Skip to main content

You are here

Memories of an Aesthete

Summer/Fall 2009 - Vol. 51, Nos. 3 - 4

DAVID KUBIAK is a Professor of Classics at Wabash College in Crawfordsvilles, Indiana.

Dis manibus
Sororis Sebastiani
quae viam monstravit

Evelyn Waugh's celebrated novel BridesheadRevisited was recently committedto film once again, bravely (and very badly)in the face of the definitive BBC productionof three decades ago. When I first sawnews of the movie, my mind turned immediatelyto the book's fi gure of mantic wit,Anthony Blanche, since in 1981 I spent anafternoon in Florence with the man whoinspired the character, Waugh's old Oxfordcompanion Harold (after 1974 Sir Harold)Mario Mitchell Acton, writer, traveler, artcollector,arbiter elegantiae to his generation,and throughout his long life faithful andgarrulous friend of many people more significant culturally than himself. The storyI tell here is derived from extensive noteswritten out immediately after our conversation.Various complications have preventedits publication before this point, butnow seems the time to recall my own brushwith the irretrievably lost world of Charlesand Sebastian: "My theme is memory, thatwinged host. . . ."


When Harold Acton died in 1994 at age89, Anthony Powell writing in the NewYork Times called him "the last of the oldcrowd," with Powell himself, who was94 at his death in 2000, the absolute last."The old crowd" meant artists and intellectuals,both real and soi-disants, whowere at Oxford and often Eton togetherin the 1920's: writers like Waugh, GrahamGreene, Robert Byron, Cyril Connolly,John Betjeman, and Peter Quennell; theart historian Kenneth Clark and Virgilianscholar Roger Mynors; Brian Howard,suffering under the peculiarly Englishcurse of never again being as brilliant ashe was at seventeen; and a whole host ofdecorative plutocrats in the style of LadyCurzon's sons Alfred and Hugh Duggan.Aesthetic mentor to some of thesemen in their university years and risingabove them all in visibility was HaroldActon. His father Arthur was mysteriousin his origins but had succeeded in attachinghimself to the Shropshire-Neapolitanbranch of the Acton family and in marryingan American banking heiress, HortenseMitchell. They met while the elder Actonwas working for Stanford White in Chicagodesigning imitation Italian palazzifor American industrialists; with his wife'sfortune he bought a real one, the magnificent Villa La Pietra outside Florence,an ancestral home of the Capponi familysince the sixteenth century. Arthur Actoncould now devote himself entirely to theadornment of the Villa, particularly therestoration of its anachronistic British gardensto their original Italian Renaissanceform. Two sons were born, Harold in 1904and in 1906 William, who died, likely asuicide, in 1945. The children were raisedin princely opulence surrounded by theirfather's ever-expanding art collections, butdeprived of any fixed sense of identity, withconflicting ties to English cultural traditions,a series of indulgent Italian nannies,and brash American relatives strewn fromNew York to Hawaii, where DillinghamBoulevard in Honolulu is named for one ofthem. It was a childhood that encouragedhistrionic self-invention.1

According to custom, at the age of tenHarold was sent to an English boardingschool, the fashionable Wixenford, losinga home filled with sunlight and Botticelliand suddenly thrust into a foreign landof rainy mists and rugby. Kenneth Clarkwas there at the same time, and describesthe place with sardonic neatness: "A fewof the preparatory schools may have beeninterested in educating their pupils, butWixenford . . . had no such pretensions,"2thus making it the perfect place for Haroldto meet that part of English societyhe was to combat in the first part of hislife and cultivate in the last, the Philistinesons of the upper classes, whom he triedto civilize along Continental lines. Heretoo he first made use of what became ahabitual defense mechanism, the tendencyto take what the other boys mocked abouthim and make it into a weapon of counterattack.If his speech seemed odd heconsciously affected an Italian accent andsang bawdy Neapolitan songs; when hisschoolmates showed each other picturesof their mothers he brought out a reproductionof Giovanni Boldini's portrait ofthe Marchesa Casati posed with a greyhound;and after England entered WorldWar I he published an article in the schoolpaper suggesting that the quickest wayto victory was for British troops to wearuniforms designed by Bakst of the BalletRusse and to commission battle marchesfrom Stravinsky.

