Merry Hall by Beverley Nichols – #1951Club

Merry HallAnd so we come to the end of the 1951 Club – what fun it has been (even though I think I might do most of my catching-up with it after the week is over – again, why on earth did we decide on Easter week?!) – and I’ve saved my favourite book of the week til last. It’s the entirely, utterly, scrumptiously delightful Merry Hall by Beverley Nichols.

I had planned to start writing this review by saying that I’d never read a book by Beverley Nichols, but discovered – while looking through my review list for other 1951 books – that, a handful of years ago, I read and reviewed a selection of essays he wrote with Monica Dickens. How embarrassing that I remember none of this. So, to all intents and purposes, this is my first Beverley Nichols book.

Which isn’t to say he’s new to me. I’ve long believed that I would love his books – and huge numbers of people whose views I trust wholeheartedly have vouched for him. I’m in the happy position of owning another 12 books by him, bought over the past 13 years (!), with this belief firmly in mind – which has, happily, been entirely justified.

Merry Hall is the first book in a trilogy (I am already well under way in the sequel, Laughter on the Stairs) about Nichols buying and doing up a Georgian house with several acres of garden and woodland. It’s non-fiction, presumably heavily tinged with fiction, and it is – well, I am going to use the word ‘delight’ a lot in this review, I can sense.

It begins with house hunting. When I am not having to do it myself, I adore house hunting, and will read any length of it – though, in Merry Hall, it doesn’t last very long. Money is clearly no object, and Nichols buys this substantial property in more or less a trice.

Most of the book examines the plants and planting arrangements that Nichols decides upon, with Oldfield his gardener, and I thoroughly enjoyed it while often not really understanding it. My knowledge of flowers and plants is nil, and I got less from this than somebody more practically-minded might have done. As such, I’ll mostly write about the rest – because there is just as much to love about Merry Hall for those who don’t have green fingers.

It was previously owned by Mr and Mrs Stebbings, and (before that) the Doves – known as the Doovz to the broad-accented, old, and extremely talented Oldfield. Nichols takes an immediate and long-lasting position of loathing to Mr Stebbings, who apparently did every single wrong with house and garden, from planting elm trees – how Nichols would have welcomed Dutch elms disease! – to his choice of wallpaper. (In Merry Hall, he focuses almost entirely on the garden – Laughter on the Stairs looks at the house.) This is a keynote of Nichols’ writing – he is very, very sure of his own taste, and very, very dismissive of anybody else’s. Luckily, he does it in a very, very amusing fashion.

Mr Stebbings has passed on to a better place, but he has an acolyte remaining in the area: Miss Emily. One hopes – for his sake and for hers – that there was no prototype for Miss Emily – or, if there was, that she is sufficiently altered in these pages so as not to recognise herself. In fact, the edition I’m reading was published for The Companion Book Club in 1953 and, rather delightfully, still has the little pamphlet with which it was initially distributed – and, in that, Nichols writes ‘where the female characters are concerned, I have naturally been obliged to invent a few elementary disguises, which are familiar to all authors who wish to avoid libel actions’.

Miss Emily is ‘one big flinch’ – she pops up regularly at Merry Hall, disparaging everything Nichols has introduced and lamenting every element of Stebbings that has been removed. Nichols can’t stand the sight of her, but she is always there – along with her friend Rose, apparently a note flower arranger, who tortures flowers out of their original shape – much to Nichols’ discuss. Terrible person that I am, my favourite moments in the book were when Nichols talks about how appalling he finds this pair – and is similarly wittily irate about a succession of labourers who do not labour. Of course, he wouldn’t dream of doing any of the hard work himself. (Curiously, he is much nicer about Emily and Rose in the sequel – I wonder if locals recognised themselves and threatened action??)

Nichols is everything one expects of a rich, creative, aesthetically-minded gent – albeit maybe more usual in one of the 1920s than the 1950s. Here’s a representative sample of his thoughts:

It is the same when you are furnishing a house. If you have only just enough money to buy a bed, a chair, a table and a soup-plate, you should buy none of these squalid objects; you should immediately pay the first instalment on a Steinway grand. Why? Because the aforesaid squalidities are essentials, and essentials have a peculiar was, somehow or other, of providing for themselves. ‘Look after the pennies and the pounds will look after themselves’… that is the meanest, drabbest little axiom that ever poisoned the mind of youth. People who look after pennies deserve all they get. All they get is more pennies.

While I don’t agree with Nichols’ politics or his cheerful snobbery – though neither of these things stop me loving every moment of the book – there is one area in which I am in wholehearted agreement with him. I don’t think anybody has ever written as wonderfully about cats.

