Enid Bagnold 1889–1981
English dramatist, novelist, autobiographer, and poet.
Although not a major writer, Bagnold's work is considered important for the insights it gives into the lives of the British. Usually affluent and urbane, her characters are examined from both a comic and a serious point of view. Bagnold's play, The Chalk Garden, for instance, contains a portrait of a young girl's painful acceptance of truth that is alternately humorous and somber. Many of Bagnold's later works, including her Autobiography, portray the mixed pleasures of growing old.
A notable exception to Bagnold's stories of the upper class is National Velvet, a novel about a butcher's young daughter whose childhood dream comes true. Made into an inspiring movie, this book is acclaimed for its realistic depiction of family life among the British working class. National Velvet is also an indication that Bagnold's craft is not limited by her subject matter. Witty, entertaining dialogue and sharp observations of life are characteristic of most of her work.
(See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 5-8, rev. ed., Vol. 103 [obituary]; Contemporary Authors New Revision Series, Vol. 5; Something about the Author, Vols. 1, 25; and Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 13.)
The Times Literary Supplement
The devastated areas would strike most people as a singularly unpromising scene in which to place an idyll, yet Miss Enid Bagnold has performed this feat with striking success [in "The Happy Foreigner"]. The very incongruity between the little human romance and gloomy, uncomfortable reality in which it is enshrined is pleasing; and one is not sure whether one admires more the author's skill in keeping the love passage—which is the idyll—light, delicate, and fleeting, though poignant, or the descriptive power and poetic feeling with which the ruins left by war and the workers engaged on clearing them up are represented.
On the whole, we should give our vote for the descriptive power, which never flags….
Miss Bagnold seems to see [the postwar action] with a personal detachment which blends with an intense sympathy for others: for the French who starve their prisoners, as they starve themselves, but will not shoot them: for the Americans who are generous with food and ruthless with rifles: for a Scotsman left with pale Chinamen to tidy a vast cemetery: for conquered Germans, and for all suffering and all courage…. If Miss Bagnold is rather irritatingly fascinated by the fragmentary style, for which we have to thank Miss Dorothy Richardson, her power of getting to the heart of things carries her through. She has a splendid equipment for a novelist.
"New Novels: 'The Happy...
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If Miss Bagnold had chosen that her heroine [in 'The Happy Foreigner'] should lead the most sheltered and protected life that is left for a young woman to endure, we are confident that there would have blossomed within its narrow boundaries flowers as rich and as delicate as those which Fanny gathered on the strange roads of France. For she understands how it is vain to seek adventure unless there is the capacity for adventure within us…. 'The Happy Foreigner' exists for a proof of how she ventured, and to tell how great was her reward. (p. 232)
Fanny, an English girl, goes to France at the end of the war and drives a car for the French Army. She falls in love, but it comes to nothing, and the end might be the beginning. That is all. Who Fanny is, what her life has been up till the moment she is discovered for us 'stretched upon the table of the Y.W.C.A.' in Paris, on her way to Bar-le-Duc, we are not told. She remains from first to last an unknown young woman, secret, folded within herself, a 'happy foreigner.' She is almost without fear; nothing can overwhelm her or cast her down, because it is her nature, and unchangeable, to find in all things a grain of living beauty. We have the feeling that she is, above all, unbroken…. Praise be to Miss Bagnold for giving us a new heroine, a pioneer, who sees, feels, thinks, hears, and yet is herself full of the sap of life. (p. 233)
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The Happy Foreigner is quite as ingenious as A Diary Without Dates, and has none of the qualities that made that book so curiously detestable. Miss Bagnold has still the same almost uncanny perceptiveness for the things of sight and sound, smell and touch, the same cold desire for experience, the same objective aloofness. But this time she does not display the inhuman lack of sympathy of her first "Anatomy of Nursing."… Nowhere is the new sympathy which Miss Bagnold has found more apparent than in her treatment of the relations between the American Army and the French. She has the courage to affirm what we are all more or less aware of—i.e., the bad feeling which existed between them—and she has insight enough to sympathize with both sides. (p. 278)
The love story that runs through the tale, unlike most of such narratives which are put in to "brighten" what is really a personal experience, is admirably sentimental and most convincing. (p. 279)
"Books: 'The Happy Foreigner'," in The Spectator (© 1920 by The Spectator; reprinted by permission of The Spectator), Vol. 125, No. 4809, August 28, 1920, pp. 278-79.
