Archive for the ‘Memoir/Biography’ Category

Drawn from LifeAfter reading the delightful Drawn From Memory, I could not wait to pick up Drawn From Life by E.H. Shepard.  While the first book focuses on one year of Shepard’s childhood, this volume lets us follow him through more than a decade of his life, from the death of his beloved mother when he was ten to school and then art school, right up to his marriage in his early twenties.

Because of the large time period covered in this book, Shepard does not linger lovingly over small events the way he did in Drawn From Memory.  Or rather he does, but not as frequently.  He tells of the time spent living with his aunts immediately after his mother’s death, of his school days, of his joyous family holidays in France, Germany, and various regions of England, and of his beginnings as an artist.  I loved hearing about his time at art school and his first (shared) studio.  Shepard and his friends do not seem to have had any pretentions of artistic grandeur.  They come across as nice middle class boys and girls, working very hard to earn a living with their pens, pencils, and brushes.  Luckily, there seem to have been plenty of contests with cash prizes and scholarship awards to help keep them afloat. P1080166 P1080168

The book picks up some structure towards the end, after Shepard realises he is in love with his close friend and fellow art student, Florence Chaplin.  Tortured by this revelation, he makes himself almost sick during a summer holiday, pondering all the reasons why he can never tell Florence of his love: she is cleverer than him, she is three years older than him, and, even if she would have him, how could he, with no steady income, support a wife?  Thankfully, this angst-ridden holiday ends with a visit to a close family friend, a woman who wisely reprimands Shepard for his black outlook and reminds him that “no girl ever minds being told she is loved”.  Florence, or Pie as she is known (Shepard’s own nickname was Kip), isn’t quite as sure of her own feelings when Shepard declares himself but she soon realises that friendship has also turned to love on her side.  Pooling their joint earnings (Florence was working on a mural at Guy’s Hospital at the time), the two decide to marry.P1080163 P1080165

One of the most touching things about these final chapters, as Shepard and Florence prepare to start their new life together in a small cottage outside of London, is how closely involved Shepard’s siblings are in the preparations for his wedding.  After their father’s death, the three Shepard siblings lived together.  Though Ernest was the youngest, he was the first to marry and both Edith and Cyril were delighted for him.  On the day of his engagement, Shepard describes coming home and spending the night talking over his future with Cyril in the bedroom they shared.  Once he takes the lease on a decrepit cottage in the country, both Edith and Cyril commit themselves to helping him make it not just habitable but cosy: Edith and Ernest camp in the cottage while the work is being done, with Cyril coming down from London on the weekends to help.  They are a close-knit trio and it is wonderful to see that the sibling affection from childhood only intensified with age.

The book ends in 1904 with Shepard’s marriage but also with the promise of a successful future: he has just sold a painting for £100 and been introduced to the senior cartoonist at Punch.  Wide-spread fame was another twenty years off but he was firmly set on his path.  The only sadness I felt at the book’s end was knowing that there was no third volume of memoirs to detail his adult years.  What a loss!

Read Full Post »

Drawn From MemoryPublished in 1957 but focused on events that took place in 1887, Drawn From Memory by E.H. Shepard is an utterly charming memoir about Shepard’s life as a seven-year old boy growing up in a close-knit middle class family in Victorian London. It is also, as Shepard’s advises in his introduction, a memoir of the last entirely happy year the family had, which adds a special poignancy to the entire book; shortly afterwards, Shepard’s adored mother became ill and then died, leaving her devoted family devastated. But while she lived, what a happy family they were!

The youngest of three children born to a London architect and his wife, Shepard grew up in a home where the arts were encouraged. His parents moved in artistic circles (Frank Dicksee was a family friend and Shepard’s maternal grandfather was a member of the Royal Academy) and from an early age they encouraged Shepard to become an artist. Though the child did not have any intention of doing so (he “considered an artist’s life to be a dull one and looked for something more adventurous”), his early drawings, some of which are included in the book, were certainly impressive and I can understand why his father showed them off with such pride to his artist friends. Even if they are “mostly concerned with battle scenes.”