Nichols has two cats – One and Four. These whimsical names supposedly come from the idea that he would have 100 cats over the rest of his life. One is Siamese (the second Siamese of the 1951 Club!) and Four is a black cat, and he writes beautifully about their character and mannerisms, with every bit of the devotion that cats deserve. They weave in and out of the narrative, and won my heart completely.

There is so much I would like to say about this book, but I have already written quite a bit – and I suspect I’ll be writing more about Nichols often over the years. Basically, this is a very funny, very charming book that reminded me a lot of A.A. Milne’s Edwardian stories. It probably says quite a lot about me that my favourite 1951 Club book is completely anachronistic – but I will say to anybody who has yet to read Beverley Nichols: don’t be like me and put it off for a decade; read something by him immediately.

Yours Sincerely – Monica Dickens & Beverley Nichols

When my e-friend Sarah mentioned that Monica Dickens and Beverley Nichols had co-authored a selection of light essays called Yours Sincerely (1949), can you really imagine me not immediately buying a copy?  If you answered ‘yes’ then you’re either new around these parts, or you have a stronger sense of my self-control than is just.

So, back in autumn, it arrived – and I started reading it in a gradual way, such as befits this sort of book.  It is great fun.  I don’t know quite where the articles came from – they’re quite varying lengths, and don’t seem to have been written specially for this volume, but cover topics in the same line as Rose Macaulay’s Personal Pleasures.   Everything from ‘Planting Bulbs’ (reminiscent of Provincial Lady, no?) to ‘Sensuality’; ‘Talkative Women’ to ‘Coddled Men’; ‘Losing Your Temper’ to ‘Brides in White.’  All the sort of topics of middle-class chatter in the 1940s – but feeling, somehow, old-fashioned even for the 1940s.

Indeed, Beverley Nichols has no qualms in describing himself as ‘old-fashioned, out-of-date, and generally encrusted in lichen’.  Even when I agree with him, he’s so curmudgeonly that I felt like I wanted to distance myself from him…  it’s enjoyable to read, but not quite the laugh-out-loud, self-deprecating whimsy that I’d expected – and which Monica Dickens delivers in spades.  Sometimes he was just too saccharine and worthy for my taste…

You can’t bruise a plant and feel aggrieved because it grows up stunted or deformed or “odd.”  The slightest twist or wound, in it infancy, grows and swells, till in the end the plant is an ugly wretched thing that you have to throw onto the rubbish heap.

It is the same with children.  A lie, an injustice, a cruelty – these get under the skin.  And they too grow and swell, till at last a miserable man or a wretched woman is rejected by society.
Undeniably true, but… am I bad person for wishing that he’d been jollier?  I still haven’t read any of his books, and now I’ll be rushing towards them a little less eagerly.

Whereas Monica Dickens, after getting all serious in The Winds of Heaven, is on fine form in Yours Sincerely.  Lots of smiles all round, and never too earnest.  Just the sort of light essay which I adore, and which doesn’t seem to happen any more.  Here she is on proposing…

We’ve all dreamed much the same dreams, I expect.  You know – you’re in a diaphanous evening dress of unearthly beauty.  You’re the belle of the ball.  You’ve danced like a disembodied fairy and now you drift out on to a moonlit terrace, mysterious with the scent of gardenias. 

He follows, in faultless evening dress, no doubt (mine sometimes used to be in white monkey jackets), and says – IT.

Or, he says IT on the boat-deck of a liner gliding through phosphorescent tropic seas, or on a Riviera beach, or sometimes at the crisis of some highly improbable adventure.  He’s just rescued you – or you him – from a fire.  You’re besieged in an attic firing your last round at the enemy now battering at the door below.  You’re a beautiful nurse and he’s a dying soldier – but not irretrievably dying.

There are endless variations but always the same theme song : “Will you marry me?”  The implication is that when one is very young the actual moment of proposal is one of the high-spots of marriage.

I used to pester my mother over and over again to tell me how my father proposed.  I couldn’t believe she wasn’t holding out on me when she swore that he never really had.  She couldn’t remember when he started saying and writing : “When we’re married we’ll do so and so.”
I have a small section of a shelf devoted to light essays – it is only a small section, because I haven’t managed to find very many.  Alongside this and some by Rose Macaulay are Angela Milne’s Jame and Genius, A.A. Milne’s various offerings in this genre, J.B. Priestley’s Delight, Anne Fadiman’s Ex Libris, Christopher Morley’s Safety Pins, and probably one or two others which have slipped my mind.  Any suggestions?

In the meantime, Yours Sincerely isn’t groundbreaking or even exceptionally good, but it’s a jolly, enjoyable contribution to that often-overlooked form of the familiar essay, and so steeped in the mores of the early 20th century that a flick through fills me with nostalgia for an age in which I never lived.