Francis King

Opposites attracted

Before We Met, by Marcelle and Anthony Quinton

Privately printed books are now all too often castigated as ‘vanity publishing.’ But at a time when publishers pay vast advances for the ghosted memoirs of people ‘celebrated’ for kicking balls around or howling into microphones but refuse to take a minuscule financial risk on one as elegantly written and entertaining as this one, that old pejorative must surely be abandoned.

Lord (Anthony) Quinton is a distinguished academic, the breadth of whose interests is indicated by the title of a previous book of his, From Wodehouse to Wittgenstein. His American wife Marcelle is a talented painter. In this collaborative work they each give accounts of their lives before they met at Sir Keith Joseph’s wedding to Lady Quinton’s mother’s secretary, at once fell in love and, despite the initial opposition of her family, eloped and lived happily ever after.

Lady Quinton records that her birth was a difficult one. So, too, were her early years. Her well-to-do parents — architect father Polish in origin, mother German — were Jewish residents of Berlin. As for so many European Jews of that period permits, passports and visas increasingly haunted their lives. With the approach of War, the family moved to Switzerland, then to France and so on to America, where, now virtually penniless, they eventually made for themselves a life as prosperous and happy as the one destroyed by the Nazis.

Lady Quinton tells this story with a relaxed professionalism that suggests that, if she had not become a successful painter, she could have been a no less successful writer. My only criticism is that, in describing all the mishaps and privations between the abandonment of one life and the successful creation of another, her cheerful stoicism occasionally causes her to fail to transmit to the reader the full horror of what she and her parents had to endure.

Quinton’s early years were the complete antithesis to his wife’s. The son of a naval doctor and a Canadian mother, only the premature death of his father and a near-fatal adventure during the War cast shadows over an otherwise wholly enviable existence. The adventure — referred to in a chapter heading as ‘An Incident in the Atlantic’ — occurred when Quinton’s mother decided to take him away from his public school, Stowe, to sit out the War with her parents in Canada. Their ship was torpedoed and mother and son, as Quinton describes with laconic vividness, then drifted in an open boat, with many of their fellow passengers dying of exposure, before a British cruiser eventually found them.

Noted for his wit, Quinton is particularly entertaining when writing of his colleagues at All Souls, to which in his early twenties he was elected a Prize Fellow. Of Raymond Carr, a valued contributor to The Spectator over many years, he writes that ‘from humble beginnings … [he] had acquired the manner and tastes of a 20th-century Lord Rochester.’ A. L. Rowse was ‘vain, aggressive and paranoid’ but ‘not altogether a bad-looking man if you could distract your attention from his gigantic bottom.’ Of the influential historian John Cooper: ‘I always thought of him as a human Eeyore, slow-speaking and given to banging himself on the back of his head as the conversation oozed out.’

Despite the literary talent that she has displayed, Marcelle Quinton has already announced that this is not only her first book but also her last. One can only hope that Quinton will continue with his piquant story of a life of abundant achievement and interest.


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