E.H. Shepard - Battle Scene

But, for the most part, this is not a book about a budding artist. It is a book about childhood memories. Shepard recalls the figures of his home life (his nurse, the cook, his elder sister Ethel and brother Cyril), devotes a marvellous chapter to his four easily shocked maiden aunts, and recounts events that impressed themselves on his young mind. Some of these events were of general significance – such as Queen Victoria’s Golden Jubilee, an event which Shepard celebrated with the purchase of a Belgian flag (“As Cyril and Ethel had each bought a Union Jack, I thought a change was called for.”) – but most of them are episodes significant only to the Shepard family. He remembers Christmas celebrations, a visit to the pantomime, an expedition to a tennis party in Highgate, and family holidays to Eastbourne and, best of all, a farmhouse in Kent. The chapter devoted to “Pollard’s Farm” is as perfect description of childhood bliss as I have ever read. They are spoiled there with food, freedom, and proximity to animals. Of all the happy moments in the book, this is by far the happiest.E.H. Shepard - JubileeE.H. Shepard - Pollard's Farm, BreakfastE.H. Shepard - Pollard's Farm, Hay Loft

But there are moments scattered through that remind us that this perfect happiness cannot last. Knowing that Shepard’s mother would soon become ill is difficult enough – that poor young woman, about to be separated from her lovely family – but towards the end Shepard reduced me to tears by mentioning coming across his brother’s grave in France during the First World War. Cyril died in July 1916 on the first day of the Battle of the Somme.

E.H. Shepard’s illustrations of A.A. Milne’s books and particularly of Kenneth Grahame’s The Wind in the Willows were such an important part of my childhood that it feels particularly appropriate to now know more about his childhood.  This book is begging to be reissued and Slightly Foxed, who after all first alerted me to it in their Winter 2010 issue, would seem a natural publisher.

Read Full Post »

Bring on the Empty HorsesSometimes in life, you just need an affectionate, gossipy Hollywood memoir.  Or at least I do.  I was certainly in need of one this weekend and nothing could have answered better than Bring On The Empty Horses by David Niven.

Bring on the Empty Horses is less a personal memoir than a professional one.  Rather than focusing on his own life (which he did – wonderfully – in The Moon’s a Balloon), Niven provides portraits of his Hollywood friends and acquaintances.  Some were good friends and major stars – Clark Gable and Errol Flynn both have lengthy chapters devoted to them – while others warrant only a few pages, in brief but wonderfully-drawn sketches of Hollywood figures both familiar and obscure.  In all instances, this is a book about Hollywood as it was during the 1930s, 1940s, and 1950s:

Hollywood was a village, and the studios were the families.  Everyone knew everyone else’s business, weaknesses, kinky leanings, and good points.  We were all in the same boat, involved in the early years of a terribly exciting experiment; it was an international community, and there was the maximum of camaraderie and the minimum of bitchiness.  At all studios, employees from the most glamourous stars to the lowliest riveters on the heavy construction gangs felt that they were members of a team, gloried in the success of their “hit” pictures, and occasionally indulged in college humour at the expense of their rivals.  “In case of an AIR RAID,” – they chalked up on the main entrance at Paramount – “go directly to RKO…they haven’t had a hit in years.”

Hollywood was hardly a nursery for intellectuals, it was a hotbed of false values, it harboured an unattractive percentage of small-time crooks and con artists, and the chances of being successful there were minimal, but it was fascinating, and IF YOU WERE LUCKY, it was fun.  And anyway, it was better than working.

Niven is unkind to no one.  He is blunt about people’s vices – his friends were far too often hard-drinking, oft-married womanizers – but is sad for them rather than censorious.  The most controversial of his friends was Errol Flynn and he is also the only one Niven seems defensive of.  Though the two men were roommates during their early days in Hollywood, their lives followed very different paths.  Niven returned to England at the beginning of the war and enlisted.  When he returned to Hollywood in the late 1940s, he was a happily married father of two.  Flynn was more reckless than ever, drinking too much, experimenting with drugs, and sleeping with women who were far too young for him.  It is a fascinating but sad portrait:

The great thing about Errol was you always knew exactly where you stood with him because he always let you down.  He let himself down, too, from time to time, but that was his prerogative and he thoroughly enjoyed causing turmoil for himself and his friends. 

