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The Quality of Love by Ariane Bankes review – delicious portrait of the Paget twins

The Quality of Love by Ariane Bankes review – delicious portrait of the Paget twins

Somewhere in her house – though not, I think, in an attic – Ariane Bankes keeps a battered tin trunk, the precious contents of which enabled her to write this short biography of her mother, Celia, and her aunt, Mamaine, who were identical twins. Such a project, though, was quite long in the gestation – Mamaine died before Bankes was born, in 1954, and Celia, who left her the trunk full of letters, in 2002 – and I wonder if this was because she worried just a little about the story she was to tell. The Paget twins were undoubtedly beautiful, spirited and clever. As debs, they were photographed by Madame Yevonde for Tatler; their circle included Laurie Lee, Decca Mitford and Simone de Beauvoir. But their principal fascination for the modern reader lies not with their own achievements, but with their private lives. As adorable and original as they appear in the pages of this rather delicious and sympathetic book, I have to admit that I sometimes rolled my eyes at their love affairs. Live alone and like it, I thought, as yet another heart was broken, yet another man insisted he could not possibly leave his wife.

The Pagets were born in rural Suffolk in 1916, where they were brought up by their father and a doting nanny, their mother having died a week after their arrival. It was an idyllic, if isolated, childhood, one that instilled in both women a lifelong love of birds. But when they were 11, it came to a sudden and painful end: their father died, and the sisters were dispatched to Ibstock Place, the grand house of their rich maternal uncle, near Richmond, Surrey.

Jacko, as this uncle was known, was eccentric and distant – not at all the kind of man to be interested in the desperate grief of two small girls – and they were sent to boarding school without a second thought. His French wife, Ging-Ging, was kinder, but her thoughts were all of the season, and of how Celia and Mamaine might find suitable husbands. In Yevonde’s sumptuous portrait (the book is full of gorgeous photographs), Ging-Ging appears like a ship’s mascot, gazing benignly on four girls – her own daughters, Wynnie and Anne, are also in the picture – who are about to set sail in their white dresses into a world of parties and balls and stuffy men with wraparound fortunes.

But it was not to be. I can’t work out where the Pagets’ got their rather modern notions of freedom and independence (of a sort), but both were hell-bent on a different kind of life, and when they came into the money their father had left them, they set up home together in a studio house in Chelsea. When the war arrived in 1939, they worked as nurses, though by this point their story is already thronged with admirers. Sacheverell Sitwell, the writer and brother of Edith, had fallen for Celia – she refused him – and Mamaine had taken up with Dick Wyndham, a painter and (later) journalist from an aristocratic background who kept a pet alligator called Queen Maud.

Wyndham, with whom Mamaine would live for years, on and off, seems to have opened many doors for the Pagets, through which they rushed, almost greedily, in search of fresh air. During the war, their friends included Cyril Connolly (later, Celia worked at Horizon, the magazine he edited) and William Walton; after it, Celia received declarations of love from Edmund Wilson, George Orwell, the philosopher AJ Ayer (with whom she had an affair), the celebrated barrister Jeremy Hutchinson (ditto) and Robert Conquest, while Mamaine took up with Arthur Koestler (eventually, she would marry him) and Albert Camus. If this sounds complicated and tempestuous, it was. But the reader will also be struck by the openness that is all around. Nothing is clandestine, and while jealousy may result in an almighty row (the men frequently cheat, and are also often in competition with one another), it rarely results in a separation, let alone in the end of a friendship. The twins have a gift for the latter, as well as for managing male egos.

Bankes is a fond biographer. She makes no judgments, and is beguiled by Celia and Mamaine’s near-telepathic closeness. She remembers how she noticed as a girl her mother’s moments of melancholy: a distracted sadness born of the loss of her sister, who died following a severe asthma attack (Bankes’s father was a diplomat, Arthur Goodman, whom Celia married just as Mamaine fell ill). But for the reader, the pleasure of The Quality of Love lies in the details, in the sometimes startling small print of the sisters’ relationships. Here is Camus, correcting the proofs of La Peste (The Plague) as he waits for Mamaine to arrive; and here is Orwell, inviting Celia over to his cold, drab flat in Islington, to watch him changing the nappies of his baby son, Richard.

Bankes struggles, I think, to make the moody, hard-drinking Koestler likable – on his wedding night to Mamaine, he gets so smashed, she ends up spending it (chastely) with Stephen Spender – but all her characters are sketched so effortlessly; you see them, and you even smell them (Orwell reeks of sardines). I wasn’t surprised when, at one point, Mamaine wrote to Edmund Wilson to insist that, no, she did not have a classical beau (he was suspicious of her reasons for taking up Ancient Greek); but if I often thought these two women were too much under the spell of their Great Men, there wasn’t a moment when I didn’t relish being in their company. Their appetites, their energy, the pleasure they take in absolutely everything: such things are a tonic, the perfect antidote to a certain kind of 21st century puritanism.

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Source: theguardian.com