Tuesday, 26 May 2015

Christabel, Lady Aberconway - W. Somerset Maugham's Correspondent

Christabel Aberconway
Christabel Aberconway
from A Wiser Woman?

This post is about a friend of W. Somerset Maugham, if one can call her that. Christabel, Lady Aberconway exchanged letters with Maugham for a period of over 30 years. A relationship that perhaps waned after the publication of "Looking Back," which left a number of our author's friends and acquaintances indignant. Among the signatures of those who signed a letter to vindicate Syrie Maugham's good name is Christabel Lady Aberconway.

Whatever the argument was, whether one side was more right or less right than the other, couldn't dim the fact that Lady Aberconway and Maugham had a pleasant friendship over the years, passing hours together chatting and writing away to each other. And Christabel Aberconway, at least for me, is worth writing a post about.

Before his death, Maugham appealed to his friends’ and acquaintances’ goodwill by asking them to destroy his personal letters; and at Villa Mauresque, he and his secretary, Alan Searle, engaged in “bonfire nights” in 1958, reducing any sensitive records to ashes. To prevent further posthumous invasion into his privacy, Maugham left a clause in his will that prevents any unpublished materials during his life time to get into print after his death.

The only Maugham letters that have been published so far as a collection are the ones from Maugham to Lady Duff, which belong to a private collection. Loren R. Rothschild in his edition of the Maugham-Duff correspondence points out a side of Maugham’s personality not generally known: “kind, affectionate and considerate” (ix).

In a recent trip to the British Library, I had the opportunity to read the Supplementary Aberconway papers, which include a series of letters from Maugham to Lady Aberconway from about 1921 to 1950s. In these letters, another side of Maugham is revealed, namely, the humorous side, which, fortunately, the reader has many occasions to witness in his works, although not so up-close and personal.

For upward of thirty years Maugham was flirting furiously with Christabel McLaren, a renowned social beauty with an active life of her own.

I looked for mentions of Lady Aberconway in Maugham’s biographies but have not come up with much information except that she appeared in some dinner parties and what not.

A word of caution for my readers, I am afraid I will have to disappoint them, since the letters were presented to the British Museum by Lady Aberconway instead of belonging to a private collector, it is not possible for me to quote them directly here without breaching some legal formalities. Thus, I can only recourse to paraphrase.

First, I would like to acquaint my readers with Maugham’s correspondent, Christabel, Lady Aberconway, and then I will talk about Maugham’s letters to her. He apparently liked her a lot and was indulgent with this beautiful friend of his, sixteen years his junior.

I would like to insert a personal note: it was an overwhelming experience to handle Maugham’s private letters, written in his own hand in ink, with all the flourishes and twists and turns, which is quite an exercise to decipher. At times I had a wild grin on my face and had to stop myself from laughing out loud in the solemn and panopticistic manuscript room of the British Library, patrolled constantly by security guards.

Christabel, Lady Aberconway


Christabel Aberconway
Christabel McLaren
© Cecil Beaton

Lady Aberconway was born Christabel Mary Melville Macnaghten to a distinguished Irish family, in 1890. Her grandfather Elliot Macnaghten was the chairman of the East India Company, whom she did not think she would like very much (Aberconway 21), and her father Sir Melville Macnaghten was famous for his report on the Jack the Ripper case. [1]

Christabel Macnaghten already had illustrious friends in literary and artistic circles. She met Oscar Wilde when she was two (a terrific memory she must have), and claimed that it was the first friend she ever made on her own (Aberconway 19). Besides Wilde, she was playmate of Kipling’s daughter Josephine when she was little, and Kipling is said to write the poem “The Way Through the Woods” after a chat with young Christabel (Aberconway 31–2).

In 1910, she married Henry Duncan McLaren, whose father Charles McLaren became Baronet of Bodnant in 1902 and Baron Aberconway in 1911, a title which Henry eventually inherited in 1934 upon his father’s death.

As become her station, Christabel McLaren cultivated the friendships of writers and artists. Her relationships with several of them, especially Osbert Sitwell, Samuel Courtauld, and H. G. Wells, turned out to be lifelong, with deep and genuine affection.