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[National Velvet] is the story of a girl of fourteen with a passion for horses who obtains in a shilling raffle a piebald gelding, with which she wins the Grand National, owner up. This super-daydream is the skeleton of the book, its flesh is enormously English humour about children, animals and the lower middle classes. I cannot imagine a more repulsive recipe for a novel—and the result is one of the jolliest, raciest, books I have read in years. Miss Bagnold, except in one or two purplish passages, is entirely unsentimental. What amuses her in children is not their naiveté …, but their slyness, their egotism, their terrifying determination. To use the word "Dickensian" about Miss Bagnold would be misleading, for she is not a poet; she always remains in complete control of her characters; and she never lapses into caricature—the trouble is that I don't know how to suggest a mint-sauce and crisp Yorkshire pudding atmosphere, which is conveyed without a hint of offensive heartiness. The fact that books and pictures and musical compositions have to be classified as high and middle and low brow is profoundly depressing. It is therefore with something like a whoop that I recommend National Velvet as a novel calculated to sell by the ton, and at the same time likely to be gobbled up by the most fastidious.
Raymond Mortimer, "Books in General: 'National Velvet'," in The New Statesman &...
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In no sense a fantasy, ["National Velvet"] is still the kind of book which it is best not to try to resist; it should be allowed to cast its spell with the full consent of the reader. Rightly and high-handedly allowing no room for quibbles as to whether the events described were probable, the author merely gives them a lucid actuality—saying take it or leave it, here it is. Wise readers will take it and like it….
Velvet does not walk or run; she trots or canters. Her love for horses has the huge single-minded concentration of genius, revealing itself in a passionate concern for the most minute and technical details of care and equipment. It is a fever and a dream….
So fierce a love as Velvet's demands something more substantial to feed on than daydreams and paper horses; Miss Bagnold's obliging world provides it in the shape of the wild and restless Piebald…. On the day of the raffle [for Piebald] she goes to deliver meat to the squire, and something of her consuming passion communicates itself to the tired old man. He shows her his stables, asks for paper and pencil and Velvet's signature, retires behind the corner of the barn and blows his brains out, leaving Velvet heir to five horses. Sick with excitement, she goes home to find she has won Piebald.
But this is too much, you say; this is fantastic. It is only the beginning, and as final argument against all improbability there is the...
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With the loveliest humor and feeling, with words that are alive, fresh, simply and unwaveringly accurate, Enid Bagnold puts [the Browns of "National Velvet"] before us…. With never an overplus word, no slackening of pace, with loving magic power, she puts us inside in. We are the Browns. We are Velvet…. I do not know where you would go in recent fiction to find a family interior more superbly captured, made real; every line of dialogue true, moving, progressive, relevant to plot. And this is not accident or a mere gush of charm; Enid Bagnold knows well that if we are to accept and be ravished by the fantastic wish-fulfilment story to come we must be set solidly in the actual. And so we are. Her pages have the clear lightsome freshness and candor of the first day of spring: even the million times battered and fatigued mind of the adult reader capitulates to her magic. By the time we've read three chapters we accept anything…. In its own vein, and for those who can ride the flying trapeze of fancy, this is a masterpiece. Should we say something solemn and sociological? Very well then: you can learn more about the mind of childhood from this book than from many volumes of pedology. The mind of childhood, zigzag, indolent, unblemished by the subjunctive mood, is the mind of any great artist. Disregard the dull dutiful attempt of any critic to praise this lovely escapade. Read it for its humble magic. Read it to be one of the Browns....
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Jane Spence Southron
["National Velvet"] is a book that is rich with life that has been lived amply and with gracious easiness and that has eventually spilled over irresistibly into art. You may speak of it as escape literature if you like, for it in no way impinges on the problems that are tearing the heart of today's humanity; but it will be more fittingly thought of as a reminder of those eternal human amenities that invariably survive political and social cataclysms….
