Barbara Skelton was born in England on 26th June 1916.
During the war years she entered London’s literary and social circles where she encountered Felix Topolski, Osbert Lancaster, Peter Quennell and Augustus John.
In 1950 she married the writer Cyril Connolly and temporarily left London’s high society for a rural retreat where their entourage included Evelyn Waugh, Lucian Freud, the Rothermeres, the Duff-Coopers and other leading lights of the day.
In 1956 she married the publisher George Weidenfeld; they divorced in 1961. Her third marriage to millionaire physics professor Derek Jackson took her to France, where she lived until her death in June 1996. She is the author of three novels and two volumes of autobiography, Tears Before Bedtime (1987) and Weep No More (1989).
I interviewed her in 1991.
When you write about your childhood it is not shrouded in the usual romanticism. The unhappiness seems uppermost in your recollection. How far do you think these early years charted the course of your later life?
Quite a lot, because I was taught nothing at all by my parents, and I have inherited the rather weak characters of both of them. If there’s an easy way of doing something, I always choose it, and I can always be talked into doing something even if I don’t want to. I suppose one does it in order to be liked really. It’s a desire to please, and rather stupid I think.
Which of your parents influenced you more?
Neither of them had any influence at all. I was actually a very difficult child and whenever I was reprimanded about anything I would fly into a fearful rage. I never liked being criticized. My father had a weak heart and I was always upsetting him because of my rages, so I was packed off to convent school. I was drawn more to my father, but although I felt affection for him, I also had a feeling of contempt. There was always a great distance between us, and we never had any conversations about anything.
You describe yourself as a difficult child, given to tantrums, wilfulness, bouts of jealousy…would you say that such things are decided largely genetically, i.e. in advance of upbringing, or are they more a result of family life and parental influence?
It’s a result of family life, my parents’ attitude…I never felt I was cared about at all. My mother was on the stage before I was born and I don’t think she wanted to have a child at that point in her life. When my sister was born she was happier about it, but I was a sort of stumbling block for her.
Did the relationship with your mother improve later on?
No, never. We didn’t argue, but I seldom saw her and in the end I felt pity for her. It wasn’t the case that she was incapable of affection because she made a great fuss of my sister. At my age I’ve learned certain things about life which have compensated to some extent for that lack of early bonding, but I do think every child needs affection. If I had had love as a child my life would probably have taken a different course. As it is, I consider my life to have been an absolute mess quite honestly.
Your younger sister seems to have aroused jealous rages in you. The attention which she received from your parents led you to anorexia. Did you understand the reasons for your behaviour at that stage?
It’s difficult to say. Obviously I was trying to draw attention to myself. It wasn’t that I ever really disliked my sister; I just don’t have anything in common with her. I was awful to her when she was born; the tantrums were terrible, but later on I got quite attached to her.
Your sister seems to have continued to haunt you as a kind of counterpart to your own life. She has been in the shadows as a symbol of the sort of life you could have had if you had wanted, although you present it as being intolerably dull. Have you despised, resented or perhaps even envied your sister’s ordinariness?
Oh never, I hardly ever think of her, except when I got a letter from her. She aggravates me tremendously, she’s so completely different from me, never reading a book, never interested in anything, knowing nothing. She’s been a good mother, that’s all. She’s terribly dull, although she can be quite humorous, which redeems her a bit.
You had an abortion at a fairly age. Women traditionally agonize over the decision to abort. Did you?
No. It was a decision I’ve always regretted having made, but it was a very common thing then for women to be having abortions…in fact, people were having abortions like crazy, all the time. And as soon as I realized I was pregnant I found an abortionist quickly and had it without any regrets at the time.
When did you start regretting it?
Later on, when I realized I couldn’t have children. I’d had a bad abortion which made me incapable of having children.
Abortion often traumatizes women, did it traumatize you?
I can’t remember that it did. I was working at the time, which helped. I don’t think it tortured me particularly.
In your memoirs you recall saying to your doctor: ‘If I can’t have a child, I shall feel utterly useless to everyone.’ How and when did you come to terms with it?
