The Joan Hunter Dunn of "A Subaltern's Love-song", introduced to the public by Cyril Connolly in Horizon in 1941, was a real person - she ran the canteen at the Ministry of Information - transcribed into heroic fantasy: "Oh! strongly adorable tennis-girl's hand! . . ./ We sat in the car park till twenty to one / And now I'm engaged to Joan Hunter Dunn." Peggy Purey- Cust, on the other hand, is an icon of Betjeman's childhood who makes a straight appearance, and a very poignant one, in his eloquent verse autobiography Summoned by Bells (1960). They were at school together, at Byron House in Highgate, north London, and neighbours on West Hill, she in a Georgian "palace" at the top of the hill, he, a tradesman's son, in a semi-detached villa down the road.
Satchel on back I hurried up West Hill
To catch you on your morning walk
Your nanny with you and your
Streaming like sunlight. Strict
You hold yourself erect and every step
Bounced up and down as though you
walked on springs.
Your ice-blue eyes, your lashes long
Your sweetly freckled face and
So haunted me that all my loves since
Have had a look of Peggy Purey-Cust.
Once, the boy Betjeman (or Betjemann as he still was) was asked by his idol to tea; but he was never asked again. He gave Peggy a book and it was sent back to him. "Oh gone for ever, Peggy Purey-Cust!"
Marjorie ("Peggy") Purey-Cust was born in 1905 (the year before Betjeman), the daughter of Admiral Sir Herbert Purey-Cust, Hydrographer of the Navy and a scion of Lord Brownlow's family. Her grandfather Arthur Purey-Cust was Dean of York; one cousin, Sir Lionel Cust, was Surveyor of the King's Pictures, another, Harry Cust, the rakish journalist/MP and putative father of Lady Diana Cooper. She was a child of the mainline Establishment, a world all but closed to the son of a manufacturer of locking decanter-holders.
It is a curious sort of literary celebrity to have thrust upon you, to be named in a poem. After her father died in 1938, Peggy Purey-Cust, who never married, moved to Minehead in Somerset with her mother and an aunt. There, apart from a period in the Sixties when she lived in her mother's native country of Australia, she remained until her death. Neither Bevis Hillier, Betjeman's biographer, nor Candida Lycett Green, his daughter and the editor of his letters, ever reached her there, but Betjeman did. In the last year of his life, following one of his television appearances, he and his muse enjoyed a brief correspondence.
Marjorie ("Peggy") Purey-Cust: born London 12 October 1905; died Minehead 22 March 1995.Reuse content