Courtauld, collector of French Impressionist paintings and founder of the Courtauld Institute of Art, taught her about impressionist paintings (Aberconway 82) and left her his house on 12 North Audley Street after his death (1947), to which she moved in to about 1950 and lived there until her death in 1974. Her association with Courtauld also culminated in the famous Picasso painting, “Child with a Dove,” which made news not so long ago. He bequeathed it to her, and in 2012 it was sold by the Aberconway family and left England after 90 years to its next destination, Qatar, despite efforts to keep it in its previous country of abode (“Picasso's £50m Child With A Dove Set To Leave UK”).

A Wiser Woman? (1966) - Christabel Aberconway
A Wiser Woman? (1966) - Christabel Aberconway

In her book of memories, A Wiser Woman?, she recalled anecdotes about some of her distinguished friends, like the Sitwells, Shaw, Augustus John, Hugh Walpole, Clive Bell, Virginia Woolf, together with members of aristocracy of her days, including King George, which, naturally, provide valuable materials for the studies of these.

Christabel Aberconway and King George from A Wiser Woman?
Christabel Aberconway and King George
from A Wiser Woman?

While she thus prattles on about people and parties, we the readers get a glimpse into Lady Aberconway’s personality, which in turn enable us to appreciate Maugham’s correspondence with her that spanned for over thirty years.

Lady Aberconway may be frivolous at times. A well-recognized beauty, she is by no means vain. What she appears to be very proud of is her prowess and ingenuity in getting out of tight spots, which she gives numerous examples. Her memoirs reveals a refreshing and delightful personality. At seventy-five, her youthful charm has not diminished and her authorial voice is that of a young woman full of life.

The Divine Gift (1929) - Christabel McLaren
The Divine Gift (1929) - Christabel McLaren


Quentin Bell does not have too high an opinion of her, based on his appreciation of Lady Aberconway’s literary talent as expressed in her first and only novel, The Divine Gift (1929). Bell reveals that Desmond McCarthy lent her his talent:
Christabel Aberconway, a lady of great wealth but of diminutive intellect had written a novel; even she perceived that she was illiterate. She therefore turned for help to Clive [Bell] and Desmond [MacCarthy]. According to Clive he did no more than delete the word “and” which occurred about forty times on each page. Desmond’s aim was more ambitious. He had, in effect to rewrite the book.

The Divine Gift by Christabel Aberconway was a literary curiosity. The story (which I have read) was silly beyond words but it was very well written. “Surely”, one of the reviewers exclaimed, “Lady Aberconway should not be wasting her very considerable literary talent on rubbish of this kind”. Desmond must have been amused. He needed a private place for what was then a secret task. Lady Aberconway, in whose house there were many mansions, lent him a room and gave him the key. (136)

Lady Aberconway refers to the circumstance under which she ventured into the writing profession. She was encouraged to do so by Herbert Asquith, who, knowing that she had to be confined to bed or risk a miscarriage, suggested that she should write a thriller. However, and understandably, if we believe Quentin Bell’s account, she does not mention McCarthy’s involvement, and curiously, his name is recorded only once in passing in her memoirs.

Among Christabel Aberconway’s works, except the very restricted The Women’s Charter Review, The Divine Gift is the one that is being sold with exorbitant price. It would be interesting to compare it with the style in her later endeavours.

The Women’s Charter Review is a bibliographical curiosity. Christabel Aberconway’s mother-in-law, née Laura Pochin, who inherited the famous Bodnant Estate which then went to the McLarens, was a fascinating woman herself. She was a suffragist and penned The Women’s Charter of Rights and Liberties (1909), to which she was blessed in Blast (Lewis 28). She also sat at the Birth-rate Commission, dealing with the pressing issue of low birth-rate (“The Birth-rate Commission”). It is not clear how much Christabel shared her mother-in-law’s cause, but she did follow up with her own editing of The Women’s Charter Review to Advocate the Rights and Liberties of Women (1913), published three years after her marriage to Henry McLaren. Unfortunately, she does not mention anything about it in A Wiser Woman?. The references to her mother-in-law do not throw any light on the aspect of her advocacy for women's rights.


Mr. Korah and the Monster (195?) - Christabel Aberconway & Rex Whistler
Mr. Korah and the Monster (195?) - Christabel Aberconway & Rex Whistler


Neither does she record the other books that she published, two of which are children books with illustrations by Rex Whistler: The Story of Mr. Korah (1954) and its sequel, printed privately, Mr. Korah and the Monster (195?). The former one is an interesting book, certainly worth looking into, while the latter is an indifferent work.

