second volume of autobiography 1920-1972
This is the second volume of Gerald Brenan’s autobiographical writings. The first, A Life of One’s Own covers the period 1894 to 1920, and deals with his childhood and education, up to the point of his emergence from (honourable) service during the first world war. This volume starts with an account of his arrival in Spain as a young man of twenty-six – a subject he treats in a more general and less personal terms in his classic travel book South from Granada.
Although it purports to cover five decades, most of the book is devoted to his bohemian wanderings in the 1920s, which he spent oscillating between Spain and the Bloomsbury Group – of which he is not uncritical. Much of his narrative is dominated by an emotionally turbulent affair with Dora Carrington, who just happened to be married to his best friend Ralph Partridge. It also includes his dabblings with shop girls and prostitutes, and his attempts to secure allowances and inheritances so that he didn’t have to work.
He decided he was going to become a writer, but it was to be more than two decades before he got round to anything substantial. Having established a home in southern Spain, he returned to London to continue his on-off affair with Carrington and started to write a biography of Saint Teresa. In this period of his life he also mixed with various bohemians of whom he gives vivid character sketches – Arthur Whaley, Boris Anrep, Beryl de Zoete – almost all of whom had personal relations as tangled as his own.
The anguish of his affair with Carrington continued for years and is spelled out in quite intimate detail. She was married to Ralph Partridge but in love with Lytton Strachey, who was also in love with Partridge – and they all lived together. This is the Bloomsbury Group writ large. But as soon a long-awaited inheritance from an aunt arrived, Brenan got married to almost the first girl he met.
He is amazingly frank about this marriage, the first part of which was passed knowing that his wife was still in love with Llewelyn Powys, with whom she had been conducting an affair. He sticks at it and makes the marriage work, but the pages devoted to it are outnumbered by those on Carrington by ten to one.
There’s a vivid first-hand account of the Civil War in Malaga, following the military revolt which had started in the Spanish protectorates of Ceuta and Melilla in Morocco. He stuck it out as long as possible, then retreated to England to serve as an air-raid warden during the war.
The strange thing is that once he reaches 1940, the last three decades of his life are written off in no more than a few pages. However, I was mindful of the fact that he wrote these memoirs in the late 1960s, and there might have been an element of recapturing his lost youth in the enterprise.
In the post-war years he was spending his time doing nothing more demanding than writing letters to the newspapers. His social life included such heterogeneous folk as Dylan Thomas and Diana Dors. He inherited yet again following death of his father – though not as much as he felt he was entitled to.
In 1953 he and his wife returned to Spain, to the house which had been vacated during the Civil War. Before long he was engaged in an amorous adventure with Dora Carrington’s young niece, and couldn’t wait to tell his wife all about it.
His wife died in 1967, but Brenan had already started a relationship with a girl forty years younger than him. He sold his house and built a new one further inland, from which point he composed this memoir.
I must say that my regard for him as a human being went down quite a few notches reading this account, but he is undoubtedly a good writer, with a good eye for character and an interesting line in anecdotes. His reflections on the Bloomsbury Group are valuable, and South from Granada and The Spanish Labyrinth remain well established as classics.
© Roy Johnson 2000
Gerald Brenan, Personal Record 1920-1972, New York: Knopf, 1975, pp.381, ISBN: 0394495829