Monday, June 25, 2018
Not everything worth reading is hot off the press. In this section, we recommend "something old" that is still well worth reading. "Something Old" can mean anything from a venerable and antique classic to a good book first published four or more years ago.
“MY LIVES” by Francis Meynell (first published in 1971)
It is rare to read a book whose author clearly, egregiously and unwittingly reveals himself to be a completely insensitive ass. I am about to introduce you to a book which you will never read, written by someone of no particular interest to you. Years ago, in the days when I used to trawl second-hand bookshops, I would sometimes look out for books that might be of interest to my old friend and neighbour (now long dead) the craft printer Ronald Holloway. The name Meynell on the cover of one such book drew my attention, as I associated the name with printing. So after I had scanned the blurb, I bought the book with the intention of handing it on to Ron – which I eventually did.
But first I read it myself.
In some places I had to restrain my incredulous laughter. In others I gasped at the self-satisfied pomposity of the author.
Let me orient you to the book.
My Lives is an autobiography written by an octogenarian. Francis Meynell was born in 1891, the youngest child of the Catholic poets and publishers Wilfred and Alice Meynell. Viola Meynell, the short-story writer and poet, was among his older siblings. Francis Meynell himself rapidly became an agnostic. He was three times married and twice divorced. His second wife, Vera, killed herself a few years after their separation. He stayed with his third wife, “Bay” (Alix Kilroy), for the last 40 or so years of his life. His big achievement (I might almost say his only achievement) was founding the Nonesuch Press in the early 1920s – a press devoted to producing upmarket editions of out-of-the-way English classics. (A sound – if somewhat battered – Nonesuch edition of John Donne sits on my shelves.) Francis Meynell also had some fame, in specialist circles, as a typographer and designer.
In the 1930s he left the floundering Nonesuch Press and proceeded to have what I would regard as a very standard and unsurprising career for one of his privileged background and family connections. He was a film publicist in the 1930s. He worked for government departments concerned with rationing and consumer advice during the war. He was involved in a concrete and cement company in the 1940s and 1950s and he again dabbled in publishing when somebody revived the Nonesuch Press. He tells us of all his changes of address, all the boards he served on, all the design advice he tendered to His or Her Majesty’s Stationery Office, the clubs he belonged to and his third wife’s distinguished career in the civil service. He was knighted. She was damed.
In and of itself, this life story is bland and uninteresting. Meynell claims he chose the title My Lives because he had held so many and such varied positions and hence lived many different “lives”. But there is no sense of the inner, and extremely self-satisfied, core of the man having ever changed; or of experience ever teaching him to modify his views.
At a certain point, I began to read My Lives as an exercise in diagnosing the pathologies of autobiography.
First, there are the standard woes of so many autobiographies.
As so often in autobiography, the story beconmes duller and duller as childhood and youth are put behind. Why is this? Possibly because, as public life takes over, the autobiographer feels constrained to “do justice” to all people known, to colleagues, personalities and work. As a result, the person disappears. In this case the story becomes a graceless succession of anecdotes told in the office or at dinner parties. Distinguished names are dropped but I suggest that so often the autobiographer would have been the least interesting person in any gathering of “names”. This is autobiography-as-memorandum. Nearly everybody mentioned is mentioned favourably (except for the dead) so that, presumably, they will think the autobiographer is an awfully decent fellow. Worse, as he gets old the autobiographer “reluctantly” quotes wonderful testimonials to his work by other people – tributes which he is, of course, shy to give us but which he gives anyway. Yes, Meynell is right in his concluding pages when he says that all autobiography is a form of boasting. But his form of boasting is transparent, kittenish and embarrassing. Let a boast be an honest boast! Pretending to be a gentleman of modesty simply makes it worse.
Second, there is the very unlovely character of Francis Meynell himself, which he unwittingly lets us see so often.
