Friday, 18 April 2014

A Very English Affair [book]

From the title you might expect this to be a romance or Aga-saga. Far from it: A Very English Affair by Richard Davenport-Hines is a history book on the Profumo Affair, and its context.

Note for non-Brits: the Profumo Affair was a massive British political scandal in the 1960s, when War Minister Jack Profumo was discovered to share a mistress with Soviet Assistant Naval Attache Yevgeny Ivanov. The girl was young and working class, the man alleged to have introduced her to both men a society osteopath, and all sorts of naughty goings-on were alleged to have taken place, including at Cliveden, the palatial home of the vastly wealthy Astor family. So you’ve got everything: Cold War politics, celebrity, class, sex and money. British politicians aren’t strangers to scandal, so it says something about the Profumo Affair that it is still the One Scandal to Rule Them All.



Now, I like my history books to be factual, but I found the first chapter heavy going. In the first part of the book (the first 200 pages!), each chapter is devoted to a different player in the scandal: the Minister, the Doctor, the Good-time Girls and so on. It explains who they were, who was connected the them and so on, so gradually you build up a picture of the situation as a whole. Unfortunately the first chapter is about possibly the least ‘juicy’, if most powerful, player of all: the Prime Minister. I persevered through it, and it definitely Filled My Branes because mid-20th-century history is not my strong point, but did find that chapter terribly dry. The chapters on landlords, good-time girls and spies were probably the most interesting.

By the time I was five chapters in, I knew a lot about who was involved, their business dealings and personal relationships and so on, but I still wasn’t entirely sure how they all fitted together, nor did I have more than a rough idea of what the ‘scandal’ actually involved, and it was a real struggle to complete the book.

Davenport-Hines takes a harsh view of British society in the 1950s. The sexism of the time is made clear, as is the awful way Jewish, black and gay people were treated. The treatment of one of Keeler's boyfriends, sent to prison for beating her even though the person who actually did it admitted to it, shocked me.

I found myself feeling extremely sorry for many of the women specifically involved in the case, from Harold Macmillan’s wife, stuck in a loveless marriage, to Valerie Profumo (actress Valerie Hobson) and Bronwen Astor (Bronwen Pugh; model and muse to Pierre Balmain), both made to give up their careers on marriage. The young woman at the heart of things, Christine Keeler, came across as lost and vulnerable, her attractiveness both her one chance at getting away from her very poor beginnings yet also the thing that made men want to exploit her. It’s a world away from the modern cupcakes-and-kitsch view of life in the 1950s and early 60s, that’s for sure.

I learned a lot from this book, including that some of the 'facts'  about the Profumo affair were, interestingly, mostly made up, either by newspapermen in search of a sales boost or politicians jostling for power, but I didn’t really enjoy it. I put it down for quite a while while I read some fiction instead. I think I’d have preferred more narrative and less context. In most of the history books I’ve really enjoyed (Midnight in Peking, Harry the Valet) the context is carefully woven into the main narrative, which I like better. That said, I'm no historian, and historians have given it good reviews. Try getting it from your local library before deciding if you want to buy it!

 Source of book: Waterstones, bought as part of a three-for-two deal

4 comments :

  1. Oh, I read that! I really liked how it brought the seedy sixties world to life, but I agree with you that the cast of characters were a bit hard to follow.

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    1. Yes, I found the chapters on Spies and Landlords especially interesting. I think I just needed a bit more narrative.

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  2. Interested to read your review as it is a period of history that is a bit hazy for me and one that I would like to know more about. It does sound hard going in places, well done for persevering!

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    1. I was not being beaten by a history book! But bits of it were a dreadful slog...

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