Secret E-Diary

The perils of autobiography

The nineteenth century dislike of Romanticism is the rage of Caliban not seeing his own face in a glass.
November 16, 2020 - Oscar Wilde – The Picture of Dorian Gray


Friends and acquaintances of Evelyn Waugh used to wait with anxious anticipation for the publication of his latest novel. Would they find their own characters satirised within the pages? If so, would they appreciate what they read? Would they even recognise themselves? It produced a whole spectrum of reactions. Some passed it off with ‘they say it is me’; others were rather less amused such as Harold Acton on finding in Brideshead Revisited at least part of himself as the colourful Anthony Blanche. Brendan Bracken, a Conservative minister and very close friend of Churchill, on discovering he was widely thought to be the repulsive Rex Mottram in the same book, went rather off Waugh. Then there were the army officers in Waugh’s Sword of Honour trilogy: their real-life counterparts were again flattered, amused or furious as the case may be. Waugh disclaimed many supposed likenesses or attributed them to other people. When interviewed on Face to Face in 1960 and tackled with this issue, he told the interviewer, John Freeman, that an artist must be allowed to roam freely with his imagination. It was not a wholly convincing denial and not really intended to be one.

I found late last week that there can be someone else: the person who genuinely recognises himself, and eventually the justice of the characterisation, but did not find the reflection of his character and personality as he had expected to see it. I made this discovery because Andrew, our senior clerk, sent me a slim volume of autobiography-come-novella written by someone clearly writing under a pseudonym, covering his adolescent years.

Lockdown requires displacement activity. I have already gone through the excitement of receiving parcels at my front door, performing small household repairs where I have made minor problems major, the occasional visit of a mask-wearing technician to restore my WiFi so that I can Zoom, watching endless films on television and reading, reading, reading. On looking at the front cover, I saw the story was set in the Midlands, from where the Byfields hail. Sweet of Andrew to remember that I thought, and I lay on the sofa and began to read it. Michael Oublier, the author, clearly did come from somewhere I knew well. After a chapter or two, I become a little worried: first, that I might possibly have known him; second, that, in fact, I did know him and, third, that I was a character in his story bearing the name of Laurence Monserrat, pronounced without the ‘t’. Me – a character in a book?! Was this ‘lockdown madness’? My mind accepted and rejected what I was suspecting in equal measure until about halfway through, I reached an anecdote about Laurence which could, in the whole world, have applied only to me. I was awful at school maths and opted out of all sciences. Something the real Michael, my close friend, had done as well although he passed maths at the first ‘go’, instead of failing it six times as I did. Physics was compulsory but we had both somehow persuaded the Headmaster to let us take music instead. Unfortunately, on being accepted at an ancient university, I was required to matriculate which included having passed one science O Level or maths. The university had failed to notice the problem when it awarded me a place but discovered it subsequently which required me to mug up and pass a science subject in two terms. What science subject could I possibly pass in that time?

Michael explained, in a passage lamenting the failure to teach sex properly at schools. ‘Not even Human Biology,’ he wrote, ‘although Laurence Monserrat found a use for it when, faced with a complete ignorance of science and maths, he hurriedly studied it to advance his ambition to read Jurisprudence amidst the dreaming spires and thus begin his distinguished career to being the QC he is today.’

I called Andrew to ask him exactly why he had sent me the book. ‘Quite a few people in Chambers have read it, sir. They realised it must be you ‘cos you haven’t really changed.’ Michael Oublier describes Laurence the boy as someone with controversial, cynical and disturbing views expressed in beguiling language, a youth of immeasurable ambition with a flamboyant vision of his place in the world wholly divorced from grim reality and someone, although he does not say it directly, who left his close friend behind. The second lockdown may be as good a time as any for true reflection.