Wellington claimed that the Battle of Waterloo was "won on the playing fields of Eton." For Gerald Tyrwhitt, the 14th Baron Berners, however, a war was fought
on those self-same fields. Born in 1883, Berners grew up in the twilight years of the Victorian Age, a time when the scions of gentry were expected to excel at sports, marry advantageously, and settle into a quiet life of shooting parties and gentleman's clubs. Young Gerald, however, was made of different stuff, preferring art to sport and nurturing an unholy passion for opera. In the first volume of his autobiography, First Childhood
, Baron Berners recounts his early years from birth through the end of grammar school. In A Distant Prospect
, he takes the reader through the Eton years up to his 16th year--a time composed equally of terror and self-discovery. Berners, who as an adult would garner a reputation for eccentricity, began his career as an oddball youth. It can't have been easy growing up an aesthete and a homosexual in that social class or era, but Berners offers up his life story with both humor and honesty. This coming-of-age tale never strays into mawkish sentimentality, and provides a crystal-clear window into both a vanished era and a remarkable life in the making.
From Kirkus Reviews
In this sequel to First Childhood (see p. 1246), Lord Berners looks back on his years at Eton with enough distance to forgive the indignities and recall the terrors with honesty and humor. He begins and ends by exploring the twin adolescent mysteries of sex and schooling, as if therein lay the key to the world. Given Lord Berners's later life, as chronicled in Mark Amory - s Lord Berners: the Last Eccentric (1998), his time at Eton contains all the richness of a chrysalis - and then some. According to Berners, he owes to his few interrupted school years his full adult awakening. And so, in this slim volume, he charts his boyhood trials in one of England's most exalted institutions, attacking the cruel insensitivity of his teachers and his rejection by peers for being what society deemed as a disaster - an aesthete, incompetent at sports, obsessed with boys, and enchanted by Wagner. Yet out of his struggle, Berners discovered that intellect can ``flash and sparkle and agreeably illuminate.'' To this realization he clung (and clings) with brio. He longs for the transcendent brilliance of Marston, a friend whose social standing his family would never accept, and later for the classic beauty and style of Deniston. He is generous in his descriptions of tutors and icons of his social class. And as his blind devotion to his mother subsides, he revels freely in opera and succumbs to reveries about the way women dress. (Meanwhile, the rest of the boys scuttle off to the smoking room to review the day - s events in sport.) Lord Berners is clearly seduced by artistic luxury and enchanted by title. Yet when at last he leaves Eton, he - s no longer the shy boy bettered by girls on horseback. He - s is a master of subtlety, a snake charmer who never lets us peer into the troubling depths of his basket. The two volumes of memoir are marvelous together. -- Copyright ©1998, Kirkus Associates, LP. All rights reserved.