By Cyril ConnollyChicago
Let us without delay get to the core statement of Cyril Connolly’s Enemies of Promise, which first appeared in 1938, survived a slightly revised reappearance in 1948, has just been reissued (and is very ably introduced by Alex Woloch) by the University of Chicago Press, and has seemed to challenge us to reconsider it in every intervening decade:
Promise! Fatal word, half-bribe and half-threat, round whose exact meaning centered many tearful childhood interviews. “But you promised you wouldn’t”, “but that wasn’t a promise”, “Yes it was—you haven’t kept your promise”, till the meaning expands and the burden of the oath under which we grew up becomes the burden of expectation which we can never fulfill. “Blossom and blossom and promise of blossom, but never a fruit”—the cry first heard in the nursery is taken up by the schoolmaster, the friendly aunt, the doting grandmother, the inverted bachelor uncle. Dons with long reproachful faces will utter it and the friends of dons; the shapes and simulacrums which our parents have taken, the father- substitutes and mother-types which we have projected will accuse us and all await our ritual suicide. Whom the gods wish to destroy they first call promising.
If this were merely a cri de coeur of self-pity, emitted by a child of privilege who confuses his own spoiled embarrassment of choices with the shades of Wordsworth’s prison-house closing about the growing boy, we could safely ridicule and despise it. But one of Connolly’s great gifts was self-deprecation, and one of his easier styles was that of the tongue in the cheek. He puts one in mind of two of the great contemporaries about whom he wrote—George Orwell and Evelyn Waugh. Here is Orwell, who was at the same boys’ boarding school as Connolly, recalling the psychological “promise” torture inflicted by the headmaster’s wife:
Do you want to throw all your chances away? You know your people aren’t rich, don’t you? You know they can’t afford the same things as other boys’ parents. How are they to send you to a public school if you don’t win a scholarship? I know how proud your mother is of you. Do you want to let her down?
Connolly could not have read Orwell’s memoir—Such, Such Were the Joys—before composing his own, and he managed to survive the same gruesome school by exerting himself to be charming instead of a rebel; but it is difficult to believe that Waugh did not read Enemies of Promise before writing Brideshead Revisited. There are too many felicitous coincidences: Anthony Blanche selects exactly Connolly’s languid Continental menu (omelette, peach, Vichy water), and Connolly’s account of his first visit in company to Provence is the perfect antecedent of Charles and Sebastian’s first glimpse of Venice. In both books, the name for a certain kind of boy at Eton is bitch. And in Brideshead, it is charm that does duty for promise:
simple, creamy English charm, playing tigers … Charm is the great English blight. It does not exist outside these damp islands. It spots and kills anything it touches. It kills love; it kills art.
On this analysis, it is actually a good thing that promise has acquired a few enemies; otherwise the phonies and poseurs and spongers and mere aesthetes (afflicted with “the virus of good taste,” as Connolly phrases it) would have things all their own way. Connolly’s “charm” was that he was honest about the motivations and hypocrisies that kept him going: the glittering prizes that he yearned for if only so that, by acquiring them, he could make fun of them. His redemption from charm was his readiness to look unpleasant facts in the face and his ability to tell a person of integrity from a well-disguised impostor.
Like a centaur, or perhaps a bit more like a pantomime horse, Enemies of Promise divides into two halves: the critical and the autobiographical. In the first half, Connolly surveys the literary scenery of his day and employs as his scaffolding and Waste Land surrogate George Crabbe’s bleak and sarcastic poem The Village. This, with its vividly negative bucolic imagery of “the blighted rye,” “the blue Bugloss,” “the slimy Mallow,” and “the Charlock’s shade,” allows him a special taxonomy of weeds and thistles as well as of growth without roots.
In the second half, titled “A Georgian Boyhood,” he gives a lavishly detailed account of his education between the ages of 8 and 18, and shows an extraordinary confidence in the likelihood that this narrative will not prove ephemeral. The best-known phrase from this section is his “theory of permanent adolescence” as a description of the marination process of the English upper class. I should call this a coinage if it did not seem to me to derive from the “perpetual adolescent” fixation that comes to us from Goethe’s The Sorrows of Young Werther, but, as with Connolly’s verdict on promise, it is very originally phrased, and it comes so close to the end of the book that it truly resembles a conclusion arrived at rather than a prejudice or proposition being demonstrated:
It is the theory that the experiences undergone by boys at the great public schools, their glories and disappointments, are so intense as to dominate their lives and to arrest their development. From these it results that the greater part of the ruling class remains adolescent, school-minded, self-conscious, cowardly, sentimental and in the last analysis homosexual. Early laurels weigh like lead and of many of the boys whom I knew at Eton, I can say that their lives are over.