I loved the chapter on Hedda Hopper and Louella Parsons, the rival journalists whose columns were read by millions hungry for gossip about their favourite stars, and was touched by the sympathetic chapters on the women who find themselves defeated by Hollywood: the sex bomb whose life begins to fall apart when she hits thirty or the fresh-faced girl who finds life as a high-class call girl more comfortable than sleeping with producers in hopes of getting an acting role.  I was also affected by Niven’s recollections of how Clark Gable helped him through a difficult time after the accidental death of his young wife – an experience Gable had unfortunately been through himself.

Generally though, the book is full of amusing anecdotes (both first-hand and hearsay) about classic Hollywood.  One of my favourites is Niven’s recollection of his interview with Sam Goldwyn in September 1939, when he told the famous producer that he was leaving to enlist:

He was very put out that I was leaving voluntarily and not waiting until I was called up, so he put me on suspension till the end of the war or the end of my life, whichever came sooner, and said, “I’ll cable Hitler and ask him to shoot around you.”

And, of course, there is Niven’s wonderful first meeting with the legendary and universally beloved director Ernst Lubitsch after being cast in his Bluebeard’s Eight Wife:

“I don’t think I can do it, Mr. Lubitsch,” I mumbled.

He looked at me, and his eyes shone with merriment.  “Do I frighten you?” he asked.

“No, sir,” I said, “but I’m terrified of Gary Cooper and Claudette Colbert…”

He jumped up and hooted with laughter.

“Do you know something?” He chortled.  “Claudette is frightened of Coop because of his natural acting, and Coop is frightened of Claudette because she’s so expert and this is his first comedy, and both of them are scared out of their wits by the small part players Edward Everett Horton, Franklin Pangborn, and Herman Bing, because they are supposed to be scene stealers…but d’you know who is the most frightened of all?…Me!”

He put his arm around my waist (because he could not reach my shoulders) and led me to the door.

“Everyone will be nervous on the first day,” he said, “even the electricians in case they set fire to the studio, but we’re all going to be together for many weeks, and I promise you it’ll be fun.  Now run along to wardrobe and makeup, they have some fittings and tests set up for you…Drop in to see me anytime…We don’t start for two weeks – you’re a member of the family now!”

I couldn’t wait to start.

Whether he is talking about the biggest stars in Hollywood or now forgotten writers and society hostesses, Niven is a consummate raconteur.  Always charming, always self-deprecating, and always surprisingly forthcoming with a racy story, I am sure he was a wonderful dinner guest, which no doubt explains how he was able to gather most of his material for this book!  He certainly uses these gifts well as a memoirist and I had a lovely Saturday evening reading about his life on the edges of a fantastic, insular, and now long-gone world.

Read Full Post »

Blue Remembered HillsAfter dragging it out as long as I could, I have finally finished reading Blue Remembered Hills by Rosemary Sutcliff.  Sutcliff’s memoir of her childhood and early adulthood is delightfully-written but cruelly slim.  I rationed myself, reading only little bits at a time, trying to savour the treat as long as possible.

I should admit now that I’ve never read any of Sutcliff’s historical novels, which is bizarre.  I am not sure how we never crossed paths during my historical fiction-crazed childhood but we did not and so this was my first introduction to her.  I can’t imagine a better one.

The danger of childhood memoirs is always that they might descend into that treacly swamp of sentimentality that can only leave the reader feeling queasy and the author, one hopes, embarrassed.  This is decidedly not one of those memoirs.  Sutcliff is affectionate in her remembrances but never boringly nostalgic for days gone by or pitying for the circumstances she faced.  She has a marvellous sense of humour and wonderful eye for detailing, making the reader feel part of the episodes she shares with us.

Born in 1920, Sutcliff was the daughter of a naval lieutenant and, with the exception of long hospital visits, spent much of her childhood surrounded by other naval families, both in Malta and the UK.  She developed Still’s Disease (a crippling and painful form of juvenile arthritis) as a toddler, and though her disability and the pain made her life different from most children’s, she does not dwell on these differences.  As a child, she was determined to live as normally as possible, when not in hospitals or nursing homes.

