At a desk beneath the dome of the British Museum Reading Room, as sombre Ph.D. types on either side of me pored over earnest looking volumes, I had to restrain myself from yelling for joy at item NN 20963: the catalogue number for French Polish by P. Y. Betts. It was her only book, a novel published by Gollancz in 1933. It looked as if nobody had opened it for some while – perhaps for more than fifty years.
It was 1985 and I was at work on an anthology from the rare, weekly magazine Night and Day which in 1937 had sought to be an English incarnation of The New Yorker. But after six months it had come a cropper, its funds even scarcer in the wake of a libel suit brought by Twentieth-Century Fox against its co-editor Graham Greene for his review of the 9-year-old Shirley Temple’s performance in Wee Willie Winkie. Many of the magazine’s contributors, such as John Betjeman and Alistair Cooke, and indeed Greene himself, were to become very well known. Yet often as interesting were those of whom little, if anything, was later heard, among whom was P. Y. Betts. She wrote entertaining pieces for the magazine on French food, and a Snobs’ Guide to Good Form which was twenty years ahead of Nancy Mitford’s ‘U and Non-U’.
The same spirit was evident in French Polish, the story of a group of lascivious girls at a Swiss finishing-school. The plot seems less important than its characters’ off-the-wall observations and comments. Virginia rebuts Millicent’s allegation that she is always thinking about sex: ‘I guess if you thought a little more about sex your circulation would be a whole lot better; there’s nothing like sex for keeping a girl warm.’ Angela asks, ‘Have you ever noticed that people who are quite disintegratingly beautiful in the nude are often dreadfully pedestrian in clothes?’ – to which Pat makes the logical reply, ‘And the ruefulness of it is that those who look dreadfully pedes
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