In a TLS article in 1914 Henry James named Compton Mackenzie as the great hope of the English novel, placing him ahead of DH Lawrence among others. Now, if Mackenzie is remembered at all, it is as the author of the agreeable farce Whisky Galore!, made into a still enjoyable film directed by Alexander Mackendrick.
James’s admiration was shared by many. Mackenzie had just published Sinister Street, a bestseller despite being banned by the circulating libraries on account of its treatment of sex: very explicit for the time. Cyril Connolly claimed to have been beaten at school after being found with a copy. Scott Fitzgerald thought it was wonderful; Mackenzie became his idol. Edmund Wilson was another admirer, and remained one. Max Beerbohm said the Oxford chapters made it the best of all Oxford novels.
Anthony Powell read it in his old age. Characteristically severe, he declared that 90 per cent of it was rubbish, but there was evidence of something like genius in the other 10. The first part of the judgment is too harsh. I would say half the book at least is very good. Powell added that with more discipline and self-criticism Mackenzie might have been a great novelist. I’m with him there.
He was born into the theatre, his father an actor-manager, his American mother a leading lady, and there was always something theatrical about him. In the opinion of his admirable, and generally admiring, biographer Andro Linklater, he expressed his genius in the creation of the character Compton Mackenzie rather than in his books. Blessed, though some thought cursed, with total recall, he was an incomparable raconteur – until he went on for too long.
Devout in youth, he considered becoming an Anglican parson, preaching occasional sermons to general admiration. Aged 40, he converted to Catholicism, as did his wife, Faith Stone. Their Catholic faith kept their marriage in being, though Mackenzie couldn’t forgive her for an affair with a young Italian on Capri. He had hardly been a model of fidelity himself, but he excused himself more easily than he excused others. They remained friends but latterly lived mostly apart; by his choice, not hers.
When Faith died he married his secretary Chrissie McSween, his lover for many years, and when she died soon after of cancer, he took her sister Lily as his third wife. The McSween girls were from a Catholic family on the Hebridean island of Barra where Mackenzie had a house. They both adored “Monty”, and Lily cherished his memory in her old age. He had always found it easy to make friends, but then he gave the impression of finding most things easy, not least writing.
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