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Betjeman: A Life [Hardcover]

A. N. Wilson
4.2 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (18 customer reviews)

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Book Description

30 Nov 2006

John Betjeman was by far the most popular poet of the twentieth century. His collected poems sold over two million copies. Television audiences loved his quirky evocations of landscape and architecture.

As Poet Laureate, he became a national icon, but behind the public man were doubts and demons. For much of his fifty year marriage to Penelope Chetwode, the daughter of a Field Marshal, Betjeman had a relationship with Elizabeth Cavendish, the daughter of the Duke of Devonshire and Lady in Waiting to Princess Margaret. Betjeman, a devout Anglican, was tormented by guilt about the storms this emotional triangle caused.

This book is the first to use fully the vast archive of personal material relating to Betjeman's private life, including literally hundreds of letters written by his wife about their life together and apart. It is a celebration of a much-loved poet, a brave campaigner for architecture at risk, and a highly popular public performer.

--This text refers to the Paperback edition.

Product details

  • Hardcover: 375 pages
  • Publisher: Farrar Straus Giroux; 1st Edition edition (30 Nov 2006)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0374111987
  • ISBN-13: 978-0374111984
  • Product Dimensions: 23.6 x 15.7 x 3.8 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 4.2 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (18 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 2,229,936 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

A.N. Wilson was born in 1950 and educated at Rugby and New College, Oxford. A Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature, he holds a prominent position in the world of literature and journalism. He is an award-winning biographer and a celebrated novelist, winning prizes for much of his work. He lives in North London.

Product Description


"Wilson's forte is the character and he brilliantly conveys Betjeman's odd mixture of introspection and sociability, gaiety and melancholia, exhibition and self-disgust ... Betjeman is a poet who badly needs saving from his soppier fans, and this Wilson has done" (Lynn Barber Daily Telegraph)

"Funny, poignant and unusually well written, Wilson's biography does the old boy proud" (Jeremy Lewis Mail on Sunday)


An A-grade demonstration of the point of Betjeman, the vast constituencies to which he appealed and the area of English life that he made his own

" (D.J. Taylor Independent)

"Terrific... [Wilson's] book zeroes in on Betjeman's struggles with his faith, which he places dead centre of the life and work, and on his family difficulties, and does so with extraordinary imaginative sympathy... Essential" (Spectator)

"A joy to read and re-read - the perfect match of author and subject" (Hugh Massingberd Spectator) --This text refers to the Paperback edition.

Book Description

The Sunday Times Top Ten Bestseller

'A joy to read and re-read - the perfect match of author and subject' Hugh Massingberd, 'Books of the Year', Spectator

--This text refers to the Paperback edition.

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Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews
37 of 38 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A model biography 9 Nov 2006
By William
AN Wilson succeeds where Bevis Hillier failed by producing a compact, balanced, but still affectionate portrait of Britain's favourite post war poet. Wilson is very good on the marital threesome, sympathetic to both Penelope and Elizabeth. He also deals well with Betjeman's guilt, religious angst and fear of death. Happily the book does not dwell on Betj's TV and radio work, which was always a distraction, but focuses instead, properly in my view, on his poetry and his life as a poet. You may disagree with Wilson's choice of Betjeman's 30 best poems, but he succeeds in catapulting the reader back to old laureate's work, which is surely a mark of a great biography. Add to that AN Wilson splendid prose, little asides and occasional barbs and you have a marvellous, absorbing read in prospect. Anyone even remotely interested in Betjeman should have this on their shelves.
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5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A Beguiling Biography. 10 April 2012
It was particularly interesting coming to the Betjeman biography having just completed Philip Larkin's "Letters to Monica". Not only were they the two most popular and accessible poets of their era, they also became close friends, Betjeman placing his London flat at the disposal of Larkin and Monica - a love nest on neutral ground. However, while for the greater part of his life, Larkin lived in modest circumstances and followed a professional career, Betjeman inhabited a very different world. If his roots were in trade, his background was nonetheless wealthy and through his natural gregariousness and desire to be liked, not to mention his social aspirations, he was soon in the midst of a Bohemian, social and intellectual elite centred around London and Oxford. At times the litany of famous names is overwhelming and clearly Betjeman fed on his increasing fame in a way redolent of Oscar Wilde, the link reinforced via Lord Alfred Douglas.

