Years ago, browsing the shelves of a second hand book shop, I came across a travel book about a woman and her horse riding across Andalucia. The book’s title was ‘Two Middle Aged Ladies in Andalucia’ and the author’s name was Penelope Chetwode. I’m a bit scared of horses, but I love Spain. I bought the book, took it home, and began to read. So began an enduring interest in the author.
I subsequently discovered that Penelope Chetwode became Penelope Betjeman on her marriage to John Betjeman, well-known poet and poet laureate. She had also written another book, ‘Kulu. The end of the habitable world’, which reflected a fascination with India. Further research revealed this interest had come about because her father had been the Commander in Chief of the Indian Army in the fading days of the Raj.
The more I found out about Penelope, the more a portrait of a determined, eccentric and clever woman whose life spanned a large part of the 20th century, was revealed. It was also a life that, like all her generation, had grown up in the shadow cast by the First World War; it took in the debutante scene in the 1920s, and led her from her aristocratic roots to marry a man whose parents were, in her mother’s disparaging words, ‘in trade’. (They eloped in 1933.)
Penelope was determined from an early age to be more than ‘just’ a wife. She wanted to learn and and develop in her own right. Today, this is an accepted ambition for females everywhere. Then, much less so. Penelope met John when he was assistant editor of the periodical, the Architectural Review, or the Archie Rev as it was more commonly known. Penelope took in an article she wanted the magazine to publish, and they instantly connected.
After they married, they set up home in Uffington, on the Berkshire/Oxfordshire borders. Lord Berners was at nearby Faringdon Hall. With his brightly coloured doves and eccentric ways and circle of friends including the Mitfords and Evelyn Waugh, he and the Betjemans quickly became good friends.
John and Penelope had many things in common – they were both forceful personalities, loved to read, had a Christian faith, and were bright and enquiring – but they also had their differences. She liked country, he liked town; she didn’t much care for socialising, while he adored people. He hated ‘abroad’ while she enjoyed travel. He loved his home comforts, whereas Penelope couldn’t care less that they didn’t have any ‘mod cons’ such as electricity. The differences were emphasised further when Penelope converted to the Catholic Church in 1948, which John took very badly.
There was also the problem of John’s roving eye. His infidelities started within weeks of their marriage, but Penelope, while hurt by them, managed them by befriending the rival, which had the effect of bringing the affair to a grinding halt. John would slope home, and the Betjeman household, in all its colour and noise, and coming in time to include their two children, would roll on. But in the early 1950s, the love affair between Penelope and John came under a terrible strain, when John fell for a woman much younger than him. Elizabeth Cavendish, the daughter of the 10th Duke of Devonshire, was in her 20s, and extremely well connected (which John liked – he cared about such things). It was a turning point for the Betjemans. For the rest of his life, Elizabeth was a fixture. John was never to divorce Penelope, but he was never to leave Elizabeth either.
When I found out all of this, it set me wondering how Penelope must have felt about this. Any marriage of a considerable number of years that falters, causes pain. While Hello! magazine and the like try and convince us that shrugging off a marital partner is as simple as buying next season’s coat, it remains a fact that it isn’t. In some cases, a husband never really goes away. Those shared years, the qualities that brought the couple together in the first place, can rumble on in memory and in the children you share, despite changing circumstances. Perhaps I’m a bit of a romantic, (definitely, now I come to think of it, but that’s another story), but in my view that’s what happened for John and Penelope. They reached a stage when they had less in common, and when they couldn’t live together in anything resembling harmony (not that harmony was ever a great feature between them) but despite Penelope offering John a divorce, he never took her up on it.
As they grew older, their lives took them in opposite directions, the boy from trade getting ever grander, while Penelope, the peer’s daughter, divested herself of most of her materialistic possessions. The one thing it seemed they couldn’t quite leave behind, was each other. They remained in each other’s thoughts and therefore lives, with letters flying between them, full of affection, advice and love, until John’s death. And so the bond between them was never entirely broken.
My novel tells this tale from Penelope’s point of view…Volumes have been written about John Betjeman, and Penelope was usually a footnote in the story…this time, she is the story.