt that she would have moved with deliberation even out of a burning house.
The de Rosens were a strange couple. They were devoted to one another and had been so for some forty years, yet there seemed to exist between them a perpetual state of nervous tension. This was most apparent when one or the other was talking. They were both very loquacious, and while Madame held forth Monsieur would hum to himself and tap on the period table. When Monsieur monopolized the conversation, Madame would close her eyes and sigh aggressively. They both had the irritating conjugal trick of correcting one another’s assertions.
They also belonged to the category of people who may be termed “unfortunate” in the true sense of the word. They seemed to attract minor mishaps, generally of a comic nature. The Deus Ridiculus, the Harlequin God, had them as victims for his slapstick ministrations. If Gustave upset the sauce-boat it was sure to be over Madame de Rosen’s white dress. If there were a hole in the carpet Monsieur de Rosen would inevitable catch his foot in it, and once, after a game of whist, Madmoiselle Baghdad inadvertently pulled her chair away as he was about to sit down, so that he sat heavily on the floor. If they came with us on one of the weekly picnics they would be bound to sit on a wasp’s nest or to tread on a cow-pat.
an Excerpt from Mr Pidger,
one of six novellas in Collected Tales and Fantasies by Lord Berners
Available On Demand from Ingram/Lightning Print
The canine characters in this story are purely imaginary and no reference is intended to any living dog.
Dedicated to Clarissa Churchill
The scene, a railway compartment. Its occupants a married couple. The husband aged about thirty, the wife somewhat younger. Both of elegant and fashionable appearance. The man was good-looking and serious, the woman pretty and frivolous. The faces of these two agreeable people became faintly clouded with irritation as the following dialogue ensued.
“Whatever you may say, Millicent, I still think that it is most unwise to have brought him.”
“Nonsense, Walter, and please don’t go on about it.”
When the Denhams addressed one another by their Christian names– it was generally “dear” or “darling”– it meant that the time had come to bring discussion to a close.
Walter, disregarding the warning signal, continued.
“It is more than unwise. It is positively dangerous.”
“Really, Walter, you exaggerate.”
“You can’t have forgotten what happened in the case of Charles and Emily,” Walter went on. “They ruined their chances for ever, and you surely don’t wish our prospects to be ruined now for exactly the same reason.”
“That was very different,” Millicent retorted. “Charles and Emily are boring and vulgar, and Charles is mad as well. Uncle Wilfred was simply longing for an excuse to get rid of them. He practically admitted it.”
“I don’t agree with you. Charles and Emily are just ordinary people like ourselves. But even if we were paragons of perfection, relationship with Uncle Wilfred is always precarious, and it would be fatal in any way to annoy him.”
“Well,” said Millicent, her indignation rising. “If you’re going to compare me with that stupid dowdy Emily—-”
“I’m making no comparisons. In dealing with an eccentric old man like Uncle Wilfred, one can’t be too careful, and I repeat that I think it would have been better to leave him behind.”
“Leave him behind!” exclaimed Millicent. “My child, my precious one, my little angel of light, my little pearl without price. May Mummy kiss you?” she inquired, as she leant over a basket containing a diminutive Pomeranian dog, the subject of the altercation.
“Mr. Pidger,” for that was his name, was a bright-eyed fox-hued little creature with pointed, cocked-up ears, and a tiny inquisitive snout. “A sweet attractive little dog,” people used to say of him, until he drove them crazy with his barking, or tore their clothes.
Regarded as a pet, Mr. Pidger had many faults. His energy was boundless. He was never for a moment still. He was always jumping up or jumping down, wanting to go out of a room or come into it, dancing on his hind legs or leaping into the air, in his unrestrained joie-de-vivre. A fretful midge, he was the centre of his own agitated universe. He was determined never to stop drawing attention to himself and, if he remained for a moment unobserved, he would start scratching the carpet or tugging at your clothes.
The agitation of his soul was also vocally expressed by a high pitched incisive bark that seemed to lacerate your brain, so that after a time you felt it must be beginning to look like a pianola-roll or a nutmeg grater. His presence was destructive to any kind of concentration, indeed to any thought at all. He would often bark for hours on end and would rush yapping from one end of the house to the other, determined that everyone should hear him. He was as disturbing to household peace as a modern dictator to that of Europe.
