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What the critics liked

When Hugo Vickers was chosen by Cecil Beaton to write his biography in January 1980, it seemed nothing could go wrong, says John Walsh in The Sunday Times. They met, “got on well, the contract was signed… and then, two days into the project, Beaton died”. Undeterred, Vickers proceeded to interview the “multitude of royal, rich, aristocratic, creatively connected or sexually linked” people in Beaton’s “vast social acquaintance”. Published in 1985, the book was a huge success.

At the start of lockdown, Vickers “dug out” the 51 diaries he had kept during those years. “I went back to a lost world and lived it once more.” Malice in Wonderland: My Adventures in the World of Beaton (Hodder & Stoughton £25) is a “luxuriant trawl through the recovered past”, says Walsh. It is “an invigorating, if breathless, ride”, encountering Audrey Hepburn, Roy Strong, Julie Andrews, Princess Margaret, John Gielgud, Truman Capote, Lady Diana Cooper and Princess Grace.

Vickers is a beguiling mixture of innocence and sophistication, adoration and detachment, says Craig Brown in the Daily Mail. “He views his grand interviewees with the eyes of a butterfly collector, ready with his net.” For the most part they are full of gossip and “general bitchery, much of it directed against their dear, departed friend”. “What fun he was,” recalled the Queen Mother. “Of course, there was another side to him. Pins going in here, there…” Beaton seemed to “look for the worst” in everyone. “You might think Cecil is listening to what you were saying, but in fact he is counting the hairs in your nostrils,” remembered Stephen Tennant.

Many of them were “particularly nosy” about Beaton’s sex life. Truman Capote, “not the most reliable of witnesses”, declared: “He’d pounce on anything: women, men, dogs, fire hydrants, Spanish puppies…” But while most scoffed at Beaton’s affair with Greta Garbo – Roy Strong dismissed it as “a fantasy” – Capote was adamant: “Cecil was one of the few people who gave her any physical satisfaction.” It’s all “good fun,” but these “conflicting memories and impressions show the impossible nature of the biographer’s task.” Who is telling the truth? Audrey Hepburn “really adored” him, others considered him “a horror”.

Vickers is perfectly suited to the obsession that takes over his life, says Ysenda Maxtone Graham in The Times. “Not only does he crave the company of titled people… they adopt him as an adorable, useful single man to chauffeur them to dinner parties and… holidays in Italy.” Clarissa Avon, the widow of Anthony Eden, invites him to house-sit for her in Wiltshire, but then doesn’t go away, so they “keep each other company at her manor house for a fortnight”. The 92-year-old Lady Diana Cooper, “sitting up in bed with a lacy cap, white shawl and chihuahua”, introduces him to all her friends as her boyfriend.

“I got as caught up in these distant but strangely evocative events as Vickers did,” says Maxtone Graham. You read this book not so much to learn about Beaton, “rather to relish the foibles and preoccupations of his circle and his biographer”.

Available as an audiobook on Audible, narrated by the author.

Never has so much sex, tragedy and celebrity been crammed into one thinking person’s beach read, says Melissa Katsoulis in The Times. Taylor Jenkins Reid “has a knack for evoking the style and mood of an era”, and Malibu Rising (Hutchinson £14.99) “is as much an impressionistic whirl of neon sunsets, acid-wash denim and high-cut bikinis as it is a grand set piece about a glamorous party”. Jenkins Reid has “an easy, breezy style that serves melodrama on a daring scale”.

It’s a balmy August day in California, 1983, and “preparations are under way for the biggest party of the year”, at supermodel and surfer Nina Riva’s clifftop mansion. Flashbacks reveal that beyond “all the fluff and fun” there is a “sad story about abandonment, which asks whether the children of feckless parents can ever outrun their emotional inheritance”.

Taylor Reid capably tracks the siblings’ emotionally fraught journey, says Publishers Weekly, “especially that of Nina, whose husband has run off just before the party”. She evokes a bygone Malibu’s “social hazards in sharp, descriptive detail”. This is unapologetically escapist fiction, says Patricia Nicol in The Sunday Times, “its urgent style evocative of Hollywood Wives-era Jackie Collins and an era of guilt-free bronzing”.

Available as an audiobook on Kobo from 27 May.

Vintage fiction: The Turn of the Screw 

The Turn of the Screw is the darkest, richest ghost story I’ve ever read, said Brad Leithauser in The New Yorker in 2012. Henry James’s novella “casts a spell not merely shadowy, but extensive”. In January 1895 the author recorded in his notebook a conversation he’d had with the Archbishop of Canterbury, who told him a ghost story: “Young children… left to the care of servants in an old country house… The servants die… and their apparitions return to haunt the house and the children, to whom they seem to beckon.” It is all obscure and imperfect, James concluded, but “there is a suggestion of strangely gruesome effect in it”.

It was another two and a half years before he wrote The Turn of the Screw. In this unnerving tale, it is the governess who is convinced the two children in her care are being influenced by the malevolent ghosts of two former servants. James was so successful in his quest to scare that he managed to spook himself. After correcting the proofs of the story, he confessed to a friend: “When I had finished them, I was so frightened that I was afraid to go upstairs to bed.”

What story in the whole region of fiction can match its insidious horror, cried Walter de la Mare in the TLS in 1915, “the sense and presence of gloating, atrocious, destructive evil which it conveys”? Ainlee’s Magazine was rather more measured in its response, warning its readers in December 1898 that James “is by no means a safe author to give for a Christmas gift”.

Available as an audiobook on Scribd.