The Pram in the Hall – Enid Bagnold Writer and Mother

gaudier-brzeskaA talk I gave recently at the October Gallery – The annual Persephone Lecture

I have never thought it a particular advantage to know the person you are writing about. You will have known them at a particular time or in a particular role. Above all, for a child to write about a parent seems to me a recipe for disaster – unless you state from the outset this is a very one sided memoir. Children are often the least useful witnesses a biographer can find. Yet, try as we might to be objective, I think biographers too should plead guilty to subjectivity, to seeing their subject through a particular prism. Perhaps they lived in the same village, studied at the same college but in particular I believe that what we really cannot shed is the age we are at time of writing. However much I think I can imagine a particular emotion, or I am sure that I know what a particular experience must have felt like, I want to take this opportunity – openly and unequivocally – to admit my failure. Only now, having hit 60 myself and living through an age-obsessed time when the secret of eternal youth is promised from many quarters, do I really understand what Enid Bagnold – not exactly a vain woman but one who cared about her looks – meant when she wrote that one of the few counterbalancing factors for the pain of growing old was that, thanks to fading eyesight, she couldn’t really see all those wrinkles and grey hairs that worried her so much in anticipation – (although true to her novelist’s calling, exaggerating to make her point – she is not being wholly truthful even here as of course magnifying mirrors were around in the 1980’s.) But I can now at least understand why she wanted to have a face lift (and how radical was that in the 1970’s) and I admire her honesty and truthfulness about discussing this far more today than I could possibly have 30 years ago.

And here she is as Gaudier Brzeska saw her on the eve of WW One

So, I am immensely grateful to Persephone for giving me this second chance to look at Bagnold thirty years on. And of course to Faber Finds for republishing my biography. I’m relieved to say I haven’t found a different person or a different story. But the focus, if I were writing the book today, might be slightly sharper here or hazier there. The emphasis on different aspects of her life might be weightier here and pruned there. Actually I don’t think it would be a better book (I would say that wouldn’t I?) But I now understand in a wholly empathetic way why, in her 60’s and 70’s, she was still burning with ambition to write a successful play. I remember, with shame, a feeling in my 20’s that when I reached 60 I’d be happy to stay at home quietly knitting whereas in fact my desire to travel, to meet people, to achieve and to experience life is not only unabated it is in some ways greater as I am acutely aware of the limited time left and…and I can see why it risks appearing frankly unbecoming in someone of my years just as it did for Enid.

No, I think, or at least hope, that writing the biography of EB in my late 20’s gave me a youthful enthusiasm which suited my subject and gave me a perspective on her young days and early married life I might not have had now. I was rooting for her when the boyfriend didn’t work out (after all it wasn#39;t so far away for me that I could still remember those rejections, sharp longings and early fumblings) but most of all I deeply identified…and I say this fully aware of strictures by that great biographer Richard Holmes that self-identity with one’s subject is the first crime of a biographer…with her passionate desire to have babies and having had them to have more of them and then to be the best mother there had ever been. I understood the passionate and oh so unexpected flood of love when her first golden-haired child arrived – love neither she, nor I, knew we possessed. And then she found it a second time for her equally beautiful son – just as I was to do. My pigeon pair as I learned. The Squire, her truly great novel not just about motherhood but about what she believed it meant to be a woman, springs from that deep well of unconditional love. Enid wanted to go on and on, bringing up such treasures.

The Clifford Sisters for Femail Writer Enid Bagnold picturedSo let’s go back a bit. Who was Enid Bagnold? In her own sparkling and idiosyncratic autobiography (entitled I am tempted to say with no artifice but of course there was artifice aplenty) ‘Enid Bagnold’s autobiography’, published in 1969, she writes that she was driven to explore family history because of her fascination that “sperm had been shot across two centuries to arrive at me”. Such an earthy – and original – simile was typical of her writing (she once described her own prose as ‘beautiful vomit’) but what she is also revealing is an intense fascination with herself. Not unusual for ‘a born writer!’ as she called herself. When I came to research her biography I found all her notebooks and scrapbooks were embellished with directions/ guidance for a putative biographer – me! Pictures of the Franco-Romanian princes, Antoine and Emmanuel Bibesco, for example, princes who had been close friends of Proust, were annotated with helpful comments like ‘this is the brother who committed suicide’ or ‘here we are visiting a church together’!

