Book Blog #1

This is the first in what we hope will be a series of book reviews by members. If you have read one of our books and would like to recommend it to others, please send your thoughts to the Librarian, Kay Easson  (keasson@litandphil.org.uk) This review is by Chris Purser.

“A Curious Friendship – The Story of a Bluestocking and a Bright Young Thing”by Anna Thomasson.

I have always been a fan of English 20th century art, especially painters and illustrators like Eric Ravilious and Rex Whistler, both of whom died tragically early, as casualties of the Second World War.

One aspect of the life of the latter, his friendship with a woman more than thirty years his senior has always fascinated me, especially as the most recent biography of Whistler shed scant light on the matter.

All this is now made much clearer in a comprehensive biography of the woman in question, Edith Oliver, by Anna Thomasson, published earlier this year.

A cousin of the actor Laurence Olivier (her branch of the family dropped the second “i” from the original Huguenot surname), she met the artist in 1925, when she was fifty two, and he a mere nineteen.

In her own right, she was a fascinating character. She is described as “fiercely intelligent”, studied at Oxford, befriended Lewis Carroll, helped to found the Women’s Land Army in World War One (for which she was awarded the MBE) and was to apply her considerable experience and strength of character on the Home Front in World War Two.

Her meeting with Rex Whistler drew her into a different world, a veritable whirlpool of the intellectual elite in England between the wars. She presided in the centre of it, and the pages of the book reflect this.

Familiar names, like Cecil Beaton, Virginia Woolf, William Walton, the Sitwells, Bertrand Russell, and the Sassoons rub shoulders with less familiar personalities whose brilliance has faded a little – like the flamboyant Stephen Tennant, Lord David Cecil and the ultimate eccentric Lord Berners.

There is no evidence that this strange friendship “The Story of a Bluestocking and a Bright Young Thing” was ever anything but platonic, but deeply emotional and intellectually essential to both of the participants.

This detailed account is much more than a mere parade of personalities, the result of what must have been a prodigious feat of research, and paints a vivid picture of a world that straddled the intellectual elite and country house life in the inter war period.

The quality and readability of the book are doubly surprising, when you know that this is the author’s first book! She was mentored when writing it by Jane Ridley, one of the Northumberland family whose intellectual credentials need no stressing at the Lit and Phil!

Rex Whistler died in the advance after D Day, Edith Oliver survived until 1948, still writing and socialising up until the end. She never wrote her promised memoir of Rex, but this book goes a long way to remedy this.

She is commemorated by her portrait as wartime Mayor of the Wiltshire town of Wilton. Rex is remembered by his legacy of paintings and mural designs, but principally for the splendidly whimsical decoration of the tea rooms in what is now Tate Britain in London.

Go and see it, and pay tribute to a life cut cruelly short, but read this book first – and double your enjoyment!

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