Although he was perfectly house-trained, he contrived sometimes, out of sheer devilry, to convey the impression that he was not, especially in other people’s houses. He would go up to a curtain or a table leg and sniff at it, disappear behind a sofa or squat on the floor in a highly equivocal manner.
No one could accuse him of a lack of courage. In his diminutive way he was as fierce as a tiger, as brave as a lion, and he would bite people and fly at larger dogs without provocation. His bite, as Millicent so frequently pointed out, was comparatively painless. It was just his fun, she used to say, and she seemed surprised that it did not increase your affection for him.
In love as in hatred, Mr. Pidger was equally unrestrained, and the ostentatious manner in which he demonstrated his attachments was highly embarrassing. Nor were these demonstrations confined to the canine species alone and shy visitors would often be considerably disconcerted by his attentions.
In spite of all these shortcomings, for Millicent Mr. Pidger was the embodiment of all canine and human perfections, and to the well-being of this tiny speck of fur she devoted her life, and, as far as lay within her power, the lives of others.
Music by Lord Berners
Lord Berners, Gerald Hugh Tyrwhitt-Wilson, Baron (1885-1950) was a composer, poet, painter, novelist and conspicuous aesthete. Most of his writings, with the exception of The Girls of Radcliff Hall, originally published under the pseudonym Adella Quebec, are available from Turtle Point Press either through Consortium or as on-demand editions from Lightning Print / Ingram.
We are pleased to offer the following selection of Berners’ music, on Youtube:
Lady Dorothy Heber-Percy
by Mark Amory, from The Independent, 20 November 2001.
Lady Dorothy Heber-Percy, Dorothy Lygon: born 22 February 1912; married 1985 Robert Heber-Percy (died 1987); died Oxford 13 November 2001.
Lady Dorothy Heber-Percy owed her modest degree of fame to her friendship with Evelyn Waugh. When he said “I fell in love with a family”, it was hers to which he referred and he put bits of some of them and their house into his most popular and famous novel, Brideshead Revisited.
She had been born in 1912 Lady Dorothy Lygon, fourth child of the rich, aristocratic and altogether grand seventh Earl of Beauchamp of Madresfield Court, in Worcestershire. Waugh had met two of her brothers at Oxford, the younger, Hugh, being charming, weak and already drinking rather a lot. Later their father was involved in a scandal. His homosexuality had never been a secret – the fingers of the footmen serving dinner were said to have been glittering with diamonds. His wife’s resentful brother, Bendor, the second Duke of Westminster, constantly referred to him as “my bugger-in-law” and so forced the situation that he had to flee the country to avoid prosecution in 1931.
Although it was explained to her at great length, Lady Beauchamp never quite understood what all the trouble was about. She retired with her youngest boy, leaving the house to the other children, who therefore had an unusual degree of freedom.
Waugh became a constant visitor and lifelong friend, particularly with the girls. He wrote them smutty, childlike letters full of private slang and jokes and gave them nicknames: Lady Mary, “Maimie” to others, was “Blondy”; Lady Dorothy, who had generally kept her nursery name of “Coote”, became “Poll”, “Little Poll” or “Pollen”.
It was not long after his painful divorce and Waugh was happy at Madresfield. Years later, when his nostalgic book Brideshead was about to come out in 1945, he wrote to Lady Dorothy, It’s all about a family, whose father lives abroad, as it might be Boom [Beauchamp] – but it’s not Boom – and a younger son, people will say he’s like Hughie but you’ll see he’s not really Hughie – and there’s a house as it might be Mad, but it isn’t really Mad. So in the same way, Lady Dorothy was not really the younger sister, Cordelia. Later still, Waugh’s second wife, Laura, was to describe Lady Dorothy as “the nicest of all your friends”.
Lady Mary, two years older, was a powerful, almost Wagnerian, blonde with many admirers. Lady Dorothy was plainer and quieter. When they signed joke names in a visitor’s book Lady Mary wrote “Sporting Hostess” and Lady Dorothy “ADC to Sporting Hostess”.
