A pop poet with an eye for status

John Betjeman
April 11, 2003

Six years ago Bevis Hillier wrote a mildly favourable review of my biography of Horace Walpole, a mere 240 pages, adding that what Walpole really needed was a major study, a several-volume door-stopper, the implication being that he might write it himself. Now, reading this second of a three-part biography of John Betjeman, more than 700 pages long, I understand what he meant.

This is a "warts-and-all" study, the definitive work all future writers on the poet will have to quarry for facts and, above all, for relationships. Private Eye noted its complexities, and rather than publish a review, printed a very funny parody, which was unfair. Hillier is probably the last person to have known Betjeman well enough, and has had the time and the critical detachment sharp enough to have written it.

As a work of scholarship it is industrious beyond belief. There are as many footnotes as in a PhD thesis and four closely printed pages of acknowledgements that include everybody except, and the gap is a real fault, Lady Elizabeth Cavendish. His publisher, John R. Murray, deserves an honour for his patience and encouragement in backing the series over so many years.

There are still another 700 pages to come, written already, or so the exhaustive footnotes claim, to cover the years of the great conservation battles, the feud with Pevsner and the poet laureateship. What Hillier has recorded in this volume is enough to explain the poetry. Keats had negative capability; Betjeman had positive capability. That was what made him a popular poet, scorned by the critics and an embarrassment to fellow poets.

He was wholly at ease with his times, carried along by an affectionate curiosity about people and places, celebrating both in memorably rhymed and rhythmic ballads.

Hillier focuses correctly on Betjeman's emotional, rather than physical, bisexuality. Drawn without a shred of guilt towards cheerful, strong-willed young girls, his male friendships were, as his wife, Penelope, observed, usually with homosexuals. He wrote: "I'm never worried - not so much as I should be - about sexual irregularity. I find I hate power maniacs more than sex maniacs or anyone else, and will forgive the wildest sensual excesses for a spark of kindness, generosity and humour in the profligate."

At one time, in the 1930s, Betjeman had been on close terms with the spy Guy Burgess, and it was at the dinner party where Anthony Blunt realised that Burgess and Maclean had fled to Moscow that Betjeman fell in love with Lady Elizabeth Cavendish. Blunt later dropped Betjeman, not the other way round, because he thought Betjeman prostituted his scholarship.

That view was at the heart of Betjeman's relationship with the literary and intellectual establishment. When his publisher, Murray, brought in authorities such as John Sparrow or Lord Birkenhead to advise on the selection of poems for collected works, they always tried to raise the tone by excluding the best, that is the most directly communicative, work.

Betjeman sailed confidently through an age of poets obsessed with obscurity, symbolism and angst, delivering warm perceptions about people and places with cheerful populist clarity. Even Hillier pushes the wrong poems. In an effort at conventional analysis, he spends half a chapter on the genesis of one of Betjeman's least important poems, Sunday Morning, King's Cambridge , least important because it is about a place, not people in a place.

Cleverly compressing his research into a series of short chapters, Hillier designs each to reveal an aspect of Betjeman. In "Ireland", he emerges as a shrewd manipulator and ruthless charmer, unquestionably a spy in a dangerous wartime environment. He coaxed Laurence Olivier to attend mass at Maynooth with the lure of Palestrina, thereby winning over a suspicious but hyper-religious ruling elite. Small wonder that the IRA plotted to gun him down.

The "British Council" chapter delivers Betjeman as the irrepressible clown and incompetent administrator, lying on his back in a corridor of Blenheim Palace pretending to be drunk and getting away with it simply by being lovable. "Wantage" explains what poor Penelope had to put up with, but as for that anecdote about her teaching Irish children their catechism and inviting them to dinner afterwards, I was one of her catechumen, I have no drop of Irish blood and I was never asked in for even a sandwich. "A Lincolnshire Tale" gives us Betjeman the warm-hearted, delicately perceptive church crawler, the loyal friend of lonely provincial bachelors and lover of dim, remote market towns.

More disturbing, and a pointer to the tone of Hillier's next volume, is the last chapter, "A really thrilling moment of triumph". This reveals the reception in 1958 of his Collected Poems , over which Murray had been agonising in his usual kindly way ever since 1955. Always an ambitious snob, yet with an unaffected fondness for the lower classes, Betjeman had, by this time, worked his way into the upper echelons of the class system through his affair with the formidable, secretive Lady Elizabeth Cavendish, daughter of a duke of Devonshire and lady-in-waiting to Princess Margaret.

Hillier cruelly exposes the vacuous world into which Betjeman had risen with the detail of his award of the Duff Cooper Prize by a trio of fogey judges: Maurice Bowra, Lord David Cecil and Harold Nicolson. They had previously considered making the award, a meagre £150, to General de Gaulle, of all people. Princess Margaret, looking like "a jewelled, silky bower-bird", made the presentation; Betjeman was too moved and tearful to reply, and Duff Cooper's widow, Lady Diana, insisted that Prince Jean de Caraman-Chimay should be given the credit for his generosity with the champagne.

So the future was looking ominous for a real poet. Readers of this fine and revealing biography will be impatient to find out in volume three whether Betjeman survives or sinks in that wittering crowd.

Timothy Mowl is lecturer in the history of art, University of Bristol.

John Betjeman: New Fame, New Love, 1934-1958

Author - Bevis Hillier
ISBN - 0 7195 5002 5
Publisher - John Murray
Price - £25.00
Pages - 736

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