I’ve posted before about Beverley Nichols (1898- 1983), a prolific writer of novels, journalism, political tracts, plays, children’s fiction, books about houses, gardens and cats – you name it, he wrote it. My interest was started by finding a copy of his early novel Crazy Pavements (1927), a surprising, dark and funny book. I wanted to read more of Nichols’ work, and find out more about him.
I started with his first autobiography Twenty-Five (1926) and the only biography, ‘Beverley Nichols’ by Bryan Connon (1999). Read together, the effect has been that I have come to regard Nichols with some affection, simultaneously mixed with doubts over the veracity of anything he says. The cumulative impression of reading the biography by Connon is that Nichols would never let the truth get in the way of a good story, and, further than this, his strongly held opinions mean that he sometimes genuinely believed things that could not be true.
The best example of this is his memoir Father Figure (1972). Nichols’ father was an alcoholic, and Nichols always maintained he was a monster who had destroyed his mother’s life. The Atlantic Monthly called Father Figure ‘A horror story, running to attempted murder, calculated revenge, and hate that sizzles on every page’. Nichols claimed to have attempted to kill his father at least THREE times, but just like a monster from a horror movie, his father always got back up again. Unfortunately Connon’s biography shows how many of these sensational incidents simply could not have happened as Nichols describes them.
However, don’t let this put you off. Nichols’s autobiographies and memoirs are jolly good reads – just don’t believe everything you find in them!
Twenty-Five is, as Connon says, ‘characteristically impertinent’. The opening of the foreword has become quite famous: ‘Twenty-Five seems to me the latest age at which anybody should write an autobiography.’ This is typically provocative, but the way the foreword continues does say a lot about Beverley. He asks, why ‘not write about some of the exciting people he has seen, while they still excite him?’
That is the essence of the whole matter, to write of these things before it is too late. This is an age of boredom, and by the time one is thirty, I am terribly afraid that the first flush of enthusiasm may have worn off. It is quite possible that by then I shall no longer be thrilled by the sight of Arnold Bennett twisting his forelock at a first night, and that the vision of Elinor Glyn eating quantities of cold ham at the Bath Club (a sight which, to-day, never fails to amuse) will not move me in the least. (p. 9)
This is not a pose: Nichols was genuinely worried that the thrill would fade. His entirely life was a sometimes destructive mission to always be busy and successful. The pace of his social life was frenetic, but always combined by an almost manic drive to produce the ‘next big thing’. This foreword also shows his intense interest in other people. He was known for being charming, and a lot of that charm was his genuine fascination with others. However, as this foreword also indicates, Nichols was fascinated by fame! He could be the most terrible name-dropper, and Twenty-Five is a book-long exercise in just this.
It isn’t really an autobiography at all. The subtitle is ‘Being a young man’s candid recollections of his elders and betters’, and that is what Nicols gives you: portraits of the people he has met, rather than a portrait of himself. If you are looking for accounts of famous persons of the 1920s – bearing in mind the proviso above – this book is wonderful. Beverley doesn’t half get around. He begins the book by leaving Oxford to go to America as ‘Secretary to the British Universities Mission to the United States’, and has a talk with President Wilson, as you do. He gives pen portraits of John Masefield, Robert Bridges, W. B. Yeats, G. K. Chesterton, Mrs Asquith, Winston Churchill, Horatio Bottomley, the Sitwells, Compton Mackenzie, the King and Queen of Greece, Elinor Glynn, Noel Coward, Somerset Maugham, H. L. Mencken, Hugh Walpole… and so it goes on.
Of particular interest to me was chapter 8: ‘Being an impression of two ladies of genius’. One of these ladies was Elizabeth von Arnim. Oh, how I wish I had found this while I was writing my PhD about von Arnim! Nichols introduces her by referring to her novel Vera, and the way it was described by John Middleton Murray: ‘A Wuthering Heights written by Jane Austen’. von Arnim, Nichols, writes, is just like that:
It is as though she dwelt in an early Victorian drawing-room, listening to some passionate dialogue of life that was being carried on outside the window. The voices rise and fall, the rain splashes against the bright panes, the wind moans and whistles round the stoutly built walls. Then, there is a lull, and in the silence may be heard the scratching of her little quill pen, transcribing the violent things she has heard in a tiny, spidery handwriting, catching the thunder in a polished phrase. And when she has finished writing, there, on the paper, is a story as full of tension, fierce and frightening as any that dwells in the broken, passionate sentences of Emily Bronte.
When one meets her, inevitably she suggests Dresden China, with her tiny voice, tiny hands, tiny face, tiny manners. And then suddenly, with a shock, you realize that the Dresden China is hollow, and is filled with gunpowder. (p. 79)
It is fantastic stuff.
There’s also a surprisingly serious chapter where Nichols covers the Thompson/Bywaters case in 1923. As a journalist in Fleet Street he was ordered to go and try to persuade the Thompson family to give Edith Thompson’s life story to his paper. He doesn’t get that story – the father is too distraught – but he does befriend the family. It is a moving account of an infamous trial, and well worth reading for anyone with an interest in the case.
Right, time to stop! There will be more Nichols to come – I have acquired quite a little collection in my enthusiasm. Here is a delightful piece of silliness to end on: British Pathe News. This is a publicity stunt for the 1958 publication of Nichols’ memoir about the 1920s, The Sweet and Twenties.