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.
That aphorism about the laurels and the lead must have seemed too good to pass up at the time, and it is not the only example of Connolly’s fatal ability to sacrifice (like Wilde) coherence or seriousness for a good line. “There is no more somber enemy of good art than the pram in the hall,” Connolly famously wrote, quite ignoring the many artists and authors who have been moved to work precisely because of their children. Famous for repartee and for believing that he could fashion one riposte that would work for every occasion, he “spent weeks in elaborating it. At that time the magic phrase seemed, ‘Dear me, how very uninteresting!’ If I had to choose one now it would be ‘This is a very bad moment for both of us.’” Announcing his election to an elite school club that normally scorned intellectuals, he showed a gift for simile by describing how the swells and toffs came rolling in to congratulate him, “like the college of cardinals arriving to congratulate some pious old freak whom fate had elevated to the throne of St Peter.” Nearly Wildean is his offhand observation, “Like many lazy people, once I started working I could not stop; perhaps that is why we avoid it.” Nonetheless, for throwaway effect, one of the most striking—and least Wildean—turns in the book is this one, which occurs in a catalog of volumes digested and authors chalked up: “Orwell lent me The Picture of Dorian Gray. But I could not swallow it. It was not necessary.” At that time Orwell was not at all famous, but Connolly got the point of him early on, even if he did not allow for the fact that here was an author who would adopt a child rather than have a hallway without a pram in it (and even if he could come up with the flabbergastingly inane view that Dorian Gray was, of all extraordinary things, “not necessary”).
Still, the willingness to take risks and be hit-or-miss was part of Connolly’s technique, which depended in turn on making difficult things look easy and vice versa: “By the time I had left Eton I knew by heart something of the literature of five civilizations.” This style—of effortless and almost bored superiority— is supposed to be the hallmark of the Oxford College to which Connolly subsequently took himself, but it is to preempt some of that charge, I think, that he makes quite a few references to his own physical ugliness and lack of sex appeal and, in the 1948 introduction, the following breezy concession: “On every page I have retouched the writing itself (it was Edmund Wilson who remarked that it was not a very well-written book and put me on to this).”
One might picture the dedication: “To Edmund Wilson, for helping me to see that this book was not very well written … ” The aspirant (male) writer, to whom the book is actually addressed, might learn more from this unguarded moment than from some of the more ostensibly sapient advice that is offered in part one. This section, which alternates rather oddly between witty recommendations of hedonism and dilettantism and some stern warnings against these things, contains the following almost bootstrap-oriented counsel:
When suffering from social envy of other writers there is only one cure—to work. Whatever consideration they are enjoying may then come your way and in any case by working you are doing what they would most envy you.
It doesn’t quite go on a knitted sampler, if only because its cynicism is a fraction too evident, but it will do.
Frivolity and brittleness—what Connolly himself termed his “futilitarianism”—will take you only so far. There is a sterner theme that unifies both halves of the book and supplies a sort of steel thread through the 1938 edition. In the section on “The Charlock’s Shade,” Connolly speaks very firmly to all those whose first concern is with their reputations:
A writer must grow used to the idea that culture as we know it may disappear and remain lost for ever or till it is excavated, a thousand years hence, from a new Herculaneum. Horace’s boast of immortality, his “non omnis moriar”, neither anticipated the hostility of the church nor the ignorance of the Dark Ages. Of his two thousand years of posthumous life, a thousand slid by in a coma. One has but to consider the dearth of writers in Italy and Germany, the extinction of the cultural activity of the Weimar republic or the war waged by those countries against the intelligentsia of Spain to perceive how ephemeral are the securest literary reputations, the most flourishing movements. At any moment the schools of Athens may be closed, the libraries burnt, the teachers exterminated, the language suppressed. Any posthumous fame or the existence of any posterity capable of appreciating the arts we care for, can be guaranteed only by fighting for it and for many who fight, there will be no stake in the future but a name on a war- memorial.
On the very last page of the book, almost as if he doesn’t know that he is repeating himself, he makes the same point in a more epigrammatic way:
In spite of the slow conversion of progressive ideas into the fact of history, the Dark Ages have a way of coming back. Civilisation—the world of affection and reason and freedom and justice—is a luxury which must be fought for, as dangerous to possess as an oil-field or an unlucky diamond.
The Connolly who wrote that second paragraph is the man who helped keep English letters alive during the war, finding enough paper on which to print his magazine Horizon and knowing where to get a decent bottle of wine even during the Blitz. The Connolly who wrote the first paragraph is the boy who was, despite his protests to the contrary, paying attention in the school chapel when the roll of honor was being read out, and while the bugles sounded for the fallen.
I cannot resist a closing irony of history. To illustrate his theory that English schoolboys grow rotten, so to speak, before they are ripe, Connolly selected an aristocratic contemporary named Alec Dunglass:
He was a votary of the esoteric Eton religion, the kind of graceful, tolerant, sleepy boy who is showered with favors and crowned with all the laurels, who is liked by the masters and admired by the boys without any apparent exertion on his part, without experiencing the ill-effects of success himself or arousing the pangs of envy in others. In the eighteenth century he would have become Prime Minister before he was thirty; as it was he appeared honorably ineligible for the struggle of life.
Even as Enemies of Promise was being published, but apparently without engaging Connolly’s notice, the “graceful, tolerant, sleepy” Lord Dunglass was acting as one of Neville Chamberlain’s private secretaries in the selling of Prague to Hitler at Munich. In 1963, under the more modest civilian name of Sir Alec Douglas- Home, he did in fact become a rather short-lived Tory prime minister. If there was one thing on which I would have wagered a good deal, it was the impossibility of Britain’s ever again being governed by a waistcoated charmer from that particular school. Yet here we are 70 years on, and the British Conservatives are led by an old Etonian named David Cameron, who was also a member of a Brideshead-type dining club at Oxford. And all the indications are that he could oust “New Labour” from power. I dare say you could call that promising.