Louis Marlow describes a half picturesque half comic scene of Christabel Aberconway with Aleister Crowley:
Crowley and I had been lunching with Lady Aberconway and had gone back with her to his rooms in Jermyn Street where he read aloud to us from an enormous Magical Book which he supported on his knees. What he read was in a strange language, a language unknown. It was of a singular vibrant beauty and power. Christabel Aberconway sat on the floor by his chair with the unwitting grace and ease possible, in such a position, only to a woman of natural-born and fulfilled beauty. Her lovely eyes were large with an emotion that I shared. “What is that language?” she asked. “It is the language of the angels,” replied Crowley. Impressed though I was by exaltation, the irradiation, which he had received and communicated, I could not help reflecting on what an admirable subject the scene would have made for a cartoon by Max Beerbohm. “Aleister Crowley reciting to Lady Aberconway in the Language of the Angels.” (54–5)

Christabel Aberconway gives us her version of the meeting with “poor old Aleister Crowley” (45ff) [2]: the latter was overcome that Christabel did not die after reading a certain book [3] that was supposed to cause death to anyone who opened it, and proclaimed her an Elect.

Without doubts, there is more to Lady Aberconway besides posing beautifully in Marlow’s portrait or Quentin Bell’s recollection. From time to time, we are rewarded by thoughtful observations and ruminations. For example, when talking about her ancestors, she writes: “All the same I expect they all enjoyed fighting for the Stuarts: being in a minority can be very stimulating” (20).

Or when she thinks back about her youthful ambitions in being a violinist and an actress: “After my second child was born I sold my violin, an Amati, and bought my first good fur coat. I still have dreams, sleeping and waking dreams, of what my life would have been if my parents had allowed me to train as an actress. But then, I suppose, my darling children wouldn't be here–so I count my blessings” (56). [4]

Or her acceptance and understanding of a soldier’s rough language: “Words don’t shock me: it is the intention behind the words that shocks” (Aberconway 158).

She describes an exchange between her mother-in-law and her before her wedding:
My mother-in-law, Lady McLaren, thought I was highly eccentric when, before my marriage to her son Harry, she told me she wished me to delete the words in the marriage service "to obey"; and when I then answered: "But, Lady McLaren, I cannot promise 'to love', I cannot promise 'to honour', should Harry do something to make me no longer honour or love him: the only one of those three demands I can fulfil is 'to obey'." Mamma moved towards me: "My child, I never thought of that: I didn't realise that your pretty face hid so much sense, yes, logical sense.” (136–7)

Christabel Aberconway and H. G. Wells
Christabel Aberconway and H. G. Wells
from A Wiser Woman?

H. G. Wells appreciated her pleasant personality and was comforted by her company:
I cannot resist recording that perhaps the greatest compliment I have ever been paid was paid to me by H.G. On one occasion he said to me: "More than anyone I know, you, Christabel, have survival value." "Why?" I asked. "You speak to a tramp, to me, to Royalty, in exactly the same way, and you love being alive; you'll scrape through." Pause. Then he added: "But you are the sort of person who might go and die for a cause. Always remember that it is easier, sometimes, to die than to live for a cause, and far easier than adapting yourself to live under strange and cruel conditions in an unknown place.” (Aberconway 66)

[...]

I remember an afternoon when I called on H.G. and found him crestfallen, dispirited. Eventually, I dug up the reason: Hollywood had asked him to write the script for a film on the evolution of mankind: he himself thought the script rather good, but it had been returned to him with the criticism that "The story hasn't enough human interest in it." This seemed to me so gloriously funny that I just couldn't stop laughing: I laughed and laughed. Then H.G. caught the infection and laughed even longer, and with laughter-tears on his cheeks he stammered: "What a life-enhancer you are." His depression was exorcised, and when I left him after a delightful half hour of talk, he was in good spirits. (Aberconway 74)

Furthermore, she seemed to have a knack for good stories (see later about Virginia Woolf). Edward Marsh (Maugham's indefatigable proof reader, more about him in future posts) mentioned her twice in his letters to Christopher Hassall about the amusing anecdotes he got from her:
I met Christabel Aberconway at luncheon, she had a good story about Humbert Wolfe. Do you know what Florence Nightingale said about Mr. Gladstone? "He treats me as if I were somebody else" – Well, Humbert met Dr. Frank Buchman, and apparently treated him "as if he were somebody else," for Dr. B. said "I don't think you know whom you are talking to." "Well," said H. "I'm not quite sure, but I think you're the director of the Hull and Barnsley Railway." (Hassall 68)

