Although we’re already two months past the centenary of Laurie Lee, this cradle to grave biography will have a long shelf life. I should confess now, that I am not overly familiar with Laurie Lee, but I do recognise a lot of his paramours (I am a big admirer of Elizabeth Joan Howard), which is what attracted me to this biography.
Another reason why I am so interested in Valerie Grove’s biography (it is a revised edition of her classic authorised biography Laurie Lee: The Well-Loved Stranger) is because I am tackling a similar challenge to mark the centenary of the British film star Margaret Lockwood in 2016. As with Lockwood, fans of Lee continue to celebrate his legacy.
There were many themes that drew me to Grove’s biography. I must admit that I was not overly familiar with Lee or his work, aside from begrudgingly reading his books on the school curriculum, something which I find is often wasted on unruly teenagers. But after reading this biography I am interested in reading his repertoire of novels. For those who are unfamiliar with his style of writing, Groves has helpfully added his poems in full. Letters, too, are included – so again, you can see the stylistic approach he used long before he composed his novels. Of course, his most famous novel was, and is, Cider With Rosie – a real life account of his rural boyhood in Gloucestershire.
What also attracted me to The Life and Loves of Laurie Lee was the similarities to the Mitfords. Yes, since this is being reviewed on The Mitford Society I feel I must draw some comparisons. Both Lee and all six of the Mitford girls were countrified children – they grew up in the Shires with the freedom of endless fields, handling animals and although the girls were the offspring of a Lord, they were money poor. And nurturing a vivid imagination, like the Mitfords, Lee was prone to bestowing nicknames on those he loved i.e. his second daughter (Lee also fathered a love child during his stint in Spain in the ’30s) was known as ‘The First Born’. He changed his wife’s name from Kathy to Cathy, of which she said: ‘[It] tells you everything you need to know about our marriage.’ His daughter, too, was given a variety of names differing from the original spelling. Jessy was baptised Jesse – not Jessica – but Laurie decided later that Jessy was nicer, so Jessy she stayed.
As romantic as he was, Lee had courage, and at the age of 19 he left by foot with his violin to busk his way around Spain, a country he would romanticise in his future writings. He later returned to join the International Brigade and became involved in the Spanish Civil War.
This is a balanced portrait of a man who fostered his own legend in Gloucestershire and Chelsea, and though gifted in art, music and literature, he disguised the complexities of his character beneath a cloak of secrecy.