If you’ve read my blog for a while, you’ll have heard the words Miss Hargreaves more than you would have believed possible. (And yet people still call it Mrs Hargreaves! I need to work harder.) It’s perhaps my favourite novel, and I’ve read it many times since I was introduced to it in 2003 or thereabouts. And since 2004, I’ve had Frank Baker’s autobiography waiting on my shelves – so when I saw it was published in 1968, I knew that it was finally time to read it.
So, why has it taken me thirteen years to read I Follow But Myself? Partly – as I explained on the latest episode of our ‘Tea or Books?’ podcast – because I save up books I’m excited about reading until The Perfect Moment. Partly because my love of Frank Baker hasn’t fared brilliantly outside of Miss Hargreaves – I’ve read three or four other books by him, and they’ve not been very good. My worry was that I Follow But Myself would follow that trend. So, essentially, I’d built it up into quite a behemoth of a reading experience even before I opened the first page.
Baker organises his autobiography in quite an unusual fashion – told through portraits of nine people who were important in his life. These are mostly people who were not noted outside of the lives of those who knew them, but it does include a couple of famous names – Edward Garnett and Arthur Machen. But the best chapter is certainly, to my my mind, the one where he writes about Amy Carr – an old, kind, helpless lady he knew, forever anxious about others, besotted with Shakespeare, writing poor poetry, and in turmoil over whether or not she could believe in God. His portrait of her is affectionate and true, showing an intimate friendship, and its waning – through to her sad end in increasingly small rented rooms, and her death. It is a beautiful, poignant chapter – and the book is worth the read just for this handful of pages.
Amy Carr unfailingly gave me courage when I most needed it; she made me see the intrinsic value of such uncelebrated lives as hers; she was a pure artist who kept her vision; she was the pure in heart. And if, at the end, above the Atlantic Ocean, falling and restlessly swaying beyond the Cassiterides, she was not given the Light of the Glory of God, then life does not makes sense and our eyes were given us for nothing. But I will believe that she was thus rewarded.
Whoo. *Wipes eyes* *Continues*.
As a thread through these portraits, we also see Baker’s life and career – at least at first. This trajectory becomes a bit looser as the book continues, and it’s perhaps not a coincidence that the strongest chapters are towards the beginning. And I had to jot down this description of Alfred Rose (topic of the third section, and somebody Baker knew through his religious education):
Looked like the Devil… yes; he did. His big bent nose flared to sensuous nostrils, like the nostrils of one of the darker people in Michelangelo’s Last Judgment; a quiff of greying black hair sprang up, Mephistophelean fashion, from his balding pate; hair coiled over his knuckles; his lips were tight and thin, the upper jaw prominent; his black and grey morning clothes with the shining polished black shoes were like a Civil Service camouflage, concealing hooves and little black batlike wings. I often imagined I could see Dionysiac horns prodding out from just behind his ears, which were large. But the most satanic thing about him was his voice: deep and soft, with an insidious sibilance, the unmistakable serpent song. And perhaps it was this which really charmed, for I never liked his appearance, yet charmed I certainly was.
This is not very like Miss Hargreaves, but it is similar to much of his other fiction – though stronger and more successful, somehow, in non-fiction. It gives you a taste of his writing style – whirling, seeing beyond the obvious, slightly obfuscatory. Curiously, for the autobiography of a writer, he never feels quite at ease writing about his writing. He was an actor during WW2, touring with Sybil Thorndike amongst others, and seems much more comfortable writing about this stage – but when it comes to his novels, he only really writes about the first one. I haven’t read The Twisted Tree, though I have it on my shelf (mais naturallement), and we see quite a lot of his drafting and re-drafting it – and one of the most successful chapters is the one focused on Edward Garnett, already famous as a writer and editor who had brought D.H. Lawrence to prominence. Mutual friends had invited Garnett and Baker to stay, and it was important that Baker didn’t let on his own writing ambitions – wanting a friendship to develop naturally, so that Garnett wouldn’t feel that he was being taken advantage of. It’s the funniest section, and paints Garnett as the most realistic sort of grotesque.
Otherwise, in terms of his own writing, there is a list of characters (only given because he is discussing Dickens’ influence on him), and the odd mention that he is working on a particular novel. The process of writing Miss Hargreaves is not described; the novel is only mentioned in passing a couple of times, chiefly as a financial success, and he admits that he is sick of it. A shame, for I would have dearly loved any context to its creation.
But it isn’t just Miss Hargreaves who gets very few moments in this book – Baker’s wife and children are scarcely mentioned either. He sometimes dates things by when his marriage took place, and drops in the occasional reference to his children, but he doesn’t describe his courtship or wedding, nor do any of these people seem to be much of a presence in Baker’s life at any point.
Indeed, Baker remains rather an enigma. Sometimes we hear almost uncomfortably personal discussions – he writes a lot about masturbation, unexpectedly, and the guilty it caused him as a teenager; he discusses homosexuality in a way that feels a bit like he is describing his own experiences, but never quite gets there. His views on priests and schoolteachers spending time intimately (though not more than that) with young boys are pretty odd, if not autobiographical. Most unexpectedly, when working as a secretary at a boys’ school, ‘I found myself sacked for a crime I had not only never committed but of whose nature I was totally ignorant. Sodomy’. And then he will turn to another description of somebody he knew, or their way of experiencing the world, and retreats into the shadows.
So, as an autobiography, it is curious – and leaves the reader curious. It was done in exactly the way he wanted it, and not the way anybody else might have asked. He has certainly followed but himself in its crafting. But it is worth it for the chapters on Amy Carr and Edward Garnett alone – I have the feeling I will often return to those. The rest is a bonus.