“During the last years she changed her name: she wanted to forget, she sa id, that she was the notorious Mrs.Barney.But she did little to change her mode of life – In Corfu, Majorca or Paris, or wherever else she went with the Bairds, the Dean Pauls, Anna Wickham, and others who moved in her set. The same company, the same hobbies, all around the clock.” (Peter Cotes)
That Napper and Brenda Dean Paul were around during what remained of Elvira’s life is no surprise. Napper had a long association with Elvira (including the inevitable car crash) and both were friends of Billy Milton. Brenda Dean Paul’s own notoriety – as the most famous drug-addict in England – may actually have been of some comfort to the, by now, disgraced “Mrs. Barney”. The “Bairds” would include Sandy Baird, as dissolute as he was flamboyant, a lover of Brian Howard and a strong contender for one of the unnamed guests at the cocktail party at William Mews. Other Bairds might possibly be the “Miss Baird” who was Brenda Dean Paul’s companion and fellow-addict during the 1950s and William Baird who appears on passenger lists with Brenda in the early thirties.
The odd name is Anna Wickham (1883-1947).If it is the poet Anna Wickham, which I think it is, then this raises a number of questions.
Born in Wimbledon as Edith Harper and raised in Australia, she had a varied but troubled life, due in part to her monster of a husband and partly to her failure to establish herself among the first ranks of English poets (she has undergone something of a revival in recent years). Her world, in the early 1930s, revolved around the Fitzrovian set, the pubs in Charlotte Street and her house in Hampstead. Her acquaintances at the time included DylanThomas (very rude about her), Malcolm Lowry (very fond of her) and the eccentric Sohemian and future “King of Redonda”, John Gawsworth, one of the few to unreservedly champion her work..
Some of the Bright Young elite knew Wickham and were not taken with her. Anthony Powell describes her thus, ” When she strode into the saloon bar, her severe air, Roundhead cast of feature, broad-brimmed hat, short skirt, grey worsted stockings, suggested Oliver Cromwell dissolving parliament.” Aesthete Harold Acton found her very much not the right sort of person and described her as (allegedly) “a hefty lady obviously well-fortified with wine and garlic”. To at least some of the the next generation of writers she seems to have been better-liked and was a tolerant landlady to more than a few aspiring but penniless authors.
However, I can’t see her and Elvira as close. She was much older, rather serious-minded and totally immersed in the world of literature. True, she was as hard-drinking as any of the Barney circle and was undoubtedly, though not particularly happily, a lesbian.
I wonder if there has not been a mix-up with the French saloniste Natalie Barney, towards whom Wickham had developed an (unrequited) passion , and whose literary lunches she had attended in the 1920s. Then again, Dolly Wilde, Olivia Wyndham, Nancy Cunard and Joe Carstairs all were, at some time, associated with Natalie Barney and Elvira knew every one of these women. So it may even be that Elvira met Wickham through one of these figures. These possible associative links can get quite complex, but if there is an intermediary then Dolly Wilde or Nancy Cunard would best fit the bill as Wyndham and Carstairs were far away by this time.
Nathalie Barney by Romaine Brooks 1920
If Anna Wickham was a soul-mate then the thought of Elvira rubbing shoulders with John Gawsworth and Malcolm Lowry is quite enticing. In Lowry’s case, at least , this is not unfeasible. As well as being part of the Charlotte Street entourage, Lowry spent time in Paris. He was married there in 1934. Elvira was by then staying in France more than in England.The Bohemian expatriate circle was small and, wealthy or poor, they shared the same clubs and cafes.
In Paris, Lowry’s wife quickly tired of his drinking and the fact that he seemed irresistible to young gay men. We can be sure that Elvira would not have objected to either facet of Lowry’s character.