Betjeman: A Life

A. N. Wilson, Author . Farrar, Straus & Giroux $27 (375p) ISBN 978-0-374-11198-4

Certainly Britain's most popular poet since Kipling, John Betjeman (1906–1984) began as the shy son of a London manufacturer, got kicked out of Oxford for not taking his studies seriously and ended up as poet laureate (1972–1984). He also became a celebrity, known across the U.K. for hosting TV programs about travel and architecture, for his campaigns to preserve Victorian buildings and for Summoned by Bells (1960), his bestselling verse account of his childhood and youth. The English admired his unassuming comic persona, his devotion to the Anglican Church, his loyalty (somehow simultaneous, and real) to both aristocrats and Middle England, and his stand on behalf of Victorian values, which modern life seemed to have eroded. This enthusiastic, always readable biography from the prolific English critic Wilson (After the Victorians ) follows Betjeman's rise to public acclaim, his sometimes surprising friends and acquaintances (Lord Alfred Douglas, Evelyn Waugh), and his frequently frustrating private affairs: unwilling to either divorce or live with his wife, Betjeman spent decades with a devoted younger mistress. With his sources in hymns and English music-hall comedy, his great causes (Anglican services and Victorian churches) quintessentially, parochially English, Betjeman seems as unlikely an export as Marmite. Whatever American fans he has, however, will be well served by this compact life, issued simultaneously with Betjeman's Collected Poems for his centenary (FSG, $17 paper ISBN 0-374-12653-4). 74 b&w illus. (Dec.)

Reviewed on: 10/09/2006
Release date: 11/01/2006
Genre: Nonfiction
Hardcover - 368 pages - 978-0-09-179702-7
Open Ebook - 384 pages - 978-1-4464-9305-2
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