A. N. Wilson shows evidence of painstaking research and clearly feels a deep affinity with his subject. On the whole the poetry receives short shrift, even given that it doesn't lend itself to detailed analysis in the way that say, Plath's does. Many might quarrel too with his list of Betjeman's best poems; there seem to me notable omissions, "Greenaway" for example. It is in many ways an extraordinary life and Wilson cleverly allows it to appear to speak for itself, without obtrusive comment. There are some wonderful anecdotes. I particularly like the one involving John Osborne and the church visit and light is thrown on so many notables from Auden to Waugh and Osbert Lancaster, Hugh Gaitskell to Anthony Blunt and Princess Margaret, along with a host of Oxford academics, politicians, broadcasters and those further on the edge of society + the omnipresent Archie. I approached the book with modest expectations but found myself utterly beguiled. Strongly recommended.
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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
By Jeremy Bevan TOP 500 REVIEWER
By the time I'd finished this biography, it was difficult to know whether to like Betjeman or not. He was clearly a gifted poet, a man of (very Anglican) faith, and a passionate defender of Britain's architectural heritage. But also a man who, in Wilson's estimation, hung onto his guilt as a way of helping him avoid having to choose between wife and mistress; a class-obsessed snob; and a man whose children (his son in particular) seem to have suffered much of the same mutual antagonism that Betjeman and his own father visited on each other. But perhaps all of this is simply proof that Wilson's book is very good, and succeeds in bringing this endearing, infuriating man and his many passions to life really well. It's an added bonus that the author brings to bear his own keen literary judgment on the likely enduring value of Betjeman's poetry, alongside an appreciation of his undoubted, if sometimes eccentric, contribution to the preservation of Britain's built heritage.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars BETJEMAN - another perspective 25 Jun 2012
Format:Kindle Edition|Verified Purchase
I have downloaded the Kindle version to read later this year when on holiday. I have already read the paperback version and can see why the product was a Sunday Times bestseller. The man and his life is a paradox. The book was easy to read and is the perfect book to read at the end of the day. Not too difficult to take in and leaving one wanting more the next evening. It opened up a new horizon for me. I have been buying the same type books for years based on my lifetime interest and this was a great change. You know what they say about a change .. it is as good as a rest .. and so it has been. I have purchased other Betjeman books for further reading. This has opened other horizons - R.S Thomas and Phillip Larkin. So, if you are interested in Paradoxes and are looking for a change then I don't think that you will be disappointed.

Derrick Matthews, South Wales, United Kingdom.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
1.0 out of 5 stars A.N. Wilson's tin ear 15 Nov 2011
This is a dismayingly boring book organised around the trivia of Betjeman's life: all ink and no octopus. Wilson has a tin ear for the poetry, revealed by the astonishing inclusions and omissions in a list of poems on p 295 that Wilson thinks achieve "what they set out to achieve", itself a dubious criterion. Astonishing inclusions: Myfanwy, and Myfanwy at Oxford, explicable only by their contribution to the biographer's gossip-mongering. Astonishing omissions: The Metropolitan Railway, I.M. Walter Ramsden, How to Get On in Society. Betjeman's "A Few Late Chrysanthemums" is one of the most striking collection of poems ever published. It holds its own with Larkin's "The Whitsun Weddings", Plath's "Ariel", Yeats's "The Tower" or Lowell's "Life Studies". Wilson dismisses it in a single page so he can get back to the gossip. What Wilson likes about Betjeman is the Anglo-Catholic campery, social climbing and clowning about on DVD, but Betjeman's claim on posterity are poems that Wilson admits (on p 306) he cannot hear properly when he reads them to himself. Why then did he attempt this biography?
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Most Recent Customer Reviews
5.0 out of 5 stars Betjeman, Private and Public
A very readable, concise biography of Betjeman, managing to walk the tightrope of prurient obsession with his "ahem" domestic arrangements, his often cynical and downbeat verse,... Read more
Published 1 month ago by Richard Newbold
5.0 out of 5 stars A muscular-legged, tennis-playing Lovely
Such an interesting character, both attractive and repulsive. A N Wilson seems the biographer to get right to the heart of the complexity of the man. Superbly written. Read more
Published 1 month ago by J. TREE
5.0 out of 5 stars Masterly A.N.Wilson reveals all about cuddly, naughty Teddy Bear...
This is the perfect subject for masterly A.N.Wilson; it reads like the account by a sympathetic brother, there is nothin sly about this frank account.
Published 2 months ago by Anthony M. Godley
5.0 out of 5 stars Great
Bought this book as a gift. The book was received with enthusiasm and feedback is.., "It is wonderful". Read more
Published 6 months ago by Mogzilla
4.0 out of 5 stars Not so cuddly
A.N. Wilson is a figure who provokes extreme reactions. His critics complain about the shoddy scholarship, the factual unreliability, the tendency to underplay his reliance on... Read more
Published 21 months ago by Metropolitan Critic
2.0 out of 5 stars THE WET STRENGTH OF A.N.OTHER
Samuel Johnson once identified the root of all inspiration: "No man but a blockhead ever wrote, except for money. Read more
Published 23 months ago by THUMBTOM
5.0 out of 5 stars Best Betjeman Biog
A hefty tome, well written and highly informative.
I'd say this is a MUST for those who still adore this chap's writings, his verse, and his personality. Read more
Published on 28 Jun 2011 by CroydonBoy
4.0 out of 5 stars Very enjoyable
I'm listening to the audio version of this on CD in the car at the moment and it's both enjoyable and informative. Read more
Published on 30 Sep 2010 by Dunfermline woman
2.0 out of 5 stars Betjeman betrayed
We love Betjeman for his humour, his enthusiasms and his lecherous affections. Whilst acknowledging all three, this biography simply fails to make you feel them. Read more
Published on 26 April 2010 by Ignorant Bystander
5.0 out of 5 stars A Life written byA N Wilson
I was at a lecture/talk given by John Vigar at a NADFAS meeting on "Britain with Betjeman" and asked him if he would recommend a book on Betjeman's life. Read more
Published on 24 Feb 2010 by Mrs. H. E. Stanmore
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