Review by Rob Spence
Unless you are Tristram Shandy, you probably don’t know when and where you were conceived. If you are Harriet Devine, on the other hand, you know that it was Christmas day, on Laurence Olivier’s divan. This is one of the fascinating snippets that emerges in this delightful volume, chronicling George Devine’s war. Full disclosure: Harriet Devine, the editor of these letters, is a friend and former colleague, as well as being the co-founder of, and frequent reviewer for, Shiny New Books. I loved Harriet’s childhood autobiography, published some years ago, and this book complements it splendidly. Appropriately, I am writing this review on her birthday.
The story of its genesis is an interesting one: Harriet did not know of the existence of these letters until, thirty-odd years ago, her aunt, Margaret (Percy) Harris gave her a bundle of letters that Gerorge Devine had written to his wife Sophie who was Percy’s sister and Harriet’s mother. Most of these letters were written while George was in the army, first in training at various locations in Britain, and then when he had been posted overseas to India and Burma. When Sophie’s pregnancy is confirmed, the Devines realise that conception must have been while staying with Laurence Olivier and Vivien Leigh during George’s Christmas leave. George would not meet his daughter until she was three years old, however, and many of the letters in the book chronicle his longing to see her.
At the beginning of the war, George Devine was an actor and theatre director. Enthused by the ideas of the radical French practitioner Michel Saint-Denis, he had founded the London Theatre Studio, a training school for all aspects of theatre craft. His partner, and later wife, Sophie Harris, worked as a theatre designer along with her sister Percy and Liz Montgomery: together they were known as Motley, and readers of Nicola Upson’s Josephine Tey novels will recognise them. The Motley partnership was a great success, and continued after the war.
George Devine was 30 at the start of the war, and Sophie was ten tears older. He had not expected to be called up, owing to a childhood heart condition, but he was, and so the letters began. Having been bombed out of their flat in Mecklenburgh Square, a fate shared by their neighbours Virginia and Leonard Woolf, Sophie began a peripatetic life while George undertook army training.
The letters in this volume begin at the end of 1940, with George in Salisbury at the beginning of his army training. Between then and mid 1942, he writes from a variety of British locations as his regiment is moved around for training. Alton Towers in its pre-theme park days is one. Sophie is also moving from place to place, staying with theatrical friends, or renting in cheap lodgings. A common motif in this period is the frustration of letters going astray, or having to be forwarded, but they are suffused with tenderness and love.
George is then, at two days’ notice, transferred to India, where he acts as adjutant to his commanding officer. For the most part, he is away from the conflict, but is involved with the final push against the Japanese in Burma. The letters chronicle his life as he is moved around India on training courses and exercises, and are full of sharply observed vignettes of the local scene, the flora and fauna as well as some acerbic portraits of the people he meets.
What emerges strongly from these letters is George’s yearning to be back with Sophie, but also his frustrations at the pettiness and illogicality of army life, particularly from his point of view as an an adjutant, basically in charge of administration. Interspersed with the expressions of love are often practical matters about bank accounts, income tax and requests for supplies: pipes, books, peanut butter. Of great interest is the passing parade of theatrical figures who encounter Sophie in England, or are in correspondence with both of them. Peggy Ashcroft (Harriet’s godmother) is mentioned frequently, as is Olivier, Alec Guiness, John Gielgud, Glen Byam Shaw, and many others. After the war, of course, George became a major presence in the drama world, founding the Old Vic Theatre School and later the English Stage Company at the Royal Court Theatre. Sophie continued her successful stage design career, in particular with the Shakespeare Memorial Theatre at Stratford.
It’s a great pity that the letters Sophie sent to George have not survived, but mostly we can infer what she wrote from George’s responses. This collection, sensitively edited by Harriet, with many illuminating footnotes, and a useful section of mini-biographies, is, at a personal level, a document of long-distance love, but also serves as a fascinating account of the impact of war on two extraordinary artists. Here’s a flavour of George’s thoughts from Madras on leave at the end of 1942 as he muses about his new daughter:
I have no news to give you, dearest love, except my idle prattle about myself. We all long to be moved away from this country, we don’t mind at all where, but the feeling of being stuck away in the middle of this whacking great continent is most galling. How much I am hoping there will be news from you when I return: perhaps even a photograph of you and the darling daughter. I wonder what she will be like: not too serious, I trust. We must make her play lots of games! and be hearty. Au revoir, my lovely darling. Keep beautiful for me, and don’t worry about me, because there is no need, and it gives you an anxious look that pleases and displeases me. I embrace you with my 8000 mile arms, and wish you your wish for 1943, because it is also mine.
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Harriet Devine, Dearest Darling Sophie: Letters of George Devine 1940-1945 (Bookvault, 2023), ISBN: 978-1804673744, 260pp., paperback.
Buy at the big river place.