SWANS REFLECTING ELEPHANTS BY EDWARD JAMES
Edward Frank Willis James (16 August 1907 – 2 December 1984) was an English poet and patron of the surrealist art movement, who wrote a memoir, Swans Reflecting Elephants, recounting the first twenty-seven years of his life down to his divorce and social ostracism in 1934. Edited by George Melly, it was published by Weidenfeld & Nicholson in London in 1982.
Presented here is everything in it of Greek love interest.
CHAPTER THREE. Shades of the Prison House
On how his mother tried to regain the position in high society she had held in the reigns of Victoria and Edward VII (whose bastard she was).
Later on, when I was twelve or thirteen, this determination to get back into society led to something really awful happening to me. We were asked by Lord Harcourt to stay at Newnham Courtney, or perhaps Lady Harcourt asked us, and old Lord Harcourt asked me to go into the garden to pick gooseberries and he tried to put his hand in my pocket in order to feel my genitals. I had been told that grown-ups were always right and must never be contradicted, but I knew that this wasn’t right. He was a hideous and horrible old man. Later on I learned that he had done the same thing to my cousin Brett, who was to become such a friend of D.H. Lawrence. He had asked her if she would like to see the grotto, taken her there and said, ‘I’ll show you my stalactite.’ The poor girl got such a shock she became deaf. Evidently he wasn’t interested in boys exclusively.
He took us into Oxford to show us that rather silly statue of the drowned Shelley in University College, and I think that was supposed to impress me in some way. It looks rather homosexual. He insisted on taking a snapshot of me standing next to it, which surprised my mother. On the way back in the car, he kept trying to grope me under the rug, and I was horrified; my mother was right next to me on the other side. All I could do was to push him away, I didn’t know how to deal with the situation. I was a very naive teenager.
When, at the end of the weekend, she said, ‘Go up and say goodbye to Lord Harcourt,‘ I said, ‘I don’t want to.‘ ‘How can you be so rude when he’s been so kind to ask us for the weekend? - and say you’d like Billy [a cousin of Lord Harcourt] to come and stay with us for Goodwood next summer. You’re a friend of his, aren’t you?’
She was always criticizing me for making friend with boys I liked instead of with those whose parents had big estates. It irritated her very much. ‘Why don’t you cultivate so-and-so? They could ask you to Mentmore. Why do you have to like such-and-such? They haven’t got big estates. Why don’t you see the Cavendishes more? Then you could go to Chatsworth.’ That sort of thing got on my nerves terribly.
Finally she made me. I came in at one end of a long, long room and he was lying in bed at the other end, a bed with steps. He said, ‘Come nearer, child. Come nearer!’ So I came a little nearer and I made my speech: ‘Mummy wants me to thank you very much for a lovely weekend and can Billy come and stay next summer at Monkton because West Dean is let, and it is a very nice weekend we’ve had.’
And then suddenly he threw back the bedclothes revealing a large and hideous erection; he looked like an old goat with his large drooping beard and I ran out of the room.
I didn’t say anything at first, but I must have looked very flushed and my mother kept asking me what was the matter all the way to the station. In the train she asked me so often that finally I burst into tears and told her the gist of it, and then she went all over London gossiping about Harcourt to all her women friends. She realized that she been asked to Newnham Courtney not because she was back in society, but because Lord Harcourt had spotted me as being a good-looking boy. It annoyed her very much.
Then poor Lady Harcourt came to Eton to look over it with Billy who was coming up next half. This had been the pretext of my being asked to the Harcourts: to get to know Billy so that I could look after him when he came to Eton, because I had already been there a year - which means that I must have been thirteen, rather than twelve.
When I met Lady Harcourt in Keats Row she was very dignified and tried to greet me naturally, as though nothing had happened. But she must have known, poor Lady Harcourt, because the whole of London was talking about it, and not long afterwards Lord Harcourt committed suicide.
This did me a great deal of harm. As recently as 1952 or 1953, Kirk Askew, who was an art dealer in New York, said to me, ‘You know, Edward, a man called Malcolm Bullock, Lord Derby’s brother, came to dinner last night and he said, “How can you be friends with that awful Edward James? He caused the death of my friend Lulu Harcourt who committed suicide because of him!’’ ’
Well, obviously Lord Harcourt was in such trouble because of trying to seduce little boys and girls that perhaps it was inevitable that he would take his own life. He was insane; one could tell from his face that he was a sexual maniac. But although it was my mother who had talked indiscreetly about the affair, the blame was laid at my door - the door of a boy of thirteen.
This was another reason why people dropped her - for her indiscretion, for having the bad taste to talk about it.