After Wixenford inevitably cameEton, where Harold's precocious talentswere developed further, and where hemet another Anglo-American with anassumed aristocratic name. This was BrianHoward, for whom Waugh appropriatedthe description of Lord Byron as "mad,bad, and dangerous to know," and whowas the origin of Ambrose Silk's characterin Put Out More Flags. His undisciplinedexcesses culminated in an early death in1958, but at Eton, Brian and Harold collaboratedon a number of avant-gardeprojects, chiefl y a single issue of a magazinecalled the Eton Candle, which containedessays and poetry attacking Georgianvalues in literature and proclaimingthe spirit of the 1890's reborn. It was atriumph for a pair of schoolboys. Therewere two London printings, a favorablereview in the TLS (favorable reviews onthe whole did not mark Sir Harold's literaryoutput), and the excited patronage ofthe Sitwells, then approaching the zenithof their artistic influence. When theyarrived at Oxford, Howard almost at oncedropped art in favor of a mindless sociallife with the equestrian set. Harold begana new literary paper, the Oxford Broom,arranged successful appearances by GertrudeStein and Edith Sitwell, and put outtwo books of verse. Otherwise the publicactivities of Acton and his friends compriseda series of exhibitionistic gestures,still remembered today because theyappear in the autobiographies of all theircontemporaries and were transmuted byEvelyn Waugh into scenes for his mostfamous book.


Surprisingly, it was my sixth-grade nun whowas instrumental in guiding me towardsthe world of the Bright Young Things; hername no one writing on Waugh wouldhave the nerve to invent: Sister Sebastian.One day she took me aside and said thatalthough I was still too young to appreciateit, in the future she felt sure I would likevery much a book called Brideshead Revisitedby Evelyn Waugh ("He's English, but oneof us"). Her remark of course had preciselyits intended effect, which was to set me offto the library in search of this mature work.I found it, and as has been the case for somany others, it sparked a lasting enthusiasmfor Waugh both as a writer and curmudgeonlypersonality.

Despite Sir Harold's bristling at the ideaand efforts by Waugh himself to dismiss theidentification, there is no doubt that in thefirst part of Brideshead the extravagant characterof Anthony Blanche at Oxford is anextended theme and variation on HaroldActon's university persona. No other undergraduaterecited poetry through a megaphoneinto the Christ Church meadow;Peter Quennell recalls Acton once declaimingall three hundred twenty-six lines ofSwinburne's threnody Anactoria at a luncheonparty.3 No other undergraduate wasforced to barricade his rooms against bandsof drunken hearties bent on destroying theireccentric classmate's art collection. Mosttelling is the fact that no one at Oxford representedthe force of artistic liberation forWaugh more seriously than Harold Acton,who remembered his protégé in the firstvolume of his autobiography Memoirs of anAesthete as "a prancing faun."4 In 1964, bywhich time Waugh had long since ceased toprance, he admitted the debt. I quote fromhis brief autobiography A Little Learning onhis friendship with Acton, juxtaposing insquare brackets remarks Waugh has CharlesRyder make about Anthony Blanche:

He was always the leader; I notalways, the follower. His conspectuswas enormously larger than mine . .. . Harold brought with him the airof connoisseurs of Florence and theinnovators of Paris, of Berenson andof Gertrude Stein, Magnasco and T.S. Eliot. . . . I was certainly a littledazzled by his manifest superioritiesof experience. [" . . . he dined withProust and Gide and was on closerterms with Cocteau and Diaghilev;Firbank sent him his novels withfervent inscriptions. . . . At times weall seemed children beside him. . . ."]. . . he was vividly alive to every literaryfashion, exuberantly appreciative,punctilious, light and funny andenergetic. [" . . . there was a blusterand zest in Anthony which the rest ofus had shed somewhere in our moreleisured adolescence. . . ."]5

By the time I started my academic careerat Wabash College in 1979 more than fiftyyears separated Sir Harold from his Oxforddays with the "prancing faun," and fifteenhad passed since Waugh's death. He hadlong been installed as grand seigneur of LaPietra, authored two volumes of memoirsand several rarified monographs on Italianhistory, and become a proud intimateof members of the English royal family,especially the late Princess Margaret, whoprobably secured the knighthood for him.The man who had scorned Georgian conventionat Oxford was now an inveteratedefender of old European social and artisticvalues. When in 1981 I had the chance ourfaculty is given to devise a Freshman Tutorialcourse outside my own professionalfield of Classical Studies I had the title rightoff. The class would be called Evelyn Waughand His Friends, and it occurred to me that Imight arrange a conversation with the mostimportant friend of all.

One of my teachers in graduate schoolat Harvard was Mason Hammond (1903–2002), Pope Professor of the Latin Languageand Literature. He had knownHarold Acton for many years, first meetinghim after World War II when he wascharged with recovering works of Italianart looted by Nazis. In 1980 I approachedMr. Hammond for a letter of introduction,which he said he would be happy to compose.By the next year negotiations hadproceeded, and I received more informationon January 4:

He is around eighty and in reasonablehealth and, being half American (hismother came from Chicago), he iswell disposed towards Americans. . . .Sir Harold has great charm and intelligence;you may find him old butnot, I believe, as of nearly a year ago,with any mental falling off. . . . Fromthis point you can write him directlyabout what it is you want to discuss.

