In the Salon at the Guildhall, filled to capacity, George Miller, Editorial Director of Granta from 2002 to 2007, interviews Sofka Zinovieff about her latest book, “The Mad Boy, Lord Berners, My Grandmother and Me.” It’s a glorious read, rich in quirky detail, peopled with the many unconventional characters who gathered around Lord Berners, one of England’s quintessential eccentrics of the mid-twentieth century. An avant-garde composer, novelist, painter and sometime diplomat, Berners had a penchant for hand-dyed doves, which flew about the grounds of his home, Faringdon House in Oxfordshire, now owned by Zinovieff.
Zinovieff’s maternal grandfather, Robert Heber-Percy, the “mad boy” of the book’s title was a flamboyant, superstitious and decadent exhibitionist who moved in with Gerald Berners, a man many years his senior, soon after meeting him in 1931 or ’32, and lived as his companion until Berners’ death in 1950. Though ostensibly homosexual, the mad boy dabbled sporadically with members of the opposite sex, marrying Jennifer Fry, a “mad girl” in 1942 and fathering Victoria, Zinovieff’s mother, or so it was supposed… The ménage a trois did not endure for long. Robert, it seemed, couldn’t bear to be married and Jennifer moved out in 1944.
Over the years a “sprinkling of high society” passed through Faringdon, from Nancy Mitford to Gertrude Stein, Igor Stravinsky to Evelyn Waugh. The rule was that guests had to be entertaining; being dull was unforgivable in such circles.
Zinovieff never knew the house as a child but on her first visit, made aged seventeen in the company of her mother, her grandfather marked the occasion by serving champagne in pewter tankards, (an audience member points out that, although unconventional, it ensures that the fizz stays cold). She never expected to inherit it – Faringdon was destined for a cousin – not least because her mother and maternal grandfather had a difficult relationship and Jennifer had brought her children up to reject everything that Robert stood for.
Nonetheless, there was a “spark between us” Zinovieff says, and she became a frequent weekend visitor – much to the surprise of other guests who had no idea that Robert had a grand-daughter. She remembers fondly the breakfasts brought to her in bed by Rosa Proll, the formidable housekeeper whose loyalty to Robert was unfailing. Rumoured to be a Hitler sympathizer, Proll was extraordinarily competent, seeing to every aspect of the upkeep of the house with an almost militaristic zeal. To stay in the house, Zinovieff says, was to feel as though one had stepped onto a film set frozen sometime in the 1930s.
And then, one day, her grandfather announced that he had changed his will in her favour. Zinovieff, twenty-five at the time, was flummoxed at the prospect, but there seemed no need to make any immediate decisions. Six months later, however, Robert was dead and the house was hers.
How strange it was to inherit Faringdon House, Zinovieff says, but it is even stranger now that she actually lives there after many years of renting it out to cover the maintenance costs. She moved back to England, and into the house, only six months ago. It is still, she admits, somewhat overwhelming to live in a place imbued with so many ghosts and associations, and yet it has presented the perfect opportunity for her to delve deep into the past, “to tease apart the details and find the real story” of her extraordinary family.
Claudia Pugh Thomas