But Antoine Bibesco, the man she always adored, was never going to marry the plump and rather jolly Miss Enid Bagnold, daughter of Colonel Arthur Bagnold, a man who was as much engineer as soldier, and the former Miss Ethel Alger. They were, as her parents regularly reminded her, gentlefolk, and had been for generations. Enid was constantly testing her parents either by her requests to paint nude models when she studied with Sickert (turned down) or her request to visit the old roué journalist Frank Harris, her editor as well as lover, when he was in Brixton prison – agreed to “because people of breeding do not abandon a friend in need,” her father told her.

Prince Antoine married Elizabeth Asquith, daughter of the former prime minister, and Enid had to get over it. It was, as she understood, a dynastic match, and in the event not a happy one. At the outset of world war one, Enid trained as a VAD nurse and, after working in a grim hospital catering for the war wounded, turned her experiences into a blistering book, Diary Without Dates, that by bringing her fame and praise from HG Wells – but loathing from Virginia Woolf, who despised the pushy Bagnold girl – almost made up for not winning Antoine. Fame was something she craved ever since winning a poetry competition at her avant garde school, Priorsfield run by the Huxley family, and, recognising how sweet was its taste. She never gave up that search. She needed fame throughout her life – ‘the murmur of delight so madly wanted’ – not only for its own sake but to prove to Antoine how she had triumphed in life. Just as the Great War was ending she drove an ambulance in France – (Antoine had told her this would be an ‘awfully chicque’ (sic) thing to do) – fell briefly in love with a married man and came home to a social scene she felt she was getting too old for.

Knowing that everything she experienced in life was copy…or the stuff of novels…she wrote a book about those experiences called ‘The Happy Foreigner.’ It did not quite make the transition from fact to fiction, perhaps something she never quite mastered, and it did not bring her the success of the previous book.

So she settled in 1920, nudging 31, for marriage to Sir Roderick Jones, chairman and chief executive of Reuters news agency and that was my link into the story. All biographers crave some link that makes them not just an adoring fan – (although I was that, having loved National Velvet as a child who went riding almost every weekend) – and not just a vulture either. I had begun my working life at Reuters and knew that although Jones was deeply unpopular in the company – mostly because of his arrogant, dictatorial ways – there was a rich personal archive held at 85, Fleet Street where I had been a terrified young foreign correspondent not so long ago.

In Roderick, Enid found a dapper little man with a title – although she always maintained that ‘Lady Jones’ was a ghastly name I don’t quite believe her any more on that one – which gave her some social standing through his position as Head of Reuters. But above all she acquired security and respectability and, well if not passion, then a feeling that she was loved. Roderick had made her a business-like proposition from the start. “Marry me and you will have a better opportunity for self- development than you will with many men.” For his part he clearly enjoyed the intellectual lustre if not the slight raffishness that Enid, being his wife, gave him. Throughout their married life she wrote him wonderful letters. He may have been demanding but he was her anchor in a storm, her central pivot, a large sturdy tree under whose branches she sheltered. She knew she could rely on him. Even when their situations were reversed after he had been forcibly retired and she was the breadwinner, she made him feel HE was the important one. It was love of a kind, but passionate love? I don’t think so although somehow the marriage, with its complicated sex life, survived. When I started researching my biography and met Timothy, her golden boy who lost a leg at Anzio, one of the first ‘facts’ he told me was that his parents always had separate bedrooms,…(Yes, I know I said children are the least reliable sources especially when it comes to explaining about their parents’ sex lives.) “My mother was of the generation that believed sex was a matter of ‘lie back and think of England,’ he explained to me at our first meeting, clearly worried I would not quite understand that it was possible never to share a bedroom with a husband yet produce 4 children!

