Richard Jenkyns is the author, most recently, of A Fine Brush onIvory: An Appreciation of Jane Austen (Oxford University Press).
Betjeman: A Life By A.N. Wilson
(Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 375 pp., $27)
Like Marmite and The Morecambe and Wise Show, John Betjeman is oneof those Great British Institutions that has not traveled. He hasnever had much of an international reputation, but in his nativeland his fame is still so large that the centenary of his birthlast year was a considerable event. The BBC devoted a series ofprograms to him on both radio and television. In my local bookshopin Oxford, where lesser emporiums have a Da Vinci Code section,there was a table piled high with more than a dozen books by orabout him. And A.N. Wilson's lively but patchy biography, whichshows signs of haste, was evidently hurried out to benefit from theanniversary.
One possible sign of Wilson's haste has received wide publicity. Inthe British edition of his book, Wilson printed an unpublishedletter from Betjeman revealing a previously unknown adulterousaffair. The letter had been sent to Wilson by one Eve de Harben,apparently a lady living in the South of France, into whose handsit had somehow come. The first letters of each sentence spell outthe message "A.N. Wilson is a shit." Eve de Harben is an anagram of"ever been had." The hoaxer was quickly unmasked as Bevis Hillier,the author of a massive biography of Betjeman in three largevolumes (another indication of how seriously Betjeman is regardedby some), who had been feuding with Wilson for a few years. Thefeud does credit to neither man, and the hoax is too embittered tobe amusing; but though Wilson had to put up with some mockery ofhis gullibility, the record shows how easy it is to fool scholarsin this way. (Hugh Trevor-Roper's authentication of the Hitlerdiaries is only the most extreme of many cases.) I am not inclinedto make much of this episode.
Despite his popularity, Betjeman's reputation, more than twentyyears after his death, seems oddly uncertain even in England. Inmiddle life he was established as the most popular English poetsince Tennyson, and the appearance in 1960 of his verse memoir ofhis early life, Summoned by Bells, was a major publishing event;indeed, it is hard to think of any poetry book at any time whoseappearance has been so eagerly anticipated. Yet there is alsoperhaps no poet of the twentieth century who is still so diverselyjudged. The jury is still out, and raised voices can be heard frominside the jury room. Wilson thinks that a number of Betjeman'spoems can properly be called great. That is high praise indeed,with which perhaps few people will concur. Others think thatBetjeman was a minor poet with a unique voice, who at his bestproduced some work that will last; or that he was a pleasing lightentertainer of no great substance; or that he was simply vacuous,and revealingly liked best by readers who otherwise do not seem tocare much for poetry at all.
The uncertainty about the quality of his verse shades into a wideruncertainty: if he was important, what was he important for? Was itas a poet; or a writer of topographical prose about churches,suburbs, and country landscapes; or an early champion of Victorianarchitecture, a campaigner for the preservation of the builtinheritance; or a representative of Anglican faith and doubt; or abrilliant broadcaster; or simply an endearing personality, alovable old treasure and the nation's teddy bear? It may be, infact, that his lasting significance will prove to lie less in anysingle achievement than in the combination of his activities.William Blake (I am stretching here, I know) can be assessedseparately as a poet and as an artist, and Michelangelo as asculptor and as a poet, but Betjeman resists compartmentalization.He is one of those people, as even his detractors must allow, whohave found an original vision of the world and a unique tone ofvoice--quite literally, for the charm of his voice was one of thekeys to his popularity on radio and television.
Betjeman was born in London in 1906, an only child whose fatherowned a long- established family firm of cabinet-makers. Thesurname came from a Dutch ancestor who had migrated to England inthe eighteenth century. The poet's grandfather changed the spellingto Betjemann, to cash in on the mid-Victorian craze for all thingsGerman; the extra "n" was hastily removed at the beginning of WorldWar I, but this did not prevent two bullies at Betjeman's firstschool from taunting him as a German spy. It is a familiar truththat nationalist leaders are often half-outsiders (Hitler Austrian,Stalin Georgian, Napoleon more or less Italian, Garibaldi more orless French, and so on), and it is tempting to wonder if Betjeman'spassionate sense of England was fed by the memory of having beenthought foreign.
He started writing verses very early, and while at another Londonschool he bound his pieces into a book, labeled them The Best ofBetjeman, and presented them to an American teacher who was said tolike poetry. In later years he found himself wondering what theauthor of "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock" had made of thesechildish effusions. At the start of his teens he was sent away toboard at Marlborough, a famous public school, where he was not veryhappy, before proceeding to Oxford, where he was an immediatesuccess. It is part of the Betjeman legend that he was dismissedfrom Oxford for repeatedly failing "Divvers," a very easyexamination in the knowledge of scripture that all undergraduateswere required to pass. The truth is more complicated, but the factremains that he left Oxford early and without a degree. The sense ofa paradise lost haunted him for much of his life.
