Michael Holroyd is probably best known for his biographies of Bernard Shaw, Augustus John and Lytton Strachey. I remember being stuck in Peshawar waiting for a bus whiling away the time reading the Lytton Strachey biography. Many years later he wrote about the history of his own family for his book Basil Street Blues.
He found a sorry mess of overinflated egos, hopeless money management, and women who would give Nancy Mitford’s Bolter a good run for her money.
In response to that book, he received many letters from readers, and his next book Mosiac, was his attempt to follow up some of the new threads to his story.
This enjoyable book has the sub-title ‘A Family Memoir Revisited,’ and an epigraph from The Waste Land
These fragments I have stored up against my ruin
He writes about his father and his penchant for giving the completely wrong advice and his maiden Aunt who died in a care home, after a life that never took off due to her passion for yet another unreliable male. Somehow Holroyd discovers that this man was also involved with his grandfather’s long term mistress Agnes May and in the last section of the book he gives his obsession free rein as he travels to libraries, employs friends to trawl through records and travels over England in search of more information about Agnes May. This gives an insight into the laborious work of the biographer and just how much can be discovered about even those who change their names and deliberately obfuscate their histories.
In general, though, the most interesting chapters are those that concern Holroyd’s own life; his love affairs, his long relationship with Phillippa Pullar, his teaching stint at an American University, and his eventual marriage to Margaret Drabble.
In the chapter entitled Self-Seeking he gives an account of his time in America teaching two courses at Pennsylvania State University. He was forty-four and working on his biography of Bernard Shaw but did not have a clue how to present himself to students. A teacher who was posh voiced Englishman with messy hair and tweed jackets was quite new to them. Here is his strategy for getting them on side
It was a literary biography and autobiography course, and as their final paper, the very essay that would carry their grades, I had asked them to write a pen portrait-in-miniature of myself…
How much hostile criticism would I accept without downgrading their papers? How much flattery could I swallow without being sick.
He gives as justification for this his desire for them to use the library in a new way. What emerges is that they soon lost any fear of him and treated him like one of themselves, all getting drunk together whilst endlessly discussing Holroyd. What kind of man was he; was he homosexual, was he a man in a self-protective mask? This assignment provided him with eleven different portraits of himself from eleven different students. Possibly the first time he had been really open or given any thought to the kind of man he was.
It is in the chapter entitled Philippa, he shows more insight about his emotional life. He was the child of a beautiful mother, who left him when he was very young, and thus, he implies, he was always susceptible to beautiful women. But the only sexual contacts he had when he was in his twenties were with prostitutes. He puts this down to shyness and lack of confidence. In his long nocturnal ramblings around 1950’s London (he likens himself to Dickens in this) if he had managed to amass three pounds, and if he met a prostitute, he would go with her. It wasn’t until the mid-Sixties he met Philippa Pullar.
He meets her at a dinner party, where he falls under her spell. As he tells it, her presence was ‘luminous’ but it wasn’t just the blonde hair, the piercing blue eyes or the small straight nose; more than anything it was her voice
…the truly remarkable feature was her voice. It was highly theatrical, mannered and melodramatic, also rather camp, full of exaggerated emphasis, unlike any voice I had heard. She used it to great comic effect…
(I would love to hear that voice and have searched Youtube with no success.)
He wonders at first if this voice was one she affected at dinner parties, but came to realise
what perfect orchestration this voice gave to the expression of seething rebelliousness within her. She took the accents of smart society and sent them up rotten…
If Holroyd (whom Philippa called Horace) educated her and introduced her to music, books and ideas, she taught him how to see.
Life grew more tangible and vivid. I began to use my eyes, to see the visible world round me with greater subtlety…In summer, the vine hung with muscat grapes. Jasmine, tobacco and datura, whose white bells bent over the pond, filled the air with a heavy fragrance.
Two people with unhappy childhoods came together for several years of joy and laughter. From this Philippa Pullar went on to write her first and most popular book Consuming Passions a learned and amusing history of British food from Roman times to the modern day. Later she wrote a rather good biography of Frank Harris and later still, when she became a healer, books about more esoteric subjects.
They eventually parted. Although kind and loving she was not easy to live with. She was subject to extreme mood swings and filled her house with cats and guinea pigs and a great assortment of people. They remained friends though, and later when Michael was married to Margaret Drabble she too became a friend of Philippa Pullar.
It would seem that she brought warmth and fun into Holroyd’s life which then enabled him to move on to a permanent relationship, something he had never contemplated before.
This odd little mixture of writings provides an interesting insight into one of the great English biographers.