During and after the trial various rumours circulated about certain books that were said to be on display at 21 William Mews.
“The library was furnished with publications that could never have passed through His Majesty’s Customs” (McDonald Hastings 1963).There was no library in the mews. The police blueprint does not even indicate a bookcase. There would have been books around the place and no doubt some may have tended toward the exotic.
First Edition Paris 1922
Elvira liked to portray herself as “Modern”. In the portrait she commissioned Eliot Hodgkin to paint of her, the background is filled with markers of the lifestyle she (or Hodgkin) wished to present to the world. It is a rather hectic collage and includes a saxophone, the hands of a jazz pianist, a rugby football, a lifebuoy (why?) and what looks strangely like a needlework sampler. There are also two books – both beloved icons for the more bookish among the Bright Young People. One is James Joyce’s Ulysses – still banned but much smuggled into London by channel-hoppers such as Elvira – the other is Ronald Firbank’s “Prancing Nigger”.
Ronald Firbank was the subject of something of a cult among the BYP and writers (and would-be writers) such as Harold Acton, Anthony Powell, Jocelyn Brooke, John Betjeman, Cyril Connolly, Evelyn Waugh and Brian Howard fell under his spell. His influence with the younger aesthetes was enormous and “Firbankian” came to denote not just a literary style but a whole way of being. Camp,witty, irreverent he was the perfect writer for the social circle Elvira moved in.
Ronald Firbank (1886-1926)
Were these the books that so scandalised “hardened policemen”? Quite possibly. If so, were they among Elvira’s favourites as the portrait seems to suggest or were they just chic accessories – proof of Elvira’s self-image as a sophisticate? We cannot know. However, thanks to a careful compilation,by C.I.D. officer John Scurr, of the reading matter stacked up in the bathroom of 21 William Mews we do know something of what Elvira actually did read. The picture that emerges is considerably less high-brow but very illuminating.
Why the police felt the need to make such a catalogue is a little puzzling, but I am very glad they did. What you get is a very instructive snapshot of what one wealthy, young, club-hopping woman of the era perused while awaiting the next invitation or outing.Yet, I would put money on this being a fairly typical list of periodicals and newspapers and would have been found in many a Chelsea or Mayfair flat.
There are 48 items, mostly magazines with some programmes and the odd letter. There is only one novel, “This Delicate Creature” by Con O’Leary. I know nothing of this work but the title is, in the circumstances, more than a little ironic. O’Leary was a reasonably popular author – but no modernist.
The newspapers Elvira read were the Daily Sketch, The Daily Express and The Sunday Express – all very conservative and middle-brow, the Sketch veering towards the “Tabloid” end of the market. She took two illustrated news weeklies The (National) Graphic and The Bystander.The Graphic was in its final days and may have simply been a favourite from younger days in the Mullens household (it was very popular in World War One). The Bystander was reinventing itself as a glossy magazine -with greater concentaration on leisure and fashion. I think the edition in Elvira’s bathroom was this one
which would make sense.
The Bystander lasted until 1940 when it was absorbed into The Tatler, copies of which were also in the pile. It would be surprising if they weren’t – no woman of Elvira’s age and class would want to miss the society news and gossip that journal offered its readers. Equally unsurprising is the presence of the rather more sophisticated Vanity Fair, with its mixture of literary pieces, humour, stylish photography and glossy adverts.
Elvira’s continued interest in the theatre is evidenced by a copy of The Stage. Read widely but specifically aimed at those within the profession, one can imagine Elvira following the careers of many acquaintances with interest – and perhaps some regrets.
There are a few issues of an obscure magazine called The Picture Budget, which was presumably devoted to cinema. There is no mention of Elvira as a regular movie-goer but it would be odd if she was not.
There are more copies of “Britannia and Eve” than any other title. This was a popular and stylish woman’s journal, much valued today for its delightful and evocative cover art-work. Here are a few that PC Scurr listed –
There are two American satirical magazines Hullabaloo and Ballyhoo in the collection. These were the forerunners of the likes of Mad magazine and specialised in cartoons and spoof adverts. They would have also been considered quite “racy” for the era. How available they were in England at the time I don’t know – but not very, I suspect
Also a little on the “fast” side was London Life – a magazine devoted to fashion, feature articles and “What’s On” listings. Its notoriety came from the amount of fetishists who commandeered the letters pages – under the guise of asking for fashion tips. I’m sure Elvira was suitably amused.
Also to be found are copies of The New Yorker and Cosmopolitan, then still basically a literary magazine. These were classy journals, with nods towards highbrow culture but were also markers of a suave and comfortable lifestyle.
Finally there are two journals I cannot identify – The Courier and The Nightlight.
I will deal with the theatre programmes separately but these magazines and newspapers tell us a lot about Elvira, her interests, her self-image and the sort of world with which she identified. Cultured, hedonistic and consumerist, modern but not avant-garde, a little daring, a strong sense of visual style, little interest in politics or world events (even in 1932) and a general sense that the pursuit of pleasure and fun were what mattered in this life- that is the picture they suggest to me. All of which fits perfectly well with what we know about Mrs.Barney from other sources. I’m sure she was familiar with Firbank and Joyce but I am confident that these periodicals take us closer to her real enthusiasms and shine a singularly helpful light on a very specific, but not atypical, way of life. Quite by accident, PC Scurr captured a moment of cultural history and I, for one, am very grateful to him.