'It is sometimes used as a reproach to people that they "live in books", but a "good book is the precious life-blood of a master spirit," and we live more intensely when we have taken it into our own.'
So ended the preface written by Elizabeth Jenkins for a 1954 edition of Thackeray's Vanity Fair and 'tis true, I have certainly 'lived' for a while at 8 Downshire Hill, Hampstead, London in the company of much-loved author of The Tortoise and the Hare and Harriet, Elizabeth Jenkins and described by her nephew thus...
'Diminutive in stature, Elizabeth Jenkins has penetrating blue eyes. There is about her an aura of iron-clad gentility, and she was once well-described as being rather like her books, a combination of understatement and insight.'
I think I almost cried with glee, joy and gratitude when, after an earlier post about Elizabeth Jenkins which contained some gnashing of teeth about the lack of availability of her memoir The View From Downshire Hill, Susan, who reads here, wrote to tell me that she had a copy sitting on a pile of books heading off to the land of charity and would I like it.
Would I like it???
The View From Downshire Hill duly arrived and I may have started reading that minute. The book is deceptively slim at 170 pages or so, but its slightly larger size means more words per page and the content so interesting that it took me much longer to read than I had anticipated.
Published in 2004 and when she was in her early nineties, Elizabeth Jenkins had been encouraged to write her memoirs by her nephew. I'm not sure her enthusiasm for the task was immediate but Elizabeth did eventually agree to try, though by her own admission this would not be an autobiography...
'I seem unable to put plain facts about myself down on paper without some form of distortion or synthetic colouring appearing.'
It would be more a series of impressions of people and places. Apparently the memories came back with surprising ease and what emerges is an engrossing and readable account of an interesting and busy life. For me it was a triumph of self-deprecating honesty matched by fascinating anecdotes and plenty of humour and, most importantly, I trusted its truthfulness.
There is the moment when Elizabeth, the young undergraduate and secretary of the Literary Society at Newnham College, Cambridge, is consorting with the Principal Miss Strachey about a guest who is to be invited to speak...
'Miss Strachey, to know whom even slightly, was one of the experiences of a lifetime, was reserved but completely amiable in the matter...'
This would be the Miss Strachey, sister of Lytton and of the eminent literary family.
Well, the invited guest was to be another glittering star, Edith Sitwell. Famed for her extravagant fashion style...think never knowingly under-attired or bland...with an array of jewel coloured robes 'and rings bearing aquamarines and topazes the size of prunes...'
'As it was my duty to write this invitation, I said to Miss Strachey : 'Shall we say : " Please wear everything you've got"? Miss Strachey said gently : 'I don't think that will be necessary.'
And it wasn't.
Miss Sitwell entered robed in floor-length grass-green brocade embroidered with gold palm leaves and doused in aquamarines and held the room. Ultimately Elizabeth would stay in contact with her for years to come and I almost felt as if I was in that room on reading her description...
'She talked with a weird, elemental creaking yet graceful malice - uniquely original and with bursts of high-voltage pantomime humour.'
There was plenty that came as revelation throughout the book...
The friendship with fellow-author Elizabeth Bowen..'robust...tall, strong and graceful...She had an innate elegance...'
Vera Brittain... 'exceptionally trying...'somewhat captious and overbearing' but a woman whose wartime experiences overpowered any personal elements.
The involvement with the purchase of Jane Austen's home at Chawton as a founder member of the Trust.
And much more...life events and literary encounters and happenings that seemed so immediate.
On the subject of autobiography I have to admit it is a genre that I often struggle with.
I have recently read No Leading Lady by R.C.Sherriff, his autobiographical account of his writing years. Now I have loved reading his novels over the last few weeks; The Fortnight in September, The Hopkins Manuscript, Greengates all have a veracity (even the sci-fi Hopkins Manuscript) and an honesty and truth about the writing which I automatically carried across to his own account of his life. There is an episode when Bob recounts arriving in Hollywood where he has been summoned to speedily sort out the screenplay for the film of The Invisible Man by H.G.Wells which is in a bit of a mess. In his haste to depart England he has apparently arrived with no copy of the novel from which to work, but wandering around a market, by fluke, random chance, serendipity, whatever you like to call it, Bob miraculously unearths a copy in a second-hand bookstore in LA's Chinatown.
Hook, line and sinker I went.
How marvellous I thought...
How thrilling for him...
What good fortune, he can now proceed.
Imagine my disappointment on reading a very new and informative biography by Roland Wales, From Journey's End to The Dam Busters - The Life of R.C.Sherriff, Playwright of the Trenches, only to discover that the single element of truth was the writing of the screenplay for The Invisible Man. Bob had refused to go to the USA on this occasion and every word had been written in London.
Roland Wales suggests this is 'embellishing'.
Me, well I was a bit disappointed in Bob for duping me like that but I'll get over it. He was by all accounts a very likeable conscientious, kind and considerate man and I have enjoyed the book.
Interestingly (well, I thought so) there is a tenuous connection between R.C.Sherriff and Elizabeth Jenkins. Elizabeth's brother Romilly (who was a code breaker at Bletchley Park during the war) had been at school with James Hilton who would eventually write Goodbye, Mr Chips. The book was based on Mr Balgarnie, their senior classics master and R.C. Sherriff would later write the screenplay for the famous film.
Connections and lives and all making for wonderful reading, so my grateful thanks to Susan for sending me The View From Downshire Hill.
Now then...what thinkest thou about autobiography...
Do you expect it to be honest...
Are you on the look out for 'embellishment'....
Do you mistrust and avoid someone's account of their own life...