The book abounds in wit and in scores of passages that the reviewer would have liked to include here for their startling appositeness. There are delectably funny bits, like that midnight scene when the mountainous Araminty "rose like a sea monster from its home," battling furiously for her daughter's dream. There is Don, the 4-year-old, as dirty, exasperating and natural a brat as ever got onto paper. It is, all in all, one of the sanest and most amusing light novels we have had from England in a long while.
Jane Spence Southron, "A Light of Unusual Quality," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1935 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), May 5, 1935, p. 6.
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Edith H. Walton
Except for its sharpness of observation and its delicate humor, there is little to connect the author of "National Velvet" with this informal diary, written when Miss Bagnold was 19. For reasons which now seem incomprehensible, the publication of "A Diary Without Dates" produced a flurry in wartime England and caused Miss Bagnold's dismissal from the military hospital where she was working as a V.A.D. It is true that her book … shows a certain hostility to the sisters who were Miss Bagnold's superiors, but otherwise it could only have been offensive in that it was too clearheaded and realistic to please contemporary patriots.
Considering her youth, considering the feverish emotions of the period, one is amazed at Miss Bagnold's immunity to the traditional bunk about war. Her book is not sentimental, nor does it babble of heroism and glory. She records, merely, the impressions of a very sensitive young person who can never accustom herself to the pain—nor to the stupidity—which she sees all around her…. It is the merit of her book that it is fresh, unsparing, honest. She feels no necessity to sentimentalize the wounded, whose sufferings affect her so keenly.
As to the actual material in her diary, there is nothing new or particularly remarkable about it…. Where she surpasses the average is in her pungent vignettes of eccentric or amusing patients, and in her general capacity to dramatize both sides of...
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[In "The Door of Life"] Enid Bagnold gives us, with candor and subtlety, an inward-gazing study of the companionship between a woman and her child, in the days just before and just after birth. At a time when so much of the world's attention is upon the destruction of life, this tender and explicit revelation of lifegiving is a thrill to enjoy. But I fear it probes too clinical, too frank, too tender, to please maternal readers. A deep and I daresay a wise instinct usually withholds the creators of life from articulate comment on the dreamy strangeness of its process.
For fathers, however, this is superb. Hardly since the famous childbirth in the Shandy family has the drama of a household in parturition been so astonishingly rendered. But in this story the father is appropriately removed from the scene; he has gone off on a three months' business trip to Bombay, and his magnificent madonna is in charge of the household….
[This] book has much humor. Even anyone who has never kept house in Britain or read Margaret Halsey will relish Enid Bagnold's innocent revelations of the British Stately Home. The gaiety that delighted us all in "National Velvet" is here in full measure; and the same masterly delineations of the different children, each sharply identified and understood. The same quality of acute observation and freshly vitalized writing is here. Passage after passage, some of beauty and some of clearest intuition,...
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Readers who complain that the shadow of futility and frustration hangs over the modern novel, should read "The Door of Life". Here is no wishy-washy inhibited heroine, but a vigorous lady, full of zest for life.
She rules her own world, the typical large English household…. She has four strong and interesting children, and is awaiting the birth of the fifth with a brooding pleasure that verges on ecstasy. It is around the idea and the expectancy of birth that the whole household revolves during that warm, still summer….
Though the core of the book is the birth, the background is clear and well drawn. The four other children are very alive for Miss Bagnold has a rare gift for describing children. She makes them talk and walk and act like children, not literary phenomena…. It is a particular achievement to have created Boniface, for the remarkable child is hard to do. Written down, he becomes merely precocious or queer. Not so, Boniface, "resolved to lead the life of a man, before he was fit to leave babyhood for childhood."…
The only person who seemed unreal to me, is one undoubtedly drawn from life, the Scotch midwife or nurse. She is too remote, and mystical, and too much the High Priestess to come alive to me, even if she does exist somewhere….
In this book, Miss Bagnold reminded me of Colette. One is as French as French, the other typically English. Each has a fine and...
