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The Mad Boy, Lord Berners, My Grandmother and Me:
An Aristocratic Family, A High-Society Scandal and an Extraordinary Legacy
SOFKA ZINOVIEFF has form as a cultural explorer. She studied anthropology and did research in Greece, a country where she later settled and described insightfully and at times lyrically, both in fiction and memoir. In another work, tracing the life of one of her grandmothers, a communist Russian princess, she dives into the world of the Bolshevik revolution and its aftermath.
Her latest book, which came out in Britain last year and is about to be published in America, brings her much closer to home. But in Ms Zinovieff’s case home is a peculiar place. Having grown up as a free-spirited Londoner whose father hobnobbed with rock stars, she interrupted her Greek investigations when she heard that she had inherited a famous mansion in Oxfordshire, Faringdon House. Suddenly she was “Miss Sofka”, responsible for an estate and entitled to a special pew in the ancient local church.
The story gets stranger still. She was left the house by her grandfather, a flamboyant character called Robert Heber-Percy, whose sexual preferences were overwhelmingly gay; he in turn had inherited Faringdon from his lover, Lord Berners, a composer, writer and aesthete nearly 30 years his senior.
This book reconstructs the glamorous world that was created by the two men in the fine old house - one of the prettiest in England - which became a magnet for the famous, gifted and beautiful. Their friends ranged from Salvador Dalí to Igor Stravinsky and H.G. Wells. The decor and atmosphere at Faringdon were correspondingly outré; fluttering over the rolling lawns were doves, the feathers of which were (and still are) dyed in many colours.
Ms Zinovieff also traces her own, initially tenuous, link to this world, including Heber-Percy’s marriage to Jennifer Fry, a well-connected socialite with a taste for sexually ambivalent men. The marriage was predictably brief, but apparently long enough to produce the author’s mother, Victoria, though she was never really sure that Heber-Percy was her father.
So bizarre is the subject matter that no literary tropes are needed to bring it alive. The challenge is simply to tell the story with clarity and restraint. Ms Zinovieff’s narrative tone is cool and clear enough to let its astonishing characters, and her relationship with them, come alive; that makes for a compelling read.
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