This book has a fair amount in common with Beverley Nichols’ autobiography-but-really-about-other -people Twenty-Five. Just shows the appetite for celebrity gossip has existed for many years!
Nichols was himself a literary celebrity and appears in Mannin’s book. She rated his ‘genius’ over Noel Coward! (For an academic article in which I analyse Nichols at great scholarly length see The Review of English Studies.)
This book was a best-seller. The printing history tells us that there were fifty impressions of the hardback between 1930 and 1936, before it was republished by Penguin in January 1937. This copy is the third impression of the paperback, dated August 1937.
Since it is in some ways an unsatisfactory book, I would put its success down more to its attitude and what it promises than to what the book itself actually achieves. Ethel Mannin projects the identity of a truth-teller, a political and sexual radical. Some comments in the book would have been taboo-breakers in 1930. For example, she describes some mildly obsessive behaviour when she was six years old and comments:
As a good Freudian, I have no doubt that all these things analyse out as a substitute for masturbation.
She declares her literary ideal as ‘A combination of Aldous Huxley’s cold inquiring dispassionateness and D. H. Lawrence’s ardent overwhelming flame’ (275) but this book is not often dispassionate, and is most ardent when she is conveying her opinions, not describing passions.
This is a book of two halves.
The first part is ‘My Own Story: Self-Portrait’,an account of Ethel Mannin’s life, from her origins as the daughter of a letter-sorter in the Post Office, through to her success as a literary celebrity. She comes across as a spirited and determined woman, and one with very strong opinions about certain subjects – especially education and sexual freedom.
About her own education she is especially forthright. She spent a year at a small private school, where she was ‘dreadfully unhappy and tormented.’ (31) The boys exposed themselves to the girls, and the older girls bullied young Ethel, taunting her until she uttered an obscene word. The teachers were insensitive authoritarians:
A child would be refused permission to “leave the room” until the little over-strained bladder began to relieve itself and the poor child suffer agonies of shame by being sent home.
From there she went to a Board School, which was overcrowded, and the syllabus had little connection with real life. ‘The amount of stupidity current in orthodox education is colossal’ (37) She has a great deal to say about the inadequacy of sex education. The nearest this came to an explanation was a lesson on catkins, when ‘the teacher boldly referred to the pollen from the male hazel catkin falling onto the pistils of the female catkin and fertilising it.’ Ethel Mannin comments:
I am reminded of the lovely – and illuminating – story told of am little girl who had been so ‘enlightened’.; she had been a bridesmaid at a wedding, and coming out of church asked her mother: ‘Will he give her the pollen now, or wait till they get home?’
From the age of seven she had wanted to be ‘an authoress’, and has a story published in the children’s section of the Lady’s Companion at ten. She failed to get a scholarship to secondary school, and instead went to a commercial college as a preparation for office work. By chance, her first job was with an advertising agency run by the dynamic Charles Higham. He gave her opportunities, and at sixteen she was showing a talent for writing advertising copy. At the agency she met an artist who introduced her to all sorts of revolutionary political ideas. (‘I learned more from this artist than I had learned all the time I was at school.’) (62)
Higham published magazines, and put the sixteen-year-old in charge of some of them, most notably The Pelican, a theatrical and racing paper that he had bought. (‘I became eventually editor, dramatic critic, advertisement manager, contributing staff – in short, I was The Pelican’) (63) (One is reminded of the Pelican Club mentioned in P.G. Wodehouse’s Blandings novels. In the 1890s, Galahad Threepwood and Uncle Fred had both belonged to this club, whose interests (theatrical and sporting) coincide with those of the paper, which by the time Ethel Mannin took it over, was in its last days. Did PGW choose this name for his club as a tribute to the paper, long defunct by the time that the club appeared in his fiction?)
At nineteen Mannin married a Scotsman thirty years her senior, and a child was soon born. During her pregnancy she wrote novelettes at a guinea a thousand words: ‘They took my mind off the worrying business of having a baby that one did not want.’ (69)
Soon she began writing what she thinks of as her real novels; Sounding Brass, set in an advertising agency, was the most successful (and I’ve been told that it’s a most enjoyable satire). The marriage did not last, for reasons not entirely clear.
She writes: ‘When I began this book and was resolved to tell the story of my life to date, omitting such details as it seemed to me might hurt or embarrass anyone else in the telling,’ and as one reads one becomes at least as aware of omissions as of inclusions. The first chapter is called: ‘A Portrait of my Parents’, but from it we learn less about them than about Ethel Mannin’s own opinions than about class and parenting. But then most of the other people in this first half of the book are rather shadowy figures, less clearly defined than the author’s strong opinions.
The first section ends with a distraught chapter about a male friend, whom she had loved, who committed suicide. Discretion means that we are not told his name, or anything about him, how close their relationship was, or any possible reasons for the suicide. Her account, not anchored in specifics, quickly becomes a reason for an essay in apocalyptic philosophy: ‘So unimportant my own tragedy in the whirling cosmic chaos […] the heart-breaking futility of the whole sorry scheme of things.’ (118)
The second half of the book is about ‘People Who have Interested Me’. Each chapter is a profile of some literary, artistic or social celebrity. Once again she follows the principle of ‘ omitting such details as it seemed to me might hurt or embarrass anyone else’, so there is no lurid scandal. Sometimes the descriptions are very conventional indeed. Noel Coward is ‘very vivacious and gay and amusing’ (123), which few readers will find surprising. Of Sheila Kaye-Smith we learn little except that she was ‘a little woman of small build and no particular age.’ (123)
Some of those depicted claimed that they had never met Ethel Mannin, though she claimed familiarity with them. Edith Sitwell wrote:
I do not want Miss Mannin’s feelings to be hurt by the fact that I have never heard of her… At the moment I am debarred from the pleasure putting her in her place by the fact that she has not got one.
The best chapters are on men that she admires. She writes about the sculptor Epstein, comparing him to D.H. Lawrence as someone unafraid of scandal. She writes interestingly on the revolutionary educator A. S. Neill, and has a very enthusiastic chapter on Bertrand Russell (not only ‘the greatest mind in this country’, but also ‘an admirable and lovable personality’. (278) The chapter I enjoyed most was the one on the novelist William Gerhardi, where she lets her dislike of him shine through, and tells of how he tried to seduce her.
In the chapter on Arnold Bennett, there is this anecdote:
I love the story about Arnold Bennett and the young man who so much wanted to meet him. A mutual friend introduced them during a chance encounter in the street. At the spot at which they stood, a carter was carrying a heavy trunk into a house. The young man stood waiting for the great Arnold Bennett to say something witty or profound, but Arnold Bennett was preoccupied with the spectacle of the man carrying the heavy trunk. He would talk of nothing else. It fascinated him. No human being ought to expect another human being to carry a trunk that size… Did they realise what the weight of such a trunk must be?
That story gives us Bennett as the kind of writer who was much less interested in his own opinions than in observing the lives of others, and imaginatively identifying with them. On the strength of this book, I suspect that the same could not be said of Ethel Mannin.
Despite the limitations indicated above, one can understand why the book became a best-seller, and why Ethel Mannin had a loyal following of readers. She is not a subtle writer, but she has gusto, and her book encourages an attitude of hell-for-leather truth-telling, even if the text does not quite live up to its intentions.