It’s something that I go on regretting, I think it’s very important, particularly when people get older. Not to have any children or grandchildren is very sad. I believe I was intended to have children, and I would probably then have had a more settled life.
Did you feel a biological need to have children?
Absolutely. This accounted for my promiscuity in a way. I had a great physical need.
Your marriage to Cyril Connolly struck most people as an unlikely match. He scarcely appeared to be the answer to a maiden’s prayer…
It was the timing. Timing is very important in relationships, because you might become attached to somebody but had you met them three or four years later nothing would have come of it all. Cyril wanted to have some new person in his life and I happened to be there at the time. I was very pretty then, and funny and lively, and Cyril was what I wanted for a husband. I wanted my marriage to last, but the problem was that I was always very obsessed with sex. Sex was extremely important, and when that abated between us I became very restless. I fell in love with that terrible man Weidenfeld just because I was seeking sex for satisfaction again.
Do you think Weidenfeld and Connolly had anything in common?
No. I would describe them as totally different. They had nothing in common except books, one being a publisher and the other a writer.
Your relationship with Connolly seems to have been better before and after your marriage rather than during it. Is that a fair assessment?
No. I was extremely happy all the time, and now I consider it the happiest period of my life. Marriage suited me; the only difficulty was the obsession about my sex life the whole time. I obviously wasn’t being satisfied sexually and he couldn’t accept infidelity, so it broke up. Sex didn’t mean as much to him as it did to me. He always has this idea that it was sapping his mental energy, that it was bad for him, and he didn’t feel the inclination. Some people can do something about it, make an effort, but I didn’t…I withdrew. Maybe if he’d been more outgoing and affectionate when I wanted sex, it might have worked.
You wrote of Weidenfeld in your diary: ‘when I consider being married to him, it does not seem to be what I want at all. I’m simply obsessed with him sexually.’ Was the sexual obsession something which disappeared with marriage?
Not on my part, but on his, because he was burdened with anxiety, and he never actually wanted to marry me.
But you were obsessed with him sexually?
Why was that?
Well, how can one know why one is obsessed with someone sexually? But I was. He was very active and in those days I tended to be attracted to somebody who nauseated me at the same time, which, quite honestly, was the case with Weidenfeld. I had nothing in common with him whatsoever. Once the divorce was through I never ever wished to see him again, and he never wished to see me again. And we never did.
So it wasn’t a very friendly parting.
No, particularly as I felt he was responsible for the break-up of my marriage to Cyril, and I felt great resentment towards him. And I disapprove of Weidenfeld as a person; he’s absolutely everything I disapprove of.
Your propensity for corpulent men, from King Farouk to Weidenfeld, was traced back by your psychiatrist to your relationship with your father, a strikingly thin man. But how do you explain it? Did you discover an eroticism in obesity?
Yes, but I can’t explain why. I certainly don’t think it’s anything to do with my father – that’s absolute nonsense. It’s true that fat people are sort of cosier. They were probably my substitute for childhood teddy bears.
Are you still attracted to fat men?
Happily, I ‘m not attracted to any men now, whether fat or thin. When a woman has had a hysterectomy, which I have, the sexual urge really does go. I think that is the reason. I’ve no regrets; in fact it’s a great relief to me.
Were you also dismissive of the psychiatrist’s suggestion that you were father fixated?
No, I think he was absolutely right in that. When I was young I was always attracted to somebody much older than myself. Even my woman friends were much older. I suppose they were parental substitutes.
How do you explain your earliest sexual attraction to Sidney, your father’s rich friend? Was that a way of getting at your father?
I don’t think so at all. I was very lonely in London and he was a substitute father figure. He was an elderly man, and he helped me financially, which was very agreeable. I went on with it until I began to find him boring, and then that was that.
Referring to Cyril Connolly and Bernard Frank you said that they both were very difficult to live with. This is something you seem to look upon as a positive quality, a challenge perhaps…is that the way you saw it?
Obviously I do have a masochistic side to my nature and I suppose that because they were difficult it titillated me, whereas other woman probably would not have put up with it. Bernard’s present wife always says I must have been extremely masochistic to have endured life with him.
