Jonathan Yardley

John Julius Norwich's memoir, "Trying to Please," reviewed by Jonathan Yardley

By Jonathan Yardley
Sunday, September 5, 2010


A Memoir

By John Julius Norwich

Axios. 425 pp. $20

The author of this thoroughly delightful memoir is scarcely so well known in this country as in England, where he was born more than eight decades ago. John Julius Norwich began his working life in 1952 (he was then named John Julius Cooper) as an officer for the British Foreign Service, but he did not set off on his path to renown until the fall of 1963, when he decided to leave the service and try his hand at freelance writing. He has done so ever since, having written more than 20 books, most of them in the field of popular history, but he is best known as a lecturer on cultural subjects and the host of historical television documentaries.

"Trying to Please" is an absolutely delicious book, in part because Norwich writes so fluidly and engagingly, in part because he has been to so many places and done so many interesting things, and in no small part because he happens to be the only child of one of the most famous and mythologized couples of the first half of the 20th century. His father was Duff Cooper, the son of a genteel (but not aristocratic) London doctor; he served heroically during World War I, then spent the rest of his lifetime in public service, the "finest hour" of which was "his resignation from Neville Chamberlain's government in protest against the Munich agreement." Norwich's mother, Diana, was "a celebrity," to wit: She was, first of all, startlingly beautiful; secondly, she was "a member of the aristocracy . . . who had been brought up in one of England's most spectacular country houses, Belvoir Castle, as the youngest daughter of the eighth Duke of Rutland. . . . Ever since her presentation at Court in 1911 she had been the darling of the society and gossip columns; when she married my father -- a penniless commoner of whom no one had ever heard -- a body of mounted policemen had to be detailed to control the crowds outside."

Duff Cooper moved with ease and grace through the doorway to the world of the aristocracy that Diana opened for him. Their only son, born in 1929 when his mother was 37 years old, grew up in that world and now, from a great distance, looks back on it with affection. He seems to have no illusions about its shortcomings or the injustices that helped sustain it, but only the terminally hard-hearted will fail to be captivated by his description of life at Belvoir Castle or his nostalgia for it:

"What has gone (or very nearly) is the sense of amplitude -- the sheer scale of that aristocratic life of three-quarters of a century ago, made possible only by the existence of an enormous staff but of a thriving social community numbering several hundred people, with the great house at its center. One or two may still continue, at Chatsworth for example, or perhaps Blenheim; but the combination of hereditary wealth and old tradition without which such houses cannot survive is nowadays rare indeed. In the 1930s it was not. Belvoir was in no way exceptional. There were in those days dozens -- perhaps hundreds -- of houses in which that sort of life went on, not all of them on quite the level I have described, but not a few on a scale more magnificent still. Nor, in the surrounding country, was there any resentment, any more than there was any servility. The house was a source not only of employment, but of pride."

That passage follows a brief account of shooting parties at Belvoir. For a somewhat contrasting view of the same phenomenon I recommend Isabel Colegate's fine novel "The Shooting Party," not merely because it firmly if gracefully underscores the violence and cruelty of the event but also because Colegate, who is Norwich's contemporary, confirms the point that the great house was indeed a source of pride for the broader community. Though it would be easy to dismiss Norwich's reminiscences as those of a sentimental apologist for a social order best gotten rid of, this order had virtues as well as faults, and Norwich portrays them fairly.

Small wonder, in any event, that his childhood was happy, cushioned as he was by the luxuries of the castle, surrounded by family and friends, tended to by a loving and solicitous nanny, "the fulcrum of my life: far more important to me, and more dearly loved, than either of my parents." Then came the war, and his parents shipped him off to North America, where he attended school in Canada but often visited New York and Long Island, the beginning of a lifetime attachment to this part of the world. Then it was back home to England and, of course, on to Eton. He was bad at sports and found the famous old school "tough, uncomfortable, and unforgiving," but he got through it and now looks back on it, too, with a certain fondness:

"Nowadays, I am told, to have been educated at Eton is a positive disadvantage; universities and employers alike are biased against old Etonians even before they see them. As a result I notice that many of the younger ones actually try to conceal their background: whereas Harrovians and Wykehamists have no difficulty in saying 'when I was at Harrow' or 'when I was at Winchester,' Etonians tend to say 'when I was at school.' Any sort of snobbery is bad enough; inverted snobbery is surely the worst of all. Good school must by definition turn out better pupils than bad ones, and Eton remains a splendid one -- better indeed by far than it was in my day; to discriminate against it seems to me to be little short of grotesque. It is a measure of how much the world has changed in the last half-century that proud Etonians and closet homosexuals have been replaced by proud homosexuals and closet Etonians."

On, then, to Oxford, where his Moral Tutor was Isaiah Berlin: "Morals had nothing to do with it. His job was simply to keep an eye on how I was getting on," which he dispatched to great effect. Before graduation Norwich fell in love with Anne Clifford and married her in 1952, by which time his father "had been offered a viscountcy," accepted it, and chose the name Norwich. The newlyweds began their tour of foreign service assignments in Belgrade, which at first they hated but soon came to love, though the agonies of diplomatic dinner parties ("Few gatherings are more boring") never eased. From there they went to Beirut, long before that beautiful city's destruction during the Middle Eastern agonies of the late 20th century.

Back in London, Norwich (he took the name, and the lordship, upon his father's sudden death in 1954) found "the vast, impersonal Foreign Office" uncongenial, and was given a year's leave at the end of which, his boss told him, "you can take your choice: leave for good, with all our best wishes for your future, or be welcomed back into the fold." Once he decided to leave for good, he entered a new, considerably less structured, life "always based in London, living in the same house on the Regent's Canal, writing books, occasionally broadcasting or filming, traveling as often as possible but never . . . for more than a fortnight at a stretch." It's a good life, and Norwich shows no sign of slowing it down. More power to him.

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