Roue who fell for the thrill of the chaste: 'The Interior Castle: A Life of Gerald Brenan' - Jonathan Gathorne-Hardy: Sinclair-Stevenson, 25 pounds

Piers Brendon
Saturday 11 July 1992 23:02

ANOTHER great Bloomsbury biography? Well, Gerald Brenan was only a semi-detached member of the Group, whose existence he actually denied - though that did not stop him attacking it for snobbery, bigotry and sterility. But this Life is by no means unworthy to stand beside P N Furbank's Forster, Michael Holroyd's Strachey or Quentin Bell's Woolf. Indeed, Jonathan Gathorne-Hardy combines many of the qualities of these biographers. Affectionate but acerbic, learned but witty, elegant but relaxed, he entertains as consistently as he informs.

He is never more informative than when exploding myths about his subject's sex life. In his memorable autobiography Brenan portrays himself as a kind of heterosexual Tom Driberg, a rampant rough trader with women. In fact he was inhibited to the point of impotence. His most depraved performance during the First World War was to hold a ladder so that Ralph Partridge could climb into the bedroom of a mademoiselle near Armentieres. Later he employed skills learnt as a decorated artillery observer and became, notably on the cliff- tops of Devon, an accomplished voyeur.

His long affair with Dora Carrington was imperfectly consummated. A passionate fling with a Spanish 15-year-old produced complaints that she was exacting a copulatory corvee. It also produced his only child, with whom, when she became a teenager, he took baths and only just avoided committing incest. His compulsive flirtations with prostitutes and nymphettes were generally chaste. Devoted as he was to his long-suffering wife, the American poet Gamel Woolsey, Brenan eventually decided that he'd married his mother.

His father, Gathorne-Hardy thinks, was at the root of Brenan's problems, artistic as well as erotic. A blimpish tyrant given to kicking Indian servants, hurling unsatisfactory cups of coffee out of the window, and whistling for his wife, he terrified his son, who had nightmares about him into his seventies. Gerald also had nightmares about school, Radley being particularly brutal and philistine, and in 1912 he made an adolescent escape bid. Disguising himself as a gas-fitter, in wing- collar, purple bow-tie and tall bowler hat, he went off on a 1,500-mile tramp round Europe, only returning when his money ran out.

After the war, which he enjoyed, Brenan escaped permanently. He determined to be a writer despite poverty - which he always exaggerated to disguise his rentier origins. Accompanied by 2,000 books he went off to live in the primitive Andalusian village of Yegen, which he described so marvellously in South from Granada. Gathorne- Hardy thinks this is his best book and argues that Spain liberated Brenan from the 'interior castle' which he had built to protect himself from childhood traumas. Brenan's poetry and novels failed because he still shrank from revealing his inner self directly. Writing about Spain allowed him to produce adroit concealed autobiography.

There may be something in this, though it hardly chimes with Gathorne-Hardy's other contention - that Brenan's life is contained in his brilliant, endlessly confessional letters. My own view, for what it's worth, is that Brenan's essential bent was not for literature at all, but for scholarship.

So far was he from being 'the new Shelley' (Lytton Strachey's characterisation) that he once wrote a verse opera with a cast of 40 commercial travellers. Yet Brenan's erudition, like his appetite for books, was positively Gibbonian. Gamel Woolsey said that he read 'the entire history of ceramics because he had to write half a page about Spanish pottery'. His masterpiece was surely The Spanish Labyrinth, an unrivalled historical guide to the origins of the civil war.

Brenan was certainly as vague as any professor. Absorbed in thought, he was liable to eat a whole plate of cake. A young Bloomsberry once observed him reading in the garden of Ham Spray House while absent-mindedly holding his false teeth over his head and clacking them like castanets.

Brenan also took a donnish delight in libraries, haunting the British Museum when he was in London and selling most of his manuscripts to the Humanities Research Centre in Texas - he fantasised that it would also buy his toe-nails.

For all his Bohemianism there was an old-fashioned hightable quality about him, just as there was about Auden. Brenan loved talk and gossip, though not until his sixties could he bring himself to ask what homosexuals did together. His manners were good but he was inclined to ask about new English visitors to Spain: 'What class are they?' Titles gave him a thrill and during the Second World War (when he served manfully in the Home Guard) he was delighted to acquire a job lot of King Zog's socks.

Yet into old age he took part in bizarre and sometimes delinquent adventures, usually pursuing the 'ghost of sex and youth'. He went off to Morocco with an American hippie, sharing the same toothbrush, handkerchief and bed (innocently) and even watching her change her Tampax. Almost immediately after Gamel's painful death he set up house with a beautiful young art student, with whom he lived happily and purely for years.

Having been consigned to an old people's home in Pinner, Middlesex, he was kidnapped by a couple of Andalusians and borne in triumph to their native land. There he stayed, a revered but increasingly senile charge on the community, until his death in 1987.

With sustained brio Gathorne-Hardy describes these last difficult years, with their mixture of farce and tragedy. Let us hope that he will now edit a selection from that cornucopia of correspondence.

(Photograph omitted)

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