“She kept a tin of biscuits by the bed,” he added, perhaps to give added veracity to his story. For what Enid adored more than the act itself was the result.

The pram in the hall.

However, as Roderick had a healthy appetite for sex , often with attractive younger women, Enid found herself required to make up a foursome on occasions, once notably with a handsome young Reuter bureau chief who was rather at a loss to know what was the correct behaviour on such a bizarre occasion – I think one of the most difficult interviews for my biography was with the surviving elderly wife of this particular bureau chief to ask her if she knew anything about her husband’s feelings towards his boss’ wife. I can still remember the stony silence that greeted my inept questioning. Later in life, Enid enjoyed the company of a ‘walker,’ often a gay man with whom she would not be required to have sex.

Perhaps her loss of virginity to Frank Harris, the man with whom she “went through the gateway to life in an upper room in the Café Royal,&#34; as she elegantly and memorably put it in her memoir, had ruined the idea of sex for her. He may have been an experienced lover but he was also an experienced liar and cheat. It was a rite of passage. Now she was ‘promoted from corporal to sergeant’, she wrote of how she felt the day it happened. But it was hardly romantic. Nowhere does she ever speak of the affair as fulfilling or one of mutual love , and passion. The best she can come up with is to describe Harris many years later as ‘a man who made sin seem glorious.’

I think Enid did have one other grand passion in addition to Antoine and fame – she fell in love with her gynecologist, Dr Harold Waller. But that too was, I believe, an idealized love – although he may have been the ideal man for her – after all he was the man who gave her what mattered most in her life – her motherhood. I think the years between 31, after she married, and her early 40’s were in many ways her happiest. They were fertile in every sense and deeply creative. And she was no longer searching for a husband. She settled for the comfort of love not the romance, believing you could not have both together, and became a dreadful show off about being a mother. As she wrote to Marthe Bibesco (Antoine’s cousin by marriage) on the eve of Dominick’s birth in 1930 “you do not know what it is fully to be a woman until you have had at least 3 children and I am having four.” She’d be roasted alive today for that sort of politically incorrect boasting. And in fact she made a number of enemies even then, often speaking her mind without reflection on a number of topics, not just pregnancy and motherhood.

For she was, as the comment above makes clear, very pleased with her life and the same day that Dominick was born her children’s book – Alice and Thomas and Jane – rooted in experience like everything she ever wrote – was published. It was a charming picture book recreating the Jones’s family life with some humour and exaggeration but full of cooks, governesses and nurses as well as ‘Fortnum jerseys’ – details which make it unacceptable today. The illustrations were by Enid together with some by 9 year old Laurian, which made her mother especially proud. She half hoped that Laurian might become a talented artist and, until the child was seven, decided she should have no formal education but just visit art galleries and attend drawing classes. Enid’s views on child rearing were eccentric and highly advanced in some ways such as her loud insistence on breastfeeding and including children in adult conversations – but in other ways curiously Spartan and old fashioned such as believing it was good for them to swim in freezing cold water and to sleep outdoors. Strangest of all, she fostered something called ‘Yearning Toys’…toys that were put on an impossibly high shelf to be looked at during meal times and longed for “so as to give them unsatisfied desires.”

Where on earth did that come from?

These ideas made Enid rather famous as an expert on child welfare with a growing reputation. She was inspired by Harold Waller to do whatever he advised and in this way became a tireless supporter of ‘the Babies’ Club’ which he set up in Chelsea. It was, according to a newspaper on the day it opened, ‘a west end club to teach rich mothers east end wisdom’ and Lady Jones became its best known spokeswoman. Harold Waller reprimanded Enid for publicity seeking but they made up, for he needed her financial support almost as much as she needed his emotional support and admiration since thinking about babies and children was occupying Enid at this time above all else.

