Who first told me about Auntie Mame (1955)? A quick search through blog comments suggests that Vicki from Bibliolathas recommended her when I wrote about Abbie by Dane Chandos, but I already owned the book before that, so… who knows? Anyway, many thanks to whoever it was. Some years later, I took it off to America with me, and finished it on the ‘plane on the way back.
The narrator, like the author, is called Patrick Dennis – but it’s not entirely clear how autobiographical this novel is (indeed, it is the matter of much debate in the afterword by Matteo Codignola in the Penguin edition I have). It’s not even clear if it’s a novel or a series of short stories (more on that in the afterword too) – but what is clear is that Auntie Mame features the larger-than-life lady in question and her nephew going through various escapades over the course of many years.
We meet Mame when she takes in the young, recently orphaned, Patrick, against the better judgement of the staid Mr Babcock, who looks after Patrick’s finances. She is dressed in Japanese garb (she is always in garb of some variety; later she wishes to be thought Spaniard), hosting a party, and ushers impressionable Patrick into her socialite lifestyle. She is keen to educate him…
“My dear, a rich vocabulary is the true hallmark of every intellectual person. How now” – she burrowed into the mess on her bedside table and brought forth another pad and pencil – “every time I say a word, or you hear a word, that you don’t understand, you write it down and I’ll tell you what it means. Then you memorize it and soon you’ll have a decent vocabulary. Oh, the adventure,” she cried ecstatically, “of moulding a little new life!” She made another sweeping gesture that somehow went wrong because she knocked over the coffee pot and I immediately wrote down six new words which Auntie Mame said to scratch out and forget about.
You get a feel for the sort of thing. Mame is an irrepressible delight, and – as the novel progresses – we see Patrick both fond of and embarrassed by her. She gatecrashes his college ball; she looks after swathes of unpleasant evacuees; she becomes the unlikely nemesis of the horse-riding set. In one memorable episode, she launches into an anti-anti-Semitic tirade (an entirely admirable one – albeit one which changes the tone of the book quite suddenly). Each event is neatly tied up and self-contained, without any characters really changing – except in age and marital situation.
Each chapter also begins with the narrator-Patrick comparing Auntie Mame to the ‘Unforgettable Character’ of some hagoigraphic newspaper article. Every trait exemplified by this worthy woman is mirrored also, it seems, by Auntie Mame – mostly in an exaggerated and individual manner. This device for linking together unrelated stories isn’t, to my mind, entirely successful; although the afterword praises it for surmounting the difficulties of disparate tales, I think it just felt a bit forced and fake. It didn’t stop me enjoying Auntie Mame, but I’ve had enjoyed the book more without this touch.
But I still really liked Auntie Mame. Any novel about an eccentric spinster is likely to get a thumbs up from me. Perhaps she hasn’t joined Abbie and Miss Hargreaves and Patricia Brent (if one can really use the term ‘spinster’ about her) on the top tier, but it was a jolly fun read nonetheless.
Oh, and while I remember – I’ve figured out how to add those ‘like’ buttons to the bottom of posts! Of course, a comment is always best, but I thought it couldn’t hurt.