Stravinsky once described Lord Berners as the best British composer of his generation. That has never been a widely shared view. Berners’s output was modest, amounting to only 30 pieces, and few would compare it with the work of Benjamin Britten or William Walton. Yet his music was adventurous and accomplished, and his contribution to the development of European modernism during and after the first world war was not trivial. Diaghilev was an admirer, and commissioned him to compose for the Ballets Russes. He collaborated with Constant Lambert, and persuadedFrederick Ashton and George Balanchine to choreograph his five ballets. He helped to orchestrate Stravinsky’s “Song of the Volga Boatmen”, wrote an opera, and produced song cycles, film scores and works for the piano. Popularity was never his aim. He offended critics in 1919 with “Three Little Funeral Marches” – one for a statesman, a jaunty piece celebrating the death of a rich aunt and a melancholy lament for a dead canary.
“I will not stop to enquire whether the period through which we are passing is one that permits the railing at death, and making it the subject of jokes”, was a typically pompous review that especially pleased Berners.
The impulse to rail at death, partly as a response to the scale of Europe’s loss in the war, often lay behind Berners’s mannered irreverence. He was not an idler, but he believed that the cultivation of pleasure mattered as much as his vocation, and he refused to dedicate himself to any single discipline. He wrote six whimsical novels, alongside a good deal of poetry and four volumes of autobiography; he also drew and painted. Had he committed himself to composition as his life’s work, perhaps his legacy would have been more substantial. But his music might have been less innovative, for its amateur quality – “amateur in the best sense”, as Stravinsky insisted – is inseparable from its distinctive flair. Berners’s scattered contributions to the arts were all rooted in his lifelong defiance of late Victorian earnestness.
Sofka Zinovieff tells the story of Berners’s eccentric creativity in the wider context of his upbringing, his many friendships, his partnership with Robert Heber-Percy (the “Mad Boy”) and their life together at Faringdon House, Heber-Percy’s brief marriage to Jennifer Fry and the birth of a daughter in 1943 (Victoria, Zinovieff’s mother), and her own unexpected inheritance of the house after Heber-Percy’s death in 1987. This is a crowded book. The narrative sometimes suffers from its unrelenting pace, as character after character moves on stage, is briskly introduced and described, and then disappears. But Zinovieff provides a vivid sketch of the extraordinarily glamorous society of Faringdon in its heyday, especially during the 30s, as Berners and Heber-Percy reached the peak of their fashionable appeal. They knew “everyone”, and almost everyone came to stay – Max Beerbohm, Siegfried Sassoon, Clive Bell, Evelyn Waugh, the Sitwells and the Mitfords, HG Wells, Alice Astor, Walton, Cecil Beaton, Gertrude Stein, Salvador Dalí, Balanchine, Ashton, John and Penelope Betjeman (and Penelope’s elegant horse, Moti, who took tea in the drawing-room), Margot Fonteyn, Isaiah Berlin, Elsa Schiaparelli, Tom Driberg and many more. Invitations must have been hard to refuse. Guests were treated to the finest food, ample alcohol and general high-jinks. Nancy Mitford, who loved Faringdon, recalled with particular affection the practice of dyeing doves in pastel shades every Easter. InThe Pursuit of Love, where Berners is genially fictionalised as Lord Merlin, she describes “a flock of multi-coloured pigeons tumbling about like a cloud of confetti in the sky”. During her nights of wartime fire-watching, “the place I longed to be in most intensely”, she remembered, “was the red bedroom at Faringdon, with its crackling fire, its Bessarabian carpet of bunchy flowers and above all its four-post bed”.
“Mad Boy” shares the spotlight with Berners as Zinovieff tells her story. Nearly three decades younger than his wealthy lover, he could be cruel and careless. However, he was not in the least bit mad. He cultivated his wild persona with something like professional zeal (he was, after all, wholly dependent on Berners’s continuing favour for his livelihood), but he was more than capable of looking after his own interests. He took on the responsibility of running the house and estate at Faringdon, and his approach to the task was revealed by a scheme to sack all of the garden and woods staff, and then rehire them at a reduced wage. Lacking Berners’s wit, charm and talent, but equally sure of the natural entitlement of his class, he represents something uglier than the pink and lilac doves and delicate cooking at Faringdon.
Zinovieff’s account of the largely unhappy childhood that hardened his nature does much to explain Heber-Percy’s behaviour, if not always to excuse it. Like almost every character in her book, he did not thrive at school, and found it difficult to find a place for himself among the moneyed ranks of the rural gentry into which he was born. He was a younger son, and knew he would never inherit Hodnet Hall, his family’s home in Shropshire. Barely educated, he could not have qualified for a profession, and the demands of the armed services overwhelmed him. Life at Faringdon was a godsend, giving him the occupation and status that he needed.
Berners, like his partner, struggled to please his cool and thoughtless parents; he also had a wretched time at school. His disturbed childhood left him with a lasting sense of rejection and isolation, and many of the antics of his adult life might be seen as an attempt to overcome his enduring distress. Luxury and privilege often concealed an underlying sadness. It is said that one of his favourite japes was to drive around wearing a pig’s head mask, to frighten local people. The gesture seems revealing.
The outbreak of war in 1939 burst the hedonistic bubble of Faringdon. Heber-Percy, finding a serious purpose at last, accompanied the diplomat Gerald de Gaury on an intelligence mission to Saudi Arabia. He made something of a success (or at least, not a failure) of his adventure. For Berners, the return of war was a catastrophe, and he became depressed. In his later novel, Far from the Madding War, he represented himself as Lord FitzCricket: “the war knocked me out … I believed it was the end of everything and certainly of people like me.” His courage soon reasserted itself, but he was right to suppose that the war had destroyed his world. Heber-Percy tried to construct a different kind of life on his return from Arabia. In 1942, he astonished his friends by marrying, and attempting to establish a family. The experiment was not a success. Jennifer, his beautiful and strong-willed new wife, quickly fled, taking her baby with her. It is a tribute to Berners’s generosity that he accepted this odd episode with equanimity, showing a surprising fondness for baby Victoria. Perhaps, after the misery that war had brought, this scrap of new life lifted his spirits. His fog of depression gradually cleared, and Faringdon House underwent a muted revival when peace returned.
After Berners’s death in 1950, Heber-Percy settled down as a country gentleman. Faringdon had lost its exuberance, but not its comfort, and he did much to preserve and develop the house and grounds. This family memoir vindicates his judgment in bequeathing the estate to his granddaughter, who is evidently sympathetic to its character and history. Perhaps Zinovieff’s account of her inheritance is an attempted exorcism, for Faringdon must sometimes seem to be a haunted place.But not all of its ghosts are malign, and she deserves to take new pleasure in its rainbow-coloured doves.
• The Mad Boy, Lord Berners, My Grandmother and Me by Sofka Zinovieff (Jonathan Cape, £25). To order a copy for £20 go to bookshop.theguardian.com or call 0330 333 6846.