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Miss Bagnold's special talent has ever been the telling of stories set in the milieu which she seems to know best; and this milieu has several faces. One is that of the world dedicated to high life, the haut monde still to be found in the mondaine places, be they Manhattan, Morocco, or a villa upon some conveniently remote island. This world has a painstakingly assembled face.
Another of the Bagnold faces is the weathered and seamed one of outdoor folk: sportsmen, racing people, county gentry. And, naturally, she knows her servants, the people up in the garrets, down in basements, behind counters. She even knows those anonymous persons in streets, undergrounds, on omnibuses—those who make the big city roar.
That Miss Bagnold's men and women of fashion [in "The Loved and Envied"] continue, despite their new recherché lives, to hold the reader's attention is a measure of her novelistic ability. (p. 5)
The world of Miss Bagnold's novel is precisely that international one whose members are publicized incessantly in society columns and in magazines of high fashion…. If you look beneath the immaculate surface of the carefully assembled face on the fashion magazine page, if somehow you can see the face without the photographer's retouching, you will see the people in Miss Bagnold's book as she sees them and as she ultimately shows them to you and to themselves.
You will also...
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[Insofar as "The Loved and Envied"] is about people and emotions, it is a very good book…. "Serena Blandish," [Miss Bagnold's second novel, was] an extraordinarily exact, lucid, and, in a wholly feminine way, strong account of the experiences that turn a girl into a woman. It was a brilliant start, which promised at least an English Colette. What followed, however, was a long silence, broken, finally, by ["National Velvet,"] an agreeable middle-brow comedy. (About her next novel, "The Door of Life," which was concerned largely with the glories of motherhood and the maternal instinct, the less said the better; it might have been written by a man.) But now, after more than twenty-five years, Miss Bagnold has abruptly turned back to the line of development she began with "Serena Blandish" and has to a considerable extent fulfilled its promise.
What "The Loved and Envied" does, and does extremely well, is create an atmosphere of maturity. Since the triumph of the literary movement—or, to be more accurate, drift—initiated by Hemingway, which is devoted to celebrating the dumb ox above all other kinds of men, the focus of writing has been more and more on violent death and perpetual adolescence. The average novel treats the crisis through which people pass on their way to maturity as a matter of the final solution of problems of relationship. When characters over forty appear at all, they repeat, without any gain in experience,...
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The central character of [Enid Bagnold's The Loved and Envied] is Lady Ruby Maclean, a beautiful, rich, 33-year-old Parisian socialite, who "for a quarter of a century has been more fun than anyone else," and who is now making the transition from that quarter of a century to the next. "The old," she says, "are a bit sad, but it's like rheumatism—one can do nothing about it and they grow used to it." This sweet creaking of joints is the main theme of the book…. One should not let oneself be too much put off by the woman's magazine ring of the names or some of the sentences, or the slightly unreal atmosphere of a moneyed closed shop which pervades the book. These are merely the points at which the disguise is flaking off most clearly.
In fact, there is a good deal of moving and sensitive treatment of the theme. There is a deep and genuine feeling for the pathos of human life, often expressed with the ease of a first-class writer. A phrase such as that which describes a room in the flat where Rose, the Vicomte's mistress, has lived for thirty years ("the backroom was as though they had never quite got there") sometimes conveys the sadness of human transitoriness with a success which one would expect only from a better writer. (pp. 165-66)
But the success is limited. It is confined to an expression of the general pathos of human decay. The characters, as individuals and not just as pegs for hanging old...
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Walter F. Kerr
The dramatist who would convey one of the essential secrets of her play by having two of her characters sit down in the second act and simply ask one another twenty questions is quite a daring one. The dramatist who can, while engaging in this pretty game, make us all lean forward and hang suspended on every curious word must be a very good one.
I say "must be" because … ["The Chalk Garden" is] baffling on quite a few counts….
Gleams of some kind of truth flash back and forth across the stage somewhere between the words that are spoken and the glances that are evaded. Tea goes on being served, flowers go on being transplanted, the conversation grows brighter and brighter. Spurts of wild humor cascade without warning over the darkening landscape; epigrams that would do credit to Ivy Compton-Burnett leap unpredictably out of sober, even savage, clashes. Whatever is being communicated is communicated elliptically, around psychological corners, with the impulsiveness of thunderbolts out of clear blue skies. It is as though Miss Bagnold had wanted to dramatize what one of her characters calls "the shape and shadow of life, with the accidents of truth taken out." Truth is an accident, and cannot be discovered until eleven o'clock.
