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19 Dec 2022
updated 21 Dec 2022

Edward James and his stories§

Edward was evidently a brilliant anecdotalist and raconteur. For example...

He was fascinated by malapropisms and Mrs Moore§§ provided one of his favourites. Apparently she checked into a hotel saying 'J'ai très mal au dos. Iℓ me faut absolument deux matelots et trois cousins dans mon lit'. The concierge took it in his stride and answered simply 'Mais quelle jolie partie que cela fera, madame!'

She always gave a great dinner party when the chestnut trees were at their best. One year it was rather spoilt by Mr Moore's drowning in the Seine on the day of the feast. She put black crêpe around the place cards, but there was a horrible silence when the guests sat down, and to break the ice she explained 'Mon mari s'est noyé'. Deep, embarrassed silence. '... N'est-ce pas extraordinaire, qu'un homme si ordinaire, soit mort d'un mort si extraordinaire?'

He was also intensely amused by the foibles of his super-rich Aunt Venetia (Mrs Arthur James, née Venetia Cavendish-Bentinck)...

Aunt Venetia and Violet Trefusis (daughter of Edward VII's mistress Alice Keppel) went by train to a country wedding in honour of which Venetia had spent an entire pound on a new hat. In order to travel all the way by third class, they took a circuitous route, which meant changing trains more than once, and on one remote station it started to rain but the waiting-room was locked. Aunt Venetia was not going to have the new hat ruined and pulled her skirts up over her head, revealing her red flannel petticoats and her bony legs. The station master rushed up to Violet, who pretended that she had 'never met that woman in her life', so he went straight to the dripping statue that was Aunt Venetia and asked her not to disgrace his station by making such a show of herself. Her muffled reply from behind the skirts, imitated by Edward stuffing a handkerchief into his mouth, was 'Young man, what you see may be old, but the hat is new!'

She was rather jealous of all the fuss that was being made about Alice Keppel's return to England from Italy after war was declared [in 1914]; part of the journey was by submarine. Venetia would have rather liked to have been the much-talked-about heroine of the hour. She said 'The way people talk about Alice Keppel, anyone would think she had swum the Channel with her maid in her teeth.'

Aunt Venetia took part in amateur theatricals with a group called The Windsor Strollers, led by Sir Hugh Rumbold. A modern play was chosen called Outward Bound, about people on a ship. All of them were dead, but not aware of it, and each had to go before an Examiner to be interrogated about their lives. Venetia was cast as Mrs Kevington Smyth, a tough, bitchy old character. The Examiner said to Venetia 'In your life you were a harlot and you were not even a good harlot'; Venetia quite forgot she was in a play and rounded on him, saying 'I don't know who you think you're talking to, I'm Mrs Arthur James' and they had to bring the curtain down. On the second night a huge crowd came, hoping for a repeat performance, but they were disappointed; she had learnt her lines by then.

§ Desmond Guinness, Edward James and his stories, for the accompanying catalogue of the retrospective exhibition 'A Surreal Life: Edward James 1907-1984', Royal Pavilion Libraries and Museums, Brighton & Hove, in association with Philip Wilson Publishers, 1998.
§§ A good account of Mrs Kate Moore, American millionairess, can be found in Cornelia Otis Skinner's profile of the revoltingly exquisite Robert de Montesquiou reproduced elsewhere