It isn’t every host who would rejoice over a guest who signed herself into his visitors’ book as a procureuse de luxe. But Lord Berners of Faringdon House was not any old host and his guest — the bewitching Lady Castlerosse, famed for the “Cleopatra grip” with which she could bring even a resolutely homosexual Cecil Beaton to ecstatic climax — was not any old visitor.
Sofka Zinovieff was 25 and working on her doctoral thesis in Greece when Robert Heber-Percy (the former lover of Lord Berners and the “mad boy” of Zinovieff’s title) informed his granddaughter that he planned to alter his will. Six months later, in October 1987, Heber-Percy died and an apprehensive Sofka inherited Faringdon, the gray-walled Oxfordshire mansion that had formerly offered a carefully eccentric welcome to luminaries like Nancy Mitford, the Salvador Dalís, the Princesse de Polignac and the aforesaid (ecstatic) Mr. Beaton. Becoming the owner of Faringdon, Sofka confided to a friend, was like acquiring a very rich and eligible husband who had been picked out by someone else. Capricious though his bequest appeared, her grandfather was adhering to a pattern, one that seemed almost to have been dictated by the house and its famous owner, those twin presences that stand squarely at the center of Zinovieff’s story.
Berners was in his mid-30s and enjoying a cultured Continental existence when he inherited not only a title but the considerable fortune that enabled him to bestow Faringdon upon his mother and her second husband. Following their deaths in 1931, Berners moved himself in and, to the astonishment of his friends, also installed a young, muscular and alarmingly predatory companion. His name was Robert Heber-Percy and — despite some unnerving sideways skips — the “mad boy” was still at Faringdon in 1950 when Berners, after murmuring apologies for having wasted the time of his physician, quietly expired.
Nobody — not even Berners himself, in marvelous autobiographies like “First Childhood” and “A Distant Prospect” — has succeeded in capturing the unique combination of loyalty and coldness, cleverness and foolery that made Faringdon’s most lavish owner the model for his friend Nancy Mitford’s portrait of Lord Merlin of Merlinford in her 1945 novel, “The Pursuit of Love.” Who but Lord Berners (or Lord Merlin) could have decided that the Day of Judgment is when mankind gets to tell God precisely what they think of him? Who else would have chosen to travel around Europe with a portable clavichord strapped beneath the leather seat of his chauffeured Rolls-Royce? What other homosexual homeowner — at a time when same-sex male love in England was still a criminal offense — would have erected a large and unmistakably phallic garden folly in celebration of Robert Heber-Percy, that elusive, idle and delectably handsome fellow who seems to have slept with, well, just about everyone?
Zinovieff’s evident affection for a man she never knew gleams through her delightful portrait of one of England’s great eccentrics. The quality she dwells upon is his loyalty. Gerald Berners may have been ready to poke fun at his guests in a wicked lesbian romp, “The Girls of Radcliff Hall” (a furious Cecil Beaton was the satire’s chief target). Yet never would he fail a friend in need. The preposterous Marchesa Luisa Casati — she of the living python neck-wrap and the pageboys dipped in gold paint — was just as welcome at Faringdon in her late and penniless days as she had been when she first splendidly inscribed herself in the visitors’ book as Tempteuse de Serpents.
Lord Berners is the devil’s gift to a writer, a melancholy charmer of a man who seems more fitted to fiction than to life. Heber-Percy, as his own granddaughter admits, is a harder nut to crack — and a lot less easy to like. Certainly, although Zinovieff merely hints at it, masochism must have played a strong part in the complicated relationship between Heber-Percy and his startlingly different patron. How else could Berners have endured Heber-Percy’s casual importations: first of a beautiful, sexy and troubled young wife (Zinovieff’s grandmother, Jennifer Fry, who lasted about two years in a strange ménage à trois) and then of a boyfriend of his own, Hugh Cruddas (brutally dispatched from Faringdon when he ceased to fit into Heber-Percy’s post-Gerald life)?
It’s possible that Zinovieff’s disquieting grandfather served to act out some of the behavior in which Berners might never have brought himself to indulge. It’s a thought, although the reader might stop short of imagining the gentle Gerald Berners whipping prostitutes. (Doris Castlerosse provided a floggable damsel as a birthday gift to Heber-Percy; when even he shrank from the task, Doris herself stepped forward to grasp the whip.)
Rich in glamorous scandal, Zinovieff’s book doesn’t shy away from the devastation caused by a group of people with too much money and too little heart. There’s nothing to smile at in the story of Heber-Percy’s unexpected late marriage to Lady Dorothy Lygon, an elderly friend whose sexier sister had frolicked with him in bygone years. Swiftly abandoned after her honeymoon by Heber-Percy’s furiously possessive cook (a demonic Austrian named Rosa Proll), Lady Dorothy began a short and wretched domestic life by washing the dishes from her own wedding luncheon, which had been moldering in the kitchen for two weeks. Conditions did not improve. As soon as Lady Dorothy left, the horrid cook returned in triumph.
At Faringdon, traps were laid. Horrors unfolded. Expectations, fiendishly raised, were as brutally dashed. And confined at the heart of it all, “at attention forever, with the water up to his chin” — an image offered by the novelist Alan Hollinghurst, a Faringdon devotee — stood the bust of a whiskered Victorian officer, the captain of his own doomed ship, sedately drowning for all eternity at the center of a lily pond.
Witty, empathetic and stylish, “The Mad Boy, Lord Berners, My Grandmother and Me” is a naughty treat.