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 Foreigner'," in The Times Literary Supplement (© Times Newspapers Ltd. (London) 1920: reproduced from The Times Literary Supplement by permission), No. 963, July 1, 1920, p. 422.
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)
Katherine Mansfield, "A Hymn to Youth" (originally published in The Athenaeum, July 16, 1920, No. 4707), in her Novels and Novelists, edited by J. Middleton Murry (copyright 1930, copyright renewed © 1958 by Alfred A. Knopf, Inc.; reprinted by permission of The Society of Authors as the literary representative of the Estate of Katherine Mansfield), Knopf, 1930, pp. 232-34.
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.
[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 & Nation (© 1935 The Statesman & Nation Publishing Co. Ltd.), Vol. IX, No. 215, April 6, 1935, p. 489.
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...
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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...
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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,...
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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...
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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...
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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...
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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...
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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...
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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...
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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...
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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...
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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...
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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...
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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...
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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...
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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...
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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...
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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....
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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...
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