I don't know what Professor Hammondwrote to La Pietra on my behalf, but Iimagine Sir Harold did not expect that Iwould be sent a copy of the response hereceived dated February 4, 1981:

I hope that a meeting with yourfriend David Kubiak here in Junecan be arranged, when I shall try toanswer his questions about EvelynWaugh. This can be done more easilyviva voce, hazards of my healthpermitting. By the way I continue toreceive many similar requests, sinceE.W. dedicated his first novel to me.No doubt Mr Kubiak will come fullyarmed with the data, E.W.'s Letters,diaries, Christopher Sykes's biography,etc. He sounds like a goodscholar, but in this case a strong senseof humor is important.

I duly sent a letter to Florence outliningmy reasons for wanting to see him, andwas encouraged when I received from SirHarold a note beautifully hand-written inblack ink on thin blue airmail paper dated16 February inviting me to call when I wasin Italy that June. The peculiar backwardturning d's of his calligraphy in particularcaught my eye, and suggested the directionin which his life was by then unavoidablyoriented. Knowing that he was, as Waughmakes Anthony Blanche, Roman Catholic,I had said in my own written explanationto him that my special interest wasin Waugh's idiosyncratic religious faith, anaspect of his life still a subject of debate bypossessive Catholic voices on the one sideand hostile literary ones on the other. Hebegan talking about the subject in his invitation:"Evelyn Waugh's conversion savedhim from dangerous depression and prolongedhis life and work. While I saw it as ablessing I seldom discussed it with him. Hewas essentially a romantic, and hated thechanges introduced by Pope John, whichrevived his latent depression. . . ."

We had arranged that I would telephonefrom Venice to make precise the finaldetails, which I did from a room in thePalazzo Gritti, a hotel I thought fittinglygrand for the mood of the trip, and a memorableintroduction to Italy for a colleagueand friend who was traveling with me andhad never been in Europe before. When Imade the call, the voice that greeted meon the other line was already familiar fromthe many descriptions I had read—exoticallymusical, and with the slightest hint ofan Italian accent, more I thought in intonationthan pronunciation. Our exchangebegan with an apology from Sir Haroldfor his not being able to extend a dinnerinvitation. I would willingly have given upa meal for the brilliant sentence I had inits stead, which could have been pluckeddirectly from one of Waugh's novels: "Mycook has deserted me, and my butler's wifeshrinks from preparing meals for a crowd."We settled on cocktails for this crowd oftwo the following Monday, and when thatwas done almost immediately he appendedas a footnote another fragment of literarydialogue: "You know my desk holdsa positive sea of letters from absurd peoplewho have taken a sudden interest in myfriend Evelyn. Professor Hammond assuresme you are not likely to be one of them."I replied that my interest in Waugh wasfar from sudden, and I could only hope hewould not find me absurd. Some kind oftest appeared to have been passed, and atonce the tone turned cordial again, suffi-ciently so that I reminded him I was travelingwith a colleague who would like tocome with me for our talk. "And what isyour colleague's field?" "Chemistry," Isaid. That revelation produced an audiblesigh over the receiver, followed by "Thepoor man will undoubtedly be bored totears, but do bring him along." There wasthe echo of another voice: "And I will tellyou two things: one, that it will not makethe slightest difference to Sebastian's feelingfor me and, secondly, my dear—and Ibeg you to remember this though I haveplainly bored you into a condition of coma. . . ." For someone who objected to peopleseeing the connection, in my first conversationwith him Sir Harold had alreadybegun to sound a great deal like AnthonyBlanche.


The next week my chemical colleagueand I drove from Florence up the old ViaBolognese to number 120. Two rampantlions surmounted the iron portal of theVilla, and the house itself could barely beseen at the end of a long double row ofcypresses. After some preliminary discussionswith the porter, a direct descendantof the Sacristan in Tosca, I finally convincedhim that we were indeed expected,and the gate was opened. As we slowly leftbehind the anarchy of Italian city life andthe only sounds were of singing birds andleaves swishing in the breeze it was hardnot to succumb to the enchantment of theplace felt by many before us. We reachedand mounted the massive stone staircase;I pulled the bell at the Villa's front door.The butler met us, and placed my card on asilver tray. Then we were led down a longcorridor filled with early Tuscan paintingand into the enormous gran salone of thehouse, the space where countless artistsand members of the beau monde had beenguests through the whole of the twentiethcentury amidst a décor that remainedfirmly of the seventeenth.

