Enid Bagnold Nora Sayre - Essay

Nora Sayre

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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: Edith Evans as "a stupid genius," or the unnamed director who had "the swift, offended fury of a man who had been wounded before in his life. His scars flushed easily."… Her descriptions of madness are painfully brilliant, as a character snaps out of sanity and can't return.

There are devastating passages on failure in the theatre—"The Observer critic (a nice man, I hear) wrote as though he had seen vomit on the stage"—and reflections on the compulsion to keep going…. Some of her paragraphs are too rich for quotation: they ought to be recited.

As in "The Chinese Prime Minister," she has "written of age as a special landscape;… curious, not devoid of pleasure, a time for adventure (when the duties got less)." Nearly all of her pages suggest further essays or chapters: one hopes that many more will follow, in her style of "conveying the incredible as though it was credible—or conveying the truth as though it was incredible."

Nora Sayre, "'Enid Bagnold's Autobiography'," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1970 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), August 30, 1970, p. 4.