Rereading Barbara Skelton

In today’s Guardian, literary critic and novelist D J Taylor reviews the life and writings of Barbara Skelton. She was a fixture of interwar literary London Bohemia, having been the wife of, inter alia, both Waugh’s friend Cyril Connolly and, more briefly, his posthumous publisher George Weidenfeld. When not married (or even when she was), she usually arranged to be the mistress of some one who could pay the bills. King Farouk of Egypt was among her patrons. She also managed to have a writing career, with both novels and memoirs to her credit. Taylor begins his article with a review of her first novel A Young Girl’s Touch published in 1955 and recently reissued by Faber Finds. He tracks the plot of the novel against the facts of her lfe as described in her own memoirs as well as those of others and the two stories fit together rather well:

…Skelton was famous, or perhaps only notorious, part of the tiny yet legendary demographic defined by the essayist Peter Quennell (with whom she had pursued a wartime affair) as “lost girls” – “adventurous young women who flitted about London, alighting briefly here and there and making the best of any random perch on which they happened to descend”. Their ranks included Orwell’s second wife Sonia Brownell, Janetta Parlade (then married to the journalist Robert Kee) and Connolly’s former girlfriend Lys Lubbock, and the associative net flung out to gather them in was usually a connection with Connolly’s 40s literary magazine, Horizon. Skelton herself had first come across Connolly while sharing a flat with Quennell upstairs from the Horizon offices.

Waugh doesn’t cross her path directly in Taylor’s narrative but is quoted gossiping about her in his letters:

Here is Evelyn Waugh, writing to Nancy Mitford early in 1950 with a bumper selection of the latest Grub Street scuttlebutt: “G Orwell is dead, and Mrs Orwell presumably a rich widow. Will Cyril [Connolly] marry her? He is said to be consorting with Miss Skelton” [Letters, 320]…Punctuated by outsize doses of husbandly melancholia and periodic crises in the pets department (“His Animal has been sacked from the zoo” Waugh reported to Nancy Mitford, “and sent home to Oak Cottage in disgrace”) [Letters, 423] the marriage limped on until early 1955, when Connolly became aware of his wife’s infidelity with Weidenfeld – apparently by walking on a whim through the front door of the latter’s house in Chester Square and finding them in flagrante.

She is also immortalized in Anthony Powell’s Dance to the Music of Time as the man-eating ATS driver Pamela Flitton.

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