Since I had in a way recognized his voiceon the telephone, after seeing so manyphotographs I imagined I would be preparedto meet Sir Harold in the flesh. Butthis time I found myself nonplussed. Whenhe made his entrance from the library hewas to be sure impeccably dressed in a veryEnglish manner, but right off I noticed hiscurious pear-shaped torso and large headand hands, which despite his height didnot seem quite in proportion to the rest ofhis body. Most un-English was the conspicuousjade ring he wore, a memento ofhappy time spent in China in the 1930's,effective for use as a punctuation mark inconversation and for inscribing dramaticarcs in the air as he talked. But it was hismanner of walking that anyone who didnot see it would find difficult to believe.His trunk was tilted slightly to one side,and he did not so much walk as flutter,each movement of the feet accompaniedby a discreet waving of his arms in counter-motion. The effect was of someoneswimming through the air just a bit abovethe ground: the "Eton slump" as refinedby his study of Taoism under the tutelageof a dispossessed Manchu prince.

After introductions were made we weresettled in an island of furniture arrangedat one end of the room. A bar of sortshad been prepared with diminutive bottlesof gin and tonic, and Sir Harold gaveperemptory instructions: "My butler willmake you a fi rst drink; after that you mayhelp yourselves. I'm afraid we are all stillrather in a state of shock. A Titian was stolenlast week, and such things cannot beinsured in Italy." I had no idea what theappropriate response to a statement likethat was apart from "I'm very sorry," andreverted to my earlier plan for how ourtalk might begin. Some reminder of Mrs.Acton's native Chicago would be good, Isurmised, and so brought along with me abox of Marshall Field's signature Frangomints. I had miscalculated. "Chocolatesin the June heat of Florence? Clearly theywill all have melted." The box was unceremoniouslyhurled to the end of a longtable, but the mention of Chicago did turnout to be wise, since it allowed Sir Harold'sfamous stream of anecdote to begin, andthe more he talked the happier he seemed."Mrs. Field was a great beauty, you know;I remember a grand dinner party in LakeForest with my Mitchell cousins where allthe men sat enraptured." He then inquiredabout Wabash College, and appeared tounderstand the idea of the American liberalarts school: "Too much specialization is nota good thing; scholars today have lost trackof the great sweep of history." I suspectedthis attitude was due in no small part tothe professional reception of his own historicalmonographs, but I continued witha Wabash story I thought he would enjoy,since it involved a poet whom he knew.

In 1907 Ezra Pound came to the ModernLanguage Department at Wabash, acollege at that time stringently Presbyterianin character. Pound had already alienatedthe administration by his foppish dressand a general demeanor considered unsuitablefor professors, when an opportunityto be rid of him presented itself. An abandonedchorus girl from an itinerant burlesquetroupe was taken in for the nightby Pound, quite chastely. But when hislandlady discovered her in his rooms thenext morning the matter was reported tothe president of Wabash, and Ezra Poundwas summarily dismissed. Justice was animportant virtue to these upright Christians,however, and they felt it their dutyto pay him the year's salary stipulated inhis contract, which Pound took; he immediatelyleft for Europe, making WabashCollege partly responsible for the courseof modern English poetry. "[Venice] is,after all, an excellent place to come tofrom Crawfordsville, Indiana," Poundlater wrote.6 "Oh my!" Sir Harold shotback fortissimo, and then leaning towardsus said in a confidential and mischievoustone, "I imagine you could get away withmuch worse today, couldn't you?" Myanecdote prompted one of his own. "Howwell I remember the last time I saw Ezra.It was in this very room, towards the endwhen he had stopped talking altogether.After an hour of absolute stony silence teawas brought in, and as his cup was aboutto be filled he looked up, and uttered asingle word—'gin.'" The "light and funnyand energetic" Harold Acton that Waughfound so congenial was progressivelyrevealing himself quite unchanged.

Evidently pleased to know somethingabout my academic home, Sir Harold theninquired about the progress of our Italiangiro. When told we had been in Mantovahe talked not about the frescoes of Mantegnain the Palazzo Ducale, but ratherasked if we had been to the Palazzo del Te."The work of Giulio Romano there is oneof the great achievements of Italian painting."Later I did see the Sala dei Gigantiand understood. To him the Renaissanceperfection of Mantegna was probably a little boring; Romano's wild mannerist jumbleof huge figures falling down from theceiling along the walls better harmonizedwith his own spirit, which always took thegreatest pleasure in comical grotesquerie.