The Squire represented the distillation of 15 years of motherhood and of marriage to Roderick. It was, though, more homage to Dr Waller than to her husband. She had been making notes of her experiences, thoughts and reactions to childbirth for some time and believed that a novel on this topic had never been tackled in the way she intended to tackle it. She had trained as an artist, still had an artist’s eye and saw it as a still life of motherhood.

But she had been side tracked by another novel also based on Jones’s family life which had come out in 1935 and been phenomenally successful; National Velvet. By 1937 she was ready to return to The Squire, as she was determined to call this new book in spite of fierce arguments with her publishers who never liked the androgynous title and wanted something softer, more sentimental such as The Door of Life or Squire Martha. But Enid refused to allow the squire to be named, wanting something more universal. Her success with National Velvet (although it had not yet become the film which catapulted the gorgeous 12 year-old Elizabeth Taylor to fame) strengthened her hand and so The Squire was what it became.

The story, if something so plotless can be called that, centres around a small tightly knit circle of women, what she called ‘the English harem’. It was paradoxically a masculine sort of portrait where men were purposely eliminated because Enid had seen clearly “that all the day of a woman’s busy family life was made up by herself alone, herself as ruler.” The idea that motherhood gave her a moral authority was deeply felt and a theme she was to return to in her later play, the Chalk Garden. Just as in that play, the husband is absent, off stage throughout the action. This time in the earlier version, he is away on a business trip and the squire is ‘a rich, strong fertile woman with a large domain to rule.’ She provides the house with its pulsating vigour, she is the centre of life with a determination and energy that Enid herself exuded. She described the mother as ‘one of those old stable archways with a clock ticking life away in the summit of the arch through which life and her children flow…perhaps like an arch over a river. I can get no nearer than that.’

The Clifford Sisters for Femail Writer Enid Bagnold picturedShe knew not all women felt about babies as she did and she tackled this theme by introducing her close friend Caroline, a portrait of her aristocratic friend, Cynthia Asquith. Beautiful Caroline is restless thinking only of her lover in Paris. The Squire listens patiently to her problems “with her lover on her lap. The complications of love seemed to her indescribably stale, the baby much fresher. She herself felt like a woman who is old and free.” Enid told Cynthia it was she who had provided the spark for the book when she had told Enid one day ‘I couldn’t do without love by which you meant in love and from that sentence, which I never forgot for it rang a bell in me, I evolved the love woman in the squire. They provided the contrast. She thinks I am a woman, pondered the Squire, fit to listen to love. But I am a mother and I have a contempt and a weariness of such childish things.’

But the key figure in this English harem is not actually Caroline but the midwife based on Ethel Raynham Smith, the other half of Harold Waller’s team. Raynham Smith, a tiny birdlike woman, believed that motherhood was a perfectible science and, more dangerously, had high ideals about the creation of a greater, more healthy race. Enid was putty in her hands.

Enid became pregnant for the last time, aged 40, when Roderick was at the height of his affair with 19 year- old Mary Lutyens, daughter of the architect. Mary, still vibrantly alive when I was writing the biography, told me how shocked she had been to discover this. Roderick tried to console her with ‘my dear little girl,’ which almost made things worse. And doubtless he had tried to console Enid with this last pregnancy or ‘reconciliation baby’ as so many couples called them. During several memorable interviews I had with the delightful Mary she also revealed how when she told Roderick she was engaged he insisted on a return of the love letters between them and she found to her horror that her grammar had been corrected with a red pen.

