Saturday, March 01, 2008

Cyril and the Mrs. Connollys

In The Departure Platform (1998), the third volume of her memoirs, Lady Violet Powell relates the following story of the first visit of Cyril Connolly and his second wife, Barbara Connolly (nee Skelton) to her and Anthony's country house, in the early 1950s:
On Sunday morning Cyril set up a record of six sausages at breakfast, one still standing and only equalled nearly twenty years later by the Australian writer Clive James. Later in the day we drove Cyril and Barbara to see Wells Cathedral. Possibly with the idea of conveying peace to her soul, Cyril dictated that Barbara should sit in the Lady Chapel and raise her eyes in contemplation of the roof. Edward Hutton (Highways and Byways in Somerset) describes the Lady Chapel at Wells as "the most beautiful East End to be found in England, a thing beyond criticism or praise, an immortal and perfect loveliness." These might well have been Cyril's sentiments. Barbara's remained a matter for speculation.
If you detect a wry doubt in that last line, you're not incorrect: it wasn't long before Barbara, whom Lady Violet describes as a "seductively pretty girl," was known to be generally, well, available--among her conquests over the years were, reportedly, Charles Addams and King Farouk.

Not long after the Connollys' weekend visit, the Powells attended a party for election night of 1955 hosted by the Daily Telegraph (a party that one assumes was fairly joyous on the whole, given the strong showing by the Telegraph-supported Tories in that election), where Lady Violet ran into Mrs. Connolly again:
As the night wore on, emotions ran hot and cold. At one moment I found myself soothing a disgruntled politician, who was foreseeing the defeat of his party. Later, I listened sympathetically while Graham Greene, an old friend, complained that a young actress to whom he had taken a fancy was showing an unreasonable preference for a TV commentator more nearly her contemporary. These were simply occasions for kind words, but I was somewhat foxed when Barbara Connolly fought her way through the crowd in order to say, "I hear we behaved so well when we stayed with you that we may even be asked again." My difficulty was that Barbara was closely followed by a new partner, George Wiedenfeld, so that the term "we" had become ambiguous.
What delicate, amused irony in that last line!

Perhaps it is to such brazenness that Connolly was looking forward--while, presumably, drawing on the pain of the failure of his first marriage--when he wrote the screed against wives from The Unquiet Grave (1940) that opens,
There is no fury like an ex-wife searching for a new lover. When we see a woman chewing the cud meekly beside her second husband, it is hard to imagine how brutally, implacably, and pettily she got rid of the others. There are two great moments in a woman's life: when first she finds herself to be deeply in love with her man and when she leaves him.
By 1959, however, Connolly had overcome his trepidation once more in order to marry Deirdre Craven, to whom he would remain married until his death in 1974. Deirdre also makes a brief appearance in Lady Violet's memoir, at a dinner party soon after the marriage. I enjoy this scene, like the two above, both for the picture of Connolly and for the glimpse of Lady Violet's eye for character and incident, a taste that clearly ran along similar lines to that of Anthony:
Discussing the pattern of the girls he fancied, Cyril had slotted them into the categories of the dark consoler, the redhead and the extreme blonde. This certainly matched the pattern of his wives as far as appearances went, Jeannie, Barbara and Deirdre in that order.
One can easily imagine that act of categorization, barely altered, turning up in the musings of Nick Jenkins A Dance to the Music of Time.

I'll most likely have some more on Connolly--including his obituaries for lemurs!--over the next couple of days.


  1. Obituaries for lemurs?!?

  2. Whoa, pal. You seem to be implying, in the final sentence of your first paragraph, that a "generally available," "seductively pretty girl", by her very nature as such, can't appreciate a beautiful East End roof. How do you defend such a conclusion? Lady Powell (based on the brief clips you provide) seems only to describe these characteristics of the Mrs. Connnoly independently of each other. Their escalation to close correlation or causality appears to be your own. Defend yourself!

    Also, um, explain what "the most beautiful East End to be found in England" means? Seriously. Not being an anglophile, I have no way to comprehend. Is it like the house across my alley with the tar paper siding and all the squirrels?

  3. Jenny: yes, lemurs! To come soon!

    Bob: I think what Lady Violet is hinting at is that, while Barbara may have been fully capable of appreciating such a thing, she didn't seem the sort to be likely to pay attention when her husband told her to do so, especially given her later reputation for being interested in the earthier side of life.

    You're right that it's just me speculating--but I'm more speculating about what Violet Powell is thinking than about what Barbara Connolly is really like. I feel I know both Powells well enough through their writings to be able to make at least a reasonable guess at what's behind Violet's wry asides.

    As for the East End: it's one of the distinguishing features of English gothic churches, an area that is usually squared off.

  4. I never thought of "lemurs" and "Lemuria" as sharing a root....!