A. N. Wilson is one of England’s most prolific writers. He has written many novels, the finest of which may be Incline Our Hearts (1988). He has written works on religion and cultural history and biographies of the authors John Milton, Leo Tolstoy, C. S. Lewis, and Hilaire Belloc. At one time he was set to write a biography of novelist Iris Murdoch but then was dismissed. After her death, he published an account of his memories of her, an account that was seen by many reviewers as spiteful and jealous. His recent novel My Name Is Legion (2004), a story focusing on the world of London newspapers, was even more ferocious and nasty. As a result, readers approaching his biography of John Betjeman, a man whose public persona was one of charm and benevolence, might wonder what barbs to expect. This biography, however, is not in the least ferocious. It is moderate in tone and, without papering over his subject’s failings, is fair, insightful, and sympathetic.
John Betjeman was born August 28, 1906, on the borders of Highgate, an upper-middle-class district in north London. He was an only child. The family moved to even better addresses as John grew up. For holidays, they went to Trebetherick in Cornwall, a place Betjeman never ceased to love. He attended Highgate School, where one of his teachers (and later his friend and fellow poet) was T. S. Eliot. He went away to a prep school in North Oxford and then to the “public” school Marlborough. By that time his tastes were becoming clearly aesthetic, and he became more and more of an eccentric. It is not surprising that he did not get along with his father, Ernest Edward Betjeman, a manufacturer of cabinets.
In 1925 he chose to matriculate to Magdalene College, Oxford, possibly because Lord Alfred Douglas, the close friend of his aesthetic hero, Oscar Wilde, studied there. Betjeman was an inattentive student but enjoyed Oxford’s social life, especially the salons of teachers like the legendary Maurice Bowra. There he made lifelong friends: cartoonist Osbert Lancaster, art historian Kenneth Clark, poets A. L. Rowse and W. H. Auden, and journalist Randolph Churchill. Betjeman was forced to leave Oxford without a degree because he failed a minor examination, and his tutor, the eventually famous C. S. Lewis, disliked him and would not stand up for him. He then went to London and worked in various jobs until in 1930 he joined the staff of the magazine The Architectural Review. In London, Betjeman roomed with Randolph Churchill in a Mayfair house owned by Edward James, who was rumored to be both the son and grandson of Edward VII. All through these years, Betjeman would spend days traveling about and looking closely at Anglican churches.
In 1931 his first book of poems, Mount Zion, was published. About this time he became friendly with the Mitford girls (Diana, Nancy, Pamela, and Unity) and their friends, including the novelist Evelyn Waugh and biographer Lytton Strachey. Soon afterward, he married Penelope Chetwode, the daughter of Field Marshall Sir Philip Chetwode, later Lord Chetwode. He and Penelope moved to a house in Berkshire, near enough for Betjeman to get to London easily. The housekeeping was messy. Wilson prints a hilarious photograph showing Penelope posing with her horseinside the house. Betjeman became a film critic, supervised a series of travel guides, and published a book on architecture, Ghastly Good Taste (1933).
During World War II, he employed his charm as the press officer to the British ambassador in Dublin. He did such a good job that the Irish Republican Army considered assassinating him. After the war, Betjeman’s career took off. His poetry became popular; his Collected Poems of 1958 sold two million copies. He continued many journalism projects. He became a television celebrity, creating and appearing in programs on architecture, specifically church architecture, and important places, often those associated with an important poet or novelist.
In 1951 he fell in love with Lady Elizabeth Cavendish. Though he never divorced his wife and remained on fairly good terms with her, his liaison with Lady Elizabeth continued to the end of his life. In his later years he went from triumph to triumph, both with his writings and his television appearances. He was knighted in 1969 and made...
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