biography & diaries one, Channon writes, ‘After a night of wet dreams (really at my age it is surprising and perhaps reassuring) I woke weak.’ He is also a devotee of colonic irrigation (‘Had my bottom washed out but alas the treatment did not stimulate me as usual’).
Channon enjoyed sex with both men and women, but also found solace in sexless sleeping with men, including several fellow MPs. His diaries are a treasure-trove for those who want to understand both heterosexual men who have sex with other men and the craving for trusting physical proximity between men that has nothing to do with erections. These diaries provide a thought-provoking addendum to Santanu Das’s masterpiece Touch and Intimacy in First World War Literature. On one occasion Channon gives dinner to a young male couple who are about to be posted apart by the war: ‘they were in [a] swoon of tenderness and watched each other’s every movement; yet I should not be surprised if it were an innocent relationship.’
In July 1939, while staying with Sacheverell Sitwell in Northamptonshire, Channon meets Coats, who wins him with his ‘charm and Aryan good looks’. Soon, watching Coats in his bath, he thinks of Venus rising from the sea: ‘has there ever been so marvellous a male, so fascinating a friend?’ At country house parties, the couple sleep and bathe together. At Himley, the home of the pompous Earl of Dudley, they even appear at breakfast wearing each other’s clothes.
Field Marshal Wavell, to whom Coats was aide-de-camp, comes to live with them in Channon’s sumptuous house in Belgrave Square. ‘It is a slight strain having the FM in the house as … one never knows when he might walk in,’ Channon admits. Wavell revels in the wartime luxuries of the household, in which a light supper consists of lobster, mixed grill and raspberries. He is introduced to Lady Colefax, who has him to dinner with T S Eliot and Stephen Spender.
Inevitably an FM and viceroy of India staying with a male couple excites indignant censure. Spiteful Lady Cranborne starts a whispering campaign. Eventually Wavell’s sister, described by Channon as ‘a parochial busybody’, confronts her brother and tells him the rumours that are buzzing. Her denunciation leaves Wavell ‘upset and shaky’; within hours he has decamped from Channon’s house to the Dorchester.
As part of his smudging of his Chicago origins, Channon obtained a grant of arms and an entry of his own in Burke’s Landed Gentry. At the top of his heraldic shield, pages of his diary were represented by allusion and he chose as his motto Qui non proficit, deficit (‘He who does not advance, loses ground’). It is the motto of a precarious life. By the close of these diaries, Channon is only forty-six, yet short of breath, often exhausted, fighting too hard to keep apace, wrecking his mental as well as his physical health out of fear of losing ground in the round of parties. The signs are ominous for his future.
Fashion & Fascism Miss Dior: A Story of Courage and Couture
By Justine Picardie (Faber & Faber 426pp £25)
Miss Dior is a follow-up to Justine Picardie’s fine biography of the celebrated French couturier, Coco Chanel. Near the beginning of the book, Picardie, a former editor of Harper’s Bazaar UK, explains that she was invited to write a life of Christian Dior (a designer once memorably described by Cecil Beaton as resembling a bashful curate fashioned from pink marzipan). The great couturier has already been the subject of four biographies and a V&A show in 2019, so Picardie sensibly decided to focus her attention instead on the courageous woman the reticent designer loved most: his sister Catherine. Miss Dior, a perfume tinged with lily of the valley, was his public homage to her. Catherine’s enduring affection for Christian (always ‘Tian’ to his sister) was more discreetly signalled by her practice of keeping a fresh bottle of Miss Dior at her bedside, until her death, aged ninety, in 2008.
Born in 1917, twelve years after Christian, Catherine grew up in Normandy. Tragedy came early. Her oldest brother, Raymond, the only member of his platoon not to be killed in battle during the First World War, never recovered from the sense of survivor’s guilt. Shortly after the unexpected death in 1931 of her adored mother, Madeleine, aged fifty-one, Catherine’s father was financially ruined. Another brother, Bernard, was diagnosed in 1932 with schizophrenia and institutionalised for life.
In 1936, the nineteen-year-old Catherine joined Christian in Paris, where he found her a job selling hats; early photographs show a smiling Catherine acting as Christian’s informal first model for the elegant clothes that rapidly brought the gifted designer a following. By 1939, the siblings had moved into the sedate flat on rue Royale that would become Christian Dior’s lifelong Paris home. Months before Hitler’s forces occupied the city, Christian and Catherine had prudently retreated to their father’s house in Provence in the unoccupied south of the country.
In the autumn of 1941, Christian returned to Paris to seek work at one of the major fashion houses. Catherine, meanwhile, had met the love of her life, Hervé des Charbonneries, a married man with three young children. The des Charbonneries themselves were already working for F2, one of the most effective of the many Resistance units operating in France since 1940. At the end of 1941, Catherine joined them.
After the war, people who worked for the French Resistance rarely talked about their activities. As a result, Catherine has remained, until now, a shadowy figure. It was only when Anne Dietlin, the daughter of another Resistance heroine, Lili Dietlin, told Catherine about a memorial service for her mother that she finally learned about Catherine’s own wartime activities. Dietlin’s
Literary Review | october 2021 12