I haven’t told Harriet that I’m doing this, and I’m hoping she won’t mind, but I’m going to write about her (auto)biography Being George Devine’s Daughter because – well, it’s simply too good not to. Harriet very kindly gave me a copy of her book a few months ago, and (my tbr pile being what it is) I only got around to it the other day. I’m not often in a I-must-read-non-fiction sort of mood, but when I am, nothing else will suffice.
To those of us in the blogging world, Harriet is probably best known as writer of this blog, but to those with more knowledge of theatrical history than I, she is the daughter of manager, director, and actor George Devine. And that ‘(auto)biography’ label I used earlier was intended to convey that the book is about both the Devines, falling into neither camp. Being completely honest, I hadn’t heard of George Devine in any but the vaguest of ways before I ‘met’ Harriet in the blogosphere – so perhaps I approached Being George Devine’s Daughter in a different way from most of its potential audience. (And I’m going to call the author ‘Harriet’ throughout this, because it feels too odd to use just the author’s surname, as I normally would in a review). But I had definitely heard of lots of other folk mentioned in the book – without being remotely name-droppy, Harriet seems to have met just about every notable theatrical personality – she is Peggy Ashcroft’s goddaughter, after all. (And she met Leonard Woolf! In the words of teenage fans of American TV shows throughout the world, squeeeee!) For someone like me, who had a very happy but uneventful childhood, and whose nearest connection to fame was a distant ancestor had been dressmaker to royalty, this all seems incredible: Harriet, naturally, takes it in her stride. Don’t our childhoods always seem normal, to each one of us? I think it must be very strange, for instance, to grow up without a twin – and never know how to answer the question “How does it feel to have a twin brother?” But enough about me.
Being George Devine’s Daughter starts with a series of letters written between Harriet’s parents, George and Sophie, during Harriet’s first years. George was away at war in India, and didn’t meet his daughter until she was a toddler. The recent (when the book was published, in 2006) discovery of these letters seems to have prompted Harriet’s book – which follows a more-or-less chronological structure, looking at her parents’ relationship and her own life. An only child, the line between these aspects is necessarily not as demarcated as it would be for those of us with siblings. Her world is her parents’ world, in and out of the theatre – and she picks up on the emotional nuances of their relationship to a greater extent than most children would. And, not insignificantly, a discovery of Harriet’s plays a pivotal role in the house dynamics.
That sort of line sounds like I’m describing the plot of a novel, doesn’t it? I’ve never studied biography as an academic subject, still less as a biographer, but my experience of them leads me to suggest that the most successful biographies could equally be novels. That is to say, they are interesting in and of themselves. It must be tempting, writing about oneself and one’s family, to have all sorts of references to jokes the reader won’t understand, or people who are relevant for one story but never again. Harriet doesn’t do this – there is nothing here that would be edited out if the book were fiction; it all comes together to form a structured narrative whole. Throughout it all, Harriet’s tone is beautifully honest and thoughtful, without being unduly introspective or (conversely) coolly detached. It is the perfect tone for autobiography, I think – one seen later in Emma Smith’s The Great Western Beach, though without Smith’s deliberate naivety. Events are not callously laid out, but instead are considered; turned this way and that; reconsidered. Yet they also form a story rather than an analyst’s discussion.
We follow Harriet’s life as she tries to determine which path to take, which career to choose, and with which men to become besotted(!) There are dead ends, surprising developments, happy and unhappy accidents. There are (as in all lives) far too many stories and angles for me to even attempt to cover them all. So many have stayed in my mind – running away from school to attend the theatre; the house by the river; the laundry-van… The book does have a chronological structure (with occasional hints of what is to come, or skips backwards to fill in gaps) but there is an anecdotal feel to it all. As such, the passage I’ve chosen is one which is generally representative rather than especially significant. It’s this sort of inventive ingenuousness which threads through much of the book, and is a joy to read:
One day she and I devised a game that proved to be surprisingly successful. We got some empty bottles with good corks, and we painstakingly wrote out messages, which we put inside, sealed up, and cast into the river. The messages began like this:
We are two ladies in distress
9, Lower Mall (Hammersmith, London, W6) is our address.
With our tutor harsh and cruel
Our lovers dear did fight a duel…
The gist of the whole thing was that we were waiting to be rescued, but I’m not sure how seriously we believed that anything would ever come of it. Imagine our surprise when one day, well over a year later, a letter came from Belgium with a finely poetic reply. A covering letter explained that our bottle had been found by an old fisherman who had taken it to his local village schoolmaster for a translation. Intrigued, the schoolmaster had sent the response. Even better, some months later I was as usual hanging over the balcony watching the passers-by when a dapper, foreign-looking young man came by and accosted me: on investigation he proved to be the very schoolmaster who had written the letter, on holiday in London and curious to see the writers of the appealing poem. He came in for a cup of tea, but whether he had been expecting a real damsel in distress or not we never found out.
It’s always a bit nerve-wracking when a friend recommends a book, in case you don’t like it. It’s even scarier a prospect when the friend has written the book, but I was always fairly confident that I needn’t be worried. And I was right. Being George Devine’s Daughter is one of the best biographies or autobiographies I’ve ever read, and up in the top ten books of any variety that I’ve read this year. My only criticism is (despite great design by Harriet’s daughter Sophie, and lots of great photographs throughout) I think this book deserves a fancier edition and printing. For an honest, moving, and thoughtful account of an immensely varied life – you can do no better. Thank you, Harriet!
Books to get Stuck into:
White Cargo – Felicity Kendal: another daughter writing about her father, and also from a theatrical background – a very moving and well-written book.
The Great Western Beach – Emma Smith: surely a modern classic of autobiographical writing, and the antidote to misery lit.