Blessings in Disguise

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 9)

Herbert Pocket, Fagin, Marley’s Ghost, Disraeli, eight members of the D’Ascoigne family, the man in the white suit, Father Brown, Cardinal Mindzenty, Colonel Nicholson, Gully Jimson, Prince Faisal, Marcus Aurelius, Julius Caesar, Yevgraf Zhivago, Charles I, Pope Innocent III, Adolf Hitler, Sigmund Freud, Obi-Wan Kenobi, George Smiley, Professor Godbole, Hamlet, Richard III—behind these and a host of other characters Alec Guinness has concealed himself. A consummate actor since the 1930’s on stage, screen, and television, Guinness has been a self-effacing person who has shunned publicity and whose scandal-free private life has provided no grist for the tabloids. In his autobiographical Blessings in Disguise, Guinness finally removes the makeup and appears in his own person.

The fact that he turns out to be as good a writer as he is an actor should be no surprise, for he won an Oscar nomination for his screenplay for The Horse’s Mouth (1958). Indeed, Guinness’ writing ability was in a way responsible for the beginning of his screen career, for in 1939 he adapted Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations for the stage and played the role of Herbert Pocket, with Martita Hunt as Miss Havisham. David Lean, not yet a film director, saw the show and told Guinness that he planned to film it as soon as the war was over. Lean kept his word and made the film in 1946, with Guinness and Hunt repeating their roles. Great Expectations is arguably the greatest Dickens film ever made, and in it, Guinness made an auspicious screen debut. It led in turn to Lean selecting him to costar as Fagin in Oliver Twist (1948). Guinness’ versatility got him the part of the D’Ascoigne family (six of them murdered) in Kind Hearts and Coronets (1949), and from there he was on his way to two Oscars (one for best actor, the second a special award for his entire career) and a knighthood.

Yet his path was not easy, and his beginnings were difficult. Born in 1914, Guinness never knew for certain who his father was, and part of the book is a lifelong search for a father. Guinness recalls being “born to confusion and totally immersed in it for several years, owning three different names until the age of fourteen and living in about thirty different hotels, lodgings and flats.” If he was “pursued by his infantile demons,” however, he also had many good angels to guide him on his way. Much of the book is a tribute to them.

Blessings in Disguise is not so much an autobiographical narrative as it is a series of sketches, loosely chronological, focusing on those good angels, with Guinness casting himself in a supporting role. To begin with, there was an ancient Dickensian woman who seemed to haunt the ground-floor front of a large gloomy house where five-year-old Guinness would be left alone for hours. A former actress, now “an impoverished Miss Havisham” without a wedding cake but with a partially eaten rice pudding under her bed, she became his secret friend and taught him to use his imagination to conjure up theatrical images. She was succeeded by Nellie Wallace, a vaudeville star, and then by Sybil Thorndike and Lewis Casson, who befriended the stage-struck sixteen-year-old Guinness and remained lifelong friends. If Guinness were in part responsible for getting Martita Hunt her best-known role as Miss Havisham, he was repaying a favor, for when he was a gangling, unknown twenty-year-old, she took him under her wing and coached him. Another good angel, John Gielgud, whom Guinness had dared approach for coaching, directed...

(The entire section is 1470 words.)