one of his short stories (Open House, in Mulliner Nights)
P.G. Wodehouse introduces us to a young lady called Marcella Tyrrwhitt.
While it appears bizarre at first, the surname is typical of Wodehouse, in
so far as he often chose designations for his characters that were in fact
based on real names, albeit odd ones.
Australia the name “Tyrrwhitt” is non-existent — or, at
the very least, exceptionally rare. It certainly doesn’t
appear in the Sydney phone book. In England, by way of
contrast, this name, in various spellings (chiefly
concerned with the “double-r” and/or the “double-t”), has
had its several moments of stardom, being attached not
only to real people but also to streets.
century, for instance, produced the classical and English scholar Thomas
Tyrwhitt (1730-86), who published editions of Aristotle's Poetics
and Chaucer's Canterbury Tales. It is on the latter that his fame
primarily rests. Over the centuries the English language had changed so
much that some of the principles needed for a proper understanding of
medieval poetry had been forgotten, and Chaucer’s reputation had sunk
quite low. As the Encyclopaedia Britannica informs us, “it was
Tyrwhitt who pointed out that final “e’s” (by his time mute) ought to be
pronounced as separate syllables and that the accent of a word was often
placed in the French manner (e.g., virtúe, not vírtue)”.
19th-century example with unfortunate contemporary echoes was that of Mr.
Tyrrwhit of the Marlborough Police Court. According to social researcher
Henry Mayhew (1812-1887) in his vast survey of London’s poor, Mr. Tyrrwhit
became disturbed by “one of the most disgraceful, horrible and revolting
practices (not even eclipsed by the slave-trade), carried on by Europeans
. . . [namely] the importation of girls into England from foreign
countries to swell the ranks of prostitution”.
present-day but more respectable note, for relevant street names Londoners
need look no further than Tyrwhitt Road, Brockley, London SE4. A most
sought-after area today say the estate agents, where may be had
substantial high-ceilinged, four-bedroom, two-storey Victorian homes with
views across Hillyfields and towards Greenwich — all for a mere £285,000
(going on for $A700,000).
pure Bikwilian idiosyncratic nobility of purpose, no bearer of the surname
can take the outrageous cake as can Gerald Hugh Tyrwhitt (1883-1950). In
my editorial in Bikwil No. 13 (May, 1999) it was Gerald Tyrwhitt
whom I intended to feature in our series Memorable Moments in Music
as the British composer who wrote the words for his own headstone. Further
investigation, however, has led me to realise that his role as
self-epitaphist (anomalous though it may have been) was relatively minor
in the full eccentric scheme of his gloriously unlikely life. In short, he
deserves an extended laudatory article unto himself, well beyond the
confines of the memorably musical.
of the word “nobility” above, though ironic, was deliberate and very much
to the point. For at the age of 35 Tyrwhitt inherited an ancient title
that dated back five centuries and became the fourteenth Baron Berners. Of
his ancestors the most illustrious was John Bourchier (1467-1533), the
second Baron, who was a soldier, a diplomat and Chancellor of the
Exchequer under Henry VIII. He is remembered, however, less as a man of
action than as a man of scholarship, since it is to him we owe most of our
knowledge about the Hundred Years War, via his energetic translation from
French of the Chroniques of Jean Froissart. He also translated the
French romance The Boke Huon de Bordeuxe, which introduced Oberon,
King of the Fairies, into English literature and which was used by
Shakespeare when writing A Midsummer Night’s Dream. His importance
for English literature and language may be gauged from the fact that the
Oxford Dictionary lists over three and a half thousand quotations
from his works.
only six or seven years ago when I first heard the music of composer Lord
Berners — on the Sydney FM radio station 2MBS. They had just been playing
his suite The Triumph of Neptune, which took my fancy. I jotted
down the title, with a question mark against the word “Lord”.
misheard? Lord Berners? Or did this composer, hitherto unknown to
me, have an unusual forename that just sounded like “Lord”? Eventually I
learnt the truth. “Lord” was correct after all, but during my research for
this article I have discovered that even during Berners’ lifetime people
occasionally doubted the authenticity of the title. For example, in 1943,
during the staging of his ballet A Wedding Bouquet, several
orchestral players inquired whether the composer was actually a “Lord”.
Most of them seemed to think it was a tag like those of Duke Ellington and
information here, by the way, I am indebted in large part to Mark Amory’s
recent biography Lord Berners, the Last Eccentric (1998, ISBN 1
85619 234 2), and also to the sometimes inaccurate but nicely named Web
site The Knitting Circle, maintained by the Lesbian and Gay Staff
Association at the South Bank University in London. Here is a bit of the
publisher’s blurb for Amory’s book:
Berners was a composer, novelist and painter in that order. He was also
charming, witty, greedy, homosexual, a great entertainer and deeply shy. A
friend of the glamorous and the talented, he has made many appearances in
their biographies but never before had one of his own.
