Sunday, December 7, 2008

Enid Bagnold

A week or so ago, on a Sunday morning, I was catching up on my book blogging reading and I came across a reference to The Chalk Garden and it's author, Enid Bagnold.  I remembered The Chalk Garden as a movie, made in the 1960's, starring one of my favorite actresses, Deborah Kerr.  In my memory it was vaguely Hitchcockian in style.  It also starred a teenaged Hayley Mills and her own real life father John Mills.  It never occurred to me that it started out as a play, I'm not sure why, and it had never occurred to me to wonder who wrote it.

The brief reference aroused my curiosity so I checked my local library on-line catalogue to see if there was a copy of the play and to see what else she had written.  Her name rang a bell with me, but I wasn't sure why, until I saw the library catalogue listings.  Enid Bagnold wrote National Velvet.

What an odd combination:  National Velvet and The Chalk Garden. One a beloved children's book that is still in print and the other a strange psychological drama about three generations of women bridging the gap between Edwardian and modern times and the mysterious governess who assists them.  Granted, each of them has a young girl in it. But, although it has been years since I read (or saw) National Velvet, I don't recall Velvet Brown as being psychologically disturbed, as Laurel is in The Chalk Garden.  Although perhaps wanting to dress up like a boy to compete in a horse race would have been seen as an issue back in the 1930's.

Curious, I ordered the play from the library and the only other book (besides National Velvet) that they had:  A Diary Without Dates, which is a memoir of her time working in a hospital during World War I based on diaries she kept during the time.

Then I googled her.  She seemed like an interesting woman.  Born in England in 1889 to an army family, spending a few years in Jamaica when her father was stationed there.  She returned to be educated in Europe, studying art.  When World War I broke out she volunteered through the Volunteer Aid Detachment (VAD's) and worked as a nurse at the Royal Herbert Hospital in Woolwich.  While there she published A Diary Without Dates, which was very critical of hospital administration.  So critical, in fact that the military arranged for her to be dismissed.  Well ... this made me a bit more excited about receiving my book from the library!

She moved on to being a volunteer driver in France and from that came her book A Happy Foreigner.  (I checked, the library does not have it.)

She apparently lived a "bohemian" lifestyle and had a number of affairs but in 1920 at the age of 31 she married Sir Roderick Jones, the head of the Reuters news agency and became Lady Jones. They purchased a country home in Rottingdean, East Surrey, where she spent much of the rest of her life.  It had formerly been owned by the artist Edward Burne-Jones and its garden is the inspiration for The Chalk Garden.

She, of course (of course because we can see the result not because it was necessarily natural for women at the time) continued to write and in 1924 published her first novel The Difficulty of Getting Married. In 1935 she published National Velvet, which was probably based on a horse that her children had. She also published a few additional novels as well as a number of plays.

None of this explained how she wrote two such different works. 

I picked my books up yesterday and the book is one of those small, 4x6 sized, books that probably had a dust cover at one time but is now just blue faced cardboard binding with yellow crumbling pages within.  It is a United States edition published in 1935, after National Velvet became a hit (because on the title page it says "by Enid Bagnold, author of "National Velvet").  It does not smell musty but it looks as if it should.

Opening it, I read the inscription: 


This is followed by another page with the following:

I apologize to those whom I may hurt.

Can I soothe them by pleading that one may only write what is true for oneself?


I found this very encouraging. I haven't started the book yet, but I'm looking forward to reading this woman and seeing what she had to say.

In my Googling, I found that The Chalk Garden was revived in London this year for the first time since 1971.  If it makes it across the Atlantic to New York I would be tempted to make a trip to see it.  And in the review is some information from the production notes that does explain a few things:

The programme has a fascinating description as to how the play came about. Enid has inherited a prior family from her husband Sir Roderick Jones, a war wounded son, a young daughter in law and a three year old granddaughter for whom she engaged a nanny. It was when a friend, a judge, came to lunch that she noticed the strange and uncharacteristic reaction of the nanny which started Enid thinking. Enid loved words and she stuffed the witty expressions which she'd been collecting into her play, making it rather heavy going. London impresario Binkie Beaumont turned it down but Enid's agent Harold Freedman sent the play to Irene Selznick, daughter of Louis B Mayer. Selznick worked on the script with Enid, "to pull the threads straight" and curtailing Bagnold's excess of expression. The result was marvellously successful.

Here is a scene from the movie - it is a scene near the beginning in which the mysterious Miss Madrigal is applying for the job of governess to Laurel.  I think I may just have to rent the movie and watch it through again.  After I read the play.