I read about Beverley Nichols in a blog post at Ciao Domenica, Books that Sparkle. Domenica lists some books that make her world a little brighter for her having read them and since I had read all but two of the books on the list and liked them very much (The Code of the Woosters, Gaudy Night, A Room with a View, Excellent Women) I decided I needed to look into William Boyd's Any Human Heart and something by Nichols.
During his lifetime (1898-1983), Nichols wrote some 60 books and plays -- novels, mysteries, short stories, essays, autobiography, children's books, books on travel, politics, religion, cats, and parapsychology. My library still had a copy of Laughter on the Stairs, published in the US in 1954, one of a trilogy of books about a Georgian house the author bought and renovated in Surrey, called Merry Hall in the books.
Nichols' narrative voice is delightful. Here he is on geraniums:
. . . throughout the whole year there are geraniums, which to me are a sort of "test flower," for long experience has taught me that people who do not like geraniums have something mentally unsound about them. Sooner or later you will find them out; you will discover that they drink, or steal books, or speak sharply to cats.
Nichols is devoted to his cats, One and Five (best perhaps not to ask about what might have happened to Two, Three, and Four.) The descriptions of his recalcitrant but talented gardener and his long-time butler, Gavins, verge occasionally on the hilarious.
His neighbors, mostly ageing spinsters, are a delight. But he sometimes doesn't know quite what to say to them when they ask what he has been writing. "I can never think of anything to say except 'a book' -- an answer which may be true but can hardly be described as a riposte."
Nichols spends a good deal of time and money on his gardens but his house goes pretty much unfurnished. His description of a gift that finally pushed him to buy some furniture is charming.
If one were to say that one's life had been radically changed by a set of walnut chairs, the statement might seem precious. It is the sort of thing that aesthetes used to say in the nineties. That does not worry me much. There were many periods in history which were less worthy, in almost every respect, than the eighteen-nineties, and one of them, in my humble opinion, is the nineteen-fifties.
Here he is describing a walk in his orchard to see the spindles (Euonymus):
After the spindles were the thorns, one of which had gone slightly mad, and produced quite the wrong sort of leaf below the graft. (Trees, I am sure, can lose their reason, just as much as human beings. I have several insane silver birches, to which I am greatly attached, and a half-witted hamamelis mollis . . .)
He is a bit philosophical about ruts:
Why this passion for shaking people out of ruts? I am devoted to ruts. Moreover, most of the people who are in ruts are much nicer, and much happier, than the people who are not. To speak of ruts as though they were undesirable is the sign of a coarse and callow mind. Ruts are the wise old wrinkles that civilization has traced on the earth's ancient face.
Laughter on the Stairs (1953) is the second book of a trilogy about Nichols' house in Surry. The others are Merry Hall (1951) and Sunlight on the Lawn (1956.)