Faringdon House in Oxfordshire was the home of Lord Berners; composer, writer, painter, friend of Stravinsky and Gertrude Stein, and a man renowned for both his eccentricity and his homosexuality. Turning Faringdon into an aesthete’s paradise, exquisite food was served to many of the great minds and beauties of the day. Since the early 1930’s, his companion there was Robert Heber-Percy, twenty-eight years his junior, wildly physical and unscholarly, a hothead who rode naked through the grounds and was known to all as the Mad Boy. If those two sounded an odd couple, especially at a time when homosexuality was illegal, the addition of Jennifer Fry to the household in 1942, a pregnant high society girl who became Robert’s wife, was really rather astounding. After the child was born, the marriage soon foundered. Berners died in 1950, and Robert was left in charge of Faringdon, ably assisted by a ferocious Austrian housekeeper. This mad world was the one first encountered by author Sofka Zinovieff, Robert’s granddaughter. A typical child of the sixties, it was much to her astonishment that Robert decided to leave the house to her.
Histories of stately homes can always be fun reads – crumbling buildings filled with people far madder than one may realize at first glance, living lives that are grand, but often filled with the weight of expectancy and responsibility. Perhaps it’s the class system that has left so many of us intrigued by these lives, and it’s this mix of curiosity and nostalgia for days gone by that keeps programmes like Downton Abbey so popular, and has seen a resurgence in recent years of books that explore the lives of the high and mighty. Sofka Zinovieff’s book however, both caters to those needs and yet manages to be a completely different kettle of fish.
Granddaughter of the Mad Boy of the title, the author came to the house in her teens, and whilst her mother never enjoyed much of a relationship with the man supposed to be her father, Sofka became fond of Robert, and he her. So fond, in fact, that in his later years he revealed that he was leaving the entire estate to her. It’s through this fascinating relationship that Sofka is able to explore the history of the house and its inhabitants – the life of her fascinating grandfather and his partner, one filled with fun, drama and incredible guest stars. A look at the visitor’s book for Faringdon House would be a rather incredible thing, as the reader spies characters such as the Mitfords, Salvador Dali, Margot Fonteyn, John Betjeman, Cecil Beaton, Elsa Schiaparelli, Gertrude Stein… It’s rather dizzying, and reflective of the astonishing lives that Lord Berners and his Mad Boy lived together. Gay and partnered at a time when it was frowned upon by most in society, and also rather illegal, the lives of these men are fascinating and glamorous. The introduction of a woman (the author’s grandmother) to proceedings takes the book in a slightly different direction, and the quest for truth and information about family secrets leads the reader in directions that prove both comical and quietly moving.
Despite the fantastic eccentricities, beautiful buildings and lavish lifestyles that are contained in this book, aided in part by the lovely layout and multiple images that appear throughout, this is a book that at its heart is a warm and loving biography of very real people. Flawed, human and endlessly fascinating, the fact that author Sofka is related to these men (even if potentially not by blood) and knew characters at the very heart of this story make it one with deep emotional ties that really help the reader form connections with this extremely fun cast of characters, and it makes for a gripping and transporting read that’s very hard to put down indeed.
This review was first published on The Bookbag – http://www.thebookbag.co.uk