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Betjeman: A Lifeby A. N. Wilson
Synopses & Reviews
John Betjeman was by far the most popular poet of the twentieth century; his collected poems sold more than two million copies. As poet laureate of England, he became a national icon, but behind the public man were doubts and demons. The poet best known for writing hymns of praise to athletic middle-class girls on the tennis courts led a tempestuous emotional life. For much of his fifty-year marriage to Penelope Chetwode, the daughter of a field marshal, Betjeman had a relationship with Elizabeth Cavendish, the daughter of the Duke of Devonshire and lady-in-waiting to Princess Margaret. Betjeman, a devout Anglican, was tormented by guilt about the storms this emotional triangle caused.
Betjeman, published to coincide with the hundredth anniversary of the poet's birth, is the first to use fully the vast archive of personal material relating to his private life, including literally hundreds of letters written by his wife about their life together and apart. Here too are chronicled his many friendships, ranging from "Bosie" Douglas to the young satirists of Private Eye, from the Mitford sisters to the Crazy Gang. This is a celebration of a much-loved poet, a brave campaigner for architecture at risk, and a highly popular public performer. Betjeman was the classic example of the melancholy clown, whose sadness found its perfect mood music in the hymns of a poignant Anglicanism.
"Certainly Britain's most popular poet since Kipling, John Betjeman (1906 — 1984) began as the shy son of a London manufacturer, got kicked out of Oxford for not taking his studies seriously and ended up as poet laureate (1972 — 1984). He also became a celebrity, known across the U.K. for hosting TV programs about travel and architecture, for his campaigns to preserve Victorian buildings and for Summoned by Bells (1960), his bestselling verse account of his childhood and youth. The English admired his unassuming comic persona, his devotion to the Anglican Church, his loyalty (somehow simultaneous, and real) to both aristocrats and Middle England, and his stand on behalf of Victorian values, which modern life seemed to have eroded. This enthusiastic, always readable biography from the prolific English critic Wilson (After the Victorians) follows Betjeman's rise to public acclaim, his sometimes surprising friends and acquaintances (Lord Alfred Douglas, Evelyn Waugh), and his frequently frustrating private affairs: unwilling to either divorce or live with his wife, Betjeman spent decades with a devoted younger mistress. With his sources in hymns and English music-hall comedy, his great causes (Anglican services and Victorian churches) quintessentially, parochially English, Betjeman seems as unlikely an export as Marmite. Whatever American fans he has, however, will be well served by this compact life, issued simultaneously with Betjeman's Collected Poems for his centenary (FSG, $17 paper ISBN 0-374-12653-4). 74 b&w illus." Publishers Weekly (Copyright Reed Business Information, Inc.)
"There should be a warning sticker on the cover of this biography of the English poet John Betjeman (1906-84): 'Anglophiles Only!' A.N. Wilson — a prolific and much admired novelist, biographer and historian, graced with a pleasing, conversational style — readily assumes familiarity with the Brideshead Generation of writers and eccentrics (Evelyn Waugh, Kenneth Clark, Lord Berners), fond memories... Washington Post Book Review (read the entire Washington Post review) of British television in the 1950s and at least partial sympathy for a past where God was in his heaven and all was right with the world because stalwart Englishmen kept their word, knew their place and honored their traditions. Few Americans fit all these qualifications, and far more are likely to start by asking: Just who is this Betjeman that we should be mindful of him? In some ways, Sir John Betjeman represents a familiar type: a public nostalgist for a world we have lost. As a poet and architectural preservationist, he loathed our crass modern society's noise, vulgarity and gimcrack ugliness: 'The magic-lantern is broken and we laugh at the mission hymns,' as he wrote in one of his poems ('The Ballad of George R. Sims'). And yet he attained immense fame through his journalism, travel guides (sponsored by Shell Oil!) and frequent appearances on radio (735 times) and television (494 times). By the end of his life, he was not only England's poet laureate but also one of the most beloved public figures in the country, half Walter Cronkite, half Walt Disney. Betjeman wasn't born to aristocratic privilege, but his family, who had been in trade for generations, was modestly well to do. From an early age, he hoped to become a poet, and through one of those convergences beloved by Fate, the young T.S. Eliot was briefly his schoolteacher. Alas, the future author of 'The Waste Land' apparently didn't see anything exceptional in the boy's verses. Later, at Oxford in the 1920s, Betjeman's tutor was to prove similarly distinguished — but C.S. Lewis actually disliked him as a frivolous, silly-ass slacker. The collegiate aesthete's most faithful companion, after all, was Archibald Ormsby Gore, a stuffed teddy bear, who was not only a strict Baptist but also'very interested in Temperance work at Clacton-on-Sea.' Throughout the 1930s and the following three decades, Betjeman scribbled away as a journalist while composing poems on the run — according to his daughter, he liked to write in railway station waiting rooms and on the backs of restaurant menus. Inspired by old hymns and music-hall songs, his poetry is so bouncy and winning that many critics even now dismiss it as light verse. And yet