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David Roberts writes...
18th August 2009
Parting is such Sweet Sorrow
October 29th is a milestone marking the end of an adventure. For
ten years, beginning with Sweet Poison, my life has been inextricably
involved with the lives and careers of Lord Edward Corinth and Verity
Browne. With Sweet Sorrow that partnership ends.
It is August 1939 and the war so long rumoured and dreaded is finally
a reality. No one doubts now that war with Germany will break out
in the next few weeks and there is a strong possibility that Britain
will also be at war with the Soviet Union. The United States of
America stands aloof, understandably reluctant to be drawn into
another European war and resolute in it refusal to fight to preserve
the British Empire. To cap it all, Britain’s prime minister
is a ridiculous old man with an umbrella who has been cheated and
cozened by an unscrupulous dictator. Instead of preparing for war
he had striven for peace at whatever cost and prepared to accept
any humiliation without protest. Despite all this Britain is less
depressed, less gloomy than one might expect.
There is a sense of release now that all the squalid squirming
and cowardly abandonment of allies is finally over. Backs to the
wall, yes, but by no means was Britain on its knees. All it wanted
was a leader, a voice, and that would be forthcoming in less that
a year when Winston Churchill was given the job he was born and
trained for. He would voice defiance even if the British lion was
Lord Edward waits patiently and Verity impatiently to be assigned
their war work. While they wait they buy a house in Sussex close
to their friends the Hassels – close also to Virginia and
Leonard Woolf. The Woolves, as they are affectionately known in
the neighbourhood, have gathered quite an artistic community around
them – poets, painters and writers. One of these, whom I have
called Byron Gates, is to some small extent based on the poet Cecil
Day Lewis whom I knew slightly when I worked at Chatto and Windus
of which he was a director. It is, I freely admit, a character assassination
but I rather hope, as a crime writer himself he would not mind,
or at least not very much. Sadly, his widow Jill Balcon, died recently
so it is all water under the bridge.
Where Auden and Isherwood are remembered I’m afraid history
has relegated CDL as we called him, to the shadows. His poetry is
unmemorable, his vanity and womanising is on record but of course
he did not die for his failings as I have Byron Gates die.
There is a painter based on ... well, you guess, and the Woolves
who, I have to tell you, are never accused of murder but ...
Many people despise the Bloomsbury Set as shallow, sneering ‘luvvies’
who were second-rate artists and whose morals don’t admit
of close inspection. I disagree. I have the utmost admiration for
Virginia and Leonard, for Roger Fry – the first English critic
to admire the French Impressionists – and for E M Forster
and Lytton Strachey – whose formidable sister appears in my
book as herself – and for Strachey’s lover Dora Carrington.
I even like the paintings of Duncan Grant and Henry Lamb. I like
the ‘Bloomsberries’ and admire their courage in putting
friendship first, art second and money nowhere. (Though, of course,
they took it for granted there would be servants to do the domestic
work!) In the Great War many of them had been pacifists and even
in 1939 Virginia Woolf was still opposed to war – she had
never recovered from the death of her nephew Julian Bell in the
Spanish Civil War - and in the end she could not live life while
it raged all about her. Leonard was, of course a Jew and had no
illusions as to what his fate would be if the Nazis won the war.
He carried cyanide with him at all times and would have used it
if the need had arisen.
Once again I raise the question of why one should worry about the
death of one man when all over Europe people are being killed for
their race in their thousands even before war broke out. But I hope
that in the end this is not a depressing book. There are deaths,
there are partings but there is humour and friendship, a remembrance
of an England that for all its faults had an innocence, a moral
courage and a determination to oppose evil at whatever cost which
we may still envy.
I shall be at Heffers bookshop in Cambridge on publication day
and if any of you are in the area I would be delighted to see you
In London, though probably not on the same day! – I shall
be signing books at Hatchards in Piccadilly and elsewhere.
I am very grateful for the many kind words – letters and
emails - I have received about the series and I am happy to have
given pleasure and hope to remain in touch.
- David Roberts