Monday, September 4, 2023

Lord Dunsany as Lord Insany

The poet John Betjeman (1906-1984) had two volumes of his letters published posthumously, the first, covering 1926-1951, published in 1994; and the second, covering 1952-1984, published in 1995. John Rateliff covered some aspects of them in a blog post over at Sacnoth’s Scriptorium. In particular, he noted Betjeman’s nickname for Dunsany, “Lord Insany,” used during the 1940s when Betjeman was friendly with the man but also exasperated by him too. John notes that “Lord Insany” was a behind-the-back nickname of Dunsany used by colleagues at Athens University in Greece, where Dunsany taught as the Byron Chair of English in 1940-1941.*

Betjeman’s views on Lord Dunsany were somewhat complex, and the moniker “Lord Insany” actually came from Dunsany’s own family, and predates his time at Athens University. Here are a few details that bookend Betjeman’s views of Dunsany in the 1940s, one from the early 30s, the other from the late 50s.

Betjeman apparently met Dunsany in the very early 1930s, according to Elizabeth Longford’s autobiography, The Pebbled Shore (1986). Longford had become friends with Betjeman, Maurice Bowra, Evelyn Waugh, David Cecil, W.H. Auden, Stephen Spender and Frank Pakenham, when she was at Oxford, beginning in 1926. She married Frank Pakenham in 1931, and by her marriage she became a relative of Dunsany, whom she knew as “Uncle Eddie.” (Frank Pakenham would later become the Earl of Longford, and his wife, Lady Longford.)

In August 1931, before her marriage to Pakenham, Longford writes of a gathering at Pakenham Hall in County Westmeath in Ireland (one county west of Dunsany Castle, in County Meath):

My sister Kitty, Maurice Bowra, Evelyn Waugh and I played tennis together. We were all about the same height but Kitty was the one who could hit the ball. Uncle Eddie, the poet and writer (Lord Dunsany), came over for lunch one day and conducted a literary seminar with Maurice, David Cecil and the rest of us. Accidentally the maestro [Frank?] referred to Tolstoy’s novel as “Peace and War”. This put Maurice in a quandary. A few minutes later he took the deferential way out and also referred to “Peace and War”. “War and Peace, not Peace and War,” thundered Uncle Eddie. “They always said Oxford was no good, and now I see they’re right.” The Pakenham children loved him, calling him Lord “Insany”, a title which endeared him to John Betjeman. (p. 130)

After Dunsany died in October 1957, Betjeman devoted the first paragraph of his regular Spectator column, “City and Suburban”, to Dunsany's passing, with clear affection:

Many authors, when one meets them for the first time, are comparatively unimpressive compared with their books. But Lord Dunsany, who died last week, never disappointed. He was every inch a poet, playwright, storyteller, Irish peer, big-game hunter, painter, modeller in clay, Conservative politician, soldier and country gentleman, all of which occupations he followed in the busiest and most-enjoyed life I have seen. He was a tall, splendid-looking man with a young voice, decided opinions and boundless energy. He was very happily married and had the good manners of an Edwardian autocrat. Unexpected things roused his anger. One of them was manufactured salt in advertised brands (he mistrusted everything that was branded and advertised)—if he found this on a dinner table, no matter whose house it was, he would say, “Send for some ordinary kitchen salt and bring two glasses of water.” He would then pour some of the branded salt into one glass and the kitchen salt into another. The kitchen salt dissolved, but the branded salt left a white deposit at the bottom of the other glass which he said was either chalk or ground-up bones. He was one of those people who made you feel on top of the world and that all those who disagreed with you were petty crooks who would be beaten in the end. He talked with all the fantasy of his own Jorkens stories. (1 November 1957, p. 13)
Dunsany was clearly larger than life in many ways. 

* Olivia Manning and her husband were in Athens at the time Dunsany was there, and her character Professor Lord Pinkrose in The Spoilt City (1962), the second volume in her six-part series, Fortunes of War, is believed to have been based on Dunsany. See here.



  1. Thank you for this. The footnote about Manning's Pinkrose answers precisely the question that popped up for me at the end of the paragraph.

  2. Charming anecdotes! You can tell Dunsany became a crank as he got older by passages in Mona Sheehy about advertising and mustard, Colonel Polders about docking dogs' tails, and Tales of Three Hemispheres about the crooked big toes of modern humans. But by the eternal rules of the playground, "Dunsany" would have been changed to "Insany" no matter how the man behaved. I'll bet he was far from the first Baron to be called that.

  3. Very interesting! Though it appears the memoirist's name was "Longford" rather than "Longworth"