My mother married Colonel Brinton rather soon after my father died, but I am pretty sure that they had been lovers before then. Years later Sylvia told me that when my father was dying, a fact of which she was unaware, she had met out our future stepfather leaving 38 Bryanston Square and, very stupidly, he had said to her, ‘Don’t tell your father you saw me leaving the house this evening.’ That was a give-away, but it wouldn’t have occurred to Sylvia that that there was anything wrong.
He was a few years younger than my mother and extremely good-looking, but I don’t think that that he really liked women at all and my mother discovered this. He thought he had got a rich widow’s money, he was going to get race-horses and hunters out of her; in fact, he got two hunters and nothing else. I think it was finding out that my stepfather really wasn’t very keen on her that led to her tremendous preoccupation with homosexuality.
My stepfather really was extraordinarily handsome. Lady Hadfield would say to my mother ‘your beautiful husband’, which would annoy her terribly, the idea that any man could ever be beautiful. In fact when I was fifteen she gave me a lecture in which she told me that no man was ever beautiful - only women were. I felt like saying, ‘What hard luck on women that they have to go to bed with them.’ She made out that one only had sex with one’s husband from a sense of duty and that no nice woman enjoyed sex.
My mother’s obsession with homosexuality became much stronger after she discovered that my stepfather had never really loved her, and it turned out to have some basis in reality so far as he was concerned or so I’ve come to believe in retrospect. But she carried it very far; really to the verge of madness.
Before the war she had been fond of the Russian ballet. Lady Rippon had supported it and it had prospered, but after the war it was losing money and my mother joined Lady Rippon and Lady Cunard as backers. Then she discovered that Diaghilev was homosexual and so she began to withdraw, and it was rather a shame because she enjoyed it so much. She was terrified that Diaghilev would look at me. I remember once being spirited away when he came up in his big sable coat to talk to her in the audience. My mother pushed me into the background. I was only about ten at the time.
Just before I went to Eton, she came to me late one night to tell me that I must be very, very careful. Until then I had known nothing about sex; not that she told me anything about the facts of life, but only warned me against homosexuality, above all against buggery - she didn’t actually use that word, but that was what she implied.
She was looking very unattractive. Because it was late, she had taken the wig off and was wearing lace cap. She had forgotten that one could see through the cap and that she was almost bald under it. She had a lot of grease on her face and she had been working herself up to break the horrible news that a bigger boy at Eton, some horrible boy, might try to assault me sexually or make sexual advances to me. I don’t know who had told her about this, perhaps some other mother. She had entirely forgotten that she hadn’t told me anything else, so the very first fact of life I learned was the danger of being assaulted by another boy, and to tell me this she had made herself so unattractive I might have been put off sex for ever.
I simply can’t think why she had to make herself look so unattractive. If the first woman one loves is one’s mother, and she looks like this when trying to tell one about sex, it could put one off women forever. Fortunately I have a very advanced sense of the beautiful and as soon as I met a beautiful woman I was able to fall in love, as I did a few years later when I broke my ribs while hunting and Lady Curzon nursed me back to health.
My mother went on to tell me about the four ‘Monsters of History’, the four homosexual monsters. There was Nero; Heliogabalus - she had written him down on a piece of paper because she couldn’t remember so long a name; Benvenuto Cellini - she knew him because somebody had told her that he had had the gall to mention the fact that he liked boys - and the fourth monster, of course, was Oscar Wilde, the greatest monster of all! She knew about Oscar Wilde because, during his trial, she had asked my father what he had done and he had had to explain it to her. She talked about Wilde a great deal.
There was perhaps a fifth monster, but she wasn’t at all sure about him. She had had suspicions about a certain Colonel Bingham who used to come to West Dean as a weekend guest in the old days. I don’t know what it was about him that was suspicious, but she seemed to think there was something odd. Of course Lord Harcourt would have qualified as a monster of history if she had known about his goings-on, but that didn’t happen until after I had gone to Eton.
I neglected to say that she was crying, which was rather pathetic. She had worked herself up into such a terrible state that the tears were pouring down her cheeks as she told me that some boy might assault me. I think it was the horror of having to rob me of my innocence that so upset her. She talked a great deal about my illusions which, she said, shouldn’t be broken. I suppose this was why she had forgotten to wear her wig; it was more of a crisis for her than anybody else, this particular scene.
Later my stepfather realized that I was very perturbed. It wasn’t due to what she had said because, by the time she had finished I was completely confused - I hadn’t the faintest idea what she had been talking about – but by the whole scene. He asked me, ‘Has your mother been upsetting you?’ and I said, ‘Yes, but I don’t understand what it was all about. She seems to have upset herself more than anything.’
