Snapshots from a Writers Festival, Perth 2012
Session: People I have Known
Biographer Selina Hastings discusses with John Harman the challenges of documenting the lives of Nancy Mitford, Evelyn Waugh, Rosamond Lehmann and Somerset Maugham.
John Harman: “Can you please tell us a little about the biography of Rosamond Lehmann.”
When Rosamond asked me to write about her life I was thrilled. I’d known her as a child and when I started talking to her about her life it was obvious that she had a marvelous memory – she also gave me many bags of letters to take home.
Difficult book to write
But it was a difficult book to write and at first it went rather badly. You see Lady Diana Cooper, who was roughly the same age as Rosamund (and had been a good friend of Rosamond’s) rather pipped her to the post by having her biography published during her lifetime. Essentially, Rosamond would have liked to be Lady Diana, I think, because Diana had lived an even more glamorous life and she was even more beautiful than Rosamond. When Rosamond learned that a biography of Lady Diana was about to come out, she couldn’t bear it and put enormous pressure on me to get the book out by Next Week before Lady Diana’s was published. She then wanted to mastermind the book, told me who I could and could not interview, and when I tried to back out she backed down, but it was too late, because I had decided that I couldn’t write it until she died.
A Parlour Pink
I don’t come out of this story very well, I realize that, but around the same time I was offered a contract to write about Evelyn Waugh, and I decided to take it.
When I wrote about Nancy Mitford I was summonsed to Chatsworth, the Duchess of Devonshire’s residence, because Nancy’s estate was run by the other two Mitford sisters and I had to get their permission.
Debo was a communist, Diana was a fascist and married to Sir Oswald Mosley the leader of the British Union of Fascists, while Nancy was a socialist, of the kind known as a “Parlour Pink”. She loathed Diana’s politics – she was an aristocratic and a snob, but not a fascist.
There was just one condition to writing the book – that I got permission from French politician, Gaston Palewski, who was the one love of her life – the centre of her life – and I was told, “But he’s never agreed to talk to anybody.”
Like a bad English farce
So I started going to Paris and talked to Diana Mosley about the problem and she said, “Well, we’ll invite Gaston to lunch but we won’t say anything about the book.” Gaston, who had been the right hand man of General De Gaulle, and a great womanizer, arrived for lunch and said: “Aah, so you are the woman who wants to write about Nancy! So you must come and see me and we’ll talk.”
I went to see him in his apartment and true to his reputation he chased me around the room. It was rather like a bad English farce. I knocked over a little table, and for a moment we thought I’d knocked over some priceless terra cotta bust, of which he had a collection, but luckily it was only the telephone. This calmed him down a little. Then we sat on the sofa and he held my hand, but my tape recorder is full of me saying, “Ah non, monsiour, non!”
Book about Waugh took eight years to write
The book about Evelyn Waugh very nearly killed me. I was given four years to finish it, and it took eight. I didn’t leave my house for the last 63 days. I just wrote and wrote and wrote. Then my publisher gave me a final deadline and said, “If it’s not on my desk by this date then your contract will be cancelled.” I was desperate to meet the deadline, and I did. Then on the due date I wrapped up my Mss like a baby in a shawl – it was snowing heavily in London – and I took a taxi to the publisher’s office which was on the opposite side of London. When we got within a quarter of a mile of the office, the taxi driver informed me that the snow was too deep to carry on, and I would just have to walk. So I did! But when I got there, my Mss wrapped so carefully in its shawl, I found out that the publisher was in a meeting and the office staff just said, “Leave it there will you,” and so I did, and then I went home. It was a huge anti-climax!
The next day the publisher rang me up and said “I have only two things to say about this: you can’t spell Addis Abba. And there is only one P in gossiping not two – as you should be the first to know.”
Evelyn Waugh a monster?
Why did it take twice as long to write? Well, I’m very slow, and I had to immerse myself in Catholicism and the archives about Waugh were enormous. From the age of 7 he kept a diary every day and wrote thousands of letters, and thousands more were written back to him. He was only in his 60s when he died and there were still a lot of people who had known him who were still alive, so I interviewed many of them which took a lot of time. All in all it was a long book and it took a long time.
John Harman, Chair for the session, commented: “His men in the war detested him, many men thought he was a monster.”
Selina. Yes, he had a monstrous side, he thought he was possessed by the devil, but he had an engaging side to him as well. Nancy Mitford once said that when Evelyn had visited her in Paris it was a bit like the aftermath of an air raid, so much damage has been done! But he had a great heart.
Somerset Maugham could be frightening
In contrast I whizzed through the biography of Somerset Maugham in 5 years!!! He could be very frightening, he was shy and had a stammer and that made him seem rather forbidding, I think. He was not a bully like Waugh was but he had a streak of malice that comes out amusingly in his books, but his persona was more frightening than the man himself.
John Harman: “Who do you like the most and Why?”
I never think in terms of whether I like my subject or not, I have sympathy with them and I’m interested in them. I think about them a lot and you do become totally absorbed in that person. But I would never write a book about somebody I didn’t like, or thought I didn’t like.
Do you have to love your subject in order to write about them?
I have a friend called Victoria Glendinning, a marvellous biographer, and she says that she has to be passionately in love with her subject in order to write about them, but I have to have a tiny detachment from my subject. I find that writing a book is like following a treasure trail and it’s unbelievably absorbing.
