Magazine article The Spectator

Boys Will Be Girls

Magazine article The Spectator

Boys Will Be Girls

Article excerpt

THE GIRLS OF RADCLIFF HALL by Lord Berners Montcalm, The Cygnet Press, L25, pp. 100

Here we have a rare spoof, first `printed for the author for private circulation' 65 years ago. It has waited a long time to be reviewed. Now re-issued in an edition of 750 by Montcalm and the Cygnet Press, we can read a story previously confined to the inner circle of Lord Berners and some of the victims of his pen. It seems that only four copies have ever been seen by the experts and editors. I was shown Cyril Connolly's in 1980 and once borrowed a copy long enough to make a haphazard xerox, which I then bound in marble paper. My copy has only two advantages over the present edition, the errata: for `Ethel Mannin' read `Ethel M. Dell', and the spoof foreword by the `Bishop of Brixton', possibly deemed politically incorrect in this judgmental age.

The Bishop tells us:

We follow the development of the various characters in the story with the same eager curiosity with which we watch the unfolding of the buds in our herbaceous borders...

The story purports to describe the antics of a girls' public school, not least the dormitory, with the habitual squabbles and jealousies which give those institutions their particular flavour. But the point about this novel is that all the characters are based on real people and every incident and amitie amoureuse is drawn from life. Each schoolgirl was a real-life male, and the only male character a real woman, of which more shortly.

Lord Berners wrote the book as Adela Quebec, a dig at Angela Brazil, who wrote over 50 novels about girls' schools in which the school mistresses possessed a morbid devotion to duty while their 'gals' experienced tiffs and jealousies and employed such slang as `We must scoot!' In The Girls of Radcliff Hall Berners parodied himself as Miss Carfax, the headmistress. He wrote it in Rome in 1935, and Diana Mosley recalled him reading out the latest passages, frequently collapsing in helpless laughter.

Berners held court at Faringdon, where teasing was the order of the day. Nancy Mitford portrayed him to perfection as Lord Merlin in The Pursuit of Love, his whippets adorned with diamond necklaces, and his parties filled with decorative young men. In Mitford's novel, Uncle Matthew complained, `If we ask that brute Merlin to bring his friends, we shall get a lot of aesthetes, sewers from Oxford, and I wouldn't put it past him to bring some foreigners.'

The guests at Faringdon comprised some of the most talented figures of their time, yet while actually in the house they were reduced to being part of a coterie in which their talents were largely eclipsed by the waspish interplay between them. This novel concerns the central figure, Lizzie, based on Peter Watson, here seen involved in numerous brisk love affairs while the other characters suffer pangs of jealousy and retribution. In his early days, Watson was a rich young man, whose family fortune was derived from soap. David Herbert, Daisy in this book, recalled that Watson's paternal Daimler contained two silver-embossed vases attached to each side of the back seat filled with sweet-peas or carnations, for which Herbert condemned him. Later, of course, Watson founded Horizon and became an important promoter of art and literature, but here he is seen in the hedonistic phase when he held Cecil Beaton in thrall and gave Robert Heber-Percy (Millie) a car, after which Beaton insisted on being given one too. …

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