I have now seen the aforementioned letters and though both appear to have been written by Charles they do confirm that the engagement was a more serious and public matter than indicated in his autobiography. His mother Amy was deeply upset about the whole affair and Robert was, to say the least, less than sympathetic.In Charles’ defence he does appear to have attempted to end the engagement with care and consideration, which unfortunately did not impress Elvira (or anyone else). The relationship obviously caused great anguish to both the Graves and Mullens families and caused a lasting rift between Robert and Charles.
The letters are largely concerned with justifying his actions to Lord and Lady Mullens and reveal little about Elvira. However, R.P. Graves’ biography of his uncle Robert is a little more forthcoming.
“Charles’ career as a journalist was flourishing; but he had recently become engaged to a highly neurotic girl called Elvira Mullens, who had recently taken to her bed, explaining that she could not help being ill until she was married. “I am disappointed”, Amy commented in a family letter “and Charles seems uneasy. Love should not come in such a devastating way.” (The Assault Heroic p 295)
So, in 1924, Elvira already had a reputation as being “highly neurotic” and was prone to erratic (well. downright eccentric) behaviour. For Elvira, love would always come in “devastating” ways.
Elvira in 1924/25
The account of the gun incident follows Charles’ reminiscence pretty closely (see https://elvirabarney.wordpress.com/2011/10/13/charles-graves/)
“What had happened to Charles was that he had fallen out of love with the neurotic Elvira Mullens, and had very sensibly broken off the engagement. Elvira had decided to commit suicide on the pavement outside Charles’s window, having first alerted him by throwing stones at his window. Luckily Charles spotted the pistol gleaming in her hand and arranged for a friend to distract her while he rushed from the front door and “made a grab for the pistol….She tried to pull the trigger but the pistol fell out of her hand and she fainted dead away.” This might well have led to a considerable scandal, especially as in those days it was thought to be highly dishonourable for a man to break off an engagement, even if he did so having realised that marriage would lead to a lifetime of misery. Robert cert.ainly felt that he was justified in thinking of his brother as a “cad” and some years later threatened to expose him as such. However, Lord Beaverbrook, to whom Charles had made a clean breast of the whole affair, had allowed him to stay on at the Express, and Alfred and Amy (parents) had also taken a more lenient view of Charles’s actions.” (TAH p303)
I’m still a little uneasy with Charles’ account of the events of that night but it seems to be generally accepted so I’ll let it pass. I was surprised at Robert’s reaction, I always thought he was more Bohemian than that. He himself was a bit “caddish” as far as Charles’ letters were concerned. On one of them , the real names are crossed out and fictional ones inserted. Robert was evidently going to use them in a short story or novel.
Whether Charles ever saw Elvira again is not known. As a journalist, theatre reviewer, sports correspondent and archetypal “man about town”, he definitely moved in similar circles. He was present at the infamous Bath and Bottle party (hosts – Brian Howard, Elizabeth Ponsonby, Eddie Gathorne-Hardy and Babe Plunket Greene) which is, for many, the very apex of the Bright Young People phenomenon. Like Elvira, he was a member of Ciro’s and The Cafe De Paris and was a keen first-nighter and diner-out, so my guess is that their paths must have crossed at some point.
Ciro’s – Mid Twenties
Elvira would have been 19 when engaged to Charles, who was 25. If engagements were the serious matter in the way that Robert patently thought them to be (I must confess, my knowledge of 1920s engagements is largely conditioned by P.G.Wodehouse’s Bertie Wooster) then the effect of this rejection was likely to be great upon any ordinary young woman. On someone as highly-strung as Elvira, who knows what the lasting damage might have been?