Malice in Wonderland: My Adventures in the World of Cecil Beaton
Hodder & Stoughton, pp 352, £25.00
In these times and mores of overweening politeness, hypochondria, self-centredness and lack of faith, it’s refreshing to read that not so long ago the norm was for people to carry on with regard, to go out however one might feel, to keep appointments and promises, to criticise, and say mildly acerbic things about one’s closest friends without any hint of malice. Maybe the fact that many of them had known a heady pre-war life, and most had experienced five years of privation and shortages far more taxing than that of the past months, gave them the courage to maintain their values and light-hearted amusement. This, gradually swept away by the coarseness and no-holds-barred mindset of following generations till the prissiness of the present, became increasingly unethical to pass on. It is our loss.
Such a coterie was the last gasp of a breed, but it has been Hugo Vickers’s mission to keep its essence alive. From his first biography, that of the face-fallen Gladys, Duchess of Marlborough, to the recent masterful redacting of James Pope-Hennessy’s unused notes for his life of Queen Mary, Vickers has breathed life and vigour into these departed souls. He has concentrated principally on the circle surrounding society photographer Cecil Beaton.
Beaton died mere days after Vickers was commissioned to write his biography, published to great acclaim some years ago when the essential figures of that circle were still alive. But Malice in Wonderland is the marginalia of the notes he kept while writing it. Arranged in diary format, it vies with le maître Chips as a revealing window onto the past, and a ripping read it is.
The title leans more heavily towards the wonderland Vickers encountered, and although there are instances of malice – Tony Lambton springs to mind (one almost felt cheated if he hadn’t been malicious about one) or Ali Forbes, whose kernels of malice were wrapped up in enigmatic rigmarole, and Harold Acton, who was malicious almost by mistake – it is clear that Beaton himself assuredly was not, though certainly capable of devastating criticism and holding lifelong hatreds, with no fear in expressing them. But he never repeated upsetting remarks or observations about them to his friends (or like Evelyn Waugh, prone to giving people, especially strangers, wrong information to discomfit them), nor did he wish people, whole nations even, dead, as Channon frequently did, or indulge in Judas-like betrayal, which seem to me the core of maliciousness. Beaton had a basic politeness, a self-doubt, many soft edges, and much bravery. Think of all those wartime, nocturnal photographic flights in troop-carriers held together with string, or leaping on an almost unbroken horse as he did at my ranch in Arizona, and his courage in the event of his debilitating stroke.
It was a given that Vickers would become the close friend, and often succour, to the characters in that distant wonderland, and he remains a support to the very few still extant. By so doing he has gathered unique knowledge and feeling for former social manners and morals; the ability to summon the “something in the air” of a recent but virtually forgotten past. It is described succinctly and unsentimentally in this book. And while there are no cliff-hangers on the level of Channon and the abdication, there are touching passages of the frailty of its dramatis personae as the years pass. “Will Diana Cooper die tonight?” occurs frequently after evenings spent at her bedside. But no, she’s up and about the next day, lunching with Paul-Louis Weiller, displaying the get-up-and-go spirit that typified people before mental health or faddishness and, yes, the “malice”,precluding clouds of“woke”, came along, as Cole Porter put it, to disperse the joys we had tasted.
Nicky Haslam’s latest book is The Impatient Pen: Printed Matter (Zuleika Press)
This article appears in the May issue of the Catholic Herald. Subscribe now.