It’s hardly the grandest of English country estates — compared with Highclere Castle, which plays Downton Abbey on TV, it’s really rather tiny — but in the ’30s and ’40s, Faringdon House was the place to be. An illustrious parade of artists, composers, poets, writers, lords, and ladies traipsed through its doors to enjoy its quirky charms. They entered into a magical place, extravagantly appointed with fragrant foliage and a miscellany of Victorian bric-a-brac — one might even see a white horse taking tea. Here, whimsy reigned: Such was the world of Faringdon’s owner and guiding spirit, Gerald Hugh Tyrwhitt-Wilson, Lord Berners.
In her delicious family history, “The Mad Boy, Lord Berners, My Grandmother and Me: An Aristocratic Family, a High-Society Scandal and an Extraordinary Legacy,” Sofka Zinovieff works her own kind of magic. It’s a mouthful of a title, but gives you a good idea of how many working parts there are to her story. There is a pleasingly aimless quality to this sumptuously produced book that abounds with gorgeous photographs and typographical frills. Zinovieff has collected heaps of anecdotes from a bygone era when shameless hedonism reigned.
The English upper class produced many eccentrics, but Berners was in a category all his own. A diplomat turned country squire, he was a talented composer and painter; but his greatest achievement was arguably the life he made at Faringdon and the figures who gathered around him. A who’s who of British and European cultural life have walk-on parts: Evelyn Waugh, Nancy Mitford, the poet John Betjeman, Salvador Dali, Igor Stravinsky, Gertrude Stein, photographer Cecil Beaton, actor David Niven, Elizabeth Bowen — all were in Berners’s orbit at one time or another.
Zinovieff has a personal connection to her material, and the central strands of her crowded narrative take up the story of how her grandmother, Jennifer Fry, came to be mixed up in Berners’s world. A dazzling socialite beauty, Fry ran with a raffish crowd and partied with the Bright Young Things in London’s club land. She was hopelessly attracted to gay men; but her tendencies led her to the “Mad Boy” of the title, Robert Heber-Percy, Berners’s companion and lover.
The youngest son of a well-to-do family, Heber-Percy was the definition of a ne’er-do-well; he skated by on bravado and not much else. (An Army personality analysis summed him up thus: lazy, tactless, indifferent, among other epithets.) Even if they shared an upper-class background, the two men, on the surface, were a mismatch: ‘Their differences were flagrant,” observes Zinoffiev. “Gerald was a stout, sensitive, intellectual older man with a monocle and spats, born in Victorian times. You can see he’d be home in embassies, society salons, and the creative world of theater and ballet. Robert, on the other hand, was a wildly physical, unscholarly young hothead who was known to gallop about on his horse naked, and who preferred cocktails and nightclubs to cerebral activities.”
Berners tolerated Robert’s foibles and “outrageously bad behavior,” allowing him to live “the life of a favoured first son on a country estate, but with the indulgence of an older man who was in love with him.” If Lord Berners was the aesthete, Robert was the rough and tumble country boy who enjoyed hunting and the practical side of running the estate. They shared jokes and high jinks: When some of Robert’s hunting friends gathered in the drawing room, Berners, a connoisseur of grotesque disguises and masks, covered himself in a rug, crawling across the floor to retrieve a book from a shelf.
As Zinovieff confesses, it’s all a bit of a mystery how her grandmother came to marry Heber–Percy in 1942. Was it an act born of a drunken evening? Possibly. The Berners circle was decidedly flummoxed. Even more odd was the ménage that took shape at Faringdon after Fry gave birth to the author’s mother, Victoria. If Robert wanted nothing to do with his infant child, Berners, to the surprise of all, took to the infant. (There is a wonderful Beaton photograph of Berners, in grandfatherly repose, holding the baby.)
It would not last. Jennifer and Robert were the real mismatch, and they would separate after the war ended. Jennifer remarried and Robert took up with men again. Zinovieff’s story starts to flag a bit as she describes the fates of her main characters in the austere post-war years. Berners died in 1950, and Robert inherited Faringdon, “an extraordinary gift and one that gave his life shape, substance and purpose it would not otherwise have had.” The author herself, born in 1961, becomes a protagonist as she connects with Robert when she was a young Cambridge anthropology student. He resisted intimacy, fobbing her off with jokes or one of countless stories from the ’30s. His obnoxiousness had not mellowed. (At a party in the early ’70s, he decked Beaton.) She was altogether astonished when Robert tells her that he is bequeathing her Faringdon — “a bizarre, almost terrifying development” — where she lives today.
Raised in bohemian circles by her composer/inventor father, Zinovieff finds Faringdon an alien place at first, “like a very handsome, rich, eligible husband, but one who was chosen by someone else.” More shocks come when Jennifer tells Victoria that Robert may not be her father after all.
Zinovieff puzzles through the evidence in her closing pages, and the conflicting emotions brought on by her investigations. Yet if Berners and Co. once seemed distant and strange to her, Zinovieff’s loving research led her to an accommodation, if not a homecoming, with Faringdon and its exotic past.
Matthew Price is a regular contributor to the Globe. He can be reached at email@example.com.