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Marcel Proust

The Chelsea Way

Three days after my arrival the hall-porter (who treated me as a friend, although I was only a guest of no importance, because he spoke French with an exceptionally pure accent, with the consequence that in his eyes I became an opportunity for exhibiting a talent, a circumstance far more effectual in exciting kindly feelings than any mere gratuity) handed me a letter whose typewritten address presented the most amazing appearance, for the lines undulated like a weltering sea, while some characters were blue and others red, without any intelligible reason, yet this disorder and incoherence, far from being unpleasant to contemplate, succeeded on the contrary by an astonishing victory of man over keyboard in bestowing upon this cold and mechanical inscription the intimate, courteous and mystery-laden air of an address written by hand. When I opened this letter I saw with emotion that it was signed: Desmond Farnham, and invited me to lunch on the same day at half past one.

I omitted to mention at the moment of describing my conversation with M. de Norpois how surprised I had been to learn that my favourite novelist was the brother of Lord Shalford. Certainly, I had never nursed that particular prejudice, silly enough as it is though current among persons of intelligence, which consists in supposing that talent or genius are reserved for the labouring classes, and in refusing to recognise them if they make their appearance in a person of exalted birth, or even in a man who frequents society (which would have involved denial in the seventeenth century of the genius of the author of the Maxims, and in the eighteenth century of the genius of Saint-Simon), but the name of Farnham and the character of his novels had always led me to imagine a sensitive, timid and solitary man, a temperament which I found it difficult to associate with the name of the Shalfords, who in the time of the Stuarts had been illustrious and gallant cavaliers, and during the last three hundred years had given to England so numerous a levy of ministers, generals, admirals and viceroys. Andrée, who had made Debrett her favourite perusal in the reading-room of our hotel, informed me that in fact, after the name of Lord Shalford, GCB, GCMG, GCVO, ninth Viscount and fifteenth Baron, followed the words: 'Living brother: the Honourable Desmond Farnham, educ. Winchester, first secretary Diplomatic Corps, Colonel, war 1914- 1918, DSO.' So apparently the frail and delicate author of Tiziana Sorelli was not only the son of a Lord temporal, but also a diplomat and a colonel, and yet (although Debrett, with curious modesty, refrained from adding that he was one of the great writers of our time) there could be no doubt as to his identity - a revelation which, compelling me as it did to reconstruct my entire conception of him, was paralleled still more strangely a few days later when I arranged to be taken to the House of Commons, where, a Labour member having stood up to put a few questions to Sir Austen Chamberlain on foreign policy, I indulged myself in imagining this man of the people patiently striving to educate himself during the rare moments he could spare from his manual toil, and studying, as he returned up the mineshaft or left the factory-gates, the map and history of Europe. I had enquired the name of this socialist, and my guide told me without further comment that he was called Arthur Ponsonby, an answer which I had thought perfectly adequate. But a few days afterwards, in the course of a conversation about King Edward the Seventh, M. de Norpois happened to remark: 'His Majesty did not find it easy to forgive Arthur Ponsonby for joining the Opposition, because, as he said, Ponsonby of all people was born in the purple.' I asked the meaning of this expression, and M. de Norpois, with a glance of astonishment, replied: 'What else could it mean, but that Arthur Ponsonby was born in Windsor Castle?'; which proved to me not for the first time that what we see is not reality itself, but what we fancy to be reality, since in complete good faith I had been admiring as the industrious and toil-worn face of a working man what in fact were the hereditary lineaments of a highborn nobleman. I took an immense pleasure, when I came to know them better, in these complicated names of the great English families, and just as Françoise at home never tired of repeating to herself that the son of the Duc de Guermantes was the Prince des Laumes, while the sons of the Duc de La Rochefoucauld were the Duc de Liancourt and the Prince de Marsillac, so I was delighted to learn that the charming Eric Phipps, who once served at the British Embassy in Paris, is a descendant of the Marquess of Normanby, that the eldest son of the Marquess of Headfort is the Earl of Bective whose hobby it is to work as an electrician, his second son is Lord William Taylour, Winston Churchill is a Marlborough, Arthur Balfour a Cecil, and lastly. a piece of information which is not only historical but also topographical, the Duke of Westminster's name is Grosvenor, and the Duke of Bedford's, Russell.

André Maurois, translated by George Painter




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