2015: The Mad Boy, Lord Berners, My Grandmother and Me

“When I was seventeen, my mother took me to stay with her father for the first time.  I knew that she didn’t really like him, that he was homosexual, and that his house was amazing.”

The Mad Boy, Lord Berners, My Grandmother and Me: An Aristocratic Family, A High-Society Scandal and an Extraordinary Legacy, Sofka Zinovieff

Well, this is a story - an all true, too! The author writes about her family’s strange history.  Basically, her grandfather was the live in lover of Gerald, Lord Berners, a famous English eccentric (and a composer, too, who has had a bit of a Renaissance lately).  He was friends with everyone - Nancy Mitford, Evelyn Waugh, Cecil Beaton, Gertrude Stein, Dali, etc., etc.  He lived in a beautiful manor house - built a folly, died the doves on the estate multicolors, wrote novels, lived large.  Was a flaming homosexual.  He’s a character in Mitford’s Love in a Cold Climate and basically floats through the early twentieth century being artistic, living his best life, and knowing everybody.  

His lover was the much younger Robert Heber-Percy, known as the Mad Boy (because he was beautiful but a little emotionally unstable).  They lived together for years, and Lord Berner made Heber-Percy his heir.  Nonetheless, during World War II, the Mad Boy married Jennifer Fry, a beautiful socialite, had a baby with her (the author’s mother), and then they promptly got divorced.  But only after she’d lived with Gerald for a while in a strange menage a-trois.  Now, today such tangled stories might be more commonplace, but in the 1930’s and 40’s this was all pretty unique. Which is why the author wrote the book - to examine her family’s strange history (she barely knew the Mad Boy, and yet she ended up inheriting Lord Berner’s house), and to capture the flavor of the wild 1930’s while this was all happening.

So, you know I love books about scandalous aristocrats, and I’m always interested in the Mitford-Waugh set.  And the book is reasonably well written. It gets a little dull at the end, but I was on board for most of it.  But, if you’re not really interested in the period and all the famous artsy set, I’m not sure this is a book I’d recommend.  The whole gay/straight/Berners question is a little interesting, but it’s not that scandalous, in this day and age, and the writing isn’t good enough to elevate to a universally interesting tale. Good for a person with period interest, but not really for a generalist.

© Carrie Dunsmore 2017