Humbert Wolfe was a British poet and civil servant, dedicated in literature and politics, not unlike Marsh himself. As for Dr. Frank Buchman, he was a dead serious American evangelist. That was in July 1939. Later in June 1940:
Christabel had a good story about a lecture that Sir James ("Firmament") Jeans was giving about the future of the Universe, which he said was likely to come to an end in 400,000,000 years. At question-time an earnest spectacled votaress arose and asked anxiously: "Sir James, did you say forty million or four hundred million?," "Four hundred million," "Oh thank God," she said, sitting down with a sigh of relief. Christabel added: "I do agree with her, I've always been interested in continuity. When I was six, I got worked-up about the Apostolic Succession." (Hassall 93–4)

Her final remark showed her kindness and good-naturedness. Marsh was "moved" by Christabel Aberconway's spontaneity and generosity, though it is hard not to miss the ludicrous scenario of financial disparity:
Christabel won me for ever by a charming and generous impulse. I must tell you that in the morning I read out a lot of my Horaces to her and Raymond and Xandra – they went very well– and at dinner Christabel told me she thought it very necessary that my translations should be published, and that if I couldn't find a publisher who would do them without a contribution she would at any time stump up £X out of the £Y a year she has for her clothes etc. Don't you think this is a really beautiful thought? (Hassall 93)

Lady Aberconway could be unaccommodating when the circumstance offended her. It is only natural that the Aberconways over the years had amassed a substantial art collection, from printed books and Old Masters, French Impressionists to carpets, tapestries (Digby, Standen), some antiquities, and furniture. [5] Christabel Aberconway was insistent that when lending her paintings for exhibitions they should be glazed, but once when she went to a private view and noticed that her instruction was ignored, she walked up to Gerald Kelly (the organizer) and demanded in a “blue rage” that her pictures be returned (Aberconway 118–20).

If The Divine Gift was an unappreciated effort and the two children books were mixed products, Lady Aberconway did produce another work, this time on a subject that meant a lot to her: A Dictionary of Cat Lovers (1949).

A Dictionary of Cat Lovers (1968) - Christabel Aberconway
A Dictionary of Cat Lovers (1968) - Christabel Aberconway

I think this book deserves a few words.

Lady Aberconway tells the readers about the conception of the book in the Foreword. She was intrigued by people’s like or dislike of cats and thought that it would be a good way to use her time for the seven-hour train trip that she had to take twice a week between London and North Wales to read about people who loved cats and compile a collection.

The book turned out to be more than that. She collected passages on cats and their authors, with introductions and notes about the writers in question, and illustrations, from the fifteenth to the twentieth century. It involved years of research and dedication, which shows us another side of Christabel Aberconway.

She mentions in her memoirs her research in the British Museum during WWII, though without referring to her project, how she hid from her husband that the Reading Room was covered by glass while London was under attack by the German Doodle Bug, how a gallant Indian gentleman threw her on the ground in an attempt to save her life, and how she boldly told him that she preferred to continue working on her chair during the bombing (Aberconway 159–60).

The first edition of the dictionary was printed twice, and a second edition was published in 1968.

Carl Van Vechten remembers Christabel as sharing the same passion with him and he was the recipient of several books from her on cats, which are now lodged in the Yale Library (Vechten 116). [6]

During the two World Wars, which she insists on calling as the four years' war and the six years' war, Lady Aberconway performed her duties helping the hospitals, committees, and refugees; and opened up her country house and home farm for children and their nannies (150–4).

As we will see later in Maugham’s letters to Lady Aberconway, her beauty was taken for granted and must have impressed on people around her. Virginia Woolf claimed to have flirted with her (Rudikoff 361), and noted in her diary that one of Christabel’s account of a story suggested to her ideas of “The Shooting Party” (Briggs 184). A whole issue of the Virginia Woolf Bulletin is dedicated to Lady Aberconway. [7]

A more open admirer is William Walton, who dedicated to Christabel his Viola Concerto (which led him to fame), often interpreted as an expression of his unrequited love towards the lady in question. Though a womanizer, it would seem that Lady Aberconway was never one of Walton’s conquests (Lloyd 15). Her relationship with H. G. Wells is said to be close and equally innocent (Hughes 395).

