• Gail Wilson Kenna

Their Faces Were Waiting for the Betrayal of the Flesh

This phrase comes from Penelope Fitzgerald's fifth novel, At Freddie's, about child actors who attend the Temple School in London. I read the words above and thought of young Elizabeth Taylor in National Velvet. Has there ever been a more beautiful girl's face than the one in that movie? My bias, perhaps. Yet over this image of Elizabeth, I see her as Martha in Mike Nickols' film adaptation of Edward Albee's Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf. For the role Taylor put on forty pounds to look old and dumpy, her face and body depicting 'betrayal of the flesh'. Richard Burton played George to Elizabeth's Martha. I think this famous, married couple created their own Days of Wine and Roses, substituting cheese and chocolates for flowers, to achieve the needed 'look'. I will say that my esteem for Taylor as an actor increased after I saw this movie. I already admired the 'old' Burton before his debauchery set in.

But until I read At Freddie's, I'd not given much thought to the schooling of child actors, stage & screen. How did Penelope Fitzgerald know about this facet of life? During her lean and hungry years in London after Southwold, she taught in several schools, including the Italia Conti for young actors. In this novel, Fitzgerald creates a remarkable character, the comic and compelling Freddie. "There is no one she cannot charm or browbeat," biographer Hermione Lee says about the protagonist of At Freddie's.

The Temple School under Freddie's long rule suffers severe financial difficulties. One morning her accountant (her brother) "brought along the balance sheet, having tidied up as much as he decently could."

"Put it away," said Freddie, in the tone she used for the local flasher. "Surely a discussion should have a basis of substantial fact."

"Not if it's with me, dear."

Besides the larger-than-life Freddie, Fitzgerald creates two memorable teachers, and young & adult actors. In a blurb for At Freddie's, Penelope wrote: "The novel is not only for theatre-lovers, but for people who care about children, or hate them, or were children once themselves." Did she miss anyone? This book is a beguiling read and, depending on how you want an ending to be (or not to be), Fitzgerald leaves this one open to interpretation of the last word.

I suggest the USA Mariner 2014 edition, with a fine introduction by Simon Callow, who wrote a screenplay for the novel. Interesting to read why the film was not made and about his meeting with Penelope.

Next week: Florence Green in The Bookshop, in contrast to Fitzgerald's character Freddie

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