Betjeman

Betjeman
A N Wilson
Hutchinson, 2006, £20, Hardback, 384p. ISBN 0091797020

After Bevis Hillier’s volumes, letters, TV programmes and a celebration to overwhelm Radios Three and Four one might assume there was little new about Sir John.

Wilson eventually comes to his poetry from unexpected angles while exposing his emotional life with painful clarity. Fellow-feeling lurked and found resonance in the ease with which he made money out of journalism. His Oxford career came from self-projection. The bandwagon gathered pace in the 1930s. Sent down from Oxford, kept afloat by school-mastering and getting a job at the Archi[tectural] Rev[iew], he was kept by young fops, led by Brian Guinness and his wife Diana, who found sponsors.

His father was a cabinet-maker. Despite his son’s social disadvantages and preferences for macs and unbrushed teeth he was a good operator. Middle-class he showed promise as a jester to the upper-class. Wilson debunks legends. His father was not domineering but read to his son from Goldsmith’s Deserted Village. For C.S. Lewis to keep him at University was charitable.

Lord Chetwoode, whose daughter he married in 1933, was sympathetic but exasperated by imitations of their family. Penelope had troubles with him and his women. A victim of snobbery he sometimes practised it. Some better-known poems showed how he worked – mockery being yearning beyond judgement. A trend towards Anglo-Catholicism offered him a plan. With a temperament for commitment to wife and mistress no one could be free. Eventually Penelope became a Roman Catholic.

A bit short on detail and slightly error prone: Marlborough’s friend was John Bowle, Anthony Powell got an Oxford third, Aldershot is in Hampshire and Ashby-de-la-Zouch in Leicestershire. These were vast constituencies reached and areas covered. Much acclaim was non-literary in origin, but many literary figures were esteemed for their personalities.

This review owes much to an earlier review by D.J. Taylor, published in The Independent.

Contributed by: John S Andrews, MA, PhD, MCLIP, Life Vice-President of the CLIS and Sub-Librarian of the University of Lancaster until his retirement.

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