It is impossible to travel for very long in the foothills of a certain kind of mid- to late 20th-century English literary landscape without coming across one or other, or sometimes all four, of the Crichel Boys. They feature in Frances Partridge’s diaries almost from one page to the next, James Lees-Milne returns to them with all the relish of an upper-class homing pigeon, and the indexes of many a genteel memoir mention their names. Someone was always going to write a study of their communal life, and it is to the credit of Simon Fenwick, last seen on the bookshop shelves with an excellent biography of Joan Leigh Fermor, that he has marshalled the necessary sources – some of them obvious, several of them hugely recondite – and got in first.
At the heart of this book are four middle-aged gay men who began weekending at Long Crichel House in Dorset in the years after the Second World War, each of whom acquired a share in the property: Eardley Knollys (1902–91), Eddy Sackville-West, later the fifth Baron Sackville (1901–65), Raymond Mortimer (1895–1980) and Desmond Shawe-Taylor (1907–95). Each of them burned brightly in his particular firmament: Knollys as an art dealer