Then another subject: Had we eatenwell while in Florence, since it was soeasy not to? Today I find it what AgathaRuncible would call "shy-making" toadmit my naïve satisfaction when our havingdined the night before at the restaurantOmero in the hills above the city metwith approval: "It is a very beautiful place;you are not ordinary tourists if you knowit." Any previous faux pas must have beenforgiven, since we had been paid the mostsought-after compliment of every foreignvisitor to Florence for two centuries, andby the person who more than anyone elsein the city was entitled to set the criteriafor it. Years later in Rome, the sommelierat La Pergola must have wondered why onenight the American diner laughed out loudwhen after I ordered the '97 Gaja Sperssfrom the wine list he quietly remarked:"Ah, Signore, quando Lei è entrato qui hocapito che non era come gli altri" ("OhSir, when you came in I knew that youwere not like the others.") That I had oncebeen told already, and on rather higherauthority.

Now seemed the point to begin toinquire about Waugh, which would betricky, not only because of Sir Harold'sresentment at being thought the patternfor Anthony Blanche, but because the thenrecent publication of Waugh's Diaries andLetters exposed some very unflatteringopinions about his talents as a writer. In1932 Waugh says of Acton's first historicalwork on the later Medici, where theauthor's stated purpose was to "raise aBaroque monument of prose":

It is most unsatisfactory and I amafraid will do him no more goodthan his novel—full of pompous littleclichés and involved, illiterate passages.Now and then a characteristicgay flash, but deadly dull for the mostpart. There are long citations fromReresby, Evelyn and contemporarytravelers. Also endless descriptions offetes and processions.7

The last observation is shrewd in itsidentifying the defect that undermines allof Acton's writing and makes it difficult tofinish any of his books: his assumption thatthe substance of a thing, whether physicalor historical or emotional, could be conveyedto readers simply by recounting inbone-crushing detail all its accidents. Evenworse than his treatment of the Medicibook was Waugh's outright duplicityabout The Last Bourbons of Naples in 1961.He writes to Harold: "I am keeping yourbook on the Bourbons for my sea voyage.A work of that kind, so rich and learned,must be studied with proper respect."8 TheDiaries record a different attitude: "Dinnerat the Garrick to celebrate the publicationof Harold Acton's second volume of NeapolitanHistory. Dinner, chosen by JohnSutro, excellent; the book, unreadable."9Vintage Waugh, certainly, but the repercussionsfor his friend when he read thesebarbs, and realized that the English literaryworld was reading them as well, cannothave been pleasant—not least becauseafter bits of the Diaries first appeared, hehimself in his memoir of Nancy Mitfordhad referred to certain excerpts that surprisedhim, and then posed a rhetoricalquestion, which the next year and to hispublic embarrassment he found answered:"What posthumous teases and shocks werestill in store for Evelyn's friends?"10

I brought news I thought might be adeft way to start. Part of the summer hadbeen spent in Oxford visiting a former student,then a Junior Fellow at New College,and I learned from him that the BullingdonClub, punningly satirized as the Bollingerby Waugh at the start of Decline andFall—"At the last dinner, three years ago,a fox had been brought in in a cage andstoned to death with champagne bottles.What an evening that had been!"—theBullingdon had been banished by theUniversity authorities five miles beyondthe city limits for incorrigible rowdiness."I am most gratified to hear it," Sir Haroldreplied; "you may know that they were notvery pleasant to me as an undergraduate."Indeed not. It was the Club's unpleasantnessthat is the subject of Anthony Blanche'svirtuoso narrative to Charles Ryder aboutan incident that ended in the membersforcing Antoine to "sport" in the MercuryFountain at Christ Church: "Theyhad been having one of their ridiculousclub dinners. And they were all wearingcoloured tail-coats—a sort of livery. 'Mydears,' I said to them, 'you look like a lotof most disorderly footmen.'"11

Mention of the Bullingdon led naturallyto the old question of how much theworld that Evelyn Waugh wrote aboutactually existed. In response Sir Haroldreturned to the basic romanticism inWaugh's character he had spoken of earlierin his letter: "His gift was in observingand then transforming experience. Thereare several scenes in Brideshead drawn fromoccasions when both of us were present.I was surprised when things that were tome unremarkable at the time had becomein the book the stuff of high romance."This perception squares well with whatLady Pansy Lamb said in a letter to Waughafter the publication of Brideshead: "But allthe richness of your invention, the magicalembroideries you fling around your characterscannot make me nostalgic about theworld I knew in the 1920's. . . . Nobodywas brilliant, beautiful, and rich and theowner of a wonderful house, though somewere one or the other. . . ." 12 What as afriend Sir Harold called the romanticismof Waugh is of course the same characteristicthat his enemies identified as snobberyand social-climbing. He admitted theexistence of this opinion, but predictablydid not believe the charge valid, rejectingit with what might be thought itself a verysnobbish explanation, which he also usedin claiming to be amazed at any curiosityabout himself: "Evelyn and I lived in a particulartime and place and had the friendsof that time and place. I have never understoodthe desire to see in this fact any greatsignificance or design." He was willing toadd that "Evelyn's supposed snobbery waspart of his comedy. He objected to myjoining the R.A.F. during the war on thegrounds that it was the most déclassé branchof the services and had ugly uniforms. Andas for courting the powerful, he grew fartoo misanthropic early on to pursue socialambition with any seriousness."

