For all the actors, photographers and generally arty types that Elvira mingled with on the evening leading up to the shooting, if it is authors that we are looking for then the representatives of Law and Order at the trial offer some surprisingly rich pickings. When it comes to the written word, the Establishment, in this instance, beats Bohemia hands down. True, Eddy Gathorne-Hardy and Brian Howard considered themselves blessed by the poetic muse but their collective lifetime output is negligible – two very slim volumes of verse and some reviews in Howard’s case, and a couple of pamphlets in Gathorne-Hardy’s.
On the other hand, even if we ignore the novelist Gilbert Frankau (covering the proceedings for the Daily Mail), the Authorities were to prove far more prolific wielders of the pen. Eminent figures that they were it is no surprise that autobiography was to be a favoured form. The Judge, Sir Travers Humphreys, produced two, one of which, Criminal Days, holds up well. He also provided the forward to H. Montgomery Hyde’s historically important The Trial of Oscar Wilde.
Sir Patrick Hastings’ autobiography and his Cases in Court are both worth searching out, as their calm but authoritative tone offer a taste of the technique that made him such a successful Defence Advocate. In the 1920s he was also a playwright, albeit with varying degrees of success (see https://elvirabarney.wordpress.com/2012/01/07/sir-patrick-hastingstallulah-bankhead-and-beatrix-lehmann/ ) . Even so, to have a written a hit show which starred Tallulah Bankhead is something that more than one or two of the “smart set” might have envied.
Tallulah by Augustus John 1929
Even the ballistics expert, whose findings Hastings comprehensively demolished, could also boast a “hit” production of his own,.Though hardly literature, Robert Churchill’s Game Shooting was for many years the standard work on the subject. I am told that the prosecuting counsel, Sir Percival Clarke, wrote an influential treatise on Extradition but that is one avenue of enquiry too far, even for me.
Two other worthies, connected with the judicial system, but who would have gone largely unnoticed at the trial, were to to develop prolific careers as writers. One was H.C. Leon and the other C.R. Hewitt. As Henry Cecil and C.H.Rolph, respectively, their books gained a wide readership in the post-war years. Cecil specialised in fiction, Rolph, although probably the more aesthetically-minded and intellectual figure, in non-fiction. Neither are likely to trouble literary theorists or university syllabi but they both made significant contributions to the cultural landscape. Together they present, from different political perspectives, portrayals of English society that are still illuminating.
Leon was a young barrister at the time of Elvira’s case. He was present throughout as he was following the trial for “an unnamed client”. This is a peculiar snippet of information – who would pay for such a service, was someone worried in case their name cropped up during cross-examination? At the very least it indicates the extent of interest (and unease) that Elvira’s arraignment had created in “Society”.Presumably Leon performed this and other duties well as he rose through the ranks to become a High Court Judge himself. However from 1951 he devoted himself largely to writing, using his Christian names, Henry Cecil.
He produced a series of novels based around the Legal Profession, most of which were puzzle-based mysteries in the genteel “Golden Age” style. They were characterised by a humour that came to predominate and ensured his popularity. In essence, Henry Cecil did for Barristers in the 1950s what Richard Gordon did for Doctors in the same decade and James Herriott was to do for Vets a generation later. The books are clever, mildly satirical, unashamedly middle-brow and middle-class – Brian Howard would have despised them. They present an essentially stable England populated by forgetful judges, erudite villains and young male heroes of the ” good chap” type personified by Ian Carmichael and Richard Briers. Indeed, both of those actors starred in film and TV adaptations of Cecil’s best-seller Brothers In Law. Cecil’s knowledge of the Law is put to good use and the sense of period and place makes the books reassuringly rather than awkwardly dated. Decency, not a word that cut much ice in Elvira’s orbit, is both the most valued (and eventually triumphant) quality.
C. H. Rolph/Hewitt was also concerned with “decency”, but in his case it it took him down a more political, crusading route. His presence at the trial was due to his position as an officer in the City of London Police. It was his task to ensure the safe and orderly functioning of the case, a job made rather difficult by the demand for seats in the public gallery and the behaviour of the Mayfair and Chelsea socialites who seemed to have monopolised said gallery. Rolph, like many other commentators was deeply disapproving of this faction (who presumably included most of Elvira’s friends). Their frivolity, which included giggling at the forensic evidence and generally treating the whole spectacle as a West End first-night, caused much comment in the press and confirmed the public’s increasingly dismal opinion of the Bright Young Things. Sir Patrick Hastings alluded to their behaviour in his closing speech and cleverly turned it into a rhetorical device in his client’s favour (“some may think this is all very entertaining, I take the case very seriously etc”.).
Rolph was no more impressed with Elvira than he was with her camp-followers. His autobiography dismisses her as “the woman who shot her lover and got away with it” and he sympathetically records the Judge’s outrage at the reaction to the verdict ( “Most extraordinary. Apparently we should have given her a pat on the back.”). However this was not the standard gripe of an authoritarian Copper. Rolph was a radical and devoted much of his writing career to “progressive” causes.
While rising to the rank of Chief Inspector, and authoring a number of police training manuals, Rolph began a long-standing relationship with the New Statesman, for whom he wrote reviews, think-pieces and investigative reports for the best part of 40 years. He was a great admirer of Kingsley Martin, the paper’s editor for much of that time, and eventually became Martin’s biographer. He worked for the Howard League and wrote book length studies on a number of issues relating to the law and moral questions. Some of these, such as his work with Arthur Koestler on Capital Punishment and his book on the Lady Chatterley trial (both Penguin Specials), became the focus of great public debate and his advocacy for changes to the laws relating to prostitution and homosexuality were pioneering liberal contributions to the post-Wolfenden debates. No renegade, he remained proud of his police career and continued to contribute to the Police Review until shortly before his death.
He also became a highly regarded “arts correspondent”, both for the New Statesman and the BBC. He was particularly fond of interviewing other authors, proving himself equally at ease with Raymond Chandler, Rosamund Lehmann, Rebecca West or Ethel Mannin. His recollections of these and other writers are generous but never dewy-eyed.
As a “left realist”, he was suspicious of extremism and believed that political debate was best done through reason and fact-based argument. In many ways, his world seems as idealised (and lost) as that presented by Henry Cecil. His autobiographies are highly informative and saved from being overly solemn by a self-deprecating humour and a good eye for detail and social trends (it was Rolph who first coined the term “The Pill” for the contraceptive innovation which he correctly guessed would change the world).
So, please forgive this short interlude, I will return to the intemperate and the decadent in due course. In my defence, I fear that writers such as Cecil and Rolph, whose work was once the staple of the provincial Public Libraries of my youth, are in danger of becoming as forgotten as any short-lived Soho dive. If Brian Howard’s sub-Sitwellian poetry led nowhere, the Modernism it drew upon has triumphed almost totally. Cecil’s work is mostly still in print (apparently still recommended to Law students), Rolph’s more historically specific interventions are faring less well. Neither was an innovator but they were good at their craft and, in different ways, capture their era and respective social worlds as adroitly as any of their more flamboyant contemporaries. What their take on cocktail parties might have been is, however, less easy to discern.