Bechhöfer (Roberts), Carl Erich (1894-1949) by Sullivan, Robert

Carl Erich Bechhöfer (Roberts) (1894-1949)

The compiler of this biographical sketch asks your indulgence. The sources for information about the life of this writer are scattered and vague. We know that he was born and raised in London and was sent away to school, where he began to direct his attention to classical scholarship. His father, disapproving of this unworldly direction, sent him to Germany at the age of 15, “where, it was understood, a good beginning would be made towards knocking the nonsense out of me” (Wanderer 13). But he persisted in his classical tendencies, studying in the Classical-Philological faculty of a German University, and adding rowing, drinking, and duelling to his agenda. While still a student he began sending things to The New Age, beginning with letters to the Editor and soon adding parodies, verse, and reports on theatrical events in Germany.

Returning home for his holidays in 1911, Carl and his father agreed that “only a trip round the world would really knock the nonsense out of me” (Wanderer 14). He left on a ship headed for “the East” in November of that year. Thus began what he described as ten years of wandering in which he failed to learn wisdom. These travels—which included India, China, Russia before and after the revolution, and many other places in the Northern Hemisphere—he recorded in several books: Russia at the Crossroads (1916), In Denikin’s Russia and the Caucasus 1919-1920 (1921), Through Starving Russia (1921), and A wanderer’s log: being some memories of travel in India, the Far East, Russia, the Mediterranean & elsewhere (1922).

He was good at languages, picking up Russian along with German on his travels. And he obviously spent time at the offices of The New Age and their informal extension to the Chancery Lane ABC Tea Room, for Paul Selver found him there and described him for us as one of the followers of Orage:

Of the others [regular contributors to the journal] I discern, very much in the foreground, a fattish, red-faced youth who, when I entered the circle, was about eighteen. In those days he still signed himself Carl Bechhöfer (sometimes thinly disguised as Charles Brookfarmer). After the war of 1914-18, in which he served in the Lancers and later made an adventurous trip to Soviet Russia, he shed his umlaut and became Bechhofer-Roberts. Before his umlaut vanished he had a knack of writing lampoons which bubbled with undergraduatish fun. One of his happiest efforts in this manner was a set of skits on the leading London periodicals, and we all felt that when he, so to speak, had graduated as a writer, he ought to accomplish something considerable. (Selver 29-30)

Bechhöfer produced a considerable amount of writing without ever becoming a considerable writer. He wrote fiction, including Let’s Begin Again, an autobiographical romp in which he satirized Orage and The New Age under the names of Whitworth and The New Endeavour (Martin 50), and This Side Idolatry: A Novel Based on the Life of Charles Dickens (1928), using for the latter his pen name, “Ephesian,” which Paul Selver attributes to his admiration of F. E. Smith, the first Lord Birkenhead. Bechhöfer also wrote a biography of Smith, Lord Birkenhead (1936), and studies of other political figures, including Stanley Baldwin and Winston Churchill. He also wrote two books about spiritualism, The Mysterious Madame: A Life of Madame Blavatsky (1931) and The Truth About Spiritualism (1932). He also produced books on The Meaning of National Guilds (with M. B. Reckitt, 1918) and The Literary Renaissance in America (1923), in which he praised the work of such contemporary writers as Sinclair Lewis, H. L. Mencken, Sherwood Anderson, Willa Cather, Theodore Dreiser, Edgar Lee Masters, Randolph Bourne, James Branch Cabell, Joseph Hergesheimer, Eugene O’Neill, and others. But his major body of work from the thirties until “his death in a motor accident” in 1949 (Selver 30) was a series of books on actual crimes and trials plus some crime fiction of his own.

He lived the life of a professional writer, producing works of travel, biography, criminology, fiction, translation, and even some drama. We know this much, at least, about his public life. About his private life, we know almost nothing. But he was one of those people whose gifts suited The New Age and pleased the journal’s editor, who began publishing him when he was still just a boy and made him a member of the inner circle that kept the magazine going. His writing appears steadily from volume 9 through volume 30 of the magazine.

One other aspect of Bechhöfer’s life and work that is worthy of note in this connection is his relationship to the spiritual leader G. I. Gurdjieff. A current web page devoted to Gurdjieff summarizes this history as follows:

Journalist Carl Eric Bechhofer Roberts first met Gurdjieff in Tiflis in 1919. His In Denikin’s Russia and the Caucasus, 1919-1920, contains the first description of Gurdjieff published in English. He warmly recounts being guided by Gurdjieff on an unusual tour of Tiflis, especially the baths and restaurants. Roberts notes that this “curious individual named Georgi Ivanovitch Gurdjieff […] was still surrounded by this strange entourage of philosophers, doctors, poets and dancers. He was not exploiting them; on the contrary, several of them were living on his diminishing means.” Later in this journey, Roberts describes listening to his long-time journalistic acquaintance, P. D. Ouspensky’s engaging renditions of light-hearted Moscow and Essentuki adventures while they shared a bottle of vodka that Ouspensky prepared from pure white spirit and orange peel. Subsequently, out of curiosity, he made several visits to Gurdieff’s Institute at the Prieuré but “preferred to remain an intimate and disinterested spectator.” (Loy)

Orage himself, as we know, spent some time at the Prieuré, and Katherine Mansfield died there. Orage is now widely known in “New Age” circles as one of Gurdjieff’s leading assistants, especially in the United States during the twenties. It seems likely that Bechhöfer had something to do with this development, though, in Orage’s case, it is probably over-determined, with his long-standing interest in Theosophy playing a role as well. At any rate, the “fattish red-faced youth” left his mark on the journal and its editor, as, no doubt, they did on him.

—Robert Sullivan

Works Consulted

  • Bechhofer, C. E. A Wanderer’s Log. London: Mills & Boon, 1922 (cited above as Wanderer).
  • Loy, Greg, ed. Gurdjieff International Review. See in particular an excerpt from “The Forest Philosophers”:
  • Martin, Wallace. The New Age Under Orage. Manchester UP, 1967.
  • Selver, Paul. Orage and the New Age Circle. London: Allen & Unwin, 1959.
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