I was surprised at his insistence on whata poor conversationalist Waugh becameafter Oxford, and how this quality onlygrew more pronounced over the years:"At parties he would sit by himself on asofa glaring at the other guests and sayinghardly a civil word to anyone the wholeevening. But he took in everything, andthe next day could recite in minute detailconversations he had overheard. He wasemphatically not a talker, but a supremelyastute observer." The question of Waugh'sincreasing isolation in middle age also ledto a comment on his medicating himselffor chronic insomnia, which probablybrought on the Pinfold hallucinations of1954: "He had a theatrical hatred for anythingup-to-date—have you seen picturesof that ear trumpet he used?—and at nightwould down poisonous Edwardian sleepingpotions like Veronal (procured fromLord knows where), followed by enormoustumblers full of whiskey and crème de mentheto mask the smell. People sitting near himsometimes warned the hostess that theremust be a gas leak in the house." I recognizedthis story from the second volumeof his autobiography,13 but there the detailsare different, the last line, delivered totallydeadpan, absent altogether, and the overallimpact of the literary version much lessamusing. Writing notoriously destroys anoral tradition, and like a Homeric bard, thecomposer must have judged the audienceat hand and then made subtle adjustmentsin the selections from the massive store ofanecdote he had ready for any occasion.

At this good-humored juncture Ithought it safe to return to an earlierperiod and pursue my interest in Waugh'sCatholicism and what if any part Harold'saesthetic credo might have played in it.While he had said of his friend's conversionthat "I seldom discussed it with him,"there was nonetheless a suggestive line ina congratulatory note Waugh wrote afterthe publication of Acton's first volume ofmemoirs in 1948: "My sympathies stillstand where you grounded them, withFrith [the painter William] and the Popeof Rome." 14 Although Sir Harold waschristened a Roman Catholic, his mother'sfamily and an establishment Englishprep school weakened the affiliation. Buthe described to us an act of religious rebellionwhen he reached his public school: "Iasserted myself at Eton," he said, "and toldthe authorities I could no longer in conscienceattend chapel, but wished accessto the services of the Roman CatholicChurch in which I had been baptized. Youare what you are, you know." His culturaland historical commitment to the Churchremained unchanged throughout his life.Standing first on a petition submitted toRome in 1971 by the British cultural éliterequesting that the traditional Latin rite ofthe Mass not be abrogated in England wasthe name of Harold Acton. The effort wasultimately successful, and resulted in whatwas dubbed the "Agatha Christie Indult,"because Pope Paul VI was a fan of themysteries and recognized her among thesignatories.

Today it will seem a paradox that forEnglish aesthetes beginning with Firbankand Wilde the Church represented not submissionto external authority but freedomfrom Anglo-Saxon convention and the possibilityof embracing the aggressive anti-Manichaeism of southern MediterraneanCatholic civilization, where the splendorsof the old Roman liturgy and the sensualityof much Italian sacred art confirmed ratherthan repressed lives lived in pursuit of thebeautiful. "The Protestant Faith has muchmisery to answer for" is Acton's expressionof this posture in his memoirs.15 Waugh,on the other hand, never tired of repeatingthat his conversion had to do with nothingexcept the intellectual embrace of truth.Writing to Lord David Cecil in 1949 he isforthright: "I can't think of a single saintwho attached much importance to art."16But the aesthete's Alice-in-WonderlandCatholicism was an undoubted influenceon his own writing. It belongs to Sebastianin Brideshead:

"But, my dear Sebastian, you can't
seriously believe it all."
"Can't I?"
"I mean about Christmas and the
star and the three kings andthe ox and the ass."
"Oh yes, I believe that. It's a lovely
"But you can't believe things because
they're a lovely idea."
"But I do. That's how I believe."

That's how Harold Acton believed aswell.