A part of the problem was that he and his tutor, C.S. Lewis,developed a strong dislike for each other. Lewis thought his pupilfrivolous, idle, and affected, telling him that in the course oftwo years he had never heard him speak about any serious subjectexcept with a sneer. A similar criticism, more moderatelyexpressed, was to be made by his later detractors. To some hisreligiosity and his religious doubts have seemed equallysuperficial, the hard issues evaded in comic verses aboutAnglo-Catholic spikiness and Low Church bad taste. In Summoned byBells he faced the issue directly. For himself, he wrote,
The steps to truth were made by
Stained glass and vestments,
Incense and crossings of myself--
That hearty middle-stumpers most
As "all the inessentials of the Faith."
There is a kind of camp sacramentalism in this, if such a thing ispossible. As Hopkins found God in the pied beauty of the visibleworld, so Betjeman claimed to find him in Victorian pitch-pine pewsand encaustic tiling.
While Lewis disliked him, many of Betjeman's contemporaries wereenchanted. A few of the unconverted even complained of a "Betjemancult." When his fiancee Penelope Chetwode threatened to break offher engagement to him--on the reasonable grounds that while she wasaway in India he had absent-mindedly gotten engaged to someoneelse--one of his friends wrote to her, "I cannot say how much Ideprecate your cowardice. John is a very great person. He iseccentric and needs looking after: but he has a genius of a veryunusual kind." This was written while Betjeman was still in histwenties, and had not obviously achieved anything much at all.
What was it that his admirers saw in him? Mostly, it seems to havebeen the originality of his character. One side of it was achildlike vulnerability. He brought his teddy bear, Archibald, toOxford with him. This was presumably the model for Aloysius, thebear carried by Sebastian Flyte in Evelyn Waugh's BridesheadRevisited. In that book, all Waugh's talent cannot make this seemanything other than a tiresome piece of exhibitionism, but we areasked to believe that everyone found it charming. And so it was inlife, apparently: Betjeman was not, after all, thought to be aposeur. He had a streak of wild anarchic fantasy, suppressed in hispublished work but preserved in his letters to his most intimatefriends. There was a blend of exuberance with depressivemelancholy. There was the troubled religiousness, regarded by hisfriends, mostly agnostics or atheists, as another of John'sendearing eccentricities. There was the genuinely deepknowledge--self-taught--of architecture, and especially ofVictorian architecture, which was then regarded with almostuniversal contempt.
And there were the verses, of course. They seem to have been writtenin isolation from anything else in twentieth-century poetry. It wasnot so much that he used rhyme--Eliot and Auden also did that--asthat he mimicked the forms and the cadences of the music hall andVictorian hymnody. Was this affection or mockery? Part of theteasing attraction was that it was hard to tell. Some of the poemswere lightly satirical; others developed a version of Englishpastoral to which he added such elements as red-brick suburbanchurches and the shabby-genteel dinginess of decaying seasidetowns.
After leaving Oxford, Betjeman got a job on the ArchitecturalReview. He wrote books and articles on architecture and relatedtopics, championed the Victorians, and published several smallbooks of verse. He married Chetwode, who was as eccentric ashimself, and the marriage seems to have been reasonably successfulfor a number of years, until she began to feel neglected and getrestless. But the real crisis was created by her decision to becomea Roman Catholic. Betjeman was not always sure that Christ was theSon of God, but he was absolutely sure that the Church of Englandwas the true church, and his wife's defection was a blow from whichthe marriage never recovered. He acquired a mistress--a seriouslydevout Anglican, naturally. She was Lady Elizabeth Cavendish,sister of the Duke of Devonshire, lady-in-waiting to PrincessMargaret, and a member of one of the grandest families in Europe.He combined wife and mistress for some years, but eventually livedentirely with Elizabeth. He and Penelope never divorced; after all,they both considered themselves sacramentally and indivisiblymarried. The consequence was that Lady Elizabeth remained unmarriedand childless.
Wilson likes to explore religious anguish, infidelity, and sexualguilt, and it is this aspect of Betjeman's life to which he paysthe most attention, handling it skillfully if repetitively. Bycontrast, he neglects Betjeman's prose writings almost entirely.The Collins Guide to English Parish Churches, which Betjemanedited, gets only two passing mentions, and yet it is perhaps asremarkable as anything he did. He brought together a team of writersto list and to describe the best parish churches, county by county.Each list is preceded by a short essay on the character of thecounty; Betjeman wrote many of these himself, with a delicate senseof landscape and local idiosyncrasy.