In her later years, Lady Aberconway presented voluminous letters she had received to the British Museum, among which are the ones from E. M. Forster, Siegfried Sassoon, Lytton Strachey, Virginia and Leonard Woolf, [8] and Vita Sackille-West and Harold Nicolson, the latter couple recorded brief anecdotes of the Aberconways and their famous Bodnant Garden in North Wales (Nicolson 73, 227).

As befitting her station, Lady Aberconway participated in numerous cultural activities. She was member of the Roger Fry Committee, the Folklore Society, Chairwoman of the Renoir Foundation, giving reception at her house on North Audley Street and raising funds for the foundation, apart from admitting house visits for art appreciation courses. She was also member of the Walpole Society (“Roger Fry Memorial;” “Minutes of Meetings;” The Burlington Magazine, 1956; Farr 26).

Lady Aberconway even wrote to Notes and Queries to gently nag the lack of source for the line “Like Mars A-smoking of their pipes and cigyars” in two separate works (393). [9]

At 82, two years before her death in 1974, Lady Aberconway was still active, participating in the Fred Cook Memorial Lecture and asking questions (Kurz 90).

The successor to the title, her second child and first son, Charles Melville McLaren, was not devoid of glamour. Three years before his death in 2003, he confessed that he was one of the seven businessmen secretly despatched by Chamberlain to negotiate with the Nazis. [10]

38 South Street from A Wiser Woman?
38 South Street
from A Wiser Woman?
The Aberconways’ abodes are famous, besides the Bodnant Garden, now belonged to the National Trust, their glamorous house on 38 South Street must be one of the last vestiges of the rich and powerful aristocracy.

Maugham and Christabel Aberconway


In her memoirs Lady Aberconway writes briefly about Maugham, which sheds light on their friendship and enables us to get a broader picture of Maugham’s letters to her, besides providing an interesting piece of information.
Then Willie Maugham came into my life. He was a more difficult friend because he vanished for such long periods, but he was a friend whom I cherished. One could say anything to Willie and always extract some interesting answer. On one occasion I asked him:

“Willie, have you ever known a man who has had his face lifted?”

“Yes,” said Willie, and added with his endearing stammer, “and his b-b-bottom also....”

This conversation occurred one night at dinner when I was staying at Renishaw with Osbert Sitwell. Other guests were coming next day, but that evening there was only Osbert, Willie Maugham, David Horner and myself. Presently, wanting to describe someone’s behaviour, I said: “He was tight as a...” With Willie Maugham’s remark in my mind, I continued “as a lifted bottom”: at that moment the butler came round the screen and gave me rather an old-fashioned look. I wasn’t allowed to forget the incident.

Only once have I seen Willie dumbfounded, literally unable to speak. He liked women to have pretty clothes and often admired something I was wearing. Yet he was always candid in his comments and on one evening he said to me, “That, that is the only unbecoming dress, Christabel, that I have ever seen you wear.”

“Well, Willie,” I answered, “at the moment clothes for me aren’t easy. You, who were a doctor, surely must be aware that I’m going to have a baby in a few months’ time?”

Not a sound came from Willie’s lips though they moved as if he were stammering.

Speaking of Willie’s stammer, he did cure it for a short while by hypnotic treatments given to him by a Doctor Leahy, who, incidentally, was the only person I ever knew who had an old-fashioned “peg" leg. His leg had been amputated in a German prison camp and he always declared that the wooden leg was far more comfortable than the ones he tried to wear later. It was in this prison camp that he found he could hypnotise his comrades to relieve them of pain, cure constipation, insomnia, etc., and on returning to England he became a professional hypnotist. Willie knew that I knew him and asked me to arrange an interview. Of course there were several treatments, but, as a result, Willie was able to give a talk on the wireless about his journey back on a coal steamer from the South of France when Paris fell in the six years’ war, with never a stammer. Later, the stammer returned. (79–80)

Here Lady Aberconway mentions Dr. Leahy, with whom Maugham consulted for his stammer. Maugham's most recent biographer, Selina Hastings, records this fact and the involvement of Christabel Aberconway, although without giving us the original source. Hastings goes on to claim: "It was now that Maugham for the first and only time in his life tried to find a cure for his stammer" (450). However, Kanin, a book that Hastings cites, recalls that Maugham took lessons from Dr. Lionel Logue, upon learning that King George VI's condition improved with the help of the speech therapist (13).

