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“Sometimes I’m so bloody sweet, even I can’t stand it.” – Julie Andrews

I’ll admit it – I’m a musical theatre geek. Give me Sondheim over the Stereophonics, Cole Porter over Coldplay…you get the idea. I came out to my parents after watching Mary Poppins, aged four, by explaining that when I grew up I was going to marry Julie Andrews. My mother, liberal soul that she is, explained very kindly that Julie was already married. Later on, at school, my R.E teacher sat us down in front of The Sound of Music and said, “Girls, these are your two choices in life – God or Chrisopher Plummer.” Even as a good little convent girl, I was thinking “Screw that, I want Fraulein Maria.” So it was probably inevitable that I was going to snap up Home: A Memoir of My Early Years as soon as it hit the shops. Having spent an evening devouring it, I’m glad I did – but it wasn’t what I was expecting.

It’s an account of the dying days of vaudeville and music hall, where Andrews spent the first decade of her career as a teenage singing sensation, travelling Britain with her mother and stepfather, before charting her meteroic ascent on Broadway and her eventual departure to L.A to transform herself into the practically perfect flying nanny who stole my four-year-old self’s heart. With a “freakish, four-octave range” and an adult-sized larynx in a child’s throat, she made her stage debut at the age of 12 and by her late teens was a child star, as well as the only breadwinner and sole owner of the family home. Moving from sad to horrifying to funny in the blink of an eye, Andrews describes a childhood of grim poverty and shabby showbusiness in a family ruled over by her unpredicatable, alcoholic stepfather Ted Andrews.

Someone – probably one of the analysts she refers to so frequently – once asked Andrews which parent she hated the most. Although quoting the question, she tactfully never answers it – but she doesn’t really have to. Her parents’ divorce during her early childhood both set her on the path for eventual stardom and left scars that she revisits sixty years later. The seperation from her real father, Ted Wells, gnaws at the first half of the book, made even more tragic by her mother’s overbearing passive-aggression and descent into alcoholism, the sporadic physical and sexual abuse at the hands of her stepfather and the eventual revelation that Wells was not her biological father at all. By the time she steps onto the plane bound for New York and an outstanding turn as Polly Brown in The Boyfriend, the reader breathes a sigh of relief. ‘Home’ may, as she states in the book’s opening lines, have been her first word, but it was a toxic environment that even now she can’t quite bring herself to entirely condemn.

Broadway is the spoonful of sugar that makes the first half of the book easier to swallow – although both crippled with terrible homesickness and terrified that at any moment she would be recast (and thus sent back to her family), she never settled permanently in Britain again. She tackles the near-disaster of her first proper acting role and her difficult co-star Rex Harrison in My Fair Lady with guts, charm, and what Moss Hart called “that terrible British strength that makes you wonder how they ever lost India.” Even then Andrews was gaining a reputation for hard work and a sweet personality, but she was never as wholesome as she would later be portrayed. She talks about tumbling into bed with a dashing transatlantic lover, and freely admits that had Richard Burton propositioned her earlier in the run of Camelot, she would probably have succumbed – despite being newly married to her childhood friend and first husband, Tony Walton. Although there is never any real scandal – and she does appear, by and large, to be as nice as you’d think – she politely but firmly knocks her Mary Poppins image on the head. Not for nothing was she nicknamed on the Sound of Music set as ‘the nun with a switchblade’.

An early piece of advice by a director is right on the money – instead of camping it up for laughs, Andrews is at her best when she’s entirely deadpan, spoofing her own image. It’s something she uses to good effect in Home, whether she’s describing with rapture how Cecil Beaton spent hours photographing her – only to admire his own handiwork and dismiss his subject as unphotogenic. And she recalls with glee how she left the stage one night, agreeing with her horrified co-stars that an unimpressed audience were “twats”. In her defence, she explains, she hadn’t known what the word meant – but after her husband explained, she still stood by it. She is dryly, wickedly funny and the sweeter a sentence begins, the raunchier the punchline you can expect.

The descriptions of her love of singing are bittersweet, and it is telling that the book stops decades before her final appearance on Broadway and the botched operation that ended her singing career. But rather than being a eulogy for a life she can no longer lead, Andrews uses her memoir to break the silence that has surrounded her early life and pristine reputation – leading the reader to wonder if, instead of losing her voice, Julie Andrews has finally found it.

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One of my recent charity shop finds, I initially read this without really being immersed in it. Penelope Farmer’s introduction fondly admits that it’s one of Wharton’s weaker novels, and I’ll have to take her word on it until I finally get around to reading The Age of Innocence.

Twilight Sleep is an enjoyable book, if a seemingly superficial one, focussing around Pauline Manford and the failing marriage of her son. Pauline is a brilliant, if misguided, woman – a compulsive organiser and meditation junkie on the books of every committee and New Age charlatan in 1920s New York. She has, with depressing inevitability, time for everyone except her family. She can be irritatingly gullible and amazingly blinkered, but my overriding thought was that if she had a real job instead of being an unpaid social chair for her husband, she’d be a much more likeable character. In fact, screw likeable – she’d probably be President.

In contrast, it’s her apathetic daughter-in-law Lita who has the burning desire to work, even if it is only to turn herself into an object by strutting her stuff on the silver screen. Wanting to work for her money, not just marry into it, she has her sights set firmly on Hollywood – and divorce from the loveable but rather hopeless Jim. Considered to be a great beauty, she enjoys flirtations but sees men as little more than razorblades in a cake – a means of escaping the prison of her current life. One of those men happens to be Dexter Manford, her mother-in-law’s second husband, who is rapidly nearing his mid-life crisis.

spoilers below

Restless, seductive Lita is the catalyst for the entire plot, and she and the determindly oblivious Pauline are the only ones who remain unchanged by the consequences of her actions. However, she is by no means the villain of the text – if anyone comes close to claiming that title, it’s Dexter. His daughter Nona, Lita’s current best friend, becomes increasingly fixated on and disconcerted by the burgeoning relationship between her father and her sister-in-law. The only one who seems aware of what’s about to happen, Nona functions as a Cassandra figure, prophesising danger but dismissed because she can’t articulate her fears. Farmer suggests that hidden in the seedy underbelly of Manford family life is “the hint of paternal abuse”, and this is borne out by Dexter’s taste in women. He has a history as a philanderer, but the only women with whom we see him extra-maritally involved are Lita (her name a disturbing echo of Nabokov’s protagonist), and Gladys Toy, whose name suggests both the levity with which Dexter treats her and his taste for childlike women. And Freud wiuld have a field day with the bizarre climactic scene, where Nona is discovered in Lita’s room, having been acccidentally shot by her mother’s first husband after she discovers her father in Lita’s bedroom.

The more I think about this book the more I appreciate, if not like, it. Beneath the frothy subplots that litter every chapter with slef-important domestic dramas, the real story is dark, unnerving, and unresolved. It’s worth a read – even if it is between the lines.