One thing I could not understand as a newly married mother with my two young babies in love with life and my husband, was how Enid put up with her husband’s constant philandering. I shall not name names here – when I did in my biography it landed me with a libel suit. But Roderick needed a regular supply of attractive young girls and would invite them down for weekends at Rottingdean. The children – again perhaps not reliable witnesses as to the emotions – were only too aware at a certain level of what was going on. The young ladies were put up in the night nursery, which led directly by a balcony to Roderick’s bedroom. They called these young ladies invited to stay in front of their mother – “Daddy’s little bits.”

As part of my research, I turned to Lady Diana Cooper, a woman who also had much to put up with in the philandering department and who became Enid’s closest friend, for an explanation. Enid was mesmerised by Diana’s beauty and was to write a fine novel about her, The Loved and Envied, but how did Enid put up with this when it so obviously hurt?

“Oh Anne,” she said fixing me with those penetrating blue eyes, “you really don’t understand, do you? It’s so common to mind.” Of course, Enid did mind but I think she sublimated that pain in the knowledge that she was the one who provided the beating heart of the household. Her rebuttal to Caroline is also a rebuttal to Roderick. His amours were trivial. What she did was what gave life substance.

The practicalities of how Enid and Roderick created four children I was to discover through the Reuter archive. They sent each other notes making assignations for a particular time of day or night which Roderick – who may have been out for the evening with whomever was his latest girlfriend – would find pushed under his bedroom door. These pencil written, often scribbled notes on whatever scrap of paper was to hand were preserved, bizarrely, in the Reuter Archive. ‘Wouldn’t it be lovely to have another pram in the hallway,’ Enid wrote to her husband once, only too aware of the weight in that sentence. ‘Please come in to my room early tomorrow morning’. Cyril Connolly, who coined the pram in hallway phrase in his Enemies of Promise, was a friend. Antoine, now also only a friend and aware of the talent he thought she was squandering, reinforced the message. But as both of these men should have known, since they themselves were not immune to displacement activities, there were many other enemies of promise in addition to prams.

I found dozens of romantic billets doux -not all to do with making arrangements for intercourse – like the note scribbled from Fortnum’s and delivered to 85 Fleet Street by private messenger as she was buying a wedding present for someone else. The act reminded her of their early courtship and devotion to each other.

Today such a message would be an SMS, lost to posterity…but that’s another story.

So my conclusion today is not only that she clearly loved Roderick, who gave her what she wanted – strong, sturdy, independent-minded children – but that he took the edge off her worries and fears and insecurities. I don’t believe that Enid as a starving writer in a garret, would have necessarily been any more successful or productive. Perhaps motherhood both unleashed her creativity yet at the same time denied her time, because of course it did that. By the way, Enid did in fact work in something of a garret or at least a tower. Irene Selznick, the powerful American theatre producer, was very funny about its Spartan aspect years later. It felt freezing cold to anyone who went in but Enid herself had a secret heated pad. But she invented some useful rules for working in her tower, which I have copied. Stick to a routine, always go into your study every day and do something there that you can call work. Nowadays we’d call that doing emails or social networking but in pre-internet days it was harder. And never leave your work at the end of a chapter or even paragraph. Leave it in mid thought so you can pick up where you were easily the next day. They are rules I have tried to follow as I too have tried to balance writing with motherhood, as so many of us today have and still do.

For the debate is more topical than ever. In fact it burst open only a few months ago in an especially virulent form with a book written by an American, Lauren Sandler, who advocated female writers sticking to one child only. Did that unleash the heavens! Zadie Smith and Jane Smiley, among others, riposted that, on a practical level, having more than one child allowed them to entertain each other but on a philosophical level why was the number of children a problem just for women? The idea that motherhood was inherently somehow a threat to creativity was just absurd. Why did no one ever comment that Dickens for example had ten children? What IS a threat to all women’s freedoms, they argued, is the issue of time, which is the same problem whether you are a writer, factory worker or nurse. “We need decent public day care services, partners who do their share, affordable childcare and/or a supportive community of friends and family,” Smith wrote.