While young Rosemary casually dismissed her disabilities, the situation was more difficult for her parents, especially her mother who had to care for an extremely sick daughter alone while her husband was at sea.  Sutcliff generally speaks of her mother with fondness and admiration, but there are mentions of tensions between them that escalated as Sutcliff aged.  The only thing that marred this book for me was my feeling that Sutcliff wasn’t quite as fair to her mother as she might have been.  Especially since, from all she shares of herself, Sutcliff can’t have been an easy child to parent!  Aside from the unimaginable stress her illness must have had on her parents, she seems to have been frustratingly willful when healthy.  She remained determined not to learn how to read for an extraordinarily long time, more than content to listen to the stories her mother told her.  This gap in her education bothered her not at all but was deeply alarming to her parents:

…I still had my inability to read.  My father now joined the battle, and had small serious talks with me.

‘When you can read to yourself, old girl, you will find a whole new world opening up to you.’

‘Yes, Daddy,’ said I.  Polite but unconvinced.

He resorted to bribery.  I longed to model things.  He bought me a box of ‘Barbola’ modelling clay with all its accompanying paraphernalia, and promised me I should have it when I could read.

‘You can’t go on like this for ever!’ he said.

‘No, Daddy,’ I agreed.  I had every intention of going on like it for ever.

‘Don’t say “No, Daddy”.’

‘No, Daddy.’

Obviously, she eventually learned to read.  She did so while attending Miss Beck’s Academy, where she had gone despite having “no real desire to learn to read, but the dignity of schoolgirlhood appealed to me strongly.”  Miss Beck and her old-fashioned academy was one of my favourite parts of the book and a wonderful glimpse into the peculiar middle-class engine of the empire, since all her students were children of naval or military officers and often remained in that world themselves:

Christmas cards from old boys in big ships of the China Station and dusty cantonments on the plains of India; from fishery protection gunboats tossing in the North Sea; from Camberley and Greenwich and the Persian Gulf.  Christmas cards from old girls in married quarters and rooms and small rented houses up and down the world, usually enclosing letters and snapshots and messages of love from small sons and daughters whom Miss Beck had never seen.  Miss Beck’s old pupils seldom forgot her, and woe betide any of them who did.  ‘I have not heard from Elaine this year.  Of course her mother was always unsatisfactory, and they allowed her to use face powder much too young.  I shall write to her in the New Year.’  Or, ‘I must say, I did not think Peter would have forgotten me so soon.  He was a very affectionate little boy.  I suppose getting his regiment so young has gone to his head.’ 

(Simon, wise man that he is, seems to have been equally taken with Miss Beck and her school when he read this.)

The book follows Sutcliff from her childhood into her twenties, when she worked as an artist before becoming a writer.  This period includes a detailed account of her first painful love affair with a dashing young officer who, though delighted with Rosemary as a platonic soul mate, had no idea of marrying her.  Not an easy experience for her to live through but an interesting and valuable one that helped her to grow up and helped her along her way to becoming a writer.

I’m not quite sure what I expected going into this but this exceeded my expectations in every way.  Sutcliff writes so warmly and affectionately of the people that formed her that you can’t help but feel you have missed out by not having known them yourself and her enthusiasm for life and new experiences is wonderful to behold.  A charming book and one that, delightfully, is readily available from Slightly Foxed, who have an unerring talent for picking perfect books.

Read Full Post »

The Wry Romance of the Literary RectoryI have decided to put my Christmas day to good use and what better use could there be than the contemplation of wonderful books?  I hope some of you may have found The Wry Romance of the Literary Rectory by Deborah Alun-Jones under the Christmas tree or perhaps already have it in hand because, to my way of thinking, it is a rather perfect book to spend the holidays with.  Alun-Jones combines two of my favourite reading topics – families and the clergy – in her entertaining survey of writers who lived in rectories.  Some were the children of clergy, some were clergymen themselves, and some were drawn to rectories by the romantic connotations they hold.  In Alun-Jones’ hands, all of their lives are interesting.