In Brideshead Anthony Blanche appearsas a Catholic much absorbed with socialobservation; I wanted to find out morefrom Sir Harold about a link between theChurch and charges of pretension againstWaugh made possible by the religious sociologyof England. Had Waugh been anxiousto cultivate the great "old Catholic"families he was to write about in his laternovels, in particular, as Burke's Peeragedescribes them, "the noble and illustriousHowards"? "We knew Edmund Howard[the Hon.] the best, but Evelyn was notreally close to any of them," Sir Harold said,adding that no matter how much Waughwas supposed to have dearly loved a duke,he could not imagine these people inspiringany sustained attention from a writerwho demanded witty friends: "The Howardsare great aristocrats, and frighteninglypious—but not too bright, you know. Thelast Duke of Norfolk presided as Earl Marshallover Queen Elizabeth's coronation,and anyone who knew him thought it wasonly divine pleasure at the family faith thatgot His Grace through the ceremony, sinceit was not at all clear that the poor mancould tell his right hand from his left."Again a familiar voice. Here is AnthonyBlanche to Charles about Sebastian Flyte:" . . . he isn't very well endowed in the TopStorey. We couldn't claim that for him,could we, much as we love him?"

By now my colleague and I had helpedourselves to three gin and tonics, and Ibegan to feel that we had imposed on ourhost long enough, especially since I knewhe had recently been in London for treatmentof a kidney problem. Scarcely hadI started a next sentence thanking himfor his kindness when I was interrupted:"But you must see the garden before youleave!" The one thing I had promisedmyself not to do—because I thought itmust be another of the insider's ways ofdemonstrating that he was not an ordinarytourist in Florence—was to inflict on anolder man the thousandth circuit of hisrenowned property, and I doubly promisedmyself not to do so when he told usthat the week before he had shepherded agroup of Smith alumnae through it. Butfar from seeming relieved, there was a lookof crestfallen childlike disappointment onhis face at the idea of our not coming outside,which quickly changed to pleasurewhen I said that if he did not find it tiring,it would be a privilege to walk withhim. In the event we had trouble keepingup. Then 76, he considerably acceleratedthe "Eton-Taoist slump" as he pointed outand recited the history of the continuallyphotographed terraces and fountains, thestatuary brought by his father from areasaround Venice where the stone was mostresistant to bad weather, and the outdoortheater, with its footlights of sheared box,where another "great beauty," NastassjaKinsky, had recently been filmed for herlatest movie. All of it, we were informed,"tended by a single Polish gardener," hisfather's old retainer Mariano Ambrosiewicz,amazingly then still alive.

I had been warned that this tour wasgiven so often visitors tended to feel likestudents trailing after a museum docent,but at the end of the garden, on the sidethat faces towards Fiesole and the churchof San Dominico, there was an unexpectedimprovisation. In the spot where we werestanding the air was so heavily perfumed Ifound it diffi cult to breathe, and my colleague,who had sat for the whole afternoonmore or less silent, suddenly blurtedout: "What is that smell?" This was theplace where the knighted landlord of LaPietra chose to let down his guard. SirHarold smiled and answered, "That, mydear professor, is the odor of jasmine." Iwill always be grateful for my friend'sblunt question, because the flowers' scentled Sir Harold to a complex reminiscencewhich I have not read exactly this way inany of his own books or found anywherequoted by others: "When I was a boy Iremember seeing Ronald Firbank trippingthrough the streets of Florence," he toldus, in a sincerely wistful tone of voice wehad not heard earlier, "his arms full of lilies,which he tried to give to people whodidn't really want them." For a momentnone of us said anything, but simply stoodlooking out over the countryside. Mythoughts ran to a place at the beginningof Memoirs of an Aesthete, where the readeris told about a pre-pubescent infatuationHarold conceived for a girl, who cut himdead after being sent a postcard showingLeda and the swan with a message suggestingher boyish suitor's longing "to beyour swan, my darling." An early battlewith the Philistines lost, but productive ofa juvenile poem, which began:

My love is like a lily cast away.
Its petals once in sunlight's rich
Are withered now for ever—let
them be!
No love, alas, no love e'ermore
for me.17

Was the simile suggested by Harold actuallyhaving seen Ronald Firbank? Or wasthe scene transferred to Firbank long agoas a way of distancing the personal experienceof rejection? In either case, whoeverappreciated the intertextuality of the twostories heard Sir Harold making a referenceto himself and to the emotional disappointmentsof his life. A Proustian irony, Ithought, as my colleague and I expressedour thanks and said goodbye, that this finalmoment of vulnerability was prompted notby me, but by the scientist Sir Harold hadpredicted would be bored to tears.