In 1932 Waugh dedicated Black Mischief to them both. When the Second World War came Lady Dorothy joined the Waafs and went to Italy, where she worked on photographic interpretation. Afterwards she farmed in Gloucestershire, rode keenly and was one of the last women in England to hunt side-saddle. She worked as social secretary to the British Ambassador in Athens and in 1956 went as a governess to Istanbul, where she slept under a table. After a spell on a Greek island she returned and put an advertisement in a magazine, “Woman wants work”.
Not as a direct result, she became an archivist for Christie’s. The visitor’s book the sisters signed had been at Faringdon, then in Berkshire, now in Oxfordshire, home of the eccentric peer Gerald, 14th Baron Berners and his companion, Robert Heber-Percy. Berners definitely did appear in a novel, as Lord Merlin, in Nancy Mitford’s The Pursuit of Love (1945) and the whole atmosphere was fantastic, perhaps reminiscent of some of the work of Iris Murdoch but with jokes. Bisexuality made complications: when Heber-Percy married and there was a child, all remained. There was also a constant flow of smart or artistic guests, John and Penelope Betjeman were neighbours, Salvador Dali looked in, Frederick Ashton came down. Lady Dorothy was a constant visitor.
Berners, ugly and talented, was painfully shy and she found that, even when she had succeeded in making him relax, at the next meeting she had to start all over again. Heber-Percy, who had swiftly earned his nickname of “The Mad Boy”, was dashingly attractive and created an atmosphere of excitement. After Berners’s death in 1950 he continued to run the house and estate with an efficiency that surprised many but also consciously in the style of its late owner, so that it now seemed haunted as well. Lady Mary was often there with a pekinese but now also a faded air, Lady Dorothy was a small beacon of sense and kindness. For it was possible to tell at a glance across a crowded room that she was a good person. When there was a fancy dress ball and both she and Lady Diana Cooper went as nuns, Heber-Percy commented, “Diana looked like an actress, Coote looked like a nun.” Generous as she was and tolerant, there was never any doubt that, whatever raffish society she might find herself in, she had high standards of behaviour herself and kept to them.
Heber-Percy, a thoughtful friend, arranged a small house for her near by but he was not always easy with those closest to him. He drove a friend of many years from his house and then he and Lady Dorothy astonished most of their acquaintance by, in 1985, getting married. (He had been divorced from his first wife, Jennifer, later Mrs Alan Ross, in 1947.)
Perhaps she had always loved him and it seemed like a happy ending but it was not a success. There was a devoted cook, open in her hostility, who gave them an uncharacteristically disgusting wedding lunch. When they returned from the honeymoon, she had left with the dog but not done the washing up. Lady Dorothy was blamed for this and for other things.
Soon she retreated back to the small house. When Heber-Percy died in 1987 she became Berners’s executor and was a conscientious and successful one. All his music is now available on CD, all his books have been reprinted, a biography was commissioned and, eventually, appeared. Lady Dorothy continued to drive herself to the South of France or Greece and was greatly looking forward to her 90th birthday party, which was to be held at Madresfield in February. The invitations had been printed but now they will not be sent. — Mark Amory
Letter to the Editor, The Independent, 16/2/02
In the obituary Mark Amory mentioned a “devoted cook, open in her hostility, who gave them an uncharacteristically disgusting wedding lunch. When they returned from their honeymoon, she had left with the dog and not done the washing up.”
This ‘devoted cook’ is still living in Faringdon and is deeply offended by these words, which are quite untrue.
All who are acquainted with her know she would never behave in such a manner. She has always had a reputation for hard work, and scrupulous devotion to whomever she has worked.
The driver who attended Lady Dorothy’s wedding and witnessed the ceremony took them back to Faringdon House can testify that Mark Amory’s description is libellous. I am surprised he needed to go to such unnecessary lengths to embellish an obituary.
He may be interested to know that after Lady Dorothy left Faringdon House, the lady who Mark Amory vilified returned and nursed Mr Heber-Percy through his last difficult years. During that time he was entirely dependant on her.
As a long time friend, I think the least she deserves is a written apology from Mr Amory.
Reply from Mark Amory, 25/2/02
I am so sorry that your friend has been upset by the obituary. The last thing I or the Independent intended was any offence. Please do convey our apologies.
Her loyalty to the late Robert Heber-Percy is a matter of public record.