There are certain authors whose lives are so closely entwined to their rectory(/parsonage/vicarage, etc) upbringings that even the most disinterested reader is aware of them.  Alun-Jones mentions Jane Austen and the Brontës in her introduction but, much to her credit, does not focus on either family.  Much (too much) has already been written about their lives already.  Instead, she focuses on a selection of authors both familiar and unfamiliar, most of whose lives (with the exception of Dorothy L. Sayers) I knew very little about beforehand.

While I enjoyed most of the chapters (the weakest, to me, were the final two, which focus on rectories where more than one author has lived), I was truly delighted by the sections on Alfred Tennyson, R.S. Thomas, and Sydney Smith.  I am not sure I had ever heard of R.S. Thomas (a Welsh poet and clergyman) before reading this but I was absolutely fascinated by his domestic life at Manafon Rectory in the Welsh borders. And I loved learning about the Tennysons growing up at Somersby.  I was especially delighted to hear that Alfred and his brothers went around wearing “long flowing capes and dark sombreros” as young men.  Their eccentric habits (and their vicious, unbalanced father) would have made them awful neighbours but they are absolutely fascinating subjects.

But best of all was Sydney Smith, the essayist and diarist.  Smith’s diaries have been on my to-be-read list for a while now and, after reading what Alun-Jones has to say about him, I am so much more eager to read them.  Smith sounds wonderful.  His home sounds wonderful.  His family sounds wonderful.  So many other writers she profiles had awful parents or were bitter misanthropes or impractical romantics who I could never identify with.  Smith, on the other hand, is described as someone who did good work as a clergyman but, more importantly, who was deeply loved by both his family and his large circle of friends.  He sounds entirely delightful and this brief portrait has only reinforced my desire to become better acquainted with him.

The portraits of Dorothy L. Sayers growing up in her father’s rectory and of Rupert Brooke’s lodgings at the now immortalized Old Vicarage, Grantchester are both excellently done.  I was less enamoured of the chapters discussing George Herbert and now Vikram’s Seth’s time at Bemerton and the rectory in Lincoln inhabited by the Benson family and, later, the de Waals.  The pages devoted to the Bensons are very well done but these chapters do not fit as well with the rest of the book.  I am also frankly skeptical of the de Waals’ literary credentials.

The Old Rectory, Farnborough (photo credit: Paul Barker)

The Old Rectory, Farnborough (photo credit: Paul Barker)

The whole book is beautifully and generously illustrated, with photographs, drawings, and paintings of the homes, churches, surroundings, and people Alun-Jones describes.  The chapter on R.S. Thomas is particularly interesting, with illustrations by his wife, the artist Elsi Eldridge (who sounds like a far more interesting person than her husband).  All of these illustrations helpfully allow the reader to do some superficial comparisons between the rectories and I must say that John Betjeman’s home at the Old Rectory in Farnborough looks to me to be the nicest of all the rectories surveyed.  But, as Alun-Jones points out, these rectories were often built by cash-strapped clergymen and what may have looked nice outside was cramped and barely habitable inside (at the Old Rectory, water had to be fetched from the village pump well into the 1950s).

All in all, a rather wonderful book.  I find that so many authors struggle with the kind of brief biographical sketches this book is made of; Alun-Jones does them very well indeed.  I, being someone who is fascinated by all things clergy-related, was the perfect audience and I was certainly a very appreciative one.

Read Full Post »

A User's Guide to Neglectful ParentingI love Guy Delisle’s graphic travel memoirs.  Shenzhen, Pyongyang, Burma Chronicles and Jerusalem are all well observed records of Delisle’s time abroad, humourously depicting the culture shock he experiences while also addressing the very serious political issues he confronts in his travels.  But as much as I love those books, it was delightful to just be able to have fun with Delisle’s most recent book, the 100% lighthearted A User’s Guide to Neglectful Parenting.

The book is short, just a collection of anecdotes about Delisle’s more irresponsible interactions with his son and daughter.  I loved it.  After a busy day last week, I sat down with it after dinner and had a very pleasant half hour giggling my way through Delisle’s missteps.  I still can’t decide which vignette was my favourite.  Was it Delisle repeatedly forgetting to act as “la petite souris” several nights in a row after his son loses a tooth and having to persuade his son that the mouse is running behind schedule?  Or was it when he is trying to convince his daughter that she prefers sugary cereals so that he can keep his precious Shredded Wheat, brought all the way from Canada, to himself?  Or perhaps when he decides to offer his daughter his professional opinion of her drawing?  They are all enjoyable.  If you’re looking for a fun distraction, this is the book for you.

