A. N. Wilson Betjeman.
Farrar, Strauss & Giroux, 384 pages, $27
John Betjeman Collected Poems.
Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 528 pages, $27
As all the world now knows, Bevis Hillier, whose three-volume life of Sir John Betjeman (1906–1984) has just appeared in a one-volume centenary-year abridgement, has fooled A. N. Wilson into printing a “hitherto unknown” love letter purporting to be by Betjeman, but actually composed by Hillier himself, including some none-too-subtle clues to its inauthenticity. The motive was revenge for a lukewarm review Wilson had written of Hillier’s second volume, and also, perhaps, jealousy that Wilson had access to the family and to papers denied to Hillier. The American edition of the book is prefaced by a note from Wilson, pointing out the error but disdaining even to name “the person who now claims authorship of the trick.”
This unappealing spat between two literary gents at least reminds us how proprietary people tend to be about Betjeman. For much of his narrative, Wilson draws on Hillier, though his use of the private correspondence casts independent light on the struggle for the poet’s affections between his wife, Penelope, and his mistress of thirty years, Lady Elizabeth Cavendish. Wilson has arrived at his own picture of Betjeman, and it is not a reproduction of Hillier’s, while the brisker pace and more intimate tone of the book give a more immediate impact than Hillier’s leisureliness and scope could provide. The darker side of Betjeman’s character—for instance his disastrous relationship with his son Paul—is also highlighted. Meanwhile, a new American edition of the Collected Poems has also appeared for the centenary, with a sensitive introduction by the current Poet Laureate, Andrew Motion. He rightly calls attention to Philip Larkin’s superb essay on Betjeman, “It Could Only Happen in England,” reprinted in Larkin’s Required Writing.
Wilson rehearses economically the well-known details of Betjeman’s early life: the background of solid bourgeois respectability, with a father who emerges more positively from this account than from many; the early feelings of rejection, awkwardness, and alienation, of not fitting in; a happy period (of course!) at the Dragon School followed by misery at Marlborough; social success and academic failure at Oxford. (Incidentally, it has now been discovered, too late for this book, that Betjeman ultimately passed the Divinity examination which would have enabled him to continue his degree; he simply chose not to, while propagating the untruth that he had failed.) All these experiences contributed some familiar elements of the Betjeman persona—the gleeful camp, the surface cosiness with an underlying menace, the habit of joking about the things he took most seriously, the Johnsonian bonhomie employed, like Johnson’s, to keep terror at bay. One day, while he was working at the Architectural Review, a young woman called Penelope Chetwode called with an article on Indian cave temples, and out of this Forsterian scenario an uneasy marriage was born, one in which, however, as Wilson acutely remarks, “the tensions were part of the attraction, part of the love.”
Wilson makes full use of his access to the correspondence between the Betjemans. It makes uncomfortable reading. Penelope had justified doubts about whether John could tolerate her independence and her type of bohemianism, which was nomadic and eremitic, where his was raffishly social. They worked out an uneasy compromise which was satisfactory to neither. Beneath the nicknames, the teasing, the bad-Dickensian archness of her letters to him—“Hoi know oi is er very bad woifie boot oi looves yew very mooch hoonderneath,” and so on—one can feel her helplessness. This, at least, Betjeman shared. “I love [Penelope],” he wrote to a confidante in 1973. “But I cannot be with her for long without quarrelling… . In the awful storm of misery, the one thing I cling to is my love for Penelope and for Elizabeth who has given up marriage and a family life with her own children, for love of me.”
The adultery mattered the more because of the religious guilt it caused him. Penelope had originally shared his commitment to the Anglican Church—Wilson has a wonderful anecdote about her getting into bed with Peter Quennell, only to dash his hopes by revealing that her purpose was to interrogate him about his doubts as to the divinity of Christ. To Betjeman’s lasting grief, however, Penelope became a Catholic in 1948. “In the Perspective of Eternity/ The pain is nothing—but ah, God, in time,” he wrote in a poem about this which was not published until 1994. Elizabeth—whom he met in 1951—remained a devout Anglican. He had had girlfriends before, but they were passing fancies, to be disposed of by a trip to the confessional. Elizabeth was a gritty aristocrat—Lady-in-Waiting to Princess Margaret, the Queen’s sister—who would not be fobbed off with a quick fling. For the rest of his life, Betjeman juggled three separate roles: husband, lover, and pseudo-bachelor gadding about in media circles in London and elsewhere.
If Elizabeth was the human rock on which these things were built, the Church of England, to which he came via agnosticism and a spell as a Quaker, was the spiritual rock. To Roy Harrod’s put-down that religion did nothing to solve the world’s problems, Betjeman replied that that all depended on what one felt the problems were: “I choose the Christian’s way (and completely fail to live up to it) because I believe it is true and because I believe—for possibly a split second in six months, but that’s enough—that Christ really is the incarnate Son of God and that Sacraments are means of grace and that grace alone gives one the power to do what one ought to do.” Yet in lines such as “You ask me to believe You and/ I only see decay” (“On a Portrait of a Deaf Man”), or “‘I am the Resurrection and the Life’:/ Strong, deep and painful, doubt inserts the knife” (“Aldershot Crematorium”) we can see that the faith wasn’t smug. He was haunted by fear of death; in the poem about his father (the “deaf man”) he writes:
And when he could not hear me speak
He smiled and looked so wise
That now I do not like to think
Of maggots in his eyes.
Or again, in “Five O’Clock Shadow,” about being in hospital:
This is the time of day when the weight of bedclothes
Is harder to bear than a sharp incision of steel.
The endless anonymous croak of a cheap transistor
Intensifies the lonely terror I feel.
These are not among Betjeman’s famous poems, but he has much more variety, range, and depth than many of his admirers admit. Who would ever have predicted, for instance, that Betjeman would write a poem about a child molester? Yet there it is, “Shattered Image,” a fierce and clear-eyed denunciation of fair-weather friends. Who would imagine that he could write—almost certainly about himself and Elizabeth—a latter-day metaphysical lyric? Yet in “Late-Flowering Lust” we read:
Dark sockets look on emptiness
Which once was loving-eyed,
The mouth that opens for a kiss
Has got no tongue inside.
Eliot, rather than Donne, is behind this—“breastless creatures underground/ Lie backward with a lipless grin”—but it is still authentically creepy. (Eliot, we recall, in a beautifully serendipitous encounter, briefly taught Betjeman at Highgate Preparatory School, where he went before the Dragon.)
To his credit, Wilson sees the macabre element in Betjeman’s poetry. He wrote little of interest after his appointment as Poet Laureate, becoming instead the National Teddy Bear—his own teddy, Archie, remained with him all his life. This was no affectation. Archie had been the only being with whom Betjeman could be himself without fear of rebuff or rebuke. Penelope was always able to provoke him to hysteria by threatening to harm Archie; TV producers learned that if Archie came to the studio Betjeman was having a bad day; and his poem “Archibald” is a wonderful mixture of tenderness and paranoia:
And if an analyst one day
Of school of Adler, Jung or Freud
Should take this aged bear away,
Then, oh my God, the dreadful void!
Its draughty darkness could but be
Tennyson died with his copy of Cymbeline on his chest; Betjeman died (the scene is movingly described in a letter by Elizabeth which Wilson quotes) clutching Archie under one arm and his elephant, Jumbo, under the other. Archie and Jumbo have made a unique appearance together in the exhibition of Betjemania at the Bodleian Library, Oxford. They have been loved almost to shapelessness. So was he.