But what is truly baffling about ["The Chalk Garden"] … is that, out of all that is circuitous and eccentric and delightfully left-field, something very real is...
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Richard Watts, Jr.
It was my disturbing impression [while watching "The Chalk Garden"],… that Enid Bagnold, its author, had perhaps written the wrong play. She introduced some odd and interesting characters, provided them with a provocative situation, revealed signs of an original sense of humor and demonstrated that she is the possessor of a graceful and intelligent prose style, but it seemed to me that the resulting drama … rarely came to life in the fashion it kept hopefully suggesting….
Since Miss Bagnold seemed to regard all of [her characters] with freshness of humor and to write about them with amused appreciation, I thought it appeared likely that she was going to offer us an entertainingly, mad comedy concerning their curious interrelationships. And there was every indication that she had just the proper style for it. But it wasn't long before it became evident that she was up to more serious matters. There was, for instance, that garden, which, it proved, was made of chalk and was highly symbolic.
It was this symbolism, it seemed to me, that got in her way…. Instead of adding point to the play, it resulted in a stubborn refusal of the narrative to remain properly alive.
Richard Watts, Jr., "A Play with a Symbolic Garden," in New York Post (reprinted from The New York Post, © 1955, New York Post Corporation), October 27, 1955 (and reprinted in New York Theatre...
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Enid Bagnold is "the lady of quality" who once wrote a novel from which S. N. Behrman wrote a drama of quality, "Serena Blandish." It was warmly admired by a few people in 1929.
The episode is recalled here because she has now written another drama of quality, "The Chalk Garden."… It has been put together in the same off-center fashion, witty lines popping off at tangents, non-sequiturs rambling brightly through the dialogue, everything more or less upside down, nothing leading directly into the next point of the story.
Miss Bagnold gives the impression of being a severe writer with a sharp mind who disdains pencil, paper and all the materials of her craft, and has small patience with logic and what is known in the trade as "the obligatory scene." "The Chalk Garden" is like a piece of sparkling cut glass….
[The] plot is the least interesting item in "The Chalk Garden." Miss Bagnold's eccentric manner is everything….
In "The Chalk Garden" it is a sound rule not to pay much attention to Miss Bagnold when she is developing her story. But pay attention to the lines she throws away. A perverse writer, she squanders all her talent on the things that do not matter….
"The Chalk Garden" is an odd, unyielding comedy by a witty writer with a highly personal style. There's a keen mind behind it, and one that is not intimidated by either the theatre or the world....
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Enid Bagnold's The Chalk Garden … may well be the finest artificial comedy to have flowed from an English (as opposed to an Irish) pen since the death of Congreve. Miss Bagnold's style recalls Ronald Firbank's The Princess Zoubaroff; it has the same exotic insolence, the same hothouse charm. We eavesdrop on a group of thoroughbred minds expressing themselves in speech of an exquisite candour, building ornamental bridges of metaphor, tiptoeing across frail causeways of simile, and vaulting over gorges impassable to the rational soul….
Miss Bagnold evokes a world full of hard, gem-like flame-throwers, a little room of infinite riches…. [There] is nothing affected, or snobbish, about Miss Bagnold, unless verbal precision is a mark of snobbery. (p. 127)
Something is being said about the necessity of rescuing young people from the aridity of a rich, irresponsible life; but it is being said wittily, obliquely, in a manner that one would call civilised if one thought civilisation was worthy of the tribute. (pp. 127-28)
Kenneth Tynan, "The British Theatre: 'The Chalk Garden'" (1956), in his Curtains: Selections from the Drama Criticism and Related Writings (copyright © 1961 by Kenneth Tynan; reprinted with the permission of Kathleen Tynan), Atheneum, 1961, pp. 127-28.
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I find myself touched by "The Chinese Prime Minister" and I don't think it is because [the play is] … about the end of things coming so soon after they have just begun. I am touched, I think, because I have seen one whole play in which there is not a single careless line.
