When John Osborne was very young, his maternal grandfather, flushed with port, used to predict that young John would become either the Prime Minister of England or the next George Bernard Shaw. Whether there could ever be a second Shaw is perhaps a question for debate at literary cocktail parties, but John Osborne has come much closer to the second possibility than the first. It must be admitted that from most of the details and incidents of this autobiography, it would be difficult to see what the grandfather based either prediction upon; though the book is entertaining and immensely fascinating, it does in fact tell little directly about the making of a playwright. Partly this is so because the book only covers Osborne’s life from his birth in 1929 to the acceptance for production of Look Back in Anger in 1955.
Only toward the end of A Better Class of Person, as the opening night of Look Back in Anger approaches, is the reader more than occasionally reminded that this is the autobiography of a “famous” person. One may initially be attracted to the book because it is by John Osborne, now a famous playwright and the leader (however unwillingly) of that group of British writers known as the Angry Young Men, but it is the main virtue of this work that it can stand on its own as a record of a portion of a human life. It would seem to be a practical test of the essential quality of any autobiography if one comes to accept it on its own terms and not simply because it deals with someone who has achieved fame or notoriety. A Better Class of Person passes this test with distinction.
The only surviving child (his sister had died when he was two) of parents forever teetering on the edge of the lower-middle class, John Osborne was born in 1929. As a child, he was sensitive and frequently ill; his attendance at a succession of state schools was sporadic. The family moved often, both before and after his father’s death at the beginning of World War II. Additionally, Osborne and his parents were surrounded by numerous relatives from both sides of the family, many of whom lived to great ages. In 1942 he contracted rheumatic fever, spent some nine months recuperating at home, and then was sent to a convalescent home for boys in Dorset, the necessary fees and arrangements being taken care of by the Benevolent Society to which his father had belonged. He was sent, again through the offices of the Society, to St. Michael’s boarding school in Devon in the summer of 1943, where he participated in amateur theatricals and compulsory boxing. His formal schooling ended in 1945 when he was sent down from St. Michael’s for responding to the Headmaster’s slap across the face with a wild right of his own to the Headmaster’s nose.
The Benevolent Society, its benevolence somewhat taxed, then arranged for three months of rudimentary shorthand and typing instruction and suggested that journalism should be his career. After a bout with a burst appendix and peritonitis, he found a job as a reporter for the technical journal Gas World. He moved on to Nursery World, then to Miller, became engaged, was rejected for national service, joined an amateur dramatic society, and broke the engagement. His dramatic career proper may be said to have begun when he somehow acquired a position in a third-rate theatrical company taking a play entitled No Room at the Inn on a six-month tour of the provinces. He was the assistant stage manager, understudy to the five men of the company, and tutor to the children in the company. The next years, until 1956, were monotonous rounds of stage-managing for various small companies, playing small parts, attempting to write plays, and filling in the periods when at leisure with table-waiting, dishwashing, working at the Post Office at Christmas time, and the dole. Over these same years he was introduced to sex and the principles of commercial play construction by an actress, Stella Linden, acquired his first wife, Pamela Lane, and saw his first play, The Devil Inside, produced for a week’s run at the Theatre Royal, Huddersfield.
The first half of this work is largely devoted to Osborne’s family: his parents, grandparents, aunts, and uncles. There were many of these, Osbornes on his father’s side and Groves on his mother’s. His was clearly not a happy childhood; he complains that throughout it no adult ever addressed a question to him. Deprived of anything resembling affection, he made do with the popular magazines and books of the day and with the cinema. His father, a copywriter who was frequently ill and often lived apart from his wife (for reasons Osborne does not know), was a likable figure for the young Osborne, but he died while Osborne was still a child, and his portrait in these pages is pleasant but dim. Osborne’s mother, however, dominates here, and letters to her son are sprinkled throughout the book. She was a “victualler’s assistant”—her term for a barmaid—easily irritated and passionately fond of cleaning and moving house. She had little time for or interest in her son, yet they were thrown together upon each other’s resources more than was good for either. As he says, she remained largely incurious about him, and his dominant impression of her in his earliest days was of her “Black Looks.” In the jumble of quotations from his notebooks and from her letters which ends the book, he says “I am ashamed of her as part of myself...