Of course, being a mother eats into the time available even if you have nannies and housekeepers, as Enid did. But more than that; being a mother fills your head, it takes up thinking time, worrying time, let alone active time taking them riding and for extra-curricular lessons, which Enid also did. Enid cared desperately about what sort of children she created, she was intensely proud of all her children; she cared what they thought of her and what they became. She shared their triumphs and disasters. Yet being a writer demands concentration and focus and can be obsessive. So of course there is a clash. Enid semi solved it by writing about family life; family life, children and motherhood, which she found deeply fascinating as long as it was her own, and which gave her her topics and, since she was always an autobiographical writer, arguably threw her a life line. Without children would she have written more books or plays? Did she really care about quantity? I think quality mattered more to her both in her writing output and in her children.

There is, however, one part of the story as told by me thirty years ago that I would be grateful for an opportunity to put right and that was her intensely close, although often frustrating, relationship with her third child, Richard Jones. Richard, tall and handsome, is Boniface in The Squire. He was born with a learning disorder that fell almost entirely on Enid’s plate to master or live with and she was not going to hide him away, ever. In The Squire Boniface is erratic, intense, single minded. He was “red of face asking no help intent upon some inner life which would not swim up into his difficult speech…inarticulate, eccentric living like a mole in his world, putting into dangerous execution plans for which no one had the key.” How clearly Enid understood him and I have no doubt that today, trying to solve Richard’s troubled life would have provided her with more than enough material for a painfully honest and factual book. The archive was bulging with letters to doctors and educational specialists trying to find a way forward for this beloved child. Worrying about Richard ate into her brain, her emotions and time. And since he did manage to lead an independent life even after his mother died it would only be fair to say she succeeded in doing the best that she could for him at the time. But the family were very protective and I was told by them and others that if I referred to the struggles Enid had trying to discover what was wrong with Richard, or referred in detail to ‘a learning disability’ I would destroy the life Richard had made for himself. For his sake I had to compromise and yet I know only too well that as a biographer I was failing her. Of course for those who knew Richard the story is there and actually almost all biographers if they are writing about someone whose relatives or lovers are still alive need to make some sort of compromise…but still, I knew how this worry had consumed a part of the pleasure of any success she had. I am pleased to be able to acknowledge that now.

And then there is the pleasure of becoming a grandparent, so important for Enid that it provided the inspiration for her best and best known play, The Chalk Garden. This play revived recently by the Donmar to huge acclaim, makes clear that Enid saw herself living in a matriarchy in which men played secondary roles.

Of course I was aware of the seed for the idea but I never understood at a deep emotional level – which I like to think I do now – of the profound joy she derived from seeing the continuation of her line…we’re back to the phrase I quoted at the beginning ‘sperm through the centuries.’ Knowing she had grandchildren rooted her in the future, she cared what her grandchildren thought of her, she dedicated her autobiography to two of them, Annabel and Hattie. So, as I look back I would probably write not more about her old age but more about the struggle she had to balance writing with every part of home life, not just being a mother. And here Roderick was not helpful. She needed a 21st century husband who unloads the dishwasher takes children to ballet classes and is really involved in thinking about their upbringing.

Today, a psychiatrist would doubtless have much to say on the subject of Roderick clearly feeling excluded from this domestic world where all the decisions were taken by women. Enid believed (although she may never have actually used the words) that motherhood gave her a moral authority denied to men.

Age and experience have helped me better understand that about her.

But am I any further along the road of answering the question: writer or mother? Was she a better mother because she was a writer – it gave her a focus and satisfaction – or a better writer because she was a mother? She left one vital clue in a letter she wrote to her mother on her honeymoon:

“Here, where I’m only a bride it’s a joy to remember there’s a country, where I am occasionally something else.” Substitute bride for mother and you may have an answer. Or you may conclude (like me) that some questions just don’t have an answer.


Contents embargoed until November 28th 2013


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