Cyril Connolly was quite dismissive of your own writing was that a source of tension in the marriage?
No. I myself never had a high opinion of my writing, quite honestly. What he really couldn’t stand was the tap of the typewriter in a small house when he was in bed upstairs reading. I did see his point – it must have been very irritating. I never held it against him, and in fact when the marriage was breaking up he helped me with the proofs of the first book. I think he was trying to ingratiate himself with me.
Your marriage to Derek Jackson takes up barely six pages of your memoirs. Is that roughly the importance you could accord him proportionately to the rest of your life?
Yes. He was a good man with a lot of very good qualities. Indeed he was a perfect husband, but I didn’t want a perfect husband; and he was also not particularly literary. So again, I married somebody with whom I had very little in common and instead of sharing his interest in physics, which I would try to do now, I didn’t take any interest in it at all. I also didn’t care about going to race meetings which he liked doing, and it all became such a bore. He wasn’t concerned about home life…he wanted to eat in restaurants all the time and it’s not ideal always to be going into restaurants since you have to make conversation, which I found irritating. The happiest time in my life was when I was married to Cyril because with him I had a home and I would spend hours in the kitchen cooking luscious things. I’m absolutely one hundred per cent a homely person, without ever having stuck to a proper home.
Looking back would you say you experienced love – the haute passion –more outside marriage than within?
I can only say no to that question. I was passionately involved in my marriages. The physical aspect was always over-important to me for some inexplicable reason. I didn’t feel well in myself if there wasn’t sex going on.
Your attitude to men is well documented and much written about; your feeling towards women far less clear. Do you feel any great solidarity with your own sex? Were you affected by or at least sympathetic towards the feminist movement?
No. I’m not particularly in favour of the feminist movement because I think that a woman’s function is to marry and have children. I’m very old fashioned I suppose, but there we are.
Did you ever feel at a disadvantage being a woman?
No, never. More than anything I thought of it as an advantage because I was blessed with good looks when I was young.
Have you ever had a passion for another woman?
Not a passion, no. I had one fleeting lesbian relationship which was shortlived and disappointing, and didn’t interest me at all. There was no real passion – I just saw her as another man with breasts, that’s all.
It strikes me that you present a great difficulty for feminists. On the one hand, allowing yourself to be flogged by King Farouk to gratify his sexual desires, on the other hand maintaining a kind of self-sufficiency, almost a superiority over men. How do you see it?
I needed men to keep me, otherwise I would have had to earn my living since I never had any money of my own, but at the same time if I got bored with somebody I couldn’t continue the relationship. At those times I had to be able to cope myself. As far as King Farouk was concerned you can hardly call it flogging since it was a dressing-gown cord and it didn’t hurt…
But it scarcely fits any known definition of feminism…
Perhaps not, but I was attracted to Farouk. He was a king after all, and it amused me to be with him. He was a big fat fellow and I was very keen on him. He had a schoolboy side which I found amusing. Of course, if he hadn’t been I king I might have seen things differently since his jokes were rather infantile, but I enjoyed myself and felt very affectionate towards him.
He was sexually very active, wasn’t he?
No. He was handicapped sexually, I’d say, though I’d rather not go into details.
But he wasn’t the great lover he was made out to be?
Absolutely not. He was a very inanimate lover.
He also had the reputation of being very mean.
Yes, he was a great hoarder of everything. I did once receive a present when he made a lot of money gambling, but then he stole my rings, and I never saw them again. I had three eternity rings, one in sapphire, one in diamonds and one in emeralds which I always wore. He said he wanted to look at them, so I stupidly took them off, put them on the table, and he pocketed them.
Why did he do that?
I haven’t the faintest idea. Probably he liked them. He was well known for taking things; he’d go to people’s houses and say he liked something and they’d give him it. He liked collecting. I tried to reclaim my rings but he never gave them back.
But you still retain good memories of him?
Oh yes, I would love it if he walked into the room now. He is one of the few people I do feel I’d like to see again.
Your description of the war years in London evokes a picture of dancing and romancing while the bombs fell. Was your life then conscious escapism from the horrors of war?
