by A N Wilson

Mild literary controversy has attended the publication of A.N. Wilson’s biography of genius and former poet laureate, Sir John Betjeman. The biographer of, among others, Tolstoy and Jesus Christ, was fooled into relying on a hoax love letter to Betjeman. The telltale indication of its lack of authenticity was a code embedded in the letter which read “AN Wilson is a shit”.
Simon Jenkins revealed in The Guardian Weekly that it was sent by Betjeman’s official biographer, Bevis Hillier, who was miffed by Wilson’s effort. Wilson said he had not the slightest interest in knowing who it was but that it was very childish.
Hillier’s three volumes, authorised by Betjeman in 1976 and completed in 2004, constitute a hugely commendable and engrossing work. Wilson’s biography, published to coincide with the 100th anniversary of the poet’s birth, is in a different style. He writes with elan, conducting a sensitive search through Betjeman’s personal life for what lay behind his poetry, seeking to explain his insecurities, his doubts and his paradoxes.

Knighted in 1960 and appointed poet laureate in 1972, Betjeman was the most popular English poet since Tennyson. More than 2.5million copies of his Collected Poems have been sold. His verse autobiography Summoned by Bells was hugely successful.

But what brought him even greater popular recognition was his skill as a television broadcaster. On camera, Betjeman displayed star quality. He was a hilarious satirist of suburban mores and a tireless campaigner for the preservation of Victorian architecture, railway stations and churches. For many, including Wilson, the BBC series A Passion for Churches was a formative experience.

In modern times Betjeman has drawn criticism as a defender of a discarded caste and a discarded landscape, an apologist for a lost conservative establishment. To those critics Betjeman’s long days of rhododendrons, tennis girls and pony clubs are an anachronism. But at the height of his poetic powers his insight was marked by clarity, brevity and acuity – accompanied by unmistakable rhythm. His genius was his eye for life. It takes one to know one and Barry Humphries and Clive James were ardent admirers. James once famously said that

“anyone who thinks Betjeman is light minded, is thick witted”.

Wilson’s biography is a wonderful book which dances through Betjeman’s life. Wilson had access to everyone who matters and was greatly assisted by the family archive of letters between the poet and his wife. Betjeman’s mistress of many years was Elizabeth Cavendish, daughter of a duke of Devonshire, and a lady-in-waiting to Princess Margaret. In his final years in London, the princess and Lady Elizabeth would process on Sunday mornings with Betjeman (in wheelchair) along the Kings Road, Chelsea, to the Holy Trinity Church in Sloane Street.

Betjeman’s wife, Penelope Chetwode, was more rustic. She was the daughter of a field marshal who had been commander-in-chief of British forces in India. Ultimately, she probably preferred horses to her husband. All marriages are secrets but it can be said safely that theirs was stormy. Wilson manages to capture vividly the early equine intrusion in the marriage and its state of near-permanent discord.

For the first year of his employment, Penelope’s German cook, who spoke no English, believed that Betjeman’s name was “Shut up”, since Penelope said this to him so often. And throughout the house, strewn over kitchen chairs, hanging from lamps and banisters, were bridles, girths, martingales, nosebands, breastplates and reins.

Despite the complexity of his personal life, the genius of the man was his poetry. The radar-like accuracy of its imagery surpassed anything else he did. Wilson succeeds in uncovering the inner daemon, the troubled soul which made Betjeman’s poetry.

Much of the best poetry is here. Wilson particularly rhapsodises about the 1940s poem Joan Hunter Dunn. The woman in the poem represented not only a picture of athletic young womanhood which Betjeman found so erotically alluring but also a vision of England. For Wilson, it achieves perfection.

There is much else in this book – Betjeman’s profound spirituality, his love of High Church Anglicanism, his attraction to the company of aristocratic bohemia and a roll-call of his titled and creative friends. But running throughout the biography is Wilson’s exposition of the deeply dysfunctional triangular relationship which marked Betjeman’s domestic life.

This study of Betjeman is a more personal biography than one is accustomed to expect. The final chapter, “Love is Everything”, is heart-wrenching and the dedication to Betjeman’s son and daughter poignant. Wilson is clearly affected by the man, his poetry and his churches. But there is another point of view. In 1925 at Oxford, Betjeman’s tutor, C.S. Lewis, took an instant and abiding dislike to him. Lewis may have perceived the character weaknesses which were Betjeman’s undoing.

In Wilson’s deft unravelling of Betjeman’s personal life and relationships, a sad and progressively predictable tale is unveiled. Betjeman was not steadfast, unselfconscious and strong – his own definition of goodness. Instead, he was gifted with blinding charm and intelligence and an unusual capacity for human friendships. But what a mess he made of it.

Book review originally published by the Sydney Morning Herald on 24 November 2006
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