There are careless scenes, oh, yes. Quite a large portion of the middle act is taken up with a crossfire of family quarreling that has as its purpose the badgering of [the main character] until [she] is pushed into a vital, and mistaken, decision. The sequence is ratchety enough to badger you, too, and to make you wonder whether the silken strands of the evening can be gathered into one steady hand again. But even here "carelessness" is not quite the right word. For playwright Enid Bagnold never does anything simply because she cannot think of anything better to do. Whatever she does, she does on impulse, inspiration, with a jump and with a dagger in her hand, eyes gleaming. The gleam, the mad glint of her inspiration, may indeed flash out of the untidiest of corners. But in itself it is marvelously pure.
The obvious word for a lofty, detached, unpredictably witty play of this sort is "civilized." But I think we should do Miss Bagnold the justice of trying to avoid obvious words. "The Chinese Prime Minister" might more nearly, more properly be called humanely barbaric.
Its comedy is barbaric in the sense that, for all the elegance...
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Grow old along with Enid Bagnold. The last of life, like the first of it, is full of crotchets and ironies as she contemplates both parts in "The Chinese Prime Minister."
In this new comedy,… the author of "The Chalk Garden," that model of elliptical humor and wisdom, is writing again with civilized wit and the kind of mature understanding that forgets little and forgives nearly everything. In a theater accustomed to simplemindedness, if not downright barrenness, it is exhilarating to hear an urbane, yet affirmative voice that can be both teasingly subtle and joyously direct.
There are eight characters, and they have, after a fashion, identities. All but one, the main one, have names; she is simply She. And there, one suspects, is a clue to Miss Bagnold's intent. For she has not written a conventional comedy of manners, but using the form, she has composed a delicious fantasy on the nature and promise of old age, which should amuse any age.
"The Chinese Prime Minister" is short on action. If you do not find stimulation in the good talk of spirited minds, Miss Bagnold's play, particularly part of its second act, may seem drawn out. But if you rejoice in the unexpected turn of thought felicitously phrased, you will not be troubled by the fact that little is happening and a lot is being said about it….
"The Chinese Prime Minister" cares most about the interplay of good talk. Age...
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A play about old age should not itself be tired, but the writing in The Chinese Prime Minister is sometimes more enfeebled than its subject matter. Enid Bagnold, I am informed, was seven years about it. That's too long, especially when the work still lacks plot, or focus, or clear intention. I would guess that the author spent the major portion of those years honing up her dialogue, for each line has been sharpened to a fine edge. But she has grown too sage, and the epigrams tend to come out homilies. Take, as typical, this sentiment, which I assume to be the theme of the play: "The only way to enjoy death is to exhaust life." Note how Miss Bagnold has structured the thought; note the Latinate balance, the euphuistic contrasts, the rhetorical antitheses. Note also that, for all its formal finish, the sentence offers purely routine wisdom. This may be a personal prejudice, but the carpe diem motif has begun to strike me as a commonplace and sentimental notion. There is something contradictory in these self-conscious exhortations to instinctual pleasure—and something useless, too, since how does one decide to follow such advice? Miss Bagnold is too tasteful to tell her audience to enjoy, enjoy, live life to the fullest, realize every golden moment…. Still, one senses her wrestling with a like temptation: and there is a quality in her play which is as banal as the proverbialism in a fortune cookie.
In short, The...
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Almost everyone's childhood is boring—except one's own and Enid Bagnold's. At 80, she has written a splendid memoir ["Enid Bagnold's Autobiography"], which seethes with a fledgling's energy, lunging back and forth among the decades….
Gleefully aware of her own "self-delight," greedy for praise, she hurtled into experiences that were scarce for girls of her generation….
Eventually, she was bullied into marriage by Sir Roderick Jones, the head of Reuters…. The evocations of their brawling marriage—"the truces, the fun, the love, the rage"—and her years with four children, two houses, stacks of servants, infinite (often unwanted) guests, and the necessity of writing for three hours every day, truly make family-life sound worth-while—as some can hardly believe it is today….