I didn’t learn the facts of life for ages because boys don’t like to admit to one other that they don’t know; they’re frightened of being laughed at. Not until I was seduced at the age of seventeen by a nice lady in Germany did I discover it all. She was terribly amused when I told her that I did not know what was about to happen.
My mother’s lecture coupled with the hostility of all my sisters might have led me to believe for ever that the female sex were the enemies of love. My sisters were so aggressive, and my mother was always a problem. She wasn’t young when I was born and she had lost her sex-appeal by the time I was ten. My stepfather, on the other hand, was much younger, very handsome and extremely affectionate, so the set-up was enough to make any boy homosexual.
All the time I was at my prep school or at the crammers my mother hardly ever visited me. She didn’t write much either except to scold me for not having thanked her enough for my Christmas present or something. She never came to the crammers once. My stepfather came on one occasion, but it was rather tricky because he had fallen in love with me. From the time I was about fourteen he would insist that I get in the bath with him and we would scrub each other’s backs.
I didn’t think anything of it. I thought it was perfectly harmless and he was very affectionate to me. The only thing I resented was having to run messages night and day and fetch bradawls and screwdrivers, but having a bath with him I rather enjoyed actually. I think that I got a slight sexual stimulus from it.
That he had fallen in love with me only dawned on me one day when I went to his roll-top desk. I was not given to prying or listening at doors. I am sure that my sisters eavesdropped and read other people’s letters, but I never did anything like that. One day, however, I was looking for an eraser. I used to draw rather well; my holiday task was a still-life, I needed an eraser and I remembered that I had seen one in my stepfather’s desk. I opened a drawer and I found six sonnets which he had written. I read the first two, and realized that they were addressed to me: ‘Now the young flower is growing into manhood/The beauty of his youth is opening in the sun’ - that kind of thing. I quickly shoved them back and shut the desk, and I never told anybody. Of course I was still very naïve; I had only just turned thirteen.
I won the prize with that still-life. For a subject I had chosen a Venetian glass bowl with some oranges on it, placed on a Paisley shawl. Roger Fry came to judge the competition which was open to all the boys in the school, thirteen- to eighteen-year-olds, and he chose my painting. The boys thought he was wrong because there was a more realistic painting of a glass and a bottle of beer. I remember that the glass was rather well painted and seemed to reflect the light, and the boys were more impressed by that. Fry insisted and, realizing the hostility of the boys, explained why. I remember him saying, ‘Look at the rhythm here,’ while his finger traced the shape of the bowl, repeated in the folds of the cashmere rug, and going on about my feeling for mass and form and colour, and of course I was very impressed because I had no idea that I had achieved significant form and mass and so forth. And then finally he said, ‘Hands up the boy who did this,’ and the smallest and shyest boy held up his hand, and then of course the boys knew that Mr Roger Fry was completely wrong. But my stepfather was rather pleased and for a long time my still-life hung on the stair. Not that he was artistic; the only things he was interested in were nude bronzes of Greek gods.
Later, when I was fifteen, I was spending the holidays at my stepfather’s cottage at Badminton and my mother was there. She stayed there very seldom because he was a tenant of the Duke of Beaufort, and Louise, the Duchess, used to condescend to my mother very much. She hated being there because of this. Having been the chatelaine of a large house and estate, and then to have Louise talk down to her, drove her round the bend.
On this occasion I came down to dinner and she said, ‘You are late. Why are you and Dozy [my stepfather] so late?’ So I told her, quite innocently, that we had been in the bath together and she was terribly shocked. She popped out of her seat and rushed upstairs and I could hear her ranting at him. He came down, very crestfallen, twirling his black moustache. He was very vain about his moustache and used to put in a moustache-press at night. I think he dyed it black, because his hair was reddish.
I don’t think that my mother realized the full significance of our bathing together It isn’t likely that she added my stepfather to the list of ‘Monsters of History’ but she was very alarmed. It was not until I was about thirty that I suddenly understood to what a degree my mother had reason to worry.
Later, while I was still at Eton, we used to go to Bognor for the summer holidays, to the house where George V died. The owner was a friend of my mother’s. It was a very large, comfortable house with a built-in electric organ, and the bathrooms were tiled very luxuriously and had very thick pile carpets. I had a series of very good-looking young tutors; I don’t know if my stepfather engaged them himself, it may have been a sheer coincidence. On one occasion my stepfather insisted that my current tutor, my small first cousin Anthony Wynn and I join him for a hot bath after a dip in the sea. We didn’t all get in the bath together, but we stood around naked. My stepfather must have looked the young tutors up and down because I can just remember one of them, who was more knowing than I, looking very surprised and a bit alarmed.
