Gerald Brenan will be best known to Americans as the author of three excellent books on Spain: The Spanish Labyrinth: An Account of the Social and Political Background of the Civil War (1943), The Literature of the Spanish People, from Roman Times to the Present Day (1951), and South from Granada (1957). He had one close tie to America in his wife of thirty-eight years, Gamel Woolsey, a poet from Aiken, South Carolina, who was a half-sister to John Woolsey, the federal judge who in 1933 declared that James Joyce’s Ulysses (1922) was not obscene.
Brenan’s father, Hugh Brenan, was a British army officer who had to retire early because of deafness. He was an irascible husband and father and a lifelong worrier about money who tried to control Gerald by parceling out funds in small amounts. Gerald’s mother, Helen Graham, came from a nouveau riche family near Belfast. She was married to Hugh in 1892, and Gerald was born in 1894 in Malta. The difficult birth left Helen Brenan so ill that Gerald was nursed for five months on the milk of two Maltese she-asses. The Brenans were to have one other child, Blair (1901-1980).
Before his discharge for deafness, Hugh Brenan’s military career took his family to South Africa and to India; part of Gerald Brenan’s childhood was spent at these outposts and part in Ireland. In 1902 the Brenans rented a house in Miserden, a small village near Cirencester in south-central England, and they lived there for fifteen years. Gerald entered Winton House prep school in 1903, and five years later (with the lists being full at Harrow) he moved up to Radley, where he probably read the Hispanophile George Borrow’s The Bible in Spain (1842) and Wild Wales: Its People, Language, and Scenery (1862). It seems likely that the sexual inhibitions that troubled Brenan all of his life were rooted in these years at Radley.
Hugh Brenan was a difficult husband, and he was not the most liberal of fathers. His firm intention was that Gerald was to forgo an Oxbridge education and train at Sandhurst for a military career. Gerald, however, had other ideas. Under the spell of the freethinking poet Percy Bysshe Shelley, he concocted with John Hope-Johnstone, one of those delinquent upper-class Bohemians who leaven the English class system” and eleven years Gerald’s senior, a mad walking tour that they planned would take them to central Asia. The whole undertaking had to be kept secret.
The two adventurers escaped on August 26, 1912, Brenan absurdly disguised in a gas-fitter’s suit under a bulky military overcoat and wearing a slather of dye on his hair. He threw away a futile fake mustache and buried his clothes with a trowel. The trip more or less lived up to the comic note of this beginning. Hope-Johnstone decided to winter in Italy, and on December 23, Brenan started on foot from Venice with two pounds in his pocket, two blankets, a blue umbrella, a cake of soap, a Bible, and William Blake’s poems. He was headed for the Parnir Mountains, three thousand miles somewhere to the east. In January, lost in Bosnia in a snowstorm, he gave up, and a month later he was in Venice, waiting to be rescued by a greatly annoyed father. The experience, a failure in the literal sense, as it had to be, nevertheless stiffened the young Brenan’s faith in himself, and he was to be an indefatigable walker all of his life.
Hugh Brenan’s next plan for his rebellious son was service in the Indian police, but Gerald was saved from that career by the outbreak of World War I and service as a commissioned officer. His distinguished combat career was interrupted by a severe shrapnel wound that hospitalized him for three months. Seven months later he was back at the front and served so valiantly in France that he was awarded two medals, including the Croix de Guerre.
During his service Brenan met two people who were to influence his life powerfully. The first was Ralph Partridge, a fellow officer, a University of Oxford graduate, and a handsome man whose ease around women Brenan envied greatly. Partridge was to remain Brenan’s most intimate friend for forty-five years and a correspondent to whom Brenan-a tireless letter writer-wrote many long, fluent dispatches about his work and his personal entanglements.
A second, and exceptionally distracting, force that came into Brenan’s life was a young woman named Dora Carrington, whom he first heard of in 1915 from Hope-Johnstone. Carrington stuck in Brenan’s imagination from Hope-Johnstone’s description, and in 1919 at an inn in Oxford, she...
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