Betjeman: A Life
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Betjeman: A Life

by A. N. Wilson
     
 

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John Betjeman was by far the most popular poet of the twentieth century; his collected poems sold more than two million copies. As poet laureate of England, he became a national icon, but behind the public man were doubts and demons. The poet best known for writing hymns of praise to athletic middle-class girls on the tennis courts led a tempestuous emotional life.

Overview

John Betjeman was by far the most popular poet of the twentieth century; his collected poems sold more than two million copies. As poet laureate of England, he became a national icon, but behind the public man were doubts and demons. The poet best known for writing hymns of praise to athletic middle-class girls on the tennis courts led a tempestuous emotional life. For much of his fifty-year marriage to Penelope Chetwode, the daughter of a field marshal, Betjeman had a relationship with Elizabeth Cavendish, the daughter of the Duke of Devonshire and lady-in-waiting to Princess Margaret. Betjeman, a devout Anglican, was tormented by guilt about the storms this emotional triangle caused.

Betjeman, published to coincide with the hundredth anniversary of the poet's birth, is the first to use fully the vast archive of personal material relating to his private life, including literally hundreds of letters written by his wife about their life together and apart. Here too are chronicled his many friendships, ranging from "Bosie" Douglas to the young satirists of Private Eye, from the Mitford sisters to the Crazy Gang. This is a celebration of a much-loved poet, a brave campaigner for architecture at risk, and a highly popular public performer. Betjeman was the classic example of the melancholy clown, whose sadness found its perfect mood music in the hymns of a poignant Anglicanism.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
Certainly Britain's most popular poet since Kipling, John Betjeman (1906-1984) began as the shy son of a London manufacturer, got kicked out of Oxford for not taking his studies seriously and ended up as poet laureate (1972-1984). He also became a celebrity, known across the U.K. for hosting TV programs about travel and architecture, for his campaigns to preserve Victorian buildings and for Summoned by Bells (1960), his bestselling verse account of his childhood and youth. The English admired his unassuming comic persona, his devotion to the Anglican Church, his loyalty (somehow simultaneous, and real) to both aristocrats and Middle England, and his stand on behalf of Victorian values, which modern life seemed to have eroded. This enthusiastic, always readable biography from the prolific English critic Wilson (After the Victorians) follows Betjeman's rise to public acclaim, his sometimes surprising friends and acquaintances (Lord Alfred Douglas, Evelyn Waugh), and his frequently frustrating private affairs: unwilling to either divorce or live with his wife, Betjeman spent decades with a devoted younger mistress. With his sources in hymns and English music-hall comedy, his great causes (Anglican services and Victorian churches) quintessentially, parochially English, Betjeman seems as unlikely an export as Marmite. Whatever American fans he has, however, will be well served by this compact life, issued simultaneously with Betjeman's Collected Poems for his centenary Copyright 2006 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
A generous, even admiring, biography of the late English poet laureate (1906-84) known for his sing-songy verse (some call it doggerel), his BBC broadcasts, his devotion to the Church of England (despite his unconventional private life) and his determination to save England's notable older buildings from the wrecking ball. The prolific Wilson-novelist (My Name Is Legion, 2005, etc.), biographer (Jesus: A Life, 1992, etc.), social historian (After the Victorians, 2005, etc.)-found himself in the news recently when it was revealed that he included in the UK edition of Betjeman a bogus letter (planted by a rival?); the first letters of the sentences in the middle of the letter combine to spell A.N. Wilson is a shit. Betjeman himself would have laughed at the puckishness-but disagreed with the nasty sentiment, for no one could ask for more sympathetic treatment than Wilson has given the poet. Wilson argues that about 30 of Betjeman's 200 or so published poems "actually hit their mark." And the author casts a most compassionate light on Betjeman's intimate relationships. He was married in the 1930s (to Penelope Chetwode) and sired two children, but he also had numerous affairs, including one of some 30 years' duration with Elizabeth Cavendish. The pudgy poet teetered back and forth between wife and mistress like a tawdry teddy bear. Betjeman did have a remarkably charmed life. One of his secondary-school teachers was T.S. Eliot; his tutor at Oxford was C.S. Lewis (they disliked each other intensely). His little boat eventually floated into some of the most exclusive social waterways-he attended the wedding of Princess Margaret, hung out with celebrities of all sorts. Wilson properly creditsBetjeman for his pioneering work with the BBC (early on, he saw and exploited the potential of television) and with the fledgling architectural preservationist movement. Absent here is something essential: a chronology of the poet's life with a list of his published titles. Occasionally displays the author's characteristic acerbity-but generous to a fault.
From the Publisher
“Wilson’s forte is the character, and he brilliantly conveys Betjeman’s odd mixture of introspection and sociability, gaiety and melancholia, exhibitionism and self-disgust.”
Daily Telegraph

Product Details

ISBN-13:
9780374111984
Publisher:
Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Publication date:
11/28/2006
Edition description:
First Edition
Pages:
368
Product dimensions:
6.20(w) x 9.50(h) x 1.25(d)

Meet the Author

A. N. Wilson is a fellow of the Royal Society of Literature, and holds a prominent position in the world of literature and journalism. He is an award-winning biographer and a celebrated novelist.

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