Mirabel Chevenix

The grande dame of light literature

Arty Types

This article is taken from the April 2024 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

“Er, it did say,” murmurs Chloe the publicity assistant, one eye on the austere-looking elderly lady in the grey cloak stalled in the entrance hall, the other on the queue of people lined up in her majestic wake, “that guests were supposed to bring their invitations with them?”

There is an awful, freezing silence, broken only by the sound of the Reform Club’s wine waiters going about their business. Happily, Chloe’s boss Hermione is equal to the situation. “Mirabel,” she coos, practically abasing herself on the carpet as she does so. “How wonderful to see you. Can I get you a glass of champagne?”

Mirabel accepts the glass of champagne, gives Chloe a look that would melt a bar of soap and is triumphantly escorted into the Reform Club library’s plush interior, where she can shortly afterwards be seen shaking hands with Julian Barnes and Lady Antonia Fraser.

Chloe, meanwhile, once the throng of literati attempting to enter the launch party for this new biography of a member of the Bloomsbury Group has dispersed, is taken to one side and rather sharply informed that if she wants to get on in the world of book publicity, then she really has to know who people like Mirabel Chevenix are.

Well into her eighties and stupendously well endowed, Mirabel might be thought invulnerable

And who is Mirabel Chevenix? A neutral observer would probably conclude that Chloe can be forgiven her ignorance, for you would have to be well into middle age to recall Mirabel’s exploits in the world of light literature.

On the other hand, these were substantial. Back in the 1970s she wrote a celebrated novel entitled Peacocks on the Lawn, generally assumed to be a blow-by-blow account of a childhood spent on her aristocratic father’s Warwickshire estate, that was made into an equally celebrated film with John Gielgud and Susan Hampshire.

Other works followed — a Sri Lankan travel diary (Catamaran to Colombo), a discreet yet suggestive volume of memoirs (Tales From the Laundry Room) — elegantly written, respectfully received, but none of them quite getting to the heart of her personal myth. This, it is fair to say, was based on a reputation for plain speaking, often shading into outright intransigence.

It was Mirabel who, at the heart of the Satanic Verses controversy, described Salman Rushdie as “a tiresome Pakistani gentleman who should be grateful for what the Empire has done for him” and once threw a glass of water over a feminist publisher who made the mistake of crossing her at the London Book Fair.

Well into her eighties now and stupendously well endowed by the late Mr Chevenix, Mirabel might be thought invulnerable, were it not for the book recently published by her daughter, Annabel.

This “no-holds-barred exposé”, to quote its blurb, described a childhood halfway between a prison camp and a negligently-run boarding school. “I would have liked some helpful advice from my mother,” Annabel wrote of her failed O-Levels and teenage misadventures, “but she was always in Mauritius with one of her lovers.”

Of this unlooked-for betrayal, Mirabel will only remark that Annabel “supposed she was the only person in the world who ever had an unhappy childhood”. The Telegraph loves her and interviews her every other Christmas.

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