A Room in Chelsea Square by Michael Nelson

Patrick, fabulously wealthy and with a good eye for pictures and young men, brings the impressionable Nicholas Milestone to London, intent on reducing him to utter dependence by playing on his naivety and greed.  But Nicholas proves to be not quite as pliable as hoped, and a witty social comedy develops as he struggles with the web that Patrick has so richly woven for him.

Review by Erastes

As promised, here is the second book written in the 1950’s – following on the from my review of what I found to be the rambly and uber-literary The Bitterweed Path.

Imagine Wodehouse set in the 1940’s with a gay main character as rich as Bertie and used to getting his own way in all things.  It’s not a comedy, as such, although it has some amusing moments, it’s more a witty satire and an exploration of a particular set of men–gay and otherwise–in 1940’s London.

Patrick is, as the first line describes: “very, very rich.” He’s currently single, and, as the book opens, he’s shopping for presents for a handsome young man he’s recently met in the country. With ease, using a wide net of ex-boyfriends, he arranges Nicholas a job at a tabloid newspaper to tempt him to London, and when he arrives, meets him at the station and inveigles excuse after excuse to prevent the young man starting work, moving him into his suite at a hotel, and lavishing an expensive lifestyle on him.

The book takes place over the space of a week, following Nicholas’ introduction into Patrick’s lifestyle, meeting his friends and resisting Patrick’s advances.  He’s not entirely the ingénue that Patrick imagines him to be however:

Nicholas had a thoroughly miserable bath.  He knew that he couldn’t evade Patrick’s advances much longer.  It was no good pretending that Patrick was going to support him from purely altruistic motives.  Patrick wanted his pound of flesh, he was was going to make sure he got it.  What did sex matter anyway?  It was a small price to pay for all the things that Patrick could offer him in exchange.

The novel was published entirely anonymously when it first came out and from the frank portrayal of gay characters you would think you could understand why, but it goes a little deeper than that.  In fact, it’s semi-autobiographical.  The introduction in the 1986 reissued GMP version  by Philip Core explains that “Patrick” is a thinly veiled portrait of Peter Watson: associated for a long while with Cecil Beaton, co-founder of the ICA and wealthy homosexual sponsor of Bacon, Colquhoun, MacBryde, Vaughan, Minton and other homosexual painters. Michael Nelson (the “Nicholas” of the book) was in reality pursued by Watson, who bought him Picassos and Sutherlands as part of his seduction technique.

Nicholas–like the real life Nelson–is prevented from starting at his Tabloid newspaper by the dangling of a greater carrot, a job on a new arts magazine “Eleven” (which was “Horizon” in real life) together with his friend Michael, Christopher Pyre (Stephen Spender in reality) and a former protégé of Patrick’s: the bon-viveur Ronnie Gras (Cyril Connolly).  It is Nicholas’ constant prevarication as to whether to succumb to Patrick’s gentle but lavish onslaught that eventually causes his downfall.

But aside for the historical interest, it’s a highly enjoyable and entertaining read, particularly because it’s written in the rather affected slang of the upper middle and upper class of the time.

And some dialogue must have been positively shocking at the time, although it probably went over the head of many, just as the outrageous double-entendres of Julian and Sandy slid past the censors in Round the Horne.  There’s one scene where Nicholas says he’s tired and Patrick advises he should rest, saying:

An hour on your back with your legs up will do you the world of good.

Much of the dialogue is hugely bitchy too, and I loved it, because that’s no exclusivity of being gay – that’s how people really talk.

I highly recommend this: It might be rather too English for many, but if you enjoy any films of Noel Coward or in fact any film that deals with this era of the aesthete then you’ll enjoy it as much as I did.  It’s also very interesting to compare and contrast with Mr Page and Mr Clive, which concentrates more on unhappiness and closeted misery, but then this book was written in the era, not about the era, so one wonders which one is nearer to the truth.

Amazon UK Amazon USA

One Response

  1. A great review! Thank you a lot for choosing this book for a review, all the real persons mentioned are part or the very core of British (English) ‘Queer Heritage’. ~

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