Wednesday, July 29, 2009

"A dilettante and a practical joker, but . . . a wise man all the same," or, Some pleasures from Lord Berners

On a whim recently, I ordered a Faber Finds reprint of Mark Amory's biography of composer, writer, and painter Lord Berners, Lord Berners: The Last Eccentric (1998). Before reading Amory's book, I only knew Lord Berners as the model for the wildly strange Lord Merlin in Nancy Mitford's The Pursuit of Love and for his wonderfully comic yet slightly creepy The Camel, which Michael Dirda calls
the novella equivalent to an Edward Gorey album, at once witty, slightly off-kilter, a bit camp, and perfectly pitched.
Amory's book--which is full of delicious anecdotes that I'll try to share in the coming weeks--sent me to Berners's slim volumes of memoir, which, though not, it seems displaying complete fidelity to the truth, are charming and funny litle books.

Two brief scenes, one gorgeous, one comic, stood out in the early pages of the first volume, First Childhood (1934); both seemed worth passing on. First, a moment of chance beauty Berners experienced in his bedroom one afternoon as a boy:
[O]ne afternoon my day-dreams were interrupted by an extraordinary phenomenon that took place on the ceiling. Everythign that was happening outside the house within a certai nradius appeared upon it, mirrored in vivid shadow-play. As I lay on my bed I could see, reproduced on the ceiling, the moving figures of servants, gardeners, or grooms. A dog trotted across and a cat appearead and sat licking itself. I saw the carriage coming up to the door and my mother going out for a drive. It was a complete cinematographic representation in silhouette. The curtains had been drawn in a certain way which allowed a small shaft of light to penetrate, and the ceiling of the room had been converted into a cinema screen.
Anyone who's ever seen a camera obscura in action can imagine how thrilling such a magical occurrence in one's childhood bedroom would be. Sadly, Berners was never able to recreate the effect.

Then there's an account of Berners's grandmother, Lady Bourchier, whom Berners describes as having been born with "the seeds of a baleful asceticism in her heart," a figure of forbiddingly intolerant religion:
The only subjects Lady Bourchier allowed to be discussed in her presence were the less sensational items of general news and those preferably of a theological nature. It must be confessed she sometimes appeared to take an interest in local scandals. She seemed to derive a certain pleasure from hearing instances of other people's godlessness. It gave her satisfaction, no doubt, to hear of yet another of God's creatures obviously destined for Hell.
That's not to say that Lady Bourchier wasn't of a giving nature:
Lady Bourchier spent a good deal of her time in paying minatory visits to the sick and the poor. She would set out on these charitable raids in a small pony-chaise which she used to drive herself, armed with soup and propaganda. The rest of the day she passed in meditation in her grim little study overlooking the moat. There was always an immense pile of cheap, ill-bound Bibles on the table and these she would give away whenever she got a chance. "Let me see, child, have I given you a Bible?" "Yes, Grandmother," one would hastily reply. But you never managed to get out of the room without having one of them thrust into your hand. Disposing of a Bible was no easy matter. It would, of course, be sacreligious to burn it. If deliberately left behind or lost it would invariably be returned because she always took the precaution of writing one's name and address on the title-page. I remember once when I dropped one of them into the moat being horrified to find that it refused to sink and continued to bob up and down on the surface like a life-buoy. Even this contingency, I felt, must have been foreseen by my grandmother and in consequence she had had it lined with cork.
The bobbing Bible is like a foundational nightmare of childhood paranoia, our relatives finding us out in our every little misdeed; it's no wonder Berners never took to religion.

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