Post Script: Maggie Smith Biography

9781250081483_p0_v2_s192x300If you are a Downton Abbey fan, you may skip to Michael Covenly’s chapter 21 on “Harry Potter and Downton Abbey” in his biography of Maggie Smith.  As I revelled in the memory of the scenes recalled throughout the series and Maggie Smith’s role as the Dowager, I suddenly cringed when Covenly mistakenly identified Lady Edith as the youngest daughter of the Earl and Lady Cora.  Had he missed an agonized mother’s line at Sybil’s  deathbed – “My beauty, my baby…” ?  Was he only watching Maggie Smith scenes?

Nonetheless, the rest of the book documents Maggie Smith’s career with long summaries of her dramatic roles.  Covenly has more to say about her numerous roles than her life, and her resume is amazing, from Desdemona to Diana Barrie to Spielberg’s Wendy, and remember Mother Superior in Sister Act?  Throughout her career, Smith has earned six Oscar nominations (winning two), 16 BAFTA nominations (winning five) and seven Golden Globes (winning two). In 2003 she won an Emmy award for her lead performance in the TV movie My House in Umbria.

She supposedly had a long running feud with the great Laurence Olivier – sometimes on stage, and her first marriage  to fellow actor Robert Stephens, with whom she had two children, seemed to mirror a Noel Coward play.  In 1975 she married her old friend, writer Beverley Cross, who “she began to say she should have married in the first place” and stay married to him until his death in 1998.

Her audience today knows Maggie Smith for her more recent roles – the Dowager Countess, Professor Minerva McGonagall in the Harry Potter series (Smith was instrumental in the casting of Daniel Radcliffe as Harry), or Muriel in the Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, and Covenly includes those in his book.  But he is also careful to remind the reader where Smith started, and reading about her journey makes her all the more amazing.

Covenly notes – “At all stages of her career, Maggie has, for the most part, remained curiously invisible to the public, She rarely appears in charity shows, seldom lends her name to committees or educational institutions…It is as if she hides away, nursing her gift, and then bursts forth in a new role…”  So, it is no wonder she barely gave an interview to the author.  The book reads like a complete catalogue of Maggie Smith’s performances but seems somewhat lacking on the personal side – except for the author’s suppositions and conclusions.

I enjoyed the book – after all, now I know more about where to look for Maggie Smith in past productions.  Covenly protects Smith’s mystique yet offers glimpses into who she might really be – and she comes across as “what you see is what you get.”

In looking for explanations of Covenly’s references, I came across a 2004 interview by Susan Mackenzie for The Guardian – neatly summing up Smith’s background and comic timing (Covenly claims Jack Benny, the master of comedic timing, commented on Smith’s facility with the delivery of a line).  The interview preceded both Harry Potter and Downton Abbey, but offers a good and short background to the complete biography.  You might want to read it to prepare…You Have to Laugh



The Door by Magda Szabó

9781590177716_p0_v2_s192x300Claire Messud’s review of the Hungarian translation of The Door by Magda Szabó in the New York Times prompted my reading, but I did not expect the powerful and captivating story.  Without much fanfare, the story has crept into my mind and lingers there.

The story follows the relationship of two women – Emerence, a strong-willed old woman who has come to manage the house of a prominent Hungarian writer, Magda, who later in the book wins Hungary’s most prestigious award, possibly the Kossuth Prize.  Emerence comes from the old school of hard work, saving money for her funeral, and voicing her opinions whether or not they have been solicited.  The writer, who nurses her own feelings of inadequacy, clashes with Emerence on everything – from morality to mortality.  They live in an uncomfortable truce until Emerence finally decides to reveal her history.

Tapping into Hungary’s strange political history (the novel was written in 1987 but just now making it to American publishing), Szabó weaves government tensions into the background, but the story focuses on the women, their differences and their mutual respect.  At times, I saw myself, my mother, fellow writers, friends, would-be friends – in the traits of Szabo’s characters.  The best character may be Viola, the dog.

The “door” is the front door of Emerence’s house – an entry that no one is privileged to enter.  When she talks of her treasures and her cats, at first she seems to be creating her own fantasy; however, later, the truth of her history and her possessions becomes clear.

The plot moves slowly, following Emerence and Magda to a final showdown with an ending true to characters, but leaving a sour taste and a cautious reminder that sometimes the strong can control events, even death.  I noted so many plums of wisdom; here are a few that linger in my mind:

She inspired trust because people knew they could open their hearts to her without expecting her own confidences in return…

Cheerfulness keeps you fresh; its opposite exhausts…

…her goodness was innate, mine was the result of upbringing…

Creativity requires a state of grace…

Claire Messud, author of The Woman Upstairs, summarized the novel’s effect so well:

“A work of stringent honesty and delicate subtlety, “The Door” is a story in which, superficially, very little happens. Szabó’s narrator, like the author a writer named Magda (in interviews, Szabo suggested that the novel was only thinly veiled personal history), follows the intricacies of her intimate filial relationship with her housekeeper, Emerence. In doing so, it exposes the rich inadequacies of human communication even as it evokes the agonies of Hungary’s recent history.”

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Through It All I’ve Always Laughed

51ASSkwHYWL._SX486_BO1,204,203,200_Sometimes we take ourselves too seriously, and a good laugh is in order.  Helen Macdonald, author of “H is for Hawk” – a book on my wait list at the library – mentioned authors and genre (mystery) she enjoys in the New York Times “By the Book” interview.  When she cited Steve Delaney’s hilarious mock autobiography Through It All I’ve Always Laughed, I downloaded a copy on Audible.

Delaney assumes the voice of Count Arthur Strong in this funny fake autobiography.   His British accent and the droll view of his life have been leaving me with a chuckle every night as I listen to a chapter before I go to bed.

Other books Macdonald recommends:

  • Lolly Willowes by Sylvia Townsend Warner
  • Pack My Bag by Henry Green
  • The Once and Future King by T.H. White
  • And …the complete set of Smiley novels with master spy George Smiley by John le Carré