Kenneth Clark claims that "Lives devotedto beauty usually end badly,"18 and sinceHarold Acton's death—in the bosom ofthe Roman Church, of course—it hasbeen easy for articles about him to finish ina minor key, with Anthony Powell's obituaryestablishing that mode by emphasizingthat "he had no great individual talent."Forgetful of the lively and comic friend ofEvelyn Waugh who was still to be found in1981, writers tend to prefer some versionof what Isaiah Berlin said about Waugh'sbrother-in-law Auberon Herbert:

The universe of his imagination,the semi-feudal, nostalgic, historicalromance which he lived out so movingly,so gallantly and painfully, hadbecome second nature to him, andperhaps, despite moments of penetratingself-awareness—the bittermoments when reality broke throughthe fantasy—had become one withhis basic character and nature.19

Admittedly, various posthumous developmentshave made a gloomy conclusionseem right. Once they were examined bySir Harold's legatee, New York University,the Acton art collection turned outto be made up chiefly of minor works ofthe Scuola di X type rather than importanthistorical pieces. Then in a scene straightfrom The Loved One, Arthur Acton'sbody was exhumed in 2003 to providea DNA sample for a suit brought againstthe $500,000,000 estate by the children ofhis putative illegitimate daughter LiannaBeacci. Results were positive, and legalaction continues.

It is unfortunate that we retain a decidedtendency inherited from the ancient biographicaltradition always to emphasizethe darker side of people's lives when summingup their identity. Underlying sadnessor frustration is taken as the realitymasked by false contentment and hypocriticaldecorum. But surely the wholeman is the true man. Harold Acton's flamboyantand then guarded presentation ofhimself to the world, which most men asrich and well-connected as he was wouldnot have bothered to contrive, the personalitywhich brought artistic enlightenmentand amusement and support to friends oldand new, this fi gure should not, I think, beviewed as a counterfeit like the phantomHelen who went to Troy while the realwoman of flesh and blood was languishingin Egypt waiting to be rescued. Somefuture biographer will no doubt supposethat he or she will be acting as savior ofthe genuine Harold Acton when a sixhundred-page, heavily annotated book isultimately published, but I cannot believethat book will bring to light anything thatwas not abundantly clear to its protagonist.He knew he was not an important writer,that his name would always be linked toWaugh's Anthony Blanche, that the VillaLa Pietra was as much his greatest burdenas his greatest pride. Facts of this sort donot lead me to any dour last judgment.Now whenever I remember the few hoursI spent with Sir Harold, what comes tomind is a small poem of Cavafy, an authorwhom he much admired. During his lastdays, dying in the great house where hewas born and had determined to stay, Iwould like to imagine these verses cameback to Harold Acton as well, assuringhim that he had after all achieved in hislife what from boyhood on he wanted forit most deeply:

I do not question whether I am
happy or not.
But one thing I have always gladly
in mind;
that in the great addition—their
addition that I abhor—
that has so many numbers, I am
not one
of the many units there. I was
not counted
in the total sum. And this joy
suffices me.


  1. On Acton's family and early life see Harold Acton,Memoirs of an Aesthete (London: Methuen, 1948).Autobiographical details are critically examined byMartin Green, Children of the Sun: A Study of "Decadence"in England After 1918 (New York: Basic Books,1976), and especially by J. Lord, "The Cost of theVilla," in Some Remarkable Men: Further Memoirs (NewYork: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1996).
  2. KennethClark, Another Part of the Wood: A Self-Portrait (NewYork, Evanston, San Francisco, London: Harper &Row, 1975), 33.
  3. Peter Quennell, The Marble Foot:An Autobiography, 1905–1938 (London: Collins,1976), 128.
  4. Acton, Memoirs, 126.
  5. Evelyn Waugh,A Little Learning: The First Volume of an Autobiography(Boston and Toronto: Little, Brown and Co., 1964),197; Evelyn Waugh, Brideshead Revisited (Boston: Little,Brown and Co., 1979), 46.
  6. Ezra Pound, Indiscretions;or, Une Revue de Deux Mondes (Paris: ThreeMoutnains Press, 1923), 11.
  7. The Diaries of EvelynWaugh, ed. Michael Davie (Boston and Toronto: Little,Brown and Co., 1976), 311–12.
  8. The Letters ofEvelyn Waugh, ed. Mark Amory (New Haven, CT andNew York: Ticknor and Fields, 1980), 579.
  9. Davie,Diaries, 781.
  10. Harold Acton, Nancy Mitford: A Memoir(New York, Hagerstown, San Francisco, London:Hamish Hamilton, 1975), 236.
  11. Waugh, Brideshead,49.
  12. Amory, Letters, 199, n. 2.
  13. Harold Acton,More Memoirs of an Aesthete (London: Methuen, 1970),312.
  14. Amory, Letters, 277.
  15. Acton, Memoirs, 123.
  16. Amory, Letters, 303.
  17. Acton, Memoirs, 20–21.
  18. Clark, Self-Portrait, 179.
  19. Isaiah Berlin, Personal Impressions (New York: Viking Press, 1980), 133.