Waugh and “Mrs Bluefeet” in New Book

The latest Literary Review has an essay by novelist and literary critic D J Taylor about what he calls “biographer’s luck”. The was inspired by his latest biography to be published next month in the UK. An American edition entitled The Lost Girls: Love and Literature in Wartime London will appear in January. This is about Cyril Connolly and the group around him that produced the wartime and postwar magazine Horizon, especially the young women members of that group.

One of those was Janetta Parlade who is mentioned by Waugh in several contexts. See previous post. Taylor explains one of them:

If Janetta tended to play second fiddle to better-known convives such as Barbara Skelton and Sonia Brownell – soon to become the second Mrs Orwell – then this isn’t to diminish her importance to Connolly and his circle. She was, for example, present on the occasion when the 6,000 copies of a Horizon number that contained the word ‘bugger’ (in a short story by Julian Maclaren-Ross) had to be struck out by hand by the magazine’s staff after the printers objected. A horrified Evelyn Waugh, to whom she once opened the door without having put on her shoes, christened her ‘Mrs Bluefeet’ and gave her a minor role in Unconditional Surrender (1961). As Sonia’s bosom companion she visited Orwell as he lay dying at University College Hospital and was a witness at his wedding.

In Waugh’s novel she was one of the pair named Frankie and Coney who were part of the group hovering around Connolly. Others in that group such as Sonia Brownell (later Orwell) and Lys Lubbock also contributed to these characters.

Taylor, who also wrote a biography of George Orwell, was pleased to find some new material from Janetta’s papers relating to that subject. He also includes an explanation of his inspiration for his new book:

Where do biographers get their inspiration? If novelists are usually happy to admit to the sudden flash of insight – Orwell got the idea for Animal Farm by watching a small boy goad a cart-horse along a country lane – life-writers tend to take refuge in the much more downmarket prompt of saturation. You are interested in a particular subject; basic research hardens this interest into an obsession, after which the subject becomes an unshiftable part of your mental furniture. Curiously, Lost Girls developed out of a single incident. Sitting talking to the daughter of a Lost Girl, in her North Norfolk kitchen, and impressed by the number of appearances her enigmatic mamma had racked up in the literary autobiographies of the post-war era, I made a rather naïve remark about the glamour of being born into a world where the man snoozing in the deckchair at the bottom of the garden might turn out to be E.M. Forster.

My friend rose up out of her chair and loomed over me. ‘You have no idea’ she said, ‘quite how awful my childhood was.’ Suddenly, the ghosts of Forster, Connolly and Evelyn Waugh receded, and we were left with the vision of a small, terrified child, who, I later discovered, was sent to a children’s home at the age of two for fear of what her step-father might do to her.

The friend to whom Taylor refers is no doubt Janetta’s daughter, artist Nicky Loutit whose memoirs (New Year’s Day is Black) were recently published. See previous post.


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