But the most striking part of the volume is its introduction, someseventy- five pages long, in which he traces the story of theparish church from the Middle Ages to the present day. It blendsarchitectural scholarship, religious history, social history, and asense of atmosphere in a way that no one else could have managed.This is Betjeman at his best: it brings together so many of hisdiverse interests and so many aspects of his complicatedpersonality: the passion for architecture, the poetic sensitivityto mood and spirit of place, the love of Anglicanism, themelancholy, the humor, the delicate perception of beauty, and thewry perception of ugliness. It is surely one of the finest essaysof the twentieth century.
And what of the verse? Wilson has a good page on "Death of KingGeorge V," much anthologized and often thought to be his best poem.Taking as its epigraph a few words from a daily newspaper, "NewKing arrives in his capital by air," it is only twelve lines long:
Spirits of well-shot woodcock,
Flutter and bear him up the
In that red house in a red mahogany
The stamp collection waits with
mounts long dry.
The big blue eyes are shut which saw
And favourite fields and coverts
from a horse;
Old men in country houses hear
Over thick carpets with a
Old men who never cheated,
sit and stare
At the new suburb stretched beyond
Where a young man lands hatless
from the air.
In only twelve apparently simple and easy lines, it brings out thedistinction between the decency and the stuffiness of the late kingand his successor arriving "hatless from the air" in London, and itweaves into this a contrast between the Norfolk countryside whereKing George had loved to shoot birds and the suburbs stretchedbeyond the runway of the airport where Edward VIII has landed. Thepoem has a density that Betjeman did not often achieve. Too oftenhe has an idea but cannot take it anywhere. "Come, friendly bombs,and fall on Slough," one of his best-known poems begins--Sloughbeing an area of urban sprawl west of London--but having thought ofan opening, he has no notion how to continue; a few stanzas ofrather silly and ill-focused abuse follow, then he more or lessrepeats the first stanza and the poem ends. It was a bright notionto parody the hymn "The Church's one foundation" in a piece aboutVictorian uglification:
The Church's Restoration
Has left for contemplation
Not what there used to be.
But the verses then merely chug onward for another thirty lines.Philip Larkin (who thought well of Betjeman, as it happens) did notoften turn to ecclesiastical themes, but his "Church Going," movingas it does from half- humorous gaucherie (the poet taking off hiscycle-clips "in awkward reverence") to an almost incantatorygrandeur, brings out precisely what Betjeman lacks:
A serious house on serious earth it is,
In whose blent air all our compulsions
Are recognised, and robed as destinies.
This interprets, where Betjeman only describes.
Betjeman is perhaps at his best when he mingles comedy with a touchof the pathetic and sinister, as in "The Arrest of Oscar Wilde atthe Cadogan Hotel," or when he directly confronts his fear ofdeath, as in "The Cottage Hospital." He can mingle humor andhorror:
"Mr Woilde, we 'ave come for tew
Where felons and criminals dwell:
We must ask yew tew leave with us
For this is the Cadogan Hotel."
He rose, and he put down
The Yellow Book,
He staggered--and, terrible-eyed,
He brushed past the palms on the
And was helped to a hansom outside.
Even as Oscar goes to his doom, Betjeman cannot help noticing thepotted palms. And the fact remains that after his critics have donetheir worst, there is something in his poetry that abides, even ifit is not easy to define quite what it is. He was entirely his ownman, and through a complete indifference to fashion he becamefashionable. He has a style of seeing and feeling that is unique tohimself. And there are many good writers of whom one cannot say asmuch.
His only long poem is Summoned by Bells, a twentieth-centuryequivalent to Wordsworth's Prelude. At the time of publication,after all the excitement with which it had been awaited, there wasa widespread sense of disappointment, but nearly fifty years on itstands up pretty well. It is an example of a genre familiar enoughin prose, the account of Bildung, of the fears, doubts, andpleasures of childhood and the growth of an author's mind inadolescence and early manhood, but it is a good example. It iswritten in blank verse, and the verse is an essential part of itscharacter. It may well endure.
After this the poetic gift deserted him, as it has other lyric poetsin middle life, and his later verses read like weak pastiches ofthe earlier Betjeman written by another person altogether. But anew career opened for him as a television performer, where hischarm and his power of evoking place found happy expression. Thelast years of Sir John Betjeman, poet laureate, were laden withhonors but sad, as he was increasingly disabled by Parkinson'sdisease. He died peacefully on a fine spring morning in 1984 in hishouse in Cornwall, the place that he had loved best of all sincechildhood. Lady Elizabeth tended him, and Archibald lay in bedbeside him.
By Richard Jenkyns