Many journalists and writers commented, pontificated and moralised , for the benefit of an apparently outraged nation, on the ramifications of the Barney affair. They included some the grandest of Fleet Street columnists. Like their present day counterparts, but with greater literary flourish, they all agreed that Mrs. Barney’s lifestyle proved that British society was “going to Hell in a Hand-cart”. Forget mass unemployment it was the cocktail party that were the real problem.
Gilbert Frankau covered the trial for the Daily Mail and suffered, presumably well-paid, agonies on behalf of Sir John and Lady Mullens. Viscount Castlerosse at the Daily Express was portentous and pompous in equal measure. Sounding like some patriarch from the Forsyte Saga, he wrote of Elvira, ”I am disturbed because she has been an unmoral woman and her disease is sweeping England like the black death.”
If this was not horror enough then, on behalf of his caste, he turned his attention to the threat to social hierarchies. “Society is an easy thing to sneer at and yet Society matters. It sets the fashion. The suburbs and so on take their tone from it. Is the younger generation going to allow Society to be prostituted?”
Speaking from the Left, Hannen Swaffer of the Daily Herald made the not dissimilar observation that ”Bright Young Things are a danger not only to their own class but to all the classes in the land. They hate law and order. The judge could see, with his wise old eyes, further than the dock. He could see the whole social order being undermined by a gang of pinheads., who because of the publicity they obtain really think their importance merits it.”
Gilbert Frankau, Viscount Castlerosse and Hannen Swaffer
It doesn’t seem to have occurred to Swaffer that this “publicity” was largely generated by the very organisations he and the others wrote for. However, one writer, as unknown then as the above trio were famous, did highlight the role of the media.
C.L.R.James (1901-1989), the West Indian intellectual and author of the classic cricket book, “Beyond A Boundary”, is these days a figure of renown. In 1932 he had just arrived in England to work for The Manchester Guardian and to look for a publisher for Minty Alley, his novel of Trinidadian working class life. While waiting to move to Nelson, where he was to lodge with Learie Constantine, he wrote a series of articles on London which were published in the Port of Spain Gazette.
James mentions the Barney case in his final “Letter from London”. He uses it to illustrate a growing distaste for much of actual English culture in comparison to his respect for the image of England and its literature, which he had so thoroughly absorbed in Trinidad. For him the case was of no interest other than as an example of the sensationalism of the popular press. He is every bit as censorious and self-righteous as Castlerosse et al – in fact, his essay quotes Swaffer favourably, though in a different context. However. his target is the appetite for scandal rather than the scandal itself.
“The real basis of the Sunday intellectual meal is the stories with a crime or sex interest. No one who has not experienced it can ever understand what the atmosphere of the Sunday reading is like. Let me give as imperfectly as I am able an impression of one Sunday’s newspapers. Open one newspaper. The piece de resistance, placarded on every hoarding, is an account by Mrs. Barney herself of her home life, with the man for whose murder she was tried – four or five columns.Open another paper. There you will read four or five columns of what purports to be the diary of the murdered man which he miraculously had sent to the newspaper just a few days before he was killed.”
He then goes on to talk about the other great outrage of the day – the defrocking of Rev. Harold Davidson, known to the public as The Rector of Stiffkey or, less respectfully, “The Prostitutes’ Padre”. The two cases were in fact often mentioned in tandem, disparate though they were.
The Rector of Stiffkey
For James, the lapping up of such sordid tales was a sign of a culture in decline. His disgust has a Puritan edge to it that even Frankau and Swaffer would have found hard to match. But he does hit on a key truth. The Barney trial was as much a media event as it was a murder investigation. With its combination of crime and sex in high society it was as juicy a story as any work of fiction. The press fed the public demand for tragic, fallen women, self-serving gigolos and long-suffering , dutiful parents – it was the most perfect melodramatic scenario.
This is why it can be hard to accurately assess any of the characters involved. They come down to us already shaped by the demands of a well-established set of moral and generic rules. Each contemporary commentator simply added the spin appropriate to what he perceived as public expectation – plenty of salacious innuendo and lashings of moralising. After eighty years it is hard to unpick all these threads. To do so maybe impossible, it may even be to miss the point. The echoes of the fatal shot are in many ways more fascinating than the shot itself.
Note James “Letters from London” are worth reading for his reflections on the London he encountered in 1932. It is a rather stiff, humourless text but his view of London and particularly his take on Bloomsbury are not without interest. Needless to say the world he portrays is very different to the one Elvira would have inhabited.
Hannen Swaffer (1879-1972), Gilbert Frankau (1884-1952) and Valentine Browne (Castlerosse) (1891-1943) were all fascinating figures in their own right and should not be lost to history. Frankau’s novels are unlikely to appeal to modern sensibilities but his autobiography, if you can cope with the excessive name-dropping, is very evocative of a lost world. Swaffer’s journalism is still very readable and his writings on crime are excellent (if not always in accordance to the facts). In a long career, he was a songwriter, drama critic, short story writer and Socialist turned Spiritualist – Brian Howard’s friend Tom Driberg wrote a biography of him. Castlerosse was an eccentric figure and anecdotes about him and his rather adventurous wife adorn several inter-war memoirs.
For more on Harold Davidson see http://www.nickelinthemachine.com/2011/02/the-prostitutes-padre-harold-davidson-and-the-lyons-corner-house-in-coventry-street/