Compton Mackenzie (1883–1972), the descendant of a theatrical dynasty, played many parts—though as a writer rather than on the stage. Now remembered by many only as the humorist who wrote farces like Whisky Galore (1947), set on a mythical Scottish island, he began his life in London’s West Kensington. In the first phase of Mackenzie’s fame, Henry James praised him as a great hope of the English novel. His second novel, Carnival (1912), the tale of the doomed dancer Jenny Pearl and the dilettante Maurice Avery, made Mackenzie a cult novelist among the sophisticated young. Lady Diana Manners (later Cooper, the inspiration for Evelyn Waugh’s Mrs. Stitch) took Jenny Pearl’s phrase “there’s nothing wrong with this little girl” as her own, and she and her friends in the set they called the “Corrupt Coterie” loved repeating the cockney Jenny’s “don’t be soppy” and “I must have been potty.” Mackenzie’s next novel, Sinister Street, originally published in two volumes (the first in 1913, the second in 1914), consolidated his reputation. Sinister Street was lapped up by such young readers as Waugh, Scott Fitzgerald, Cyril Connolly, and his schoolmate the future George Orwell. When the First World War broke out, Charles Lister, a male member of the Coterie, hoped that he wouldn’t be killed before he could read Mackenzie’s next novel, Guy and Pauline (1915), a wish unfulfilled when Lister perished at Gallipoli just before the book reached him.

The lyrical Guy and Pauline now seems more poignant in the wake of the conflagration that was overtaking England and Europe. Guy Hazlewood, the book’s hero, appeared in Sinister Street and returned in uniform in Mackenzie’s next novel, The Adventures of Sylvia Scarlett (1918–19). Mackenzie’s project was to write a series of books based on Sinister Street’s characters and call the series “The Theatre of Youth.” He started with Carnival, whose Maurice Avery returned in Sinister Street and in the next few novels. Sinister Street was rich in characters, and Mackenzie might have continued in that vein for years but for the war that decimated his generation and for his own discovery at its end that he, now in his mid-thirties, was “impatient of the mood of Sinister Street.” Rather than continue with “The Theatre of Youth,” Mackenzie wrapped up the series after the war’s end with 1920’s The Vanity Girl.

Mackenzie, in the first book of his ten-volume autobiography, wrote that reading Don Quixote as a child made him a lifelong “natural minority man” for whom freedom had always been the “guiding principle.” A born romantic, he was an inveterate apologist for the Stuarts, and his love of liberty was apparent in everything he wrote. In Sinister Street Michael Fane reads Cervantes’s masterpiece and tries to emulate the doleful knight. Mackenzie was keen in his memoirs and elsewhere to stress that Michael was meant to be an “every-boy” rather than a self-portrait. Nevertheless, Mackenzie did give his creation elements from his own life. Each spent his early years in West Kensington, suffered with their nurse, went to a local independent day school and to Oxford’s Magdalen College, renamed St Mary’s in Mackenzie’s fiction. But Michael’s background diverges from Mackenzie’s theatrical inheritance. Indeed, Mackenzie gave Michael and his sister, Stella, origins even more romantic as the illegitimate offspring of the thirteenth and last Earl of Saxby, prevented from marrying their mother by a wife who refused him a divorce. Michael cannot inherit his father’s title, but he does get his money. It seems a bit of a writer’s daydream—the sort of fantasy cooked up by a scribbler chained to his desk for twelve hours every day, turning out two books per year to survive, as Mackenzie himself later had to.

Michael and friends prove that nineties’ aestheticism was still alive among the young in the twentieth century’s first decade to such an extent that Sinister Street’s Oxford section can seem the link between Max Beerbohm’s Oxford and Harold Acton’s in the twenties. As a schoolboy, Michael falls in love with Swinburne’s poetry. At Oxford, he buys the complete works of Walter Pater and puts up a print of the Mona Lisa on his wall. Sinister Street’s description of Oxford has been so celebrated that few know it only comprises a section of the novel. Indeed Oxford is something of an idyllic intruder upon the book’s main theme of the omnipresence of evil. Michael is religious to the extent that his adored governess (who converts to Catholicism, as did Mackenzie while writing the book) hopes he will discover a vocation. Even on retreat in a Berkshire monastery, the schoolboy Michael feels he is “the quarry of an evil chase.” In the monastery, he meets the creepy Brother Aloysius, a Graham Greene character avant la lettre. This baleful presence keeps bobbing up in Michael’s life, each time under a different name, now “Meats,” now “Barnes.”

Michael first encounters Sylvia Scarlett not in one of London’s “sinister streets” but in a pretty cottage in Fulham. He feels an instant affinity for her, she whose eyes are merry, tongue is sharp, and who also reads Balzac and Petronius. Michael gives her Don Quixote and The Golden Ass. Only later in The Adventures of Sylvia Scarlett do we discover that Sylvia and Michael are second cousins, close enough to account for natural compatibility but not so close as to prevent romance.

Sylvia’s life has been far less protected than Michael’s. She and her English father flee from France on her French mother’s death, the tomboyish Sylvia briefly disguised as a boy. Though she soon reverts to acting as a girl, she is obliged to show toughness in the world of show business. Singing and playing her theme song, “The Raggle-Taggle Gipsies,” on the guitar, she busks in England’s seaside towns until her father dies, leaving her entirely on her own. By the time she exits her teens, she has lived more lives than most people ever will, judging her existence to be “nothing but mistake after mistake.” Stage success in London is brief, and all her agent has to offer her is a chorus girl’s job in St. Petersburg. Still off with the raggle-taggle gipsies, she says to herself. She is in St. Petersburg in the summer of 1914 when she falls victim to typhus and loses consciousness for weeks. On waking, she finds the world at war. The old world had been replaced by bureaucratic restrictions and red tape. Passports are required, suspicion everywhere. “How can mankind believe in man?” she asks. “How can mankind reject God?” Then she meets Michael, always a beacon to her, in Europe’s rubble.

The Adventures of Sylvia Scarlett heralded the shift from Mackenzie’s earlier “Edwardian” approach, luscious as a ripe peach, to the sparer, purely comic style that marked his post-war novels. Mackenzie attributed the trimmed-down style to the telegrams he wrote as an intelligence officer, where no unnecessary words were allowed. It was as if Waugh had started his career with Brideshead and followed it with Decline and Fall. Sylvia and Michael, originally published in 1919, was, as Mackenzie later claimed, the first novel to elucidate the “weariness and disgust” of the nightmare just ended. Nerves were still raw, and Sylvia’s feeling that the war had made the world safe for bureaucrats rather than heroes was perhaps not entirely welcome by the reading public. Since the new book was something of a sequel to Sinister Street, the change in style baffled reviewers the more. Mackenzie continued to surprise and confuse them with his novels, including satires on the Secret Service, two Capri cousins to Norman Douglas’s South Wind, and the later Scottish farces. Reviewers prefer authors they can pigeonhole; Mackenzie eluded them. Almost fifty years after his death, Mackenzie still deserves plaudits in his many seasons and facets. Meanwhile, his books continue to find readers, many of them delighted to encounter an author whose writing can chase clouds away.

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This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 37 Number 6, on page 32
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