It would seem that Maugham did try to get help for his stammer when he came across possible cure. In a way, from his engagement in numerous lectures, recordings, interviews, and broadcasts, it appears that Maugham eventually handled public speaking reasonably well.

Maugham – Lady Aberconway Letters


From our brief glance of the life of Lady Aberconway, one may say that it would have been as one expected, a woman born in a good family, married into another good one, made friends in the literary and artistic circles, be hostess and patroness to different functions and worthy causes, and augmented the family collections.

However, she must have had an attractive personality, besides a beautiful face, to inspire Maugham’s good-humoured jests for over thirty years.

Maugham's correspondence in the Aberconway papers started in 1921, when he was living in Half Moon Street, addressing the then Christabel McLaren formally, as Mrs. MacLaren [sic], making reference to the chilly weather on the Welsh Hills, surely referring to the Bodnant Estate, comparing it to the cold wind Maugham endured while playing golf on the weekend. He made an observation of how we made ourselves go through unpleasantness in the process of pretending to amuse ourselves. He signed “W. S. Maugham.”

Apparently, the friendship then progressed. When Maugham invited Christabel to the first night of The Circle (3 March 1921) he took the liberty to call her “Beautiful lady,” and appealed to her to accept the invitation because he was going to get her seats in a strategic position where everyone would be able to see her, which then would enable him to have a successful first night.

Christabel eventually became “My dear” and Maugham signed with a warmer “Willie.” We know from Kanin that Maugham did not like to be called “Somerset” and “Willie” was what his friends were supposed to call him (6–7), but in several letters to Christabel, he signed “William,” “Wilhelm,” and “William S.,” the last was in contrast with the name he went by in publications.

In one letter Maugham wished he had spent the evening with Christabel instead of dining out with doctors, who ate and drank so much as he had never seen before.

In a short note, most probably accepting an invitation from Christabel, Maugham called her “Beautiful,” with an arrow playfully leading to the end of the note, adding that he hoped she still was. He declared that he would be counting the hours until they were to meet a few days later.

Throughout the years, Maugham called her other endearing names, such as “Christabel my sweet,” “Christabel dear,” “Christabel my pretty,” “My beloved Christabel,” “Angel of Light,” “Dearest Christabel,” “Bright Angel.”

Then, in 1936, Maugham wrote Christabel a formal letter calling her “Dear Madam” and “your ladyship,” probably teasing her about the title that her husband inherited in 1934, and announcing that some goods would be delivered to her house on South Street.

Besides invitation and acceptation of invitation, their exchanges also include discussion on Maugham’s works. Christabel wrote to Maugham about Theatre when it came out. Maugham was pleased with her observation about his choice of an actress as heroine and that we all of us had two personalities acting upon one another, which made Julia relevant to not only women, but men also, as Christabel remarked. If we compare this with contemporary reviews (Curtis and Whitehead 305–10), Christabel comments were much superior in depth.

Later, in response to Christabel’s letter on Catalina, which she liked, Maugham wrote that he had a lot of fun writing it.

To excuse himself from not having written before, Maugham praised Christabel as one of the blessed women who would not mind that. On another occasion, Maugham refused an invitation, saying that he preferred to be alone before giving a lecture.

Parc Majestic Carlton Thermal
Parc Majestic Carlton Thermal - Pavillon Sévigné

While in Le Parc Carlton Majestic Thermal at Vichy, Maugham excused himself from writing a longer letter because Madame de Sévigné wrote many good letters from there; one should resort to telegram instead.

Maugham also enquired if Christabel had moved to her new house. Most likely he was referring to 12 North Audrey Street, which Courtauld bequeathed to her after his death a year before, in 1947.

In another letter, Maugham mentioned his recording for Columbia, and some articles that were required of him, which he trusted was only due to his fame, and which he was not prepared to write because he would not consent to write anything that he knew he would not be able to come up with a satisfactory product.

On another occasion, Maugham talked about his imminent trip to Rome, which he looked forward to, with the expressed desire to stay there, instead of just passing by. His idea of enjoying the place was to wander around and visit the curio and antique shops to see what he could buy, and to go to the opera, although he did not think it very good.

