Valentine’s Day


Valentine’s Day
Love triangles, from King Arthur to Beyoncé

Affairs of the heart are sometimes spiky

In love, three is a magic number. Depending on the circumstances, that adds up to lies and betrayal, or the possibility of a brave new romantic world. Noël Coward gave us perfect proof of both sums. The first, “Brief Encounter” (1945), revolved around Laura, an English housewife, alienated, unsatisfied and deep in a crisis she can’t quite articulate. The other parts of the equation were Alec, a serious young medic, unexpectedly in love with a married woman, and Laura’s husband, Fred, sitting at home with the crossword unaware that his wife was listening to her doctor friend make a speech about lung diseases as if he were telling her that he loved her passionately, devotedly, hopelessly – because he does, and he is.

The film is now the textbook three-hanky weepie, though the test audience was less enthusiastic. (“Why doesn’t he just f**k her?” shouted one dissatisfied customer, according to one of the movie’s producers, Ronald Neame.)

The other sum is illustrated above. Coward, sprawled on the sofa with actors Lynn Fontanne and Alfred Lunt, is laughing the way they laughed a decade before, when they were struggling together in 1920s New York, and Coward promised that one day he would write a play for the couple. It was a clever promise: Fontanne and Lunt were so dependent on each other’s talents that, after 1928, they never worked separately again.

“Design for Living” (1932) is a battle report on the merry warfare between the combatants in a Bohemian ménage à trois comprising a painter, Otto (Lunt), his writer mate Leo (Coward) and Gilda (Fontanne), an interior designer who keeps both men close, but only so close. “It’s a gentleman’s agreement,” we’re told. The play produced such a crackle that parodies soon sprung up: “Duets are made for the bourgeoisie – oh, but only God can make a trio,” sang the cast of a Broadway revue “Life Begins at 8.40”.

The curtain of “Design for Living” falls on a scene much like the image above. What happens next? The play is coy about that. Such trios rarely get played through to the end. And if they are, as the following examples suggest, the final notes are often melancholy.

See you in court King Arthur, Guinevere and Lancelot

The Round Table didn’t have corners, but it did produce a triangle. It took a while, though. In the ninth-century versions of his story, King Arthur charged around, apparently carelessly single. Guinevere turned up in 1136, as a heroine of Geoffrey of Monmouth’s “History of the Kings of Britain”, in which, disappointingly, her only job was to be a damsel, distressed by the villainous Mordred.

The Round Table was delivered in 1155, in Wace of Jersey’s “Roman de Brut”, with the customary, HR-approved explanation that meetings structured in this way encourage a feeling of equality. Then, a couple of decades later, Sir Lancelot galloped in – from a French source, Chrétien de Troy’s “Le Chevalier de la Charrette” (published around 1170) – to disrupt married life at Camelot. From this point, it all goes a bit “Jules et Jim”. By the time Thomas Malory produced his “Le Morte D’Arthur” (1485), the affair, with an emphasis on Guinevere’s unfaithfulness, had become so conventional that he spiced things up by adding another lover for Lancelot, called Elaine.

We needn’t worry about Elaine. Lancelot (virile, young, tempted), Guinevere (regal, untrustworthy), Arthur (ageing warrior, cuckolded) are the fixed vertices of this story. But Guinevere’s bad reputation should give us pause for thought. Much like Eve disrupting the bromance between God and Adam, the Queen of Albion is a very early example of a female figure who apparently makes alliances between men harder.

Not everyone used the Lancelot story to have a go at women. When Dryden and Purcell wrote “King Arthur” (1691), an allegorical work in praise of the joint sovereigns William III and Mary II, they dropped Guinevere and replaced her with a character of their own invention: Emmeline, a virtuous blind girl who gets lost in the forest. Casting aspersions on a mythical queen is one thing – implying to a real one that women aren’t up to the job of royal office has consequences.

Mortal wombat Jane Morris, Dante Rossetti and Top

If you wanted to be great mates with Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Victorian poet, painter and high priest of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, there were rules you had to follow. “Rossetti was the planet around whom we revolved,” enthused an Oxford student in his orbit. “We copied his way of speaking. All beautiful women were ‘stunners’ with us. Wombats were the most beautiful of God’s creatures.”

These twin passions were hard to disentangle. Rossetti spent hours gazing into the “Wombat’s Lair” at London Zoo. In 1869 he acquired some snub-nosed Australian quadrupeds of his own, bought from Charles Jamrach, an East End animal dealer who kept Victorian England furnished with exotic beasts.

His favourite wombat, Top, became a tool of seduction. Rossetti had an intense attachment to an embroiderer called Jane Morris, who was the sullen, strong-jawed model for many of his paintings and wife of his fellow Pre-Raphaelite, William Morris. He drew her as a suffering saint, leading a wombat that represented her fuzzy cuckolded husband. (The relationship, among the most important of Rossetti’s life, may never have been consummated.)

