That summer the Sitwells’ guests included… the charming old eccentric Ada Leverson. Nicknamed by Oscar Wilde ‘the Sphinx’, she had gallantly come to his rescue when he awaited his second trial in 1895; and as a middle-aged married woman she had written a series of entertaining light novels, and was said to have conducted a large number of bohemian love-affairs… [She could be seen] about seven or eight o’clock at Renishaw, dressed in a long black velvet robe, her golden Gorgonian wig surmounted by a velvet picture-hat…
observations: Peter Quennell (1905-93) was at this Lytton Strachey wrote a letter from her house, presumably on her notepaper, saying: ‘it’s pretty dreary here – they’re so painfully stupid’) or making fun of her in novels.
The book, Quenell's autobiography, has featured before, and we said then that he was a bête noir of Evelyn Waugh, which would prove nothing as Waugh was famously rude and unpredictable about people - but there are various stories in which, for example, Quennell makes it clear himself that he outstayed his welcome or made himself unpopular on some country-house visit. He is not really as charming as he seems to think he is, and you cringe for him at times.
Waugh described Quennell as a middle-class intellectual on the fringes of literature, and that might have hurt more even than some of Waugh’s ruder comments – Quennell saw himself as a great literary stylist, and very knowledgeable. There is a strange bit in this book where he explains how ‘My love of the English language has become a superstitious cult; and, among other foibles, I go to absurd lengths to avoid repeating propositions; the reappearance of ‘by’ or ‘with’ or ‘from’, unless they occur several lines apart, causes me acute dismay, and often obliges me to turn back and reconstruct a lengthy passage.’ But his prose doesn’t seem any the better for any of this.
And sometimes you just wonder: after six lines describing his sadness about his pets dying, individually described, he says ‘Meanwhile, Nelly had died.’ The cat perhaps? No, his mother’s great friend, a person of considerable importance in his own youth, and someone he claims to have had the strongest feelings for.
Then there's that mysterious title – these are Quennell’s thoughts on the book he is writing:
Much that the mind stores up is the rubbish of experience; but amid the debris certain images remain, like the marble foot planted on the flagstones of a crowded Roman street; and these significant images I have tried to link together in a continuous pictorial frieze.You may well feel you are none the wiser… Symbolic? Of something? But you end up thinking, a great plonking heavy awkward object. And the opening credits of Monty Python.
The top picture is Ada Leverson, the other two are Lady Ottoline Morrell.