(Of course, John McCain has become just as inauthentic in trying to appeal to conservatives. Don’t miss Todd Purdham’s terrific Vanity Fair piece about the devil’s deal McCain has made. But at least when McCain hits the podium and reads some conservative-pleasing statement with complete contempt for what he’s saying–he seems to be indicating disrespect for his handlers more than anybody else.)
I think I resent inauthenticity doubly from Clinton precisely because I remember very well when she first appeared on the scene in late 1991, with her nifty turquoise jacket and crisp turtleneck, looking like a really successful boomer lawyer, and saying sarcastic things about milk and cookies right and left. She seemed terrific then! Clearly, she’s made the coarsest of bargains for a public life since.
We can say the same, of course, of Beverley Nichols, 1898-1983, a British bon vivant and hugely successful author of you name it, from novels to children’s books to garden books to polemics to plays. He was, as Licata says, a terrifically charming writer. And when I bought Merry Hall a few years ago, for about three chapters I thought, "This is the absolute best house and garden memoir ever written."
The book begins with Nichol’s purchase, in 1946, of a fantastic, decrepit 22-room Georgian manor house he can’t afford in the English countryside. Nichols naturally cannot bear the idiotic things the previous owners have done to this neo-classical masterpiece, including planting an ugly holly hedge that hides the front of the house.
So when a friend arrives with a bottle of champagne to celebrate the house purchase, the two of them get drunk and decide to burn down the hedge, burning themselves in the process and nearly lighting the house on fire, too. I laughed out loud–and completely recognized the impulse. Aren’t all gardeners dangerous when they decide something has to be done about some problem in the yard? There are certain days when, if you put a Swedish bow-saw in my hand, I am also a menace to life and limb.
But from then on, Merry Hall deteriorates into complete puerility, and its sequels Laughter on the Stairs and Sunlight on the Lawn follow on in the same idiotic vein. Why? Because they are essentially dishonest. Nichols obviously didn’t feel safe writing the truth about the household at Merry Hall, which included an unmentioned male partner and the fact that the butler, a fantastic character named Gaskin, was also gay. Instead, Nichols fills these "memoirs" with ersatz drama about flower shows and local spinsters, and not a word of it reads true.
Of course, in England in 1951, when Merry Hall was published, gay men were actually thrown into prison merely for living their lives. And off the page, Nichols was apparently quite brave, startling the female fans of his house-and-garden writing by ending his lectures with a plea for sexual tolerance.
So, okay, we can forgive these memoirs for lacking the first prerequisite for authenticity, both in politics and literature: fearlessness. A willingness to reveal rather than conceal the truth about oneself.
But here is what’s not forgivable–according to Nichols’ biographer Bryan Connon, Nichols didn’t even tell the truth about the house and garden!
The real story of Merry Hall had enough drama in it to put any sane man off the purchase of old properties for ever, but the facts that the strain nearly drove Beverley mad and the cost almost crippled him financially were put to one side in fictionalized account of the process of rehabilitation.
This suggests a second reason for Nichols’ inauthenticity: a lack of respect for the audience. My instinct about the Merry Hall trilogy is that Nichols was writing down to the women who kept him in silk waistcoats and 18th century urns. Why focus on the nitty gritty of the struggle with house, when really, you’re just talking to an audience of women eager for a bit of domestic fantasy? Rats in the cellar and desperation over the bills would simply burst the bubble.
This same problem infects most house/garden/family/food writing today. The sense that the subject is small, the audience is silly, and a bunch of phony blather is all either one deserves.
Well, most of life is domestic life! These subjects deserve to be dealt with some degree of respect. Or at least, not with complete smarmy dishonesty. But generally, that’s all we get. They move to Provence, they move to Lucca or to Long Island. They make a house and make a garden. They tell us about the funny locals–and nothing about themselves, or what they’re really running away from, or why any of this matters at all.
By the way, there are some authentics on the house and garden front. Check out Amy Stewart’s dignified little memoir From the Ground Up. (I know–you think we spend too much time promoting Amy. But I got to know her because I loved her book and not the other way around. ) Also try Laura Shane Cunningham’s A Place in the Country. She’s a got a bit of a Nichols problem in that the book is really about her split with her husband–but she doesn’t want to discuss it. Still, on every other subject–the landscape, houses, children–the writing is so elegiac and beautiful, Cunningham just ought to be read.
As for the authentics amongs the politicians, alas–I’ve had my heart broken too many times by people who seem brave today, only to piss it all away tomorrow. So I’ve got my opinions, but wouldn’t assume that they are worth anything to anybody else.