Sure, there is the occasional gentlemanly witticism, as in: “In my long life I have never been the worse for liquor – and sometimes the better.” (p.60)
Yes, there are some familiar and famous anecdotes – which have been recorded by other writers – as in : “I often went with my sisters to more intimate dances, such as H.G.Wells gave in Church Row, Hampstead. There we had the fun of seeing Henry James surveying the scene from the sidelines – stout, formal and with his sentences prepared for the intervals but often cut short in mid-utterance by the resumption of the music. Once he stooped to restore a fan dropped by my sister Olivia. ‘An elephant striving to pick up a pea’, said H.G.” (p.69) [I wonder about the veracity of the punchline here, given that other writers have recorded H.G.Wells as saying that Henry James’ prose-style was like “a hippopotamus rolling a pea.”]
Yes, there is one very good childhood anecdote exposing class prejudices: “[My mother] was awakened by screams, a woman’s screams, which dwindled away down the street. She hastened to report this incident at the police station. And the reply? ‘No need to worry, lady; that wasn’t a woman, that was only a female’ (i.e. a prostitute).” (p.78)
There is plenty of evidence that Meynell was a callous and self-absorbed man.
Consider the moral worth of a man who, on the same page that he tells us his second wife committed suicide, tells us that he approved of her action because he is, after all, a member of the Euthanasia Society.
“It was and is my view that one has an absolute right to end one’s life when one wants to. (That is why I am a life member – or should it be a death member? – of the Euthanasia Society).” (p.286)
Of course, he claims, he remained awfully decent pals with his ex-wives, and of course he accepts no responsibility for the break-ups. There is one laughable passage in which he claims (p.206) that moving from one house to another had a bad effect on both his first and second marriages and tells us that “In the fashion of our time and neighbourhood and friends, we enjoyed plentifully what is now called the ‘permissive’ attitude towards extra-marital affairs.” But he fails to admit any connection between infidelity and the fragility of his marriages. As always in the autobiographies of the much-married, many intimate details are suppressed; but you can’t help noticing how he has to tell us that, between marriages, he was much loved. Why, one woman even wrote a poem to him…
Then there is his complete unawareness of his own snobbery and smugness. Continually, he asks us to admire his radicalism. From the comfort of England, he enthusiastically supported the Bolshevik Revolution in 1917 – and of course he claims that the USSR would have developed splendidly if only the Western powers hadn’t intervened. He opposed Franco in the Spanish Civil War – why, he and his wife even made up rude Christmas cards about Franco to send to their friends!! And wasn’t that McCarthyite period in America dreadful. Gosh! If he hadn’t got somebody at the embassy to pull strings for him, his visa might have been revoked!!! Of course he was a socialist, but when he was offered a knighthood for his bureaucratic services during the war, he couldn’t very well turn it down, could he? I mean, even nasty Winston Churchill the Home Secretary became wonderful Winston Churchill the nation’s saviour during the Second World War. And in the midst of this we have casual reference to servants and weekend homes and proof of how “democratic” Francis Meynell was. When he had to move out of London, he actually resigned from the more snobbish of the two London clubs to which he belonged!!!
“Am I a snob? Honestly, no – not since my childhood, despite an obvious enjoyment in name-dropping. And I have one piece of evidence to offer. When I retired to the country and the distance as well as the lessened income made my membership of two London clubs nonsensical, it was from the august and regnant Athenaeum, and not from the familiar Savile, that I chose to resign.” (p.248)
In all this, I smell the Clubland Rebel – safe and comfy and never sacrificing a thing while pretending to be a radical. Even more, I smell the Privileged Rebel. Meynell is at one with the loonier of the Mitfords and the loonier of the Redgraves – privileged twits whose main reason for adopting a radical pose is that they don’t like those smelly middle classes below them. So up the workers (whom they can romanticise but whom they never have to actually meet.)
I find one sentence in My Lives the epitome of this snobbish and callous man’s shallowness. He tells us that in the 1950s he helped to bring out a limited edition of the old Anglican Authorised Version of the Bible (the superseded 17th century translation that Americans took to calling the King James Bible). He remarks: “This was just before the invasion of the new chitter-chatter translations: we used of course the lovely Authorised Version, the literary value of which is for me so much more important than its theology.” (p.312)
Ah yes! Sweet euphonious literature – but let’s forget what it is saying or teaching. It might shake our complacency, after all.