Life Among the Redgraves

Rachel Kempson was born early in the twentieth century to a rural, middle-class couple; her father taught at Dartmouth’s Naval College in Devon. Throughout their lives, father and daughter remained close; Rachel’s relations with her mother, like those between her parents, were more strained. A recurring note in this autobiography describes the stresses and tensions brought about by one generation’s Victorian values confronting the mores of the theater and of later decades.

After a successful enrollment at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts, Rachel Kempson spent a promising season with the Memorial Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon. Scheduled as a replacement for his leading lady in a Liverpool repertory company, she met Michael Redgrave, already a rising talent.

Their marriage, which followed within weeks, proved to be lifelong, although marked by affairs on both sides, including those on Michael’s part with, among others, Edith Evans and Noel Coward. The tolerance which both partners displayed, extending to genuine friendship with the other’s liaisons, hearkened back to Rachel’s perceptions of her own parents’ incompatibilities and foreshadowed the independence of mind that characterizes the subsequent Redgrave generation.

The author’s writing style is simple, direct, and candid. Fully two-thirds of the book devotes itself to her childhood years and education and to the couple’s life before and during World War II. In that time, Michael Redgrave became a successful film star and a major talent on the British stage, later to receive a knighthood along with his friends Laurence Olivier and John Gielgud before succumbing to Parkinson’s disease in 1985.

Pages are sprinkled with names of theatrical luminaries, who appear most often as if they were on lists from aging playbills, occasionally brightened by a short, telling anecdote. Among the latter, Alec Guinness, Alfred Lunt, Lynn Fontaine, and Margaret Leighton come off well, Bette Davis and Alphonso XIII, the ex-king of Spain questionably, and Charles Laughton poor indeed. Lady Redgrave’s affection for her family is readily apparent. She is sympathetic to her children’s radical postures, but her enthusiasm for British Royalty is equally strong. Her interest in ideas remains subdued. Describing an evening spent with Stephen Spender, Robert Graves, and Cyril Connolly, she characterizes their conversation as more or less impossible to understand.