How to traumatize your children with the aid of red chainsaw oil

How to traumatize your children with the aid of red chainsaw oil

Read Full Post »

How Reading Changed My LifeSometimes you need little filler books, something that can easily be carried around and pulled out on a bus, in a waiting room, or, in my case, over a lunch hour salad.  I spent the last few days reading Trollope and, delightful as he is, he is not well suited for being carried around in a handbag or for being read in short bursts.  How Reading Changed My Life by Anna Quindlen, an extended essay masquerading as a book, on the other hand, was perfect.

In four short essays, Quindlen tracks her lifelong progression as a reader.  I love reading this sort of bookish memoir and though I doubt this one will stand out in my mind, it did make me like Quindlen far more than I had ever thought I would (after having read and disliked several of her other books).  It is difficult not to feel some affection for a woman whose passion for reading so closely mirrors my own.  I especially related to her memories of childhood, with parents who couldn’t understand why their child wanted – needed – to read so much.  But to other readers it is the easiest thing on earth to understand:

Reading has always been my home, my sustenance, my great invincible companion.  “Book love,” Trollope called it.  “It will make your hours pleasant to you as long as you live.”  Yet of all the many things in which we recognize some universal comfort – God, sex, food, family, friends – reading seems to be the one in which the comfort is most undersung, at least publicly, although it was really all I thought of, or felt, when I was eating up book after book, running away from home while sitting in that chair, traveling around the world and yet never leaving the room.  I did not read from a sense of superiority, or advancement, or even learning.  I read because I loved it more than any other activity on earth. 

I loved Quindlen’s shock when she discovered that there was a “right” way to read, or, more importantly, that there were “right” books and “wrong” books and that the middlebrow novels she was drawn to (Galsworthy’s The Forsyte Saga is singled out as one of her first great loves) were most assuredly, shamefully the wrong sort of reading material.  Happily, she vocally rejects that sort of snobbish elitism throughout the book:

…there was a right way to read, and a wrong way, and the wrong way was worse than wrong – it was middlebrow, that code word for those who valued the enjoyable, the riveting, the moving, and the involving as well as the eternal.

Most of all, I envied Quindlen for having Mrs LoFurno in her life.  Mrs LoFurno was a neighbour, a friend of Quindlen’s parents, who had a large and eclectic book collection that she invited her young neighbour to explore.  This opened up not just a whole world of new books for Quindlen but a world where there were other passionate readers:

I was about ten when Mrs LoFurno began allowing me to borrow books from her basement, books without plastic covers, without cards in brown paper pockets in the back filled with the names of all the others who had read Hans Brinker and the Silver Skates before me.  Many of her books were older books, with the particularly sweet dusty smell that old books have; they had bookplates in the front, some of them, sepia coloured, vaguely redolent to me of a different sort of world, a world of tea and fires in the fireplace and doilies on chair backs and, in some fashion, a world in which people read, read constantly, avidly, faithfully, in a way in which, in my world, only I did.  It was both a world in which, I imagined, books would be treasured, honoured, even cosseted on special shelves, and a world that had formed its imaginary self in my mind from books themselves.

As for the collection of books she found in that basement, it sounds like the sort of thing I know some of my readers dream of and Quindlen attacked it with the wonderful energy and open-mindedness of a child who hasn’t yet learned to be snobbish in her reading:

In the language of literary criticism, which I have learned to speak, or at least mimic (and, covertly, to despise), it was uneven.  There was Little Women and lots of Frances Hodgson Burnett and some treacly books for girls written between the world wars.  There was A Girl of the Limberlost, which no one reads anymore, and there was Pride and Prejudice, which everyone should read at least once.  The truth is that I cannot recall feeling that there was a great deal of difference between the two.  I had no critical judgement at the time; I think children who have critical judgement are as dreadful and unnatural as dogs who wear coats. 

How lucky any child would have been to have a Mrs LoFurno – and her basement – in his or her life!

Read Full Post »

« Newer Posts - Older Posts »