Not enough sex?
Another poet’s complicated private life
In the 1960s John Betjeman was at the height of his fame; appearing on television almost weekly, burbling on about Victorian architecture, railways and churches. His just published collected poems would go on to sell over 2 million copies. It is difficult to think of an equivalent public figure today, both so conventional and so famous. But the TV audience knew nothing of his love life.
Married since 1933 to Penelope Chetwode, daughter of the former commander-in-chief of the Indian Army, he had conducted an open affair with the much younger Lady Elizabeth Cavendish for over ten years. Elizabeth was also of the very bluest blood; the daughter of the Duke of Devonshire, childhood friend of the future Queen Elizabeth, and later confidante and lady in waiting to Princess Margaret.
For the rest of his life, the two women shared him. To start with he had flitted between his home with Penelope in Wantage, the Chatsworth estate in Derbyshire with Elizabeth, and friends’ houses in London, but in 1954 he got his own small flat in Cloth Fair in the City of London. This soon became not just a convenient hideaway for his own affairs, but a popular one for his friends. Tony Armstrong Jones discretely conducted some of his courtship of Princess Margaret there.
Both women knew about the other. Penelope grumbled, but she had tolerated many other affairs before Elizabeth came along. Elizabeth for her part came from a circle where adultery was accepted but divorce almost unthinkable; hence Princess Margaret’s decision to relinquish her first love. It is rumoured that Elizabeth had helped draft the Princess’s famous public statement renouncing Group Captain Peter Townsend; “mindful of the Church’s teaching that Christian marriage is indissoluble.” If so, Elizabeth knew how she felt.
But neither knew that in the mid sixties Betjeman started up another longstanding affair with Margie Geddes, an ex-girlfriend from before his marriage to Penelope. That was only revealed after Margie’s death in 2006. Here are his three main lovers, and the Princess.
Penelope Chetwode. Elizabeth Cavendish, Princess Margaret and the poet. Margie Geddes
Towards the end of his life, when asked if he had any regrets Betjeman replied; “Not enough sex!” He didn’t do too badly.