The awful thing is, I never sensed the horrors of war; I was just so frivolous, I suppose, and too involved with what was going on in my life. I never really took notice of the war.
The social scene you describe among London post-war literati has all vanished. Do you feel very nostalgic for those years?
No. I go on living very much in the present. When I was young I was always living in the future, thinking everything was going to be much better. But not now. If you mean, would I like to relive those times, then the answer is absolutely not. What a terrible idea.
Do you every worry about the future?
Yes, I do. I worry about death and how I don’t want to die. One thinks about death a great deal after a certain age. I’m not at all religious, so I don’t believe in life after death or anything like that. I’m very worried about the manner in which I’m going to die. I’d like to be somebody with a weak heart and then I could simply have a heart attack. But alas, it won’t be like that.
When you view England now from France, does it strike you as terribly dull?
No. I don’t think of England as being dull. I like the idea of going back, but I know that I couldn’t. London has become so ugly, but there’s much more going on there than here. I lead a very isolated life in France. Here one remains a foreigner always; one never becomes integrated in the country.
In your two volumes of memoirs you reveal the most intimate details of your relationships with men, be they husbands or lovers. Some would argue that such revelations are morally indefensible since people are inevitably damaged by them.
Well, I don’t know about that, but if your autobiography isn’t completely honest, there’s no point in doing it. Anyway, who is damaged by it?
George Weidenfeld, for example, got very upset about the revelations.
I know he did.
Well, I could have said much worse things than I did, quite honestly. I really didn’t even know he was upset, but since I remain antipathetic to Weidenfeld, I’m not going to be particularly upset about his being upset. He’s somebody I wholeheartedly disapprove of.
Since the books contain explicit sexual details, and real people are involved, you surely run the risk of being accused of sensationalism for the sake of commercial gain.
It simply never entered my head to put things in to boost sales. You have to be outspoken, otherwise there’s no point. In any case I didn’t put myself in a very good light either. I treated myself like everybody else.
Frank Kermode in a review of Tears Before Bedtime wrote, ‘Sometimes she misbehaves merely to affirm her presence.’ Is that something you accept about yourself?
I wouldn’t say that was true, but I thought he did a very good review. I even wrote and thanked him. I certainly didn’t misbehave consciously; misbehaviour came quite naturally. I was indulging in what I wanted to do.
Did you care about what other people thought?
No, I’ve never cared about what other people think.
Seen from the outside your life has been one of emotional upheaval, to say the least. Now that you are of a certain age do you feel that a measure of serenity has entered your life?
Yes. I’d be very foolish not to be content with it, because it’s extremely serene.
So you’re not living a tortured life any more?
No. Once the whole sexual problem has been dispensed with one can lead a reasonable life. The sex thing had obviously been a great handicap in my life. It gave me great pleasure but to be dominated by the sexual drive is absolutely appalling; I wouldn’t wish it on anybody.
Your memoirs are characterized by a discontent, a restlessness – emotions we associate with an unhappy state. Yet it is perhaps this very malcontent which has led to all the excitement, the drama, the passion…has it been a price worth paying, do you think?
Yes, because otherwise I might have been rather a dull person. One has obviously lived more intensely, which is better than my sister, doing nothing, thinking nothing.
What wisdom has come your way from all the agony and ecstasy? What strikes you as being the most enduring lesson?
Enduring lesson? To be more tolerant, I think, and less selfish.
If you were to choose one man as a lifelong companion from all the men you knew, who would it be?
It would be Cyril, there’s no question…oh yes, Cyril always. I have an undying love for him and a great deal of respect. As a friend I would choose Bernard Frank. In fact, that’s why I live in this awful little suburb, because he and his wife are neighbours and I see them all the time. One of the most important things about these two men in my life is that they never told a lie; that’s a very rare quality. The same could not be said of Weidenfeld.
If you were to live your life again, would you opt for a quieter, duller, more ordinary existence?
No. If I had to live my life again I would be determined to make a success of a marriage and to have children, that’s all.
Do you consider yourself happy now?
No, I wouldn’t say I’m very happy. At the age of eighty I don’t think one can be terribly happy. But I’m resigned. I shall go on like this to the end.