On Rebecca and J.A. Baker

Among the many pleasures of watching Hitchcock’s 1940 rather-less-than-faithful but compelling adaptation of Rebecca is the array of acting talent; the Oscar-nominated trio of Olivier, Joan Fontaine and the unforgettable Judith Anderson as Mrs Danvers, with her amazing range of faraway, disturbing looks; and also the supporting cast of British talent: brilliantly caustic George Sanders; Mexico-born Nigel Bruce, doing his usual buffoonish turn, memorably in caveman fancy-dress, and Gladys Cooper, born in Hither Green, as Major and Mrs Lacy; Hitchcock regular Leo G. Carroll; and founder of the Hollywood Cricket Club, C. Aubrey Smith.

Before taking up acting, Smith had a successful career as a ‘gentleman’ cricketer, for Cambridge, Sussex and England – in one test, in which he took seven wickets, and as captain on a tour of South Africa before they’d been ascribed test-playing status. His obituary in the 1949 edition of Wisden includes the following:

Over six feet tall, he made an unusual run-up to deliver the ball and so became known as “Round The Corner” Smith. Sometimes he started from a deep mid-off position, at others from behind the umpire, and, as described by W.G. Grace, “it is rather startling when he suddenly appears at the bowling crease”.

Both Anderson and Cooper became dames. At the start of the 1970s, Anderson, then aged 73, toured America as the Prince in Hamlet.

Sanders’s life took in all sorts: birth in St Petersburg 11 years before the Revolution, a Best Supporting Oscar for his role in All About Eve, similar brilliance in a strange and chilling adaptation of The Picture of Dorian Gray, the unmistakable drawling voice of Shere Khan in Disney’s Jungle Book, Mr Freeze in the 1960s Batman TV series, and multiple marriages (including Zsa Zsa Gabor, her sister Magda, and Ronald Colman’s widow), and death by barbiturate overdose, with three suicide notes, in a village near Barcelona in 1972. Javier Marías has written about him at length.

I should add that the score by Franz Waxman, one of many great film composers who was a refugee from Nazi Germany, is a precursor of the knob-twiddling weirdness of 60s and 70s cult classics; and that the cinematography of George Barnes, especially the way the camera dwells on the shadows of the flames as Manderley burns, augments the intense atmosphere of the film.


Last week, I read Hetty Saunders’s My House of Sky, an intriguing, excellent biography of the short, sad life of J.A. Baker, which relies heavily on her own archival work and that of one of the founders of New Networks for Nature, John Fanshawe. The two books – the only two he published – for which Baker is remembered, The Peregrine and The Hill of Summer, are the most poetic prose books I’ve ever read, chocker with outlandish similes and metaphors, to the extent that I can only read them very slowly. They’re shot through with a deep melancholy born of his loveless start in life as an only child and then a late-teens breakdown induced by the horrors of German bombing in his home town of Chelmsford. It’s a pity that no footage or tape has survived of the television and radio appearances he made during his few years of relative fame following the publication of The Peregrine in 1967. Perhaps one will turn up in someone’s loft one day.

Here is an extract from Chapter Two (May: A Storm*) of The Hill of Summer to illustrate his remarkable, unsurpassed nature-writing style:

A garden warbler sings in the caves of the darkness under the misty birches, sings endlessly over the arches of bramble. Through the hiss and roar of the rain that bows above the trees, the bird pours out his pure breath of song. It flows unbrokenly, loud and mellow and far-echoing. He sings in the shining green bubble of his own world. The whole wood is an exultant respiration of storm-driven wind and rain. It is like being inside the hollow bones of an immense bird, listening to the sudden inrush of air and the measured heart-beat of huge wings.

Curiously, the few poems by Baker which Saunders includes in her biography of him are
overblown to a degree which, whilst it works beautifully in his prose, becomes too much when set out as verse. Baker was a great fan of poetry, especially of Dylan Thomas,
Housman (thus the title of his second book) and Hughes (unsurprisingly). It would still be fascinating to read an edition of his collected poems.

Over on her website, Kathy Pimlott describes how she can’t stop wanting to tinker with poems, even after they’ve been accepted for publication in a collection. That’s a compulsion I share. I often can’t tell whether I should just leave a poem alone or needlessly search for perfection. I know full well that including prosaic phrases among the more poetic ones serves to provide a background against which the high-register language can shine, and that even the greatest poets wrote dull lines occasionally; but even so, the urge to revise is overwhelming. It can be a curse. It’s interesting to note that the response – from critics and readers alike – to Baker’s The Hill of Summer was much more muted than the outpouring of praise which he received for The Peregrine, and, though some of that is due to the less compelling sense of narrative in the former, I believe it’s also attributable to the almost tangible degree to which Baker was trying to make every single phrase and sentence sparkle. Without the shade, the light becomes blinding. I realise that’s blindingly obvious, but it’s good to remind oneself of that every now and then.

* Coincidentally, as I typed this, thunder sounded outside on this May evening.

2 thoughts on “On Rebecca and J.A. Baker

  1. I very much enjoyed this one! George Sanders was even in Glenrothes, the unromantic Scottish new town where I live. He was associated with a film studio that very nearly (but not quite) was set up here. A complicated story involving broken promises and murky money, I believe….

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