When I was five years old, my oldest half-brother came one evening to say goodnight. With him was the most beautiful person I have ever seen. She leaned over my bed to kiss me and said ‘Shane and I are going to get married’. I decided at once she was a princess and asked if could be a page at her wedding. She laughed. The laugh had a quality in it which I did not understand, though I knew it was not mockery. Later I came to know it as a love of impertinence and a thorough enjoyment of the direct. I became her slave.
Now, fifty-three years later, I am asked to review her letters. The impression I am left with, after some 400 pages, is one of infinite sadness and waste. The life of Ann Fleming, as she became by her third marriage, was far removed from the bedtime fairy tale that my childish imagination had forecast.
In brief, she bore two children by my half-brother, but soon fell out of love with him and had an awkward wartime affair with Lord Rothermere, whom she married when her husband was killed. By this time she was already in love with lan Fleming and, within two years of her second marriage, had a daughter by Fleming who lived only a matter of hours. Eventually she married Fleming and had a son by him. Even this marriage, which was of real importance to her, became bitterly tempestuous. Quite apart from her marital difficulties, she was surrounded by sadness . Her youngest sister died of drink. Her only brother died quite young of cancer. Her son by Ian Fleming committed suicide. In her last years many of her closer friends died.
All this is hard to reconcile with Ann Fleming’s perfectly well-deserved reputation for gaiety, wit, intelligence and ability to create an atmosphere in which those qualities would flourish in others.
The editor of this book of letters, Mark Amory, says that he and the publishers agreed that Ann Fleming was not a suitable subject for a conventional biography. They are probably right, but a collection of letters needs either to be the letters of someone who is sufficiently well-known and understood to need no background or to contain such unexpected or intriguing material about other people or subjects that the author is of quite secondary importance. The only other hope is that the style is of a quality that is a pleasure to read for itself.
Ann’s style was pleasant, but hardly literary, though she plainly learned eagerly from Evelyn Waugh, who ticked her off for writing octopi as the plural of octopus. Thereafter, she always wrote octopodes.
The subject matter of letters, while entertaining and anecdotal, concerns mostly a very small coterie of friends – Cecil Beaton, Noel Coward, Lady Diana Cooper, Peter Quennell, Cyril Connolly, Lady Avon, Lucian Freud, Somerset Maugham are the most frequently named. The squabbles between all of these she retells, mostly in letters to Evelyn Waugh. For those who know them it is mildly amusing, but for others I should have thought it would become wearisome. There are so me extremely funny stories – the Duke of Devonshire saying of a projected visit by Randolph Churchill to Anthony Eden that it would be the final camel which broke the straw’s back; Ann’s cook warning her daughter about buying a second-hand gas stove – ‘All second-hand gas stoves is second hand because someone stuck their head in the oven, and it ain’t lucky.’
Mr Amory, the editor, has worked hard to make clear who everyone is in the steady stream of social names, though a family tree might have helped one through the labyrinth of cousins.
Lacking, then, the necessary ingredients for a collection of letters which could be of interest to more than a thousand acquaintances, the book provokes a desire to know more about the person who wrote these gossipy letters. Rather than hear another version of a dreary story of Evelyn Waugh finding an unemptied chamber-pot under his bed at Chatsworth, we long to know what were the real feelings of the woman whose bleak life I have sketched above. These feelings virtually never appear in the letters. Ann wrote to amuse, indeed some of what she wrote to Evelyn Waugh was so embellished as to lack all verisimilitude. In her desire to entertain, she did herself a disservice, suppressing her own orginality of thought and avoiding all genuine emotion, and so appearing more brittle than she was.
Towards the very end of the book, Mr Amory allows a quotation from a Canadian diplomat’s book (Charles Ritchie, Storm Signals 1983) in which Ann says of herself, ‘In my youth I did what I wanted and never knew guilt. Women’s frustrations are different and simpler than those of men, and come from not getting what they want, usually something quite uncomplicated – a husband, a lover, a home, children – but men suffer from not knowing what or whom they want.’ These are both the most revealing and shrewd words in the whole book .