CHAPTER FOUR. Floreat Etona
On his time at Eton College, which he attended from 1919, when he was twelve, to the summer half of 1923, when he was nearly sixteen:
There was the usual homosexuality there, but having been brought up by my mother to think that homosexuals were monsters, and not realizing about my stepfather, I was a frightful little prig, and when I discovered that a friend of mine at Eton was having an affair with another boy, I didn’t speak to him anymore. One boy tried to make love to me - I drove him out of the room.
For the summer of 1923, during which James reached sixteen, having explained to his guardian that his mother would not let him go to Germany out of a fanatical hatred of Germans:
So my trustee, who was also my guardian, got a certain satisfaction out of sending me to Germany with a tutor for a walking tour down the Rhine. The tutor had been a ‘tug’, a scholarship boy at Eton. He was about twenty and he was very very nice indeed, charmingly intelligent and sensitive. This was the happiest summer of my entire childhood, and of course I fell in love with him and he with me, but nothing happened between us. We used to sleep in hayricks together, but he was a disciplined young man and, as he was my tutor, felt a moral obligation not to do anything he felt was wrong. […]
Peter, the young tutor, and I had the most wonderful time on the Rhine. He was musical and would sing madrigals. He introduced me to Goethe and Schiller and, best of all, to German music, to the beautifully conducted opera, and the wonderful singers. I began to learn a lot about music for the first time; my family being totally unmusical. We had lots of money; my trustees were forwarding it to banks along our way. I had never been happier and then things started to go wrong. My mother arrived.
She was absolutely furious that I had deceived her by persuading my trustees and going to Germany and she came rushing over to see what was happening.
My mother came to our hotel and saw that Peter’s bed and mine were very close together and immediately suspected a homosexual relationship. There was, as I said earlier, a potential, but nothing had happened between us except deep affection. As a matter of fact one night I had put my arm round him while he was asleep, or pretending to be asleep and I discovered that he had had an orgasm. This knowledge made me feel a bit guilty, and my mother had spotted this immediately, and he was sent back to England a week later. She must have written to my guardian saying, ‘That man has got to go. I think he’s a homosexual.’ And we had done nothing.
The awful thing was that later on, not knowing how terrible my mother was, he wrote to her for a letter of recommendation for a job as a schoolmaster and she must have written terrible answers to all the people who asked for references, she must have absolutely damned this poor kid. I believe she saw him years later at Milan station, looking very down at heel, very very poor, unable to get a job anywhere. I think my mother must have ruined that boy’s chances of making a career.
I had a cousin called Cissie Westmacott who had a sense of humour and she once said to someone, in front of me, laughing, ‘If Edward wasn’t going to be a homosexual anyway, Aunt Evie is doing everything possible to make him so. She’s obsessed with it.’
 Lewis “Loulou” Vernon Harcourt (1863-1922), created a Viscount in 1917, after having been Secretary of State for the Colonies. Newnham Courtney in Oxfordshire was his family seat. [Website note].
 Dorothy Eugénie Brett (1883-1977), a distant cousin of the author, was 14 or 15 and ignorant of the facts of life when Harcourt tried to seduce her. About two years earlier, he had also visited her 14-year-old brother Maurice at Eton, and made a pass at him. Their indignant father, the eminent courtier, Reginald, 2nd Viscount Esher, wrote of Harcourt:
“It is so tiresome that Loulou is such an old roué. He is as bad with boys as with girls... he is simply a sex maniac. It isn’t that he is in love. It is just ungovernable sex desire for both sexes.”
Esher himself was well-known in high society to be an active lover of boys (to the extent that some boys at Eton, where he was a frequent visitor, were warned by their parents against being befriended by him), but, in contrast to Harcourt, he was a scrupulous one with a romantic mindset repelled by sex without love (James Lees-Milne, The Enigmatic Edwardian, Sidgwick & Jackson, 1986). [Website note].
 West Dean House was James’s 8,000-acre estate in Sussex [Website note].
 Such was the widespread belief in high society (though not known to the wider public), “but at the inquest a verdict of misadventure was returned,” and there are some good reasons to doubt the belief was soundly-based. See the article of 2006 on Harcourt by Patrick Johnson in The Oxford Dictionary of National Biography [Website footnote]
 At least James’s mother had enough historical sense to choose as her “monsters” those who were representative of most historical homosexuality in being involved in Greek love rather than androphilia. Three of the four were men who preferred boys while the other, the Roman Emperor Heliogabalus, was a boy who loved men. Only Nero, a sexual polymath, was a man with any sexual interest in men. [Website footnote}
 James’s first cousin Anthony Edmund Winn, was born on 4 January 1909 (Burke’s Peerage & Baronetage, 1949 edition, p. 1773). James’s last summer holidays while still at Eton were those of 1922, when he reached 15 and Anthony was 13. [Website footnote]
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