Arthur Bryant’s floating doters

W. Sydney Robinson, the historian’s latest biographer, discovered that his subject was without scruple in matters of the heart

This article is taken from the April 2021 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

Biographers often delude themselves into believing that their books are “definitive” — the smaller the subject, the greater the delusion. No one can take out a patent on Joseph Stalin or Nelson Mandela, but down in the lower reaches of biography writers can become so proprietorial that all who come after them are viewed as interlopers. Try introducing a past and a present biographer of, say, Gladstone’s private secretary or Thomas Mann’s sister — I guarantee the responses will be frosty.

This was rather my feeling when, some years ago, I was contacted by a lady who said that she had a large quantity of papers relating to the historian Sir Arthur Bryant, about whom I had written a biographical essay in my 2014 book The Last Victorians. I felt I had said everything that was worth saying about Bryant, as, presumably, had my three predecessors: Pamela Street, Andrew Roberts and Julia Stapleton. The only difference was that my correspondent did not wish to undertake a new biography herself: she wanted me to have another try instead.

Arthur Bryant

In accepting this challenge, I realised I was going to have to undermine my previous work substantially. That essay had presented Bryant largely as he had wished to be regarded. Born in 1899 on the royal estate at Sandringham, where his father worked as an official, he made a career as a defender of the Victorian age, writing dozens of popular histories and innumerable newspaper articles lamenting the decline of traditional values. A champion of unfashionable causes, he spearheaded the campaign against Britain’s entry to the European Economic Community at a time when many still remembered him as the last proponent of Appeasement — his overly sympathetic account of the rise of the Nazis, Unfinished Victory, had to be hastily withdrawn in 1940 when the threat of internment loomed. Believing himself to be Neville Chamberlain’s personal emissary, he had previously visited the Third Reich in a last-minute attempt to maintain peace. “If by any miracle I succeed,” he wrote, rather grandly, to the prime minister, “I should be doing a greater service than millions of others who may be called upon” to fight.

The more personal letters that now came to my attention presented this éminence grise in a rather different light. They were the love letters that he exchanged, during the decade or so leading up to his death in 1985, with his “on-off” secretary, lover and biographer, Pamela Street. The playful (but often rather irate) tone of these missives was in stark contrast to those I had previously read in the public archives. Not even Pamela’s book on Bryant, Portrait of a Historian (1979), gave any hint of their true relationship, or the fact that her subject had, only three years previously, proposed marriage, albeit without offering a ring or taking any steps to bring this plan about.

At that time, Bryant had only just divorced his second wife, Anne Brooke, and was simultaneously — as my research quickly revealed — wooing a glamorous socialite named “Lorelei” (née Joan) Robinson, besides a small constellation of other women. They included a lady called Alwynne Bardsley, whom he only saw when in residence at his Buckinghamshire country house, Wotton Pavilion (later the home of Sir John Gielgud and now Tony and Cherie Blair), and a mysterious woman, Barbara Longmate, with whom he often stayed in Norfolk. As I began working my way through the letters at my disposal — soon complemented by pocket diaries and several unpublished memoirs — I virtually relived Pamela’s experience of discovering all the historian’s “other muses”; or, as she called them, his “floating doters”. One letter, written in 1974, during the early phase of their romance, summed up her situation perfectly:

“I think you are absolute hell to live with but worse hell to be without. I find you exhausting, bewildering, uncertain, secretive, stubborn and more than a little mad. I can hardly believe a word you say; you are untidy (except when washing up), mind-changing and time-absorbing. Your procrastination exasperates to screaming-pitch. You wishful-think. You hurt and you are a runner-after-of-other-women. But you are absolutely wonderful when it comes to two things: writing books and going to bed.”

