Noël Coward: A Biography is a deliciously gossipy book peppered with familiar names from the highest reaches of society: Sir Cecil Beaton, Virginia Woolf, Gertrude Lawrence, Tallulah Bankhead, Marlene Dietrich, Winston Churchill, the Queen Mother, Queen Elizabeth II, Alfred Lunt, Lynn Fontanne, Katharine Hepburn, Gladys Calthrop, and scores of others. It is to Philip Hoare’s credit, however, that this thoughtful biography, researched to within an inch of its life, transcends the gossip and moves into a productive presentation of the psychosexual elements of Coward’s life that shed light upon much of his writing. In both his plays and lithesome lyrics, Coward skirted the edge of naughtiness yet remained sufficiently decorous to delight without offending the broad audiences that he sought to reach.
As in many of the films produced in Hollywood during the early years of the motion picture industry, Coward’s plays and lyrics resonate with a consistent homosexual undertone, usually related directly to incidents in Coward’s own early life, which Hoare details meticulously. This undertone—as has been demonstrated in The Celluloid Closet (1996)—was a constant presence in Coward’s work as well. It passed unnoticed, however, by straight people in theater or nightclub audiences.
Although Hoare writes about Coward’s first ten years in more detail than he needs to, the book gains considerable momentum when it delves into its subject’s intriguing adolescence. The early pages explain quite convincingly Coward’s strong affinity for his mother, Violet, who married beneath her and whose relationship with her husband was so tenuous that she failed to mention him in her unpublished memoir, written shortly after 1930, although she remained married to him until his death in 1937.
To make ends meet, Violet worked as a charwoman and landlady of a rooming house. In 1891, she gave birth to her first son, Russell Arthur Blackmore Coward, a singularly talented and promising child. His death from spinal meningitis in 1898 left his mother devastated. She became pregnant as soon as she could, creating in Noël Coward, of whom she was, quite understandably, extremely protective, a replacement for her lost son.
Born nine days before Christmas in 1899, Coward’s first name, Noël, memorialized that holiday. Given the background of his birth, it is not surprising that the young Coward became a mama’s boy. His relationship with his father, whose work as a piano salesman required him to travel away from home for extended periods, was never easy. Any closeness Coward might have shared with his father was blocked by his jealous mother.
Violet’s possessiveness and jealousy extended beyond the immediate family situation and lasted well into Coward’s mature life. Aware of her son’s sexual proclivities, Violet became jealous of his lovers. Hoare compares Violet’s reactions to such lovers as Bobbie Andrews and Jack Wilson to those of a spurned lover. He suggests that throughout her lifetime, her ability to discomfit her son was substantial.
Violet, who produced a third son, Erik, in 1905, pushed both of her surviving children toward the theater, but Noël was clearly the son possessed of theatrical talent, a talent that he developed, as his tablet in the Poets’ Corner of Westminster Abbey proclaims, into “a talent to amuse.” One cannot legitimately claim that Coward’s work is profound, nor is Hoare foolish enough to try to make a case for its profundity. Its lightness, its facile, flexible wit are its saving graces, as Hoare skillfully demonstrates. Hoare also traces the origins of much of Coward’s literary facility to its sources, among them Gilbert and Sullivan’s operettas and the writing of Oscar Wilde, George Bernard Shaw, Omar Khayyam, and Luigi Pirandello.
Hoare renders his readers a considerable service by pointing out some literary details that might escape the average reader. For example, in one footnote where he explains that the term “Uranian” refers to men whose sexual attraction is to young boys, he cites a source that shows how Oscar Wilde uses a double pun in the title, The Importance of Being Earnest (pr. 1895; pb. 1899), noting that at the turn of the century “earnest” was a euphemism for Uranian. Although Hoare does not pockmark his pages with footnotes, those that he employs are unfailingly useful, as are his detailed, easily accessible bibliographical notes at the end of the book.
Financial exigencies overshadowed Coward’s early life, although Violet usually shielded her son from the full impact of the family’s precarious financial situation. Occasionally small inheritances eased the financial pressures and, at one point, even made it possible...
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