Betjeman was deeply admired by poets as fastidious as Philip Larkin, who commended his metrical skill, and W.H. Auden, who neatly summarized him as 'slick but not streamlined' (a phrase later used as the title for one of Betjeman's collections). His most famous anthology pieces are probably 'The Arrest of Oscar Wilde at the Cadogan Hotel,' in which the doomed playwright sips hock and seltzer while awaiting the arrival of the Cockney policemen; 'Slough,' which earnestly solicits German bombers to destroy an ugly industrial town; and 'In Westminster Abbey,' the prayer of a selfish upper-class woman during wartime. To these, one must add the great favorite, 'A Subaltern's Love Song.' It opens: Miss J. Hunter Dunn, Miss J. Hunter Dunn, Furnish'd and burnish'd by Aldershot sun, What strenuous singles we played after tea, We in the tournament — you against me! And it ends, as the couple go off to a country club dance: Around us are Rovers and Austins afar, Above us, the intimate roof of the car, And here on my right is the girl of my choice, With the tilt of her nose and the chime of her voice. And the scent of her wrap, and the words never said, And the ominous, ominous dancing ahead. We sat in the car park till twenty to one And now I'm engaged to Miss Joan Hunter Dunn. You can see why some might regard such poetry as little better than a nursery jingle or a Hallmark greeting — and why it was so popular with ordinary people. Throughout his life, Betjeman was always falling in love. After a brief homosexual phase, de rigueur among public school boys of his generation, Betjeman was generally attracted to what he called 'a great big mountainous sports girl,' with strong legs and arms. 'Oh! Would I were her racket press'd with hard excitement to her breast' ('The Olympic Girl'). He married Penelope Chetwode, an ardent horsewoman, who was known to bring her favorite stallion, Moti, into friend's houses. But marriage didn't prevent Betjeman from yearning after waitresses and secretaries, the wives of friends and the daughters of aristocrats. Sometimes more than yearning went on, though as Wilson suggests, Betjeman was a man of crushes rather than grand passions. At least until he met Lady Elizabeth Cavendish. The sister of the Duke of Devonshire and lady-in-waiting to Princess Margaret, this young woman could have wed almost anyone in England. But she and Betjeman fell in love, and for the rest of his life, he spent his weekends in the country with his family and his weekdays in London with Elizabeth. Many knew of the arrangement, and it periodically caused a good deal of pain and hurt to all three parties. Yet Betjeman, as others before him and since, refused to choose between family loyalty and romantic passion. In the end, when he was largely disabled by Parkinson's disease, he would be cared for mainly by Elizabeth. Princess Margaret would help her push the wheelchair-bound poet to church on Sunday. Churches were very important to Betjeman. During his years as a columnist for the Architectural Review and later as an activist for the preservation of the national heritage, he wrote often about the beauty of old English churches and worked hard to save them from the wrecker's ball. More important, he clung to his Anglican faith, partly from conviction, partly from his innate melancholy and fear of death. Appropriately, he called his best-selling verse autobiography 'Summoned by Bells.' A.N. Wilson tells Betjeman's story briskly and engagingly, but without the dense, factual richness of his earlier historical works, such as 'The Victorians.' Many of the details in this review, for instance, are gleaned from Candida Lycett Green's superb two-volume edition of her father's letters — a very amusing book, scrupulously edited and annotated. (It includes a wonderful picture of Betjeman wearing roller skates, while standing next to a dour Evelyn Waugh.) I haven't read Bevis Hillier's two-volume authorized biography, but it would doubtless offer far more detail and substance than Wilson's charming portrait. Still, this a good work to start with — he covers the main outlines of his subject's life, does so with brio and affection, and will send readers on to the 'Collected Poems'(recently reissued by Farrar Straus Giroux). Be warned, though: Wilson imagines his audience as wholly English, and the American reader should be prepared to feel a little like a tourist on a first trip to London — somewhat lost at times, but quite happy nonetheless. Michael Dirda's e-mail address is mdirda(at)gmail.com." Reviewed by Michael Dirda, Washington Post Book World (Copyright 2006 Washington Post Book World Service/Washington Post Writers Group)
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Book News Annotation:
This is a biography of popular British poet John Betjeman (1906-1984). Journalist Wilson describes Betjeman's rise to literary fame but also pays more attention than earlier works to the writer's private life and personal relationships, including his longstanding affair with Elizabeth Cavendish, the daughter of the Duke of Devonshire and lady-in-waiting to Princess Margaret. Annotation ©2008 Book News, Inc., Portland, OR (booknews.com)
Published to coincide with the 100th anniversary of poet John Betjeman's birth, this biography is the first to use fully the vast archive of personal material relating to his private life, including literally hundreds of letters written by his wife about their life together and apart.
About the Author
A.N. Wilson, a fellow of the Royal Society of Literature, holds a prominent position in the world of literature and journalism. He is the author of many critically acclaimed books, including The Victorians, Paul, and My Name Is Legion.
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