The British Pathé newsreel series Personality is fascinating. Each consists of clips of the “home life” of a British celebrity of the 1940s or 1950s: artists, actors, musicians. We see them romping with dogs or wandering on lawns or, in the case of Daphne du Maurier, looking over the Cornish coast.
No one could call this hard-hitting stuff. The cheery narration and jolly music give every life a sense of ordered industry. (No domestic strife here!) And yet, I fancy, if you really listen hard, there are dark things stirring below the produced surface. Take, for instance, this clip of Enid Blyton, the children’s writer, from 1946.
Blyton’s life was tempestuous: her first husband’s drinking and infidelity, along with her own string of affairs (one with her children’s nanny) led to a contentious divorce. By the time this reel was made, Blyton had forbidden the girls contact with their father and remarried. (“Father” is in fact their stepfather—Blyton had her daughters take his name.) Her legendary output—and good business sense—made her one of the most famous writers of her day, yet by modern standards her messy personal life was kept remarkably quiet.
Even so, it seems to me hard to watch this and not feel an inkling of something coming through—that jolly narration is curiously barbed. In 1989, her daughter Imogen wrote a devastating tell-all in which she described her mother as “arrogant, insecure, pretentious, very skilled at putting difficult or unpleasant things out of her mind, and without a trace of maternal instinct. As a child, I viewed her as a rather strict authority. As an adult I pitied her.” Even if you’re a connoisseur of bitter-child memoirs, this one’s hard going. But then, you just need to see Enid’s face at the end of the video to know that.
Sadie Stein is contributing editor of The Paris Review, and the Daily’s correspondent.