A new biography of Jane Austen was published this week in the US. By Paula Byrne, it’s called Jane Austen: A Life in Small Things. Many of the facts of Austen’s life are well known, but the author opens each chapter with one object that belonged to Austen and was a significant feature in her life.
I love the idea, and it set me thinking: if I had to choose one (perhaps two) key items in the lives of my ladies, what would they be?
These choices may be controversial – In fact, I kind of hope they will be. If others would like to agree or disagree, or suggest alternatives, I’d love to hear thoughts …
The first item that came to mind was a set of skis. Shelah was an ardent ski-er, the perfect sport for her: fast, furious and laced with danger.
But on reflection, the first choice has to be her nifty little sports car. In August 1938, there was a public lecture in the Gresham Hotel where W.B. Yeats spoke about his play Purgatory. Shelah jumped up in the audience and insisted that the public did have a right to know what the play was actually about. I can see her, leonine hair and stubborn scowl, leaving a disgruntled Yeats and a furious Higgins in the Gresham while she flounces out and speeds off to Greystones in her car. Denis Johnston once commented: ‘She can’t drive for nuts but she insists upon doing it.’
Despite constantly scrabbling for money, Ria corresponded with Picasso and owned a number of original paintings by Jack Yeats. But one picture was more valuable to her than any piece of modern art.
In the New York Public Library, I held in my hands “that photo” of Ria Mooney on stage with Sean O’Casey at the dress rehearsal of The Plough and the Stars. She looks up at the playwright coyly from under her dark fringe. He has autographed it for her, and in 1969 she returned it to the O’Casey Estate and it made its way to the Berg Collection. The touching part is that in each corner of the photo is a well worn pin hole. Ria carried this photo with her: to London, to New York. A cherished talisman, it was pinned to the wall in her Greenwich village walk up, or beside the mirror in her dressing room at the Gate Theatre on her return to Dublin. She kept it close to her for over forty years.
A string of expensive rosary beads. Or a fat bank savings book – Her husband was an accountant, before dying young to leave her a wealthy widow.
Eileen & Maeve O’Connor (Sisters to Aideen):
In March 1938, Aideen and the rest of the Abbey Company saw Snow White and the Seven Dwarves on its release in San Francisco. The whole of America was charmed by the film, and Aideen sent her two sisters ‘dwarve ties’. These souvenirs of the film were silk scarves with a picture of a dwarf on each one. I adore the image of Maeve O’Connor sauntering around Ranelagh village with a colourful dwarf around her neck: shopping for milk, buying stamps in the post office. Eileen (no doubt) never wore hers, tidying it neatly away in a drawer, but Maeve would have had some fun with hers.
Eva Le Gallienne:
I could say her perfume, or her dog, but a crucial item in Le Gallienne’s life was her production notebook. This also provides a valuable photo opportunity – because yes, I got to see this in New York:
As well as cast lists, rehearsal schedules and set ideas, there are personal notes, like choosing wall colours for her home. Her handwriting is stylish but always clear and legible. Little is erased or corrected; she was confident and assured in each decision.
This was difficult. Really difficult. There was Porgy, the dog gifted to her by George Gershwin. There were the twenty-four carat gold cuff bracelets that were also a gift from Gershwin – and that Katharine Weber taught her grandmother to hide in the legs of her piano. There was also the leopard skin coat, such a fashion statement by the young Kay. Yet I can’t help feeling that the most precious thing to Kay was whatever random scrap of music manuscript paper she had in her hand at that moment. She wrote music constantly, endlessly. It was jotted down wherever there was a blank spot. More than any material item, this constant stream of imagination and melody kept her moving on.
And then there’s Aideen … And Frolie … Now they need some more thought.