As a pet-owner, Rossetti was more addict than expert. The register of deaths at his home on Cheyne Walk was compendious. Jessie the owl had her head bitten off by a raven. The armadillos burrowed into the neighbours’ garden, where they were poisoned by prussic acid. Two parakeets, a salamander, a lizard, a dormouse, a tortoise, a rabbit and two pigeons escaped, expired or were killed by jittery servants. But when a wombat went, it was properly mourned. Sometimes in verse.

“I never reared young Wombat
To glad me with his pin-hole eye
But, when he was most sweet & fat
And tail-less, he was sure to die!”

It’s not the greatest poem the 19th century ever produced. But it does express something rare. The kind of love that only a man and a marsupial can know.

Jane Morris received no such tribute. She left Rossetti in 1876, dismayed by his more mundane obsessions. You didn’t need to go to Jamrach’s to buy chloral hydrate, an unhealthy addiction Rossetti shared with many Victorians. It was available over the counter at every branch of Boots the Chemist.

Oh Daddy, you shouldn’t have Duncan Grant, Angelica Garnett and Bunny Garnett

The Bloomsbury Group, said Dorothy Parker, lived in squares and loved in triangles. But some triangles have sharp edges, and some sexual radicals can be as hurtfully secretive as the generation they rebel against, as the life of mosaic-maker Angelica Garnett shows. In the summer of 1937, when she was 18, Angelica’s mother, painter Vanessa Bell, took to her one side and explained that her real father was not the critic Clive Bell, but her lover and Fitzroy Square neighbour, artist Duncan Grant. This information did not produce a great family realignment: Vanessa advised her daughter not to discuss it with Clive; Angelica never raised the matter with Grant.

A year later, another layer of secrets started to be overlaid. Angelica began an affair with a married family friend, David Garnett, nicknamed “Bunny” after a rabbit-skin cloak he wore as a child. He soon became a widower. In 1942 Angelica became his wife and one of the few people in their immediate circle who didn’t know that the groom had once been the lover of Duncan Grant and had even tried it on with Vanessa Bell. Incredibly, Garnett had been present at Angelica’s birth. When the baby was weighed in a shoebox on the kitchen scales, Garnett wrote to Lytton Strachey: “Its beauty is the remarkable thing…I think of marrying it; when she is 20 I shall be 46 – will it be scandalous?” It wasn’t, because nobody really talked about it.

One of the key stories of Bloomsbury lore asserts that the modern world began on a spring evening in 1908, in a flat on Gordon Square. Lytton Strachey walked into the drawing room and pointed at a white mark on Vanessa Bell’s dress. “Semen?” he asked. “With that one word”, wrote Virginia Woolf, “all barriers of reticence and reserve went down…It was, I think, a great advance in civilisation.” The anecdote remained unpublished until 1976, once everyone in the room that day was safely unembarrassably dead.

Death Stars Pamela Ostrer, Roy Kellino and James Mason

Some affairs leave little trace: others are captured on film. “I Met a Murderer” (1939) isn’t a well-known movie. It’s a modest British indie suspense caper made entirely on location, because that was cheaper than hiring a soundstage, and funded from the savings of those involved. The director, Roy Kellino, was an up-and-coming talent who seemed to have guaranteed his future by marrying Pamela Ostrer, the smart, spoilt and sexy offspring of the boss of Gainsborough studios. Mrs Kellino was the I in “I Met a Murderer”. The murderer was James Mason, not quite yet the smoky-voiced, faintly sadistic leading man of the British screen, but already Mrs Kellino’s lover.

In the film, Mason plays a farmer whose poisonous spouse kills his faithful collie out of spite. He digs a grave for the dog, fills it with his wife’s freshly slaughtered body, and goes on the run – where he meets a young caravanner, a thriller-writer desperate for new material for her latest page-turner. The film is full of wit and strangeness. Mason avoids detection by lying in a haystack with the corpse as if it were his paramour. When he strips to the waist for a swim, Kellino’s camera seems besotted: it drinks in the lines of his torso.

Their ménage à trois was established in 1936. Mason would turn up at the Kellinos’ mansion flat near Baker Street station and enthuse about the movies. They made plans, worked on their script, took seaside holidays together and walked down the promenade in a manner that caused onlookers to question who was married to whom. Once filming on “I Met a Murderer” was complete, the triangle turned. Roy Kellino moved into Mason’s bachelor flat in Marylebone; Mason took up residence on Baker Street. An intercom was installed, so messages could be left for either man without attracting suspicion.

When the divorce came, Roy Kellino suddenly discovered his own anger and named Mason as correspondent. The anger didn’t last. He gave his ex-wife away at her wedding to Mason in 1940 and directed the pair in “Charade” (1953). But not everyone in Hollywood found Pamela Mason instantly charming. One wit suggested that she had been “vaccinated with a phonograph needle”. Perhaps Roy Kellino was glad to get the tune out of his head.

Play it again “Casablanca” with Rick, Ilsa and Victor

Love depends on chance meetings, frail coincidences. So does cinema. “Casablanca” (1942) went into production because Jack Warner wanted his film studio to be aligned against Hitler. Its hero, Humphrey Bogart’s Rick Blaine, a cynical bystander in neutral French Morocco, is on the journey that Warner wanted for America. “I stick my neck out for nobody,” Rick declares, early in the movie. Then his old flame Ilsa (Ingrid Bergman) and her antifa husband Victor Laszlo (Paul Henreid) arrive like a two-person Pearl Harbour.

