Henry James once remarked that of all the great things that the English have invented, “the most perfect, the most characteristic, the one they have mastered most completely in all its details . . . is the well-appointed, well-administered, well-filled country house.” James’s sense of irony would have been inordinately tickled by Sofka Zinovieff’s entertaining memoir of the British aesthete and composer Lord Berners, and his ménage à trois at Faringdon House, the Oxfordshire property that he inherited in 1918 and that passed to her nearly 70 years later.
Berners was considered a significant British composer, admired byIgor Stravinsky and many others. But in the 1930s he was famous for his eccentricity, and Faringdon was the canvas on which, Ms. Zinovieff writes, he painted “his own fantasy details.” The grounds of the prim 18th-century building were home to a flock of fantailed pigeons, which he dyed turquoise, emerald, ruby and sapphire. Visitors to the house—the glittering guest list included Cecil Beaton,Nancy Mitford (who immortalized him in fiction as Lord Merlin), John Betjeman,Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas,Salvador Dalí and even Wallis Simpson—were amused by the mix of the freakish and the kitsch: mirrors draped with imitation pearl necklaces, busts sporting animal masks and marble tables bearing mechanical toys. The typical English country house of the period was uncomfortably cold, but Faringdon was kept at an exotic temperature, earning the nickname “Faringdonheit.” Paper flowers adorned the garden, and nearby stood a hundred-foot tower, known as the Folly, with a notice warning that “members of the public committing suicide from this tower do so at their own risk.”
Oddest of all, however, were the house’s inhabitants. In 1931 Berners, who was openly gay at a time when homosexuality was illegal in Britain, installed his much younger bisexual lover, Robert Heber-Percy, at Faringdon. Where the 48-year-old Berners was portly, bookish and sexually anxious, Heber-Percy, at 20, was desirable, directionless (he flunked out of both his public school and his cavalry regiment) and a daring erotic opportunist. Their unlikely partnership astounded everyone. The chaotic and temperamental Heber-Percy, known as the Mad Boy, liked to ride bareback around the estate naked while Berners was busy composing. The Faringdon photo album shows the former frolicking in suggestive states of undress with a string of smitten female guests.
The precise nature of his relationship with Berners remains an enigma. Ms. Zinovieff presents it as a romance between an elder and a younger man along classical Greek lines, as defined by Oscar Wilde—“when the elder man has intellect, and the younger man has all the joy, hope and glamour of life before him.” Berners offered the Mad Boy, who had no real prospects of his own, an arrangement with extraordinarily alluring benefits. Heber-Percy was able to live “the life of a favoured first son on a country estate.”
But the Faringdon ménage grew ever more tangled. In 1942, the Mad Boy met and suddenly married a young socialite named Jennifer Fry, whom he introduced into the household. His motives were a mystery, not least to his new wife, who was already pregnant and was hurt to discover that they were now not to be lovers. She later recalled how, one night on what was supposed to be their honeymoon, she was left to pound, wailing, on his locked bedroom door. What Berners, a few doors down the corridor, made of this is anybody’s guess.
Once the baby, Victoria, was born, Berners proved to be unexpectedly doting, wheeling her along the drive in her pram. Unsurprisingly, the Heber-Percys’ marriage failed two years later, and Jennifer moved out of Faringdon with her child. Berners continued to welcome the little girl warmly to the house on her visits to her father.
The real cipher at the heart of this bizarre story, however, is the Mad Boy himself. As he neither wrote letters nor kept a diary, we have no record of his thoughts or feelings. On Berners’s death in 1950, he was the sole heir. He lived on at Faringdon, continuing the tradition of keeping candy-colored doves on the premises as well as male lovers. His relationship with Victoria was no more successful than his relationship with her mother, but in old age he unexpectedly became fond of Victoria’s daughter, Sofka, the author of this book. In 1987, he announced that he was leaving the house to her.
In yet another twist to their complex family saga, Victoria at some point questioned whether Heber-Percy was really her father, sending her daughter—by then the owner of Faringdon—on an urgent search for the truth. Various titled old ladies weighed in with their opinions. “Robert might have been pleased to be married and give the impression of having a daughter. It helped cover up bugger life,” one lady charmlessly, but not implausibly, suggested. This puzzle remains unsolved.
Ms. Zinovieff handles her flamboyant material with considerable tact and finesse, giving due weight to the outlandishness of it all while still acknowledging a certain darkness at its core. Her characterization of Diana Mosley, wife of the British fascist leaderOswald Mosley and a lifelong friend of Heber-Percy’s, as “a beautiful monster” could apply equally to the Mad Boy himself and to several others who romped through Faringdon between the wars. It may not have been quite the country-house idyll that Henry James had in mind, but it makes for ghoulishly irresistible reading.