Gerald Tyrwhitt in 1883, an only child, he was brought up by a mother
whose passion was hunting. Despite failing the Foreign Office exam, he was
soon an honorary attaché in Constantinople. Transferred to Rome in 1912,
his whole life blossomed . . .
he inherited the ancient title of Berners, and estates that made him rich.
childhood was not a happy one. He had no friends, and his father, being in
the navy, spent a lot of time away from home. To the boy his father came
across as worldly, reserved and cynical. Even so, says Amory, Gerald
admired his elegant clothes sense and his wit.
recounts with admiration how a boring neighbour told his father that
someone had kicked his wife, adding, “and in public, too! It’s not
cricket, is it?”
said my father, stifling a yawn, “It sounds more like football.”
loved his mother dearly and provided well for her in her later years,
Gerald viewed her as conventional and lacking imagination. The idea that
he should become an artist or writer, or even worse, a musician, filled
her with revulsion. At the age of 17 he wrote a play under the influence
of Ibsen. His mother condemned it as morbid, asking why he couldn’t write
a play like Charley’s Aunt.
little boy he had been occasionally too much for her. For instance, having
heard that a dog when thrown into water will swim instinctively, he once
threw her spaniel out a first-floor window — his scientific experiment
being to see if thrown into the air a dog will instinctively fly. (He
would later claim that he had felt free to do so because its face reminded
him of George Eliot.)
first to Cheam and later to Eton, Gerald seems to have suffered a bored
and miserable education, enlivened socially only by his infatuations with
a couple of other schoolboys. One of his teachers at Eton was A.C. Benson,
whom observant Bikwil readers will recall from my piece
Inadvertent Doggerel in Issue 5, January 1998, as the author of the
words to Land of Hope and Glory (written to celebrate the
coronation of Edward VII, incidentally).
memorable for Gerald Tyrwhitt, however, than his teachers or his crushes
was the part music began to play in his lonely life. According to Amory,
“Music . . . was to be his escape from his uncongenial surroundings”. It
began when as a young boy he heard a visitor to the Tyrwhitt home playing
Chopin’s Fantaisie-Impromptu. Then while he was at Eton he happened
by chance upon a book called A Synopsis of Wagner’s Nibelungen
heard a note of the music, but he became obsessed by the world of gods and
dwarves, and when he discovered a vocal score of Das Rheingold,
. . [h]e frightened the shopkeeper by the violence with which he burst in,
but he was allowed to handle it, and his excitement and longing . . . were
father shelled out the money for it, and it was not long before he was he
was staging Wagner productions at home — in a doll’s house.
completing his time at Eton, in 1900, aged 16, he went on to study
languages, history and geography on the Continent, with a view to a career
in diplomacy. He also studied art, sketched a little, and took a course in
harmony. During this period he gradually lost his passion for Wagner, and
began to pay serious attention to other composers, such as Beethoven,
Richard Strauss and Debussy, and to further his interest in literature,
dependent on his mother for funds, Gerald crisscrossed the Continent for
the next decade, hardly ever remaining in the same place for more than
four months, attempting the Foreign Office exams in 1905 and again 1907 —
and failing both times. Even so, by 1910 he had obtained an appointment as
honorary attaché to the embassy at Constantinople. Such insignificant
positions were given to suitable young men of independent means who were
willing to file and type and do a bit of deciphering for no pay. While in
Constantinople, however, Gerald took little interest in either local
customs or foreign politics. Instead, he spent a lot of his desk time
writing nonsense verse. Here’s one of the less smutty ones:
thing that Uncle George detests
finding mouse shit in his vests
what he even more abhors
seeing Auntie in her drawers.
he was posted to Rome, a city and culture much more to his liking. It was
in Italy that he was drawn to the new art movements Futurism and
1918, his Uncle Raymond died, and Gerald Tyrwhitt found himself a Baron
and the owner of a Berkshire country manor called Faringdon, situated
about 24 km south-west of Oxford. According to architecture lover John
Betjeman, who visited several times, Faringdon House is one of the finest
buildings in the county.
course, for our already idiosyncratic thirty-five-year-old a simple and
factual explanation of how he inherited was not good enough, so as time
went on he concocted various more exciting versions to tell at parties. To
me, they sound a bit like previews of scenes in the 1949 movie Kind
Hearts and Coronets. In one, a whole row of uncles fell off a bridge;
in another, a procession of Tyrwhitts on their mournful way to a funeral
got mowed down by a bus.
process of Berners’ succession to the title was complicated by a little
tradition instituted by his grandmother Lady Emma Berners (née Wilson),
who wanted her heirs to take her maiden name before they inherited. Gerald
had not thought through his own succession well enough in advance, and
when his uncle died only a year after becoming the 13th Lord Berners, had
not yet changed his name. As Amory puts it, he “only became
Tyrwhitt-Wilson by royal licence in 1919, by which time his surname was
cloaked by his title”.
his elevation to the Quality, Lord Berners stayed on at the Rome embassy
(now acting private secretary to the Ambassador) for another two years.
One of his last acts before he left in 1920 was a perverse letter to
Venice. Evidently an Australian newspaper had bemoaned the fact that the
once noble city was now full of beggars. It was Berners’ job to reassure
them. So he wrote, “It was all mistake — a misprint. It was supposed to
[ We will continue this feature on Gerald
Tyrwhitt-Wilson, 14th Baron Berners, in the
next issue. ]