Nothing in Bryan Appleyard’s Bedford Park betrays the fact that it is his first period novel: not its deft characterisations, its virtuoso dialogue, its dry and economical wit, or its choice of a narrator and material quite outside the author’s own experience.
The 19th century is closing and the 20th is opening in a London seething with foreign sedition and the antics of its own wayward men of genius. The enchanted suburb of Bedford Park, a baroque gem created in 1875 as part of an architectural counter-revolution and renewal, houses W.B. Yeats and the novel’s narrator, Calhoun Kidd. Kidd has fled Chicago and his domineering father. However, he enters London salon- society through the notorious Frank Harris, whom he knew as a hotel hop in America. I can actually still quote Harris by heart: a dog-eared copy of My Life and Loves did the rounds of the Remove at my prep school exactly 50 years ago.
Kidd becomes Yeats’s unsuccessful rival for Maud Gonne. He finds the dead body of the Swinburne-quoting Brian Binks on Acton Green and is suspected of the murder but ends up buying the victim’s house. He sees gutter life and the glitterati with Harris, meeting Oscar Wilde in the Café Royal. Harris turns up on his doorstep with ‘Fordie’ (Ford Hermann Hueffer, the later Ford Madox Ford). He walks around a spiritualist festival with Harris, Ford and Joseph Conrad. (Those feet in ancient time did indeed walk upon Turnham Green.) He sees the end of the marathon at the London Olympic Games and a movie at the Bishopsgate Bioscope. He finds out the identity of Binks’s murderer. He sails home to America to a destiny we are aware of but he is not. (How trite the bare bones of even the best fictions are.)
Nevertheless, as plots go, it’s not bad but delicately hinged and it would be a disservice to author and reader to divulge its resolutions. A certain famous name is never mentioned in the text of the fiction itself, which was a shrewd decision.
The real pleasure lies in the deadly precision of the prose and the audacity of putting a horde of literary greats between two covers as characters. Kidd remarks: ‘The English don’t like things to look like what — or when — they are,’ and of the Palace Theatre, Shaftesbury Avenue: ‘The building had an elephantine air of groundless confidence and Renaissance nostalgia that oppressed my spirits.’
Appleyard has Conrad describe Bedford Park as ‘the most fabulous place, a place of fables. But an island certainly, most definitely an island,’ and Ford saying: ‘The thing about Bedford Park is it wants to be somewhere else, somewhere better, but condescends to be here, as if wishing to be of service.’
The ‘repellent’ Ezra Pound punches Cal in the face at a party at Bedford Park. (It can’t have hurt much — Hemingway mentions Pound’s ludicrous ineptness in the boxing ring in Paris 20 years later.) Yeats is described as emanating ‘an air of almost catastrophic awkwardness’, and of Conrad it is remarked: ‘Every aspect of him seemed to come to a neatly defined point.’
If I can contribute my own Conrad anecdote, which has never been put in print, my old editor Harry Mullan’s mother-in-law was the youngest of three sisters who worked as housekeepers for Conrad in Kent. Their two brothers were Conrad’s duty chauffeurs, while Harry’s then teenaged mother-in-law would deliver sausages by bike from the local butcher. None of them would ever discuss their employer other than to chorus: ‘Mr Korzeniowski was an absolute gentleman!’
Good minor characters — gentlemanly or the reverse — are expertly achieved by Appleyard with a minimum of allotted dialogue, including Stepniak, the Russian revolutionist, and the widow of the murdered Brian Binks who laments:‘That garden will never get done up nice now.’
Spiritualism and charlatanry are recurring themes, with appearances by Madame Blavatsky and the clairvoyant Cheiro, who actually proves fatally prescient. The book is haunted by literary ghosts and echoes, past and present. The high society jinks, Crowley-ism, intertwined circles of friends, and understated comedy remind me of the early volumes of A Dance to the Music of Time, while the darker atmosphere is that of The Secret Agent, or Alan Judd’s superb novella (and serendipitous piece of Lit Crit) The Devil’s Own Work, or even Judd’s biography of Ford.
I do have a few cavils. The main text is broken up (sparsely) by italicised extracts from Kidd’s notebooks (there exist 90 of them, no less, we are told). I recall describing Paul Scott’s The Corrida at San Feliu to the distinguished Chilean novelist José Donoso. ‘That’s all very well,’ he observed sagely, ‘but what you gain in texture, you lose in focus.’ Absolutely true, but then again we would be deprived of Ford Madox Ford’s devastating one-liner scrawled on Kidd’s MS after perusing his amateurish scribblings: ‘Seek not your satisfaction in the garden of literature. Ford.’
This is a risky thing to do in a book purporting to be written by just that very amateur but, as with all the large risks taken in this excellent fiction, the gamble comes off.