I virtually relived Pamela’s experience of discovering all the historian’s “other muses”; or, as she called them, his “floating doters”

Bryant’s own letters to Pamela were scarcely less vivid. “Oh my dear, estranged Pam,” he had written shortly beforehand, “whom I love so deeply, I am so terribly sorry for all my folly and unkindness … I could scourge myself for my folly.” When he sent her a Christmas cheque in 1981, he enclosed a cutting from the Daily Express suggestive of what she might like to spend it on. Pamela, then 60, wrote back:

“I feel that if your readers … were informed of your “other side” maybe it would be the book of the century — or all centuries — although I think it will be that anyway!! But dear Boaz [as she called him], I am too old now for French knickers and matching camisoles available in white, black, navy, coffee or blackcurrant. I am a rapidly-ageing, staid, conscientious grandmother who is attempting to grow old — albeit swiftly — in a graceful, orderly and organised fashion. I could wish that you yourself led a calmer, less fraught and peripatetic … life, and that you were not constantly feeling the need to write ladies cheques with no appreciable return.”

What was all the more startling was that by this time Bryant was also desperately trying to persuade Laura, Duchess of Marlborough, to accept him as her fifth husband. There was much about this relationship in his exchanges with Pamela, but thanks to a chance telephone call I managed to track down Bryant’s correspondence with the Duchess — Hugo Vickers kindly lent me a huge steel container stuffed with this biographical gold. A letter from 1980 gives some indication of just how much importance Bryant placed on this second — or, possibly, fifth — string:

“To be your Knight, my love, is the greatest honour that I could possibly have conferred on me — it is like having the Garter, only far better. Please God make me worthy of it — I will try so hard to serve you in any way you want, and I have added now to my prayers for those I love, living and “dead”, the words, “Pray God give me grace and power to make little Laura happy.””

Over the course of my research, I was lucky enough to come across several comparable treasure-troves. As I pieced together the evidence, it was only too clear that, whatever else he may have been, Bryant was without scruple in matters of the heart. So often I was taken aback by some chance expression or jest which suggested that my growing archive was merely the beginning. For example, while writing to Pamela about those French knickers and matching camisoles, as well as haplessly imploring the Duchess to marry him, he was scribbling reassuring little messages to Alwynne. 

One of these ran: “I cannot give you the whole of my life and capacity for loving, [but] I could no longer cease to love, and love deeply and permanently, those I had been in love with in the past, including, of course, most of all Monny [a mistress from the 1930s], you and Anne.” As I had to keep reminding myself, Bryant was now well into his eighties. 

It is not too difficult to explain why these ladies put up with Bryant’s appalling treatment. Beside the fact that they were nearly always dependent on him in some way — or at least in awe of his position — he was a past master at making a woman feel utterly adored. A great many of his love letters appear to have been drafted several times, just like his history books, or the interminable screeds he wrote at various junctures to his lawyers and homeopathic doctors. 

In those pre-internet days, he could also rest assured that his “muses” would not be able to get in touch with each other that easily, and it was only towards the end of his life that this happened, largely on account of his worsening health. He correctly foresaw that this would prove disastrous to his entire “system”, and his final days were almost pathetically sad and lonely; but Pamela did make a point of comforting him on his deathbed. 

Sometimes Bryant was confronted about his behaviour, but he was an expert at turning the tables, often blaming his girlfriends for his actions, or else, as a final ploy, appealing to their sympathetic natures. A favourite device was to exculpate himself with reference to his “solitary, repressed” childhood, and particularly a hated nanny, Sarah Oakford, who somehow ruined his future relations with women. 

It was almost a relief to discover, in a stray letter among Pamela’s papers, that this was not the whole story: “In his youth he was spoilt by his mother as a budding genius,” wrote one of his cousins, “and, of course, he has turned out to be just that! Anyway, there is something there to be loved and admired, in a detached sort of way, by us all.” 

As satisfying as it was to piece together this jigsaw, I confess that at times it was exhausting and rather depressing. When I tentatively showed my manuscript to a fellow biographer, she advised against publication on the grounds that it was still too raw. “It would be better to wait another 30 years,” she counselled, adding that the book smacked of “opening people’s graves”.

Unfortunately, biography is invasive, and it remains the chief drawback of Bryant’s own work in the genre that he failed to grapple adequately with his subjects’ personal histories. I am only grateful that so many of the descendants of the characters who feature in my book — including Bryant’s own — have largely supported me: it was Pamela’s daughter, Miranda, who first set me off on my quest. I do not think that my findings invalidate or “cancel” the truly good work that Bryant undertook in his long life; but the book does, I hope, provide a more human picture of this very unusual Englishman.

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