Guilt certainly hardly troubled her, though I remember, when my half-brother was killed, she wrote a most dignified letter to our mother saying that she felt more miserable than she had any right to feel. Nonetheless the reader looks for some kind of explanation as to why she married Rothermere long after she had fallen in love with Fleming. (She used to maintain that sex with Rothermere was a rare event on account of his lassitude, but was unsurpassed when it did occur.) And his breath is taken away by her dishonesty in not revealing to Rothermere, until after it had been born and died, that the baby she had was Fleming’s and not his.
The most surprising thing about these letters to me is the measured good sense and the generosity of lan Fleming. Ann had a way of picking husbands who detested her way of life. Both Rothermere and Fleming particularly disliked parties and intellectuals. Both were essential to Ann. Rothermere was too flaccid a character to do anything but what the last person told him to do, so he acquiesced.
Fleming may have hoped gradually to direct her into other interests. ‘You … could be a very great person in England (as opposed to the shiny world) if you wished and if someone beat you with a hairbrush once a day.’
The editor says he found Fleming’s love letters ‘… sometimes dull, even embarrassing’. I found the ones he has selected quite merry and often far more perceptive and less self-deluding than those of most lovers. And when their marriage became difficult, his letters to her appear to be masterpieces of forbearance and understanding. For some reason Mr Amory has given us hardly any of her replies to Fleming at this period. He tells us enough about Fleming’s mistress in Jamaica, but nothing beyond a passing reference to Ann’s simultaneous affair with a married man. This may be due to a very proper desire not to cause distress to the lover’s widow, but it is hardly fair to treat of Ann’s fury without giving us some idea of Fleming’s reaction to her infidelity.
Altogether there is too much reticence. There are hints, of a fairly lighthearted nature, about Ann’s treatment of her son-in-law, John Morgan, a highly intelligent, gifted diplomat. In letters to Evelyn Waugh, she refers to him as the ‘hypergamist’ (someone who married above his social station) and the ‘upstart’. One may read between the lines something of her casual attitude to her daughter’s wedding – forgetting to do anything about the bridesmaids’ dresses, so that three alternative bridesmaids, who happened to have identical dresses, had to be substituted at the last minute. But the positive cruelty, based on outrageous snobbery which was largely responsible for the ultimate destruction of the marriage, is entirely missing.
There is no doubt that Ann was extremely bad at close family relationships. With her brother Hugo she fought, as she did with her sister Laura. Her youngest sister she treated with disdain, as she had none of the glitter of the rest of the family, only a simple warmheartedness. The close relationship which might have worked was with her son Caspar. Alas, she went too far the other way, spoiling him atrociously. Evelyn Waugh endeavoured teasingly to stop her. Fleming, in another reasonable letter, pleaded with her. She seemed unable to do anything but ruin him with blind indulgence. He took to drugs and killed himself
Kindly reticence of the editor also deprives us of what must have been interesting political gossip. In later years, Ann became friends with many Labour politicians Hugh Gaitskell, Tony Crosland, Roy Jenkins and also Lord Goodman, Harold Wilson ‘s solicitor. What they made of her views – ‘I don’t like the proletariat at all…’ – and her complaint of boring neighbours ‘that fell into that category of person which is ever increasing and neither “landed” nor “peasantry” , one can only guess, but power always had a fascination for her.
Really, we learn nothing from these useful contacts, except that Roy Jenkins and Tony Crosland tried to browbeat Barbara Castle over the 70 mph speed limit, which is scarcely thrilling.
Mr Amory suggests that he has left out very little, but goes on to say that more recent gossip hurts more, so there have been excisions. Well, we can hardly expect an editor to say, ‘I have cut out all the best bits.’ But that, I suspect, is what has happened.
The fact is that four years was too short a time after her death to publish Ann’s letters. The question is whether, when the time is ripe, she will be sufficiently interesting for them to be published in fulL
My feeling is that with the material which I believe exists, with the full story of a remarkable love affair, this woman described by Patrick Leigh-Fermor as so ‘beautiful, gay, comic and self-mocking’ will be seen as one of the more vivid lesser characters of our time.