Imagine my delight, upon taking Lord Bellinger down from a shelf in one of the few remaining used book shops along Charing Cross Road and discovering that it was not some arthritic attempt at a ripping yarn or a petrified Edwardian romance novel, but a mocking pastiche on the life of the idle nobility. Visions of Augustus Carp, Esq. danced in my head as I took it up to the cashier. This could easily be one of my great finds.
Sadly, after devouring the book in the course of the next day or so, I had to conclude that Lord Bellinger is a good find, but not a great one. Unlike H. H. Bashford, who managed in Augustus Carp, Esq. to find a narrative voice that was both sincere in its allegiance to his subject’s smugness and withering in its comic mockery, Graham displays a restraint that often undermines his satirical intent.
Despite being just one generation away from his family’s roots in the brewery business, Richard de la Poer Tracy Bellinger, the third son of John, the first Baron Bellinger, is truly to the manor born. He prides himself that, like his father, he is “naturally disinclined to anything approaching effort.” When he succeeds his father to the House of Lords, he takes it as given that the peers of the upper chamber are the rightful rulers of England: “I feel sure that I am only voicing the unanimous opinion of my class when I say that it is essential for the maintenance of the Constitution that the affairs of Empire should be conducted by gentlemen who are prepared to consider the questions of the day with open minds, unbiased by any kind of commercial or business experience whatsoever.”
Although still a relatively young man, Lord Bellinger has chosen to write his autobiography as a protest against the effects of the Parliament Act of 1911, which removed many of the legislative powers of the House of Lords. He is proud to stand–or rather, sit–beside “able, brilliant, painstaking men, inspired by a strong sense of duty to themselves: the solid backbone upon which the House and the nation can always depend.” Among these luminaries are such men as:
Lord Slaugham, with whom divorce has become more of a habit than an event (his marriage with his fourth wife was quite one of the most interesting of last year’s society functions); Lord Thrapstone, who absentmindedly wrote a friend’s name on a cheque, was found guilty, and bound over to come up for judgment if called upon, it being rightly considered that the disgrace of being found out was a sufficient punishment for a man of his social standing; Lod Blissworth, who, on the strength of possessing an acre of land and two gum-trees in the West Indies, floated the Yumata River Company, whose collapse ruined so many domestic servants. Here, too, was Lord Lythe and Saythe (formerly Sir Benjamin Salmon), who so generously offered to subscribe £50,000 to the scheme for a National Opera House on condition that a thousand other people would do the same; old Lord Bletchley, who, though eighty-nine years of age and mentally deficient, is still able to touch his toes with his fingers without bending his knees; Lord Meopham, who shot his coachman in the back with a revolver because that domestic happened to take a wrong turn in Park Lane; Lord Swaffield, who as Sir Moses Hamilton earned a world-wide reputation by walking down the Duke of York’s steps on his hands for a wager; Lord Dunbridge, famous as the husband of Lady Dunbridge, whose enthusiasm for the cause of Woman’s Suffrage has caused her to cut her hair off, and to take her meals in a liquid form and exclusively through the nose; Lord Brancaster, who as Sir Thomas Tilling failed seven times to get into Parliament–though he stood impartially on both sides–but who, on the death of his uncle, at last earned the reward of patriotism and became a true representative of the people; and a host of others.
Richard Lord Bellinger’s preparation for a seat in the House follows a well-worn path: Eton, a stint in the Army, a bit of sports, a bit of travel, and marriage into greater wealth. His two elder brothers conveniently give way before him: one, a churchman, decapitated in the Boxer Rebellion; the other a con artist who disappears in the South Seas after scandalous detours at the gaming tables of Biarritz and Monte Carlo. He takes naturally to his peerage, and accepts the responsibilities that come with the position. He relates, for example, the heart-rending tale of Alfred, his family’s doorman, who is fired for being found asleep on the job (at 4 A. M.), and who ends up spending his last penny for his son’s Christmas present. Lord Bellinger is so moved by this glimpse into the lives of the lower classes that he is moved to undertake charitable work. “I found, however, that this would entail the sacrifices of more time than I could possible spare–and was consequently forced to relinquish the idea.” He is, however, proud to declare that each Christmas he presents a brace of rabbits to “Every labourer on the estate who has reached the age of ninety without receiving a ‘parish relief.’”
Lord Bellinger ends with a fond look back at his wedding, which has somewhat the effect of a hanging note. Having gently skewered his peer for the last two-hundred-some pages, Graham balks at a final thrust and, instead, leaves him to live happily ever after. Sixty years later, the Monty Python troupe dispatched with the grandchildren of Lord Bellinger’s counterparts in under five minutes in their memorable “Upper Class Twit of the Year” sketch. Not all forms of restraint are laudable.
The best part of Lord Bellinger isn’t the ending, in fact–it’s what comes after the ending. This is one of the few works of fictional autobiography to come with an index. It starts with this highly informative quartet:
Abergeldie. See Aberlochie
Aberladdie. See Abernethy
Aberlochie. See Abergeldie
Abernethy. See Aberladdie
And continues on to such gems as:
Banchory, Earl of, half-witted condition of, 221; unattractive nature of remaining half, 221
Cowan, Sir Simeon, 44; worth a million and a quarter, 45; not safe to kick his son, 45
and coming, finally, to words I will always prefer to remember as the true ending of Lord Bellinger:
Zinc, grandmother’s dental cavities stopped with, 172
Harry Graham, himself the son of a K. C. B. and former Guardsman, was a prolific writer of comic poems, stories and plays. He’s probably best remembered now for his very first book, Ruthless Rhymes for Heartless Homes and More Ruthless Rhymes (Hilarious Stories), which can be considered the forerunner of Belloc’s Cautionary Tales, Edward Gorey’s macabre ABC books, and A Series of Unfortunate Events:
Making toast at fireside,
Nurse fell in the grate and died;
And, what makes it ten times worse,
All the toast was burned with nurse.
Ruthless Rhymes for Heartless Homes and More Ruthless Rhymes (Hilarious Stories) is available in all sorts of forms: as a Dover Thrift paperback, as an Audible audiobook, in ebook formats on Project Gutenberg and the Internet Archive, and on its own website, www.ruthlessrhymes.com.