However, it held for him a special attraction, which was the complete involvement of the Italian audience in the performance and the delight they got out from the music; the singers’ ability to reach the high note or not became at that moment a matter of supreme importance.

In a letter written on the last day of the year, Maugham, having been unwell and depressed, lamented that his intimate acquaintances (not really friends), though still kind, were unamusing.

When Maugham could only write a very short note in answer to Christable’s charming letter, he “sweet-talked” himself out by saying that Christabel’s letter was by far the nicest from among all his correspondences.

Interestingly, he wrote a letter to Lady Duff on the same day, but it was typewritten, and asked for forgiveness for doing so: "I hope you will forgive me for writing to you on the typewriter, but the volume of letters, cables and telegrams has been such, that it is the only way I can cope with it" (Rothschild 69).

Perhaps Maugham did mean what he wrote, that Christabel's letter was by far the nicest.

After Syrie’s (Maugahm's ex-wife) death (25 July 1955), Christabel must have written Maugham to give her condolences, but Maugham, in Salzburg, replied that he was not sorry about Syrie’s death at all, and was vehement about lies, deceit, and dishonesty.

Knowing that Christabel was going to the Riviera, Maugham invited her to go over to his villa, and repeated what was not unlike what the narrator said to Peter Melrose in “The Voice of the Turtle” (1935) twenty-two years before (Maugham 224), that the life would be dull and quiet, but she would get a comfortable bed and three meals a day for sure.

During a trip to London, Maugham must have attempted to reach Christabel, but without success. He put in the letter his hypotheses that either she had retired to a convent or was in an advanced stage of pregnancy, and that was why she could not and would not see him.

Jokes apart, he was going to stay in London until December (the letter was dated the end of September) and he would not mind to be asked to tea, adding that he did not take milk or sugar and that he did not eat between lunch and dinner, or he could invite her to have an atrocious lunch at Dorchester.

They also sent each other presents, the mysterious delivery to her ladyship, a match box and an unspecified birthday present from Christabel; Maugham mentioned in a letter a button of the eighteenth century that he had sent to her.


I suspect that they wrote each other more letters than the ones Lady Aberconway presented to the British Museum, because of the gaps in between and the undiminished warm tones and indulgence on Maugham’s part. Furthermore, with Maugham’s interests in gardening, he would not be untouched by Bodnant’s fame. Lady Aberconway had also sent Maugham at least two of her books, The Story of Mr. Korah and A Dictionary of Cat Lovers, and Rev. E. Cobham Brewer's A Dictionary of Phrase and Fable in reference to something about an old lady's dress (as she inscribed), which are now in the King's School’s library collection (9, 31); one would expect thank-you notes from Maugham.

Nevertheless, Lady Aberconway does mention in her memoirs that one difficulty she had with Maugham was that he would disappear for a long period of time (79).

I am aware of the inadequacy of my paraphrase, but I hope I was able to transmit some of Maugham’s light-heartedness and playfulness to his beautiful bright angel.

Christabel Aberconway by Augustus John from A Wiser Woman?
Christabel Aberconway by Augustus John
from A Wiser Woman?

These personal letters give us a glimpse into another private side of Maugham, flirtatious, playful, and kind. And I am very grateful for this opportunity to make the acquaintance of Christabel Aberconway.
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-----


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The Divine Gift at Abebooks
A Dictionary of Cat Lovers at Abebooks
Mr. Korah at Abebooks
Mr. Korah and the Monster at Abebooks
A Wiser Woman? at Abebooks



Notes:



[1] Lady Aberconway contributed to the Jack the Ripper case by reproducing her father’s notes on the suspects in 1959, which were different from the Scotland Yard’s report. Christabel also recalled seeing the police photos of the victim Mary Kelly one Sunday when visiting Scotland Yard, which created chaos at the station, although she was quite unperturbed, since she thought the bodies looked more like broken dolls (Farson 16, 49).

[2] An interesting “discovery” is that Lady Aberconway quotes a passage which is almost exactly the same as the one we take from Seven Friends; Marlow must have reused it from another of his book, presumably Forth, Beast! (1946).

[3] The book, Christabel Aberconway describes drily, was “an elaborate manuscript, with a gold-leaf illumination on every pornographic page; boring, I thought” (45).