[The] attendant elegance (and the frank snobbery) will make some readers uneasy. The footnotes are unsettling, thus: Nöel∗ / Nöel∗ Coward; Juliet Duff∗ / ∗Lady Juliet Duff. And the dining room with pillars, sofas with dolphins and angels and garlands, Dresden mirrors, all that poshness and privilege can prompt the rebellion that many now feel against possessions, plus the suspicion of roots, and the recoil from blood-relations. Still, these reactions oddly heighten the value of these memoirs—as history….
Throughout, Miss Bagnold's friends and acquaintances leap to life in a few words:...
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It is not often these days that a play is written with grace in pursuit of intelligence. Both seem out of fashion. "A Matter of Gravity" … is hardly in the class of her wonderful "The Chalk Garden," or the lesser "The Chinese Prime Minister," but time spent with even an untidy Enid Bagnold play is time spent in the company of intellectual finesse….
["A Matter of Gravity"] is about a very rich, very aristocratic and devastatingly bright old English lady who is living alone in a grand country house. She is alone, that is, except for a cook who has the disconcerting habit of rising into the air now and again….
[Mrs. Basil has] outgrown faith in science and so the choice between believing what she sees—the floating cook—and what makes sense, ultimately concludes with a final philosophy: "There are things to which I am tied that need loosening." She abandons the house to find new knowledge with the cook.
That doesn't make sense, besides which, nothing happens on-stage to convince us that the cook or anyone else can levitate, which is the play's first order of reality. But then these are only the most obvious of the play's confusions.
The play's sociological points are in equal abundance and confusion. The handsome country home … is a fulsome symbol of everything that was refined, tasteful and civilized in British life. It is coming apart at the seams, destroyed by a modern...
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They say that to understand is to forgive, but I am not sure that I understood Enid Bagnold's new play "A Matter of Gravity."…
An eccentric Englishwoman, with bird's-nest hair, glittering eyes, a forthright tongue that can never quite decide whether to be blunt or forked, and a style of dress that froze immediately after World War I and never thawed—we know the type. We know also the fat cook with a taste for liquor and an ingratiating manner, but there are differences….
Mrs. Basil is, for all her vigor and animal vitality, an old woman and she fears death as passionately as she has embraced life. She does not believe in God, or in a future. She is a materialist with humor. But suddenly she sees a miracle. She sees, with her own eyes, Dubois rise in the air as stately as a zeppelin, and bounce off the ceiling with plaster in her hair. Now she knows. As she puts it: "If only there were a mystery it would be the ladder to all mysteries." Mrs. Basil and Miss Bagnold are absolutely right. But do you believe in Mary Poppins?
Mind you, some might have literal doubts about the Ghost of Hamlet's father, but there is more in Shakespeare than has ever been dreamed of in Miss Bagnold's philosophy. Her play—which has a bittersweet ending by the way—is full of cross-currents of motivation and whirlpools of thought.
There is a lot of levitation offstage and a certain amount of levity...
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[A Matter of Gravity] is not so much a play … as a series of patches from several plays that connect only in having the same cast in each. One patch concerns an elderly woman, crusty and conservative (in all but her apparent passion for heavy green eye shadow), going somewhat to pieces at her grandson's marriage to a girl of partially black parentage: proposition, conflict, and, need we add, reconciliation. Another concerns the housemaid of said grandmother, a slovenly sort, but given to levitation, and the grandmother's decision to join the maid in a mental institution so that she, too, can learn to levitate. (I am not making this up.) A third concerns the breakup of two homosexual matings, one male and one female, identical in their May-December configurations and in the clumsy self-delusions of both Decembers….
There is no pace to Ms. Bagnold's play, no movement, no action overt or inward. More depressing yet, from a writer of her wonted exquisiteness, is the lurid witlessness of some of her individual lines…. "I'm so rich it's like having cancer." Or, from another character: "Sex is an old carrot, used by God to get children." What—beyond the easy, momentary titter—can any of this mean?
Alan Rich, "The Old Ladies Show Their Muddles," in New York Magazine (copyright © 1976 by News Group Publications, Inc.; reprinted with the permission of New York...
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