Reviewed by Simon
The subtitle of Anna Thomasson’s biography, A Curious Friendship: the Story of a Bluestocking and a Bright Young Thing, belies the publisher’s expectations about the reputations of its subjects. Neither Edith Olivier (the bluestocking) nor Rex Whistler (the Bright Young Thing) make their way onto the cover – except in the beautiful imagery, designed by Justine Anweiler and illustrated by Neil Gower – which is perhaps unsurprising. Few people have heard of novelist, Wiltshire obsessive, and curiously conservative social whirlwind Edith Olivier, and, while rather more people will known about the artist and illustrator Rex Whistler, he’s still not a household name. My hope is that this doesn’t put anybody off reading Thomasson’s book; it is truly excellent. Perhaps that excellence will turn Olivier and Whistler into household names?
Full disclosure: I wrote a section of my doctorate on Edith Olivier, so it was not my introduction to her. Indeed, I cheered when Thomasson described how difficult it was to read Olivier’s handwriting, as I have also spent delightful hours poring over her diaries and letters. And Rex Whistler did not paint Whistler’s Mother, as the few people I’ve polled on his popularity have assumed.
Thomasson wisely skims fairly quickly past the respective childhoods of Olivier and Whistler so that she can fast forward to the time their curious friendship began – in the mid 1920s, when Olivier was 51 and Whistler was 19. Olivier was mourning for her beloved sister, Mildred, who had been her constant companion for decades; Whistler was an art student who was enjoying being among people who also appreciated beauty, painting, and aesthetics.
Rex had been worried that this scholarly county rector’s daughter in her fifties would bring her present grief with her and hinder their fun. Instead he found a sharp-witted, loquacious little woman with a cigarette in her hand who would absent-mindedly scratch her head or kick out her foot when she became particularly animated. Rex could see at once that Edith was no ordinary bluestocking.
For her part, Olivier’s first impression of Whistler, noted in her diary, was of ‘a delightful keen boy who loves talking’. Perhaps they couldn’t have seen that they would be close friends for the next two decades, but there was an affinity from the off.
One of the greatest strengths of A Curious Friendship is the way that Thomasson manages to write about two very different lives and trajectories in a coherent and convincing way. While they saw much of each other, Whistler particularly loving to stay at Olivier’s Daye House in Wiltshire, their experiences were often separate. But the connections never feel a stretch, even when (say) Olivier is writing her novels in Wiltshire and Whistler is painting a mural in the Refreshment Room of the Tate Gallery.
Career-wise, neither of them experienced all they would have wanted. Olivier’s first novel The Love-Child was published to (deserved) praise, but not enormous sales figures. Her next handful got similar treatment, but she never made the income that she was hoping for (and letters to her publisher attest this); Whistler also needed to keep the wolf from the door, and was in such demand for book illustrations and domestic murals that he had little time for painting canvases. The murals particularly worried him; he didn’t want to be known as a glorified interior decorator, but nor could he turn down ready money. It is a sign of his affection for Olivier that he continued to illustrate her books when he’d really rather have been making his name elsewhere – latterly in theatre design. In all is work is wit (using the faces of friends for characters in his murals, or a boy stealing an apple in the corner of one, etc.), and his forte was a twist on the baroque. My only major complaint about A Curious Friendship is that I wish there had been many, many more photographs of Whistler’s work; the 28 images included add tremendously to the book, but among them are only four examples of his painting.
Perhaps the quality Olivier and Whistler shared most significantly was likeability, horrible word though that has become. Both were charming; both were sociable and kind. Thomasson has the biographer’s jackpot that, besides decades of daily entries from Olivier and access to all the letters between the pair (how I long for Thomasson to edit a collection of these now!), almost everybody they knew seems to have written their memoirs at one time or another. Daye House became something of a social hotspot for Bright Young and not-so-Young Things, including Ottoline Morrell, Siegfried Sassoon, Cecil Beaton, David Cecil, and William Walton; it was a sort of kinder, more egalitarian Bloomsbury. Their circle included many of the great and the good, stretching from celebrity farmer (!) A.G. Street to Lady Diana Cooper and her ilk. All of these people wrote about Olivier and Whistler with love and insight, and Thomasson incorporates many viewpoints beautifully.
Neither of the book’s subjects had successful romantic lives, though. Thomasson writes about this aspect of their lives with sensitivity and the right measure of exploration; it is neither prurient (as so often) nor evasive. Olivier seems to have felt some level of romantic attachment to Whistler, certainly enjoying it when anybody made this assumption, but not expecting anything more. She has lived fifty years without a husband or (I believe) lover, and was surely long used to this life. Whistler, on the other hand, went through agonies of love with various women, and was probably bisexual. The agonies are not a surprise; his was a spirit that experienced everything in extremes.
More significant to both, though, seems to have been friendship. In the background of A Curious Friendship are relationships like that of Stephen Tennant and Siegfried Sassoon – one with passion, heartbreak, and anguish – while Whistler and Olivier had a steadier, happier relationship with each other; a friendship that was replicated with many others to a lesser degree. Both were mourned by many, and Whistler’s death at 39 in the Second World War seems to have been considered even more tragic than most at that time. And I’m not going to lie; I did cry a little bit while reading about it.
The emotion I felt – not just about Whistler’s death, but about every high and low in their lives – is largely due to Thomasson’s skill as a biographer. She doesn’t intrude her personality too much, nor does her writing seem to be affected or stylised; it is that excellent sort of prose that is extremely skilful without showing off. She weaves together diary entries, letters, memoirs, and reviews into a expertly structured pattern, bringing these two people (and the background of those they knew) to life in a way that can’t help but create an emotional attachment for the reader. I get the feeling that Thomasson could write about the dullest person in the world and make it compelling; in Olivier and Whistler she has thankfully found too people who were the opposite of dull, and an unconventional friendship that offers an unusual but entirely fascinating subject for a biography. I can’t wait to see which subject Thomasson chooses next.
Simon is one of the editors of Shiny New Books.
An article by Anna Thomasson about researching her book appears in the BookBuzz section – click here.
Anna Thomasson, A Curious Friendship: The Story of a Bluestocking and a Bright Young Thing (Macmillan: London, 2015). 978-1447245337, 536pp., hardback.