Chris Fletcher

Blitzed on Benzedrine

Chris Fletcher wonders whether the couple who took over Kelmscott Manor during the 1940s noticed there was a war going on at all: they were too blitzed on sex, booze and Benzedrine to care

Lore has it that those viewing naughty books in the British Museum could once do so only with the Archbishop of Canterbury in attendance. Such pastoral care may be advisable for any institution ending up with the private archive of letters, diaries and artwork from which Joscelyn Godwin compiles this eccentric and nicely produced account of his parents’ lives from 1940 to 1948.

Edward Fell Scott-Snell and Stephani Mary Allfree met in 1935 and set about cultivating Thessyros, a fantasy land Edward had already sown with overripe imagery and peopled with priapic cupids, ageing debauchees and, Godwin explains, ‘assorted gardeners, priests, and organists who gleefully seduce their willing, under-aged charges’. The world unfurls collaboratively in diaries, letters and paintings, which rather weakly evoke Cicely M. Barker’s Flower Fairies, Blake and Whistler. The icky enterprise drinks deep of the fin de siècle. As Stephani recalled:

De Sade, Beardsley, Wilde, Max Ernst, Montague Summers, Corvo, Dali, the Pre-Raphaelites, as well as the obscurer classics — I absorbed them all as if I were working for a degree in decadence.

Things slipped easily from page to bed. ‘Tonight,’ her diary confides, ‘we loved exquisitely without the aid of sadism, and naked except for blindfolding.’

‘Stephani in Blue’ (1948 ), also by Edward, is the last dated work from the Kelmscott period
‘Stephani in Blue’ (1948 ), also by Edward, is the last dated work from the Kelmscott period

The archive records life beyond the fanciful borders of Thessyros. Two babies and marriage come along, each resented by the increasingly neurotic and cruel Edward. Bobbing west from Oxford and London on a river of booze (‘We gave Felix some gin; he behaved very well, lying in his Moses basket’), they end up at William Morris’s Kelmscott Manor where, unbothered by bombs falling elsewhere, they get blitzed on Benzedrine, or as they prettily name it, starlight.

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