Doubles: Ronald Firbank

The original

Tall, thin, narrow, erect, with a most sensitive, intelligent, aquiline face and cheeks rather high in colour, a townsman – such was the impression he gave me – probably more of a noctambule (even in London) than to be met with regularly at literary functions or opening-days in art galleries. That he was most sensitively perceptive to art, to life, to people and situations was instantaneously clear. […] In good form he was extremely witty, of particular quickness, and it seems to me I always saw him in good form. […] A few times I have seen him really paroxysmal, as if savouring some private joke, about – or not – to tell it. Then might come that unique and characteristic gesture: one hand flying up to clasp the shoulder, drawing it inwards; thus, as it were cupped within himself, some astonishing point would be made which had everyone immediately rocking. The next thing you knew would often be that he had disappeared.

Nancy Cunard, “Thoughts about Ronald Firbank”, Ronald Firbank: Memoirs and Critiques (ed. Mervyn Holder)

The double

It would be impossible, I feel, to actually be as decadent as Lambert looked. […] He was a tall young man and he would bend his right knee laterally, his right foot resting upon an inward-pointing toe. He had retreating shoulders, a retreating forehead, a retreating waist. The face itself was a curved face, a boneless face, a rather pink face, fleshy about the chin. His eyelashes were fair and fluttering; his lips were full. When he giggled, which he did with nervous frequency, his underlip would come to rest below his upper teeth. He held his cigarette between the index and the middle fingers, keeping them outstretched together with the gesture of a male impersonator puffing at a cigar. […] He had a peculiar way of speaking: his sentences came in little splashing pounces; and then from time to time he would hang on to a word as if to steady himself: he would say “Simplytooshattering FOR words,” the phrase being a slither with a wild clutch at the banister of “for.” He was very shy.

Harold Nicolson, Some People

The connection

‘Lambert Orme’ is the title and subject of a chapter in Harold Nicolson’s compendium of nine character sketches, Some People. All of the book’s subjects can be traced to real people, although most were not generally known to the public. Nevile Titmarsh, or ‘Titty’, is widely held to be a cover for Lord Berners, but in the introduction to the 1982 edition, Nicolson’s son Nigel claims that it was actually based on one of his father’s fellow diplomats in Tehran. Lambert Orme, however, is of undisputed provenance. He is a double for English novelist Ronald Firbank, whom Nicolson met while at university, spending more time with him later while in the diplomatic corps in Madrid. Mervyn Horder points out that “unlike Lambert Orme, Firbank did not have red-gold hair, was neither poet nor composer, nor diplomatist, nor yachtsman, nor did he meet his death gallantly in war.” But these points of divergence together constitute the thinnest of veils. Firbank himself often peopled his novels with similarly recognisable figures, including Evan Morgan and Nicolson’s wife, Vita Sackville-West.

Firbank’s rooms at Cambridge left an impression on all who visited, and although he transfers them to Oxford, Nicolson preserves much of their wonder. Encased in “shiny black” walls with Under the Hill and other “curious literature” lying around, Nicolson has Lambert Orme working on his own literary curio, which he titles “Désiré de St. Aldegonde” (its double was Firbank’s first book, Odette d’Antrevernes). Nicolson was born in 1886 and was thus an exact contemporary of Firbank’s, and he seems to use Lambert Orme as a lightning rod for his unease with the Wildean 1890s for which Firbank, though born too late, had a profound affinity. The result is a rather peevish characterisation, which seeks to offset temporal proximity with temperamental distance. By the time Some People was published in 1927 Firbank was dead, though Nicolson, evidently trying to “rehabilitate” or “compensate” Lambert Orme, kills him off even earlier, having him fall not-unheroically in the Great War. But as Brigid Brophy points out in Prancing Novelist, the compensation was “in currency valued by Harold Nicolson, not Firbank, who was convulsively anti-military” (Firbank’s actual military service was confined to a single day in 1917). Lambert Orme is a vividly realised character who shares much that contemporaries have passed on about Firbank. But Nicolson’s sketch also readily agrees with the then prevailing view of Firbank as a camp embarrassment (although this wasn’t a universal view, as Nancy Cunard’s generous description illustrates). Nicolson, perhaps in penitence, later admitted that the character of Lambert Orme gave an “idea of what Firbank seemed at that age to a rather conventional person.”

Further reading
Ronald works the room
A Casati family tree
After Hours
Concerning the eccentricities of Ronald Firbank
At home with Ronald Firbank
The double life of Evan Morgan
Looking ahead

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12 comments

  1. an absolutely archetypical exercise in Vainglory and to be sure: a double for Radclyffe Hall…

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