A full diary and rocky marriage

21 November 2006

“The nation’s teddy bear”: John Betjeman, from the Wilson biography reviewed above

“The nation’s teddy bear”: John Betjeman, from the Wilson biography reviewed above

A. N. Wilson

Hutchinson £20 (0-0917-9702-0)
Church Times Bookshop £18

David Self discovers more of Betjeman

HE WAS “the nation’s teddy bear”, the first genuinely popular poet since Tennyson, and a pioneer of a form of poetic television now extinct. He championed Victorian architecture, wrote many hymns of praise to middle-class athletic lasses (all based on women for whom he had developed a “crush”), and, supremely, was the poet of the Church of England.

For Betjeman, it had to be a special form of unfussy Anglo-Catholicism (not for him the “Walsingham Matildas”) with clouds of incense, confession, and, especially, the Book of Common Prayer. And, as A. N. Wilson suggests in this new single-volume biography, he “understood, far more deeply than most of the bishops and synods of the modern church, what the C of E was and why it was still central to the people of England”.

We have already had a mammoth three-volume biography by Bevis Hillier, which this writer has largely ignored. Mr Wilson has, however, had new access to many family letters, and his work reveals just how intensely Betjeman was troubled by doubts and guilt: that he was fuelled by Christian hope rather than faith. He also illustrates the extent of the gulf between Betjeman and his father, a gulf reflected in the poet and his wife Penelope’s callous disregard for their son Paul, whom they always called “it”.

We also learn about their rocky marriage, which, after Penelope’s secession to Rome, became a weekends-only affair — Betjeman had little time for ecumenism. His weekdays were spent partly as a London bachelor, but increasingly with his love, Elizabeth Cavendish. The daughter of the Duke of Devonshire, she gave up all hope of marriage, as Betjeman would never consider divorce. Nevertheless, it was Elizabeth who nursed him through his final battle with Parkinson’s.

Betjeman had a crowded social life. His friends ranged from maverick priests to Evelyn Waugh, from Lord AlfredDouglas, to the cartoonist Osbert Lancaster, and from assorted Devonshires to his special “little friend” who helped push his wheelchair, Princess Margaret. Indeed, there are times when the biography reads like a précis of a social diary. Even so, we gradually gain a clear and non-judgemental picture of a man whose inner life was so at odds with his public, giggling persona.

Not every fan will enjoy learning so much about the poet, but it is ultimately a charitable work — even if it lets the Oxford don who denied Betjeman a degree remain a villain: one C. S. Lewis.

To place an order for this book, email details to CT Bookshop

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