[4] She quotes from memory a French poem and wishes she could remember who the poet was. The poem is written by Alphonse Karr, though the wordings are not exactly the same, the meaning is: “De leur meilleur côté, tâchons de voir les choses : / Vous vous plaignez de voir les Rosiers épineux ; / Moi je me réjouis et rends grâces aux dieux / Que les épines aient des Roses” (Barral 213).

[5] Lady Aberconway’s collection included at one time or another two small oil studies by Seurat (Keith 774), On the Sands, St. Ives by Sickert (Farr 48), Soho Tapestry signed by M. Mazarind (listed as Lord Aberconway’s) (Harcourt-Smith), a sixteenth-century Persian Royal Garden carpet (“Forthcoming Sales” 252), a gilt solid-ivory armchair that belonged formerly to the Duke of Saxe-Coburg (Jaffer 281), an early copy of Carpaccio’s Correr panel (Szafran 158), Sauvetage by Daumier (Fitzgerald), a Maori artifact brought from India by Lady Aberconway’s grandfather (Oldman 37), and Mazzoni’s The Temple of Janus (The Burlington Magazine, 1959). Interestingly, on The Warburg Institute Iconographic Database, there is a note saying that the painting was “erroneously identified as the Temple of Janus,” and The Burlington Magazine was quoted. After Henry McLaren’s death in 1953, sales of the Aberconway collections appeared in Sotheby’s auctions throughout the years. Christabel must have a penchant for Sotheby, their possessions only appeared in Christie after her death, or when it was listed as belonging to her husband.

[6] The books about cats from Lady Aberconway to Vechten that are in the Yale University Library are: Phyllis, Lauder. Siamese Cats. London: Williams & Norgate, 1950. Hagiwara, Sakutarō. Cat Town. Tokyo: Jûjiya Press, 1948. Hilditch, Gwen. In Praise of Cats. An Anthology for Friends. London: F. Muller, 1949. Cowlishaw, Arthur E. and Sidney Denham. Our Cats With a Foreword by Christabel Lady Aberconway. London: Nicholas Kaye, 1958.

[7] Unfortunately, I do not have access to it.

[8] As her letters show, she was a correspondent with members of the Bloomsbury group, and indeed she had a copy of the first book of Bloomsbury, the collection of poems Euphrosyne (Rosenbaum 401).

[9] And Lady Aberconway got her reply from R. L. Moreton who sourced the quotation as from Thackeray.

[10] Roth and Martin include some of the eccentricities of the third baron in the obituaries; like his father and grandfather, he was a dedicated horticulturalist.

2 comments :

  1. Intensely interesting post. All this research must have taken a lot of work.

    You seem quite smitten with this Christabel Aberconway. I can understand. She is fascinating and pleasantly complex. Her love for cats (the first photo is glorious!) endears her to me. On the other hand, selling an Amati to buy a fur coat, even a "good one, is not even frivolous. It's barbarous. Maugham sounds completely charming with her.

    One additional piece of information that may be of minor interest. The talk on the wireless mentioned is no doubt the one published as "Twenty Days in a Ship" in The English Spirit, ed. Anthony Weymouth. This little book of propaganda talks was first published in July 1942. The talks were probably given soon before that. That would put Maugham's sessions with Leahy somewhere in 1941, probably towards the end of it, or maybe even the beginning of 1942.

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    Replies
    1. Thanks, Alexander.

      Yes, I am. I think she had a delightful personality and I hope my post helps perpetuate her memory.

      I read her reflection about the Amati and fur coat in a different way. It was her way to accept her situation without bitterness. She wanted to be an actress (and she seemed to be talented with the violin too); she was well-read in Shakespeare, but of course her parents wouldn't let her. With time (when her second child was born), she accepted her fate and was glad to have her children, which otherwise wouldn't even have come to the world. Naturally, she could have thrown everything away and went to do whatever she wanted, but she didn't. It is hard to say which choice would be easier. Like what she quotes from H. G. Wells, "Always remember that it is easier, sometimes, to die than to live for a cause." Like the French poem that she cites, she looks at her life then from a different perspective, instead of seeing her frustration as a curse, she sees it as a blessing.

      Thanks for the information concerning Maugham's lessons with Leahy. It definitely sounds like it.

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