Rick’s and Ilsa’s song, “As Time Goes By”, was an old Herman Hupfield number that featured in the stage play on which the script was based. The film’s composer, Max Steiner, wanted to replace it. But the piano scenes were already shot and Bergman had cut her hair short to play the lead in “For Whom the Bell Tolls”, so Steiner swallowed his pride and incorporated “As Time Goes By” into his score. One verse hit the floor, in which Hupfield expresses his “apprehension” about the “fourth dimension”. (“We get a trifle weary”, he says, “with Mr. Einstein’s theory.”)

It’s the lost key to the story of Rick, Ilsa and Victor. “As Time Goes By” is a song that rejects both general relativity and moral relativism – in the context of a story that demonstrates that some principles are too important, too fundamental, to compromise. Rick and Ilsa sacrifice their personal happiness for the good of the war effort. That’s what makes the movie so powerful.

But the universe had already rewarded them for their selflessness. In the first year of the conflict, they fell in love in France. (“The Germans wore grey,” recalls Rick. “You wore blue.”) Their memories of that affair are unassailable, eternal, sealed up in that famous flashback sequence. France may have fallen to the Nazis, but Rick and Ilsa will always have Paris.

Three’s a crowd Prince Charles, Princess Diana and Camilla

Martin Bashir’s interview with Diana, Princess of Wales, in 1995 was obtained through forgery. But it did produce something genuine: the accurate headcount of a royal marriage. In the footage, the BBC reporter asks her if “Mrs Parker-Bowles” – a phrase as formal as anything that ever chilled the air of a divorce court – had been “a factor” in the breakdown of her relationship with her husband.

“Well”, she replies, smiling the stoical smile that many women of her class learned from their mothers, “there were three of us in this marriage, so it was a bit crowded.” But the real moment of revelation comes immediately after. Diana drops her eyes, releases a breath that fails to build to a rueful laugh, then stops. The humour drains from her features. She is looking at the floor, like you look at the floor of the therapy room. Desolately.

Crowded. Diana chose the right adjective; one that suggested that she felt robbed of necessary solitude in her private as well as her public life. On the street, clamour, bouquets, paparazzi; at home, other unwelcome forms of proximity. Crowds materialised at her death, too. Bystanders hurled flowers at the cortège. A vast congregation gathered in Hyde Park to hear the live relay from Westminster Abbey. When Diana’s brother delivered an angry eulogy, a shiver went through that body of people: was this Catholic England stirring? Only briefly. In the end, Diana’s tomb failed to become the locus for a Catholic comeback; Charles and Camilla were married in 2005.

Recently, however, fiction has revived the cult of Diana. The 2020 series of “The Crown” made her a tragic soap opera heroine. (She returns this year.) “Diana the Musical” (2021) became a kitsch Netflix hit. Pablo Larraín’s astonishing “Spencer” (2021) – a dreamlike, stylised opera without singing – raised her pale ghost in the cinema. She is back in the conversation, making her presence felt. Her turn to chill the room, perhaps.


Good hair day Beyoncé, Jay-Z and Becky

In “The Death of the Author” (1967), French literary theorist Roland Barthes warned that it was a mistake to treat literary works as a form of biography. When we read Balzac, he asked, whose voice are we hearing? We can’t know. Barthes’s own death came in 1980, when he was run over by a laundry truck – which is just one reason why he was unable to remind us of this in 2016, when critics and commentators scrambled to discover the identity of “Becky with the good hair” in Beyoncé’s album “Lemonade”.

In “Sorry”, the most talked-about track on Queen B’s sixth studio album, the speaker addresses a cheating husband, assuring him that his infidelities are meaningless to her. (“Stop interrupting my grinding”, she sings, “I ain’t thinking ‘bout you.”) The song ends with a pay-off as sharp as anything you’ll find in the flyting tradition of the 15th-century Scottish court. She sees boppers (groupies) sneaking off the premises and, concluding that her partner desires her only in her absence, advises him to call Becky.

No use looking for anyone of that name. It’s a pejorative American slang term, defined by the New Statesman (that well-known authority on such matters), as “a white girl who loves Starbucks and Uggs and is clueless about racial and social issues” – and who probably posts photographs of her Frappuccino. But that didn’t stop the showbiz media in America trying to hunt down an original, assuming her to be the mistress of Beyoncé’s husband Jay-Z. Was she Rita Ora? (No.) Was she the fashion designer Rachel Roy? (Apparently not, despite her teasing Instagram caption suggesting as much.) Was she Gwyneth Paltrow? (“Completely absurd,” said the seller of vagina-scented candles.)

Jay-Z has confessed to infidelity during his marriage, but the couple remain together. Perhaps the song itself is telling us not to overestimate the overlap between life and art. “Suck on my balls,” says Beyoncé’s unbowed narrator. Not Balzac, but close.

Matthew Sweet is a regular contributor to 1843 magazine, and a writer and broadcaster in London







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