In the 1969 Sunday Times colour supplement article on the murder of Lord Erroll in Kenya, which would eventually beget the book and film “White Mischief”, Cyril Connolly began his contribution thus,
“One morning, in the last summer of peace, I was lying in the sun at Eden Roc. I used to swim out to the rocks of the Villa Eilen, across the water and then recuperate on my mattress, hired for the season with its coffin sized slab of limestone. Round the corner, invisible, were other slabs and mattresses, each with their locataire, regulars from the villas or the Cap D’Antibes or the hotel.
A woman’s voice floated over the escarpment, one of those never to be forgotten voices, husky, yet metallic, almost strident, a voice of the period, a touch of Tallulah,or, if anyone remembers her,Brenda Dean Paul.”My God, I hate men,” she was saying, “I’d trust my dog more than any man. I’d tell my dog things I’d never tell a man.”
The voice was that of June Carberry, hard-drinking member of the “Happy Valley” set and one of the central characters in the celebrated murder case.
Connolly’s evocative and perfectly fashioned paragraphs have got me thinking about a number of things – among them, the similarities between the “Happy Valley” crowd and Elvira’s world, the importance of the South of France to the mythology of the period and the observational acuity of the rather sidelined author himself. More on all these matters shortly, but for now let’s concentrate on the voices.
Accents, linguistic codes, neologisms and tone of voice were all used by the Bright Young People to distinguish themselves from the “mainstream”. This is a feature of all sub-cultures, high and low. In the BYP’s case these mannerisms became prime markers, more important in some ways than actual behaviour.They are familiar to us today primarily through the early novels of Evelyn Waugh, the writings of Nancy Mitford and the plays (and persona) of Noel Coward.
The high-pitched loudness of the men, the camp theatricality, the baby-talk, the italicised stress on certain words, the fondness for invention and over-emphasis can be found in every representation of the group, from serious novels to the captions below Punch cartoons.Even Cecil Beaton, hardly possessed of the most understated of tones, complained about the exaggerated squeals and shrieks of the men and women who arrived at his home one afternoon – at their centre was, inevitably, Brian Howard.
According to Viva King, Elvira (“Always in Love, My Dear!”) favoured a variant which included a slight faux-Cockney intonation. This, though surely as execrable as it suggests, was not uncommon and was to proliferate in the 1950s among the group of public school miscreants known as the “Chelsea Scallywags”. Derek Raymond’s first novel “The Crust On Its Uppers“(1960) is written entirely in an unlikely mixture of Etonian argot and Cockney rhyming slang that takes the trend to its limit.
The “husky” affectation is one of the more memorable and long-lasting manifestations. Fenella Fielding carved a whole career in the 1950s and 1960s out of it, enlivening innumerable British comedy films with her innuendo-laden pastiche.Sophistication and sexiness were the aspects that Fielding emphasised, a direct legacy from Tallulah and her epigones.
The metallic harshness has other origins.Upper class authority plays a part, think barking at native servants or the hapless policemen abused by Elvira and others.Mostly, it, and the throatiness, were products of endless cigarettes, gallons of gin and, in some cases, drug use (hence Brenda Dean Paul).
Brenda Dean Paul 1950s
One example that seems to me to capture both the linguistic mannerisms and the requisite vocal timbre appears in Jocelyn Brooke’s Private View. The setting is The Blue Lantern in the early thirties and the character speaking (to the male narrator) is Veriny Chrichton-Jones, a composite of many women inhabiting what Brooke calls “pseudo-smart Bohemia”, including,possibly,Elvira. –
“My Dear,” she exclaimed, in her fashionably husky voice, “it’s utter heaven to see you. That monster Bertie Westmacott was meeting me, and I’ve been waiting here at least a thousand years, and I’m madly depressed. Do buy me a drink – here’s some money,I know you’re broke – and please introduce me to your boy-friend at once. I think he’s a perfect lamb, and I’d like to eat him, do you think he’d mind?” –
Brief as it is, this strikes me as just about as perfect a summation of character through dialogue as you could wish for. The insertion of “fashionably husky voice” seals the deal.
I have mentioned Brooke before and will do so again as his absence from the canon of BYP chroniclers puzzles me. I think a post on Eden Roc is also in order.