The truth about that story in Dulverton
There’s a funny story that happened during the time I was writing about Waugh. I drove down to Dulverton, near where Waugh had lived, to interview a well known Catholic priest, Father Caraman. I had a great friend called James living close by, also a Catholic, who was in a state of great torment about his faith and he said, “Don’t tell Father Caraman that you’ve seen me. I’m in turmoil and I don’t want him to know that you’ve visited.”
Anyway, Father Caraman received me rather coldly in a tiny parlour with two sofas facing each other, and he asked: “Are you a Catholic?” And I replied, “No.” Then he asked: “Are you Church of England?” And I said, “No, No I’m not. I’m not anything really, and he said, “Ahh that’s rather better than I thought.” Then he asked: “Do you know any Catholics?” And I said, “Well yes,” and then without further ado we began talking.
Suddenly his telephone rang, and when he answered it, it sounded to me like a hysterical woman on the other end of the phone. Then Father Caraman put down the phone and said: “It’s for you.”
I of course said, “It can’t be,” and he replied, “Yes, it is, it’s for you.” I had no idea who might be phoning me here because nobody knew I was here, let alone an hysterical woman!
Anyway, I said, “Hello?” and the voice said, “Hello, it’s me, James … just playing a joke!”
Oh I felt awful and I had to fib and I said that I’d stopped for petrol on the motorway, and that I’d left my credit card at the checkout, and the staff at the motorway station had just rung me to say that they had found it. “Ahh,” said Father Caraman, “But how did they know you were coming to see me?” In a flash I replied, “Well, you see, I also left my wallet, and in my wallet I had a letter from you – with your address and phone number on it.” Father Caraman replied “Aaah,” in great disbelief! But all’s well that ends well. We ended up becoming great friends.
Somerset Maugham was once a doctor
John Harman: “Tell us a little about Somerset Maugham.”
Well Maugham was not a believer. His uncle was actually a Church of England vicar, but Maugham lost his faith when he was a schoolboy. I think he regretted it at the end of his life. He was born and brought up in Paris – his father was a lawyer to the British Embassy in Paris. His parents were charming and sophisticated people and Maugham grew up speaking French, but then when he was 10 he lost both his parents, to TB and cancer, and was brought to England where he was raised by his Aunt and Uncle. His Uncle was the Vicar of All Saints in Whitstable, Kent … a very harsh man. Maugham was sent to school and was bullied and terrified and around this time started to stammer. He had difficulty speaking English from day one.
He went on to become a Doctor at St Thomas’s Hospital in the East End of London, and he said it taught him everything he needed to know about the human race. He said the only two other professions open to him, apart from medicine, were law and the church, neither of which he could do with a stammer. At worst he thought he could sign up as a ship’s surgeon and travel the world, which is what he always wanted to do. But he didn’t want to be a Doctor, not really.
The very poor from the Lambeth slums would come to the hospital and Maugham listened to their stories for 5 years. In fact he would listen to their stories for hours and his first novel, Liza of Lambeth, was based on what he learned at the hospital.
Spy in the First World War
Maugham was a spy in the First World War. A low level spy. He had the absolutely perfect cover of being a writer and was sent to Switzerland. At the time he was already nearly 50 years old, a successful well known writer, and he knew a lot of other writers. Switzerland was like the Tower of Babel, there were lots of spies all pretending not to know each other. Maugham spoke French, Italian, German, Spanish and Russian and he would debrief his agents, send them off on missions, debrief them on their return and then write reports to send back to London. Then he was sent to St Petersburg where he did the same thing but he was crucial at one point being the number one liaison between St Petersburg and the English prime minister, Lloyd George, at No 10, Downing Street, London.
He was tremendously readable and that made him rather despised. As a young man he was taken up by the intelligentsia but then became enormously successful and wrote very fast and all the intellectuals looked down on that and despised him and he was taken as a middle-brow writer and he never quite got over that, and I think felt unjustly rebuffed.
As a spy he didn’t have assignments, He never actually killed anyone but he had to authorize some fairly unpleasant things. He wrote about these in his Ashendon stories, and Ashendon the main character, is a very close self portrait. He showed these stories first to his friend Winston Churchill who made him destroy 14 of the short stories because he considered them a breach of the Official Secrets Act.”
Selina Hastings Bio
Selina Hastings, is an award-winning writer, journalist and author. A Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature she has been the judge of the Booker, Whitbread, British Academy, Ondaatje and Duff Cooper Prizes and the UK Biographers’ Award. She has written the biographies of Nancy Mitford, Evelyn Waugh, Rosamond Lehmann and Somerset Maugham.
This post is the second in a series of “Snapshots” compiled from Author talks and discussions at The Perth Writer’s Festival. (You might also like Journey of Discovery (a travel writing session) and John Harman’s blog post about the session with Selina Hastings at his blog Quester John’s AuthorWrite) I have tried to stay as close to the spoken word as possible but apologise if I have misguidedly taken anything out of context, or misquoted anyone. I was typing very fast, often in crowded theatre venues where lots was being said and much was going on. Please accept that my intention is to make the speakers’ and authors’ books, words, thoughts and ideas available to others in the most positive way possible.
Have you read any of Selina Hastings biographies? What is your favourite biography ever?