Alec Guinness: The Authorized Biography
by Piers Paul Read
Simon & Schuster, 624 pp. $30.
Apropos biography, Samuel Johnson once said that “the business of the biographer is to pass lightly over those performances and incidents, which produce vulgar greatness” in order “to lead the thoughts into domestic privacies, and display the minute details of daily life, where exterior appendages are cast aside and men excel each other only by prudence and by virtue.” In Alec Guinness: The Authorized Biography, Piers Paul Read does not neglect the performances that won his subject “vulgar greatness.” Read’s observations on Guinness’ acting career are incisive and shrewd. But he puts them into perspective and shows how Guinness’ moral development—played out in the “minute details of daily life”—constituted his true career.
Read fully appreciates the centrality that Catholicism came to have for Guinness. Two years before he converted at the age of forty-two, Guinness confided to his diary: “My soul, my body, my brain longs for religion. The world is too bleak and blank without a sense of worship.” Even in his twenties, while an officer in the Royal Navy, he recognized Catholicism as “the crack regiment,” though at the time he felt he could not afford its “expensive uniforms.” When his son Matthew fell ill with polio in 1952, Guinness made a pact with God that if Matthew recovered, he would convert. Matthew recovered and Guinness converted. Or so he recalled in his autobiography, Blessings in Disguise (1985). Read shows that his conversion was much more gradual, taking root slowly but tenaciously in a nature avid for the life of faith.
Guinness’ childhood was rackety. Born in London in 1914 and educated at private schools, he never knew his father and grew up in lodgings with a mother who was as improvident as she was unpresentable. “My mother was a whore,” Guinness told John Le Carré. “She slept with the entire crew on Lord Moyne’s yacht at the Cowes Regatta and when she gave birth she called the bastard Guinness but my father was probably the bloody cook.” She drank. She stole things. She also turned her son into something of a sybaritic precisian. The delight Guinness took in Savile Row suits, shopping at Asprey’s, and hosting Lucullian dinners at the Connaught Hotel, as well as his legendary punctiliousness, can all be traced back to his determination to distance himself from his incorrigible mother.
If Guinness was fond of having things just so, he also enjoyed the louche society of homosexuals. He had homosexual leanings himself, though he appears to have resisted them. One of his best friends, Peter Glenville, the director, was homosexual and Catholic. On the topic of homosexuality, Read is refreshingly sensible. He admits to a certain bafflement as to how Glenville could reconcile a life-long homosexual liaison with the Church’s teaching on the sinfulness of sexual relations outside a marriage between a man and a woman. But he acknowledges that the very fact that Glenville saw the sacrament of confession as “necessary for his salvation suggests faith in Christ and acceptance of, if not obedience to, the disciplines of the Church.” Guinness felt that such passions “could be controlled, if not cured, by prayer, repentance and the Grace of God.”
Once Guinness left school he worked as an advertising copywriter for a year before training for the stage under Martita Hunt, a friend of John Gielgud’s, who had “the voice and demeanor of a dowager duchess.” At their first lesson, after asking Guinness to mix her a Martini, she told him that an actor should emphasize the verb and leave the nouns and adjectives to look after themselves. (Robert Graves gave the same advice to young poets.) It was a lesson Guinness never forgot. When Gielgud took pity on the pitiably thin young actor and gave him the role of Osric in his 1934 production of Hamlet, his acting career was launched. Sixty years later, when Gielgud turned ninety, Guinness handsomely honored his first employer by giving him a lavish luncheon at the Connaught.
During the Second World War, Guinness embraced Anglo-Catholicism “flittingly,” as he says, before wearying of what Lytton Strachey called “the tight-rope of High Anglicanism.” For Guinness, it was “a psychological bulwark against the uncertainties of war and fear of the future and it stood me in good stead.” Indeed, after marrying, he even toyed with the idea of becoming an Anglican priest. But gradually he came to believe that by remaining in the Church of England, he was “quite definitely in enemy territory.”
Several factors went into Guinness’ conversion. An unusually intelligent man, he reveled in the intellectual richness of the Catholic tradition. After converting, he wrote to his wife, “One of the recent things I've discovered is that now there is always something to think about. Never a dull moment in heaven or hell.” Then, too, he needed his faith to be therapeutic. Catholic devotion healed the wounds of illegitimacy. “My prayers are always full of my requirements and not true prayers at all,” he once said. And yet he could also write: “I accept absolutely now and with no effort that I am in the actual presence of God on the altar.” About the villainies of Rome, he was broadminded: “If you are to come in to the Church . . . it’ll be useless your trying to resist—all the horrors that have been and are perpetrated in Christ’s name will be so skillfully outweighed by God.” Edward Hermann, the American television actor, claimed that the English Catholic Church appealed to his friend because it was posh. But it was no more posh in the 1950s than it is today. What attracted Guinness to the Catholic faith was its truth, not its trappings.
After converting, Guinness regularly renewed his faith with spiritual reading, devouring the works of Newman, Chesterton, Belloc, Knox, Charles de Foucauld, and St. Teresa of Avila. In the first volume of his journals, My Name Escapes Me (1997), he quotes a passage from Julian of Norwich’s Revelations of Divine Love, where Julian speaks of a vision she had in which she saw:
A little thing, the quantity of a hazelnut, in the palm of my hand, and it was as round as a ball. I thought, “What may this be?” And it was answered me, “It is all that is made.” I marveled how it might last and not fall to nothing for littleness. I was answered, “It lasts, and ever shall last, for God loves it.”
Guinness was so enamored of this image that he kept a hazelnut in his makeup box: “[I]t was the first thing to be laid out on my dressing-table when I came into the theatre.” When the brewery heiress Honor Guinness rejoined the Church, she gave the actor a hazelnut of rare gold to mark the occasion, which prompted him to observe that “something had come full circle, as I have often found in life, giving the lie to my earlier concept of accident, meaninglessness, and chaos.” The fact that Honor was convinced that Guinness had been sired by one of her more rambunctious uncles must also have given the bauble special appeal.
Another favorite author was St. Francis de Sales. For Guinness, who could say the most wounding things, it must have been bracing to open The Devout Life and read: “Derision or mockery always involves contempt and so is gravely sinful, so that theologians rightly hold mockery to be the worst sin of the tongue we can commit against our neighbor.” De Sales’ methods for identifying and resisting sin led Guinness to call him “the most comfortable of saints.” As he told a friend, “I have returned to his friendly wisdom and greatness with more understanding and a better resolution, I hope, to follow his methods. . . . I come and go in fits and starts—so to speak—in my religious life, but it deepens I believe and pray and trust.” No one struggling to live the devout life will fail to recognize that prayer.
But Read shows that Guinness’ Catholic faith was not simply the faith of a reader of apologetics. Grace touched him directly, personally. “I think most . . . human beings have that once in their lives . . . in greatly varying degrees of course,” he wrote his wife. “And of course it is . . . God giving each man and woman, according to their capacity, a glimpse of His promise to them, an impression of what eternity could mean, a glimpse of their adoption as Sons of God, and by its withdrawal a realization of what the Fall of man means. We are all left with a feeling of exhilaration, and yet at the same time, hand in hand with its happiness, a sadness that we are unlikely to encounter it again in this life. It’s a golden carrot held up to donkeys—who could be gods. . . .”
In his autobiography, Guinness says that whenever people found out that he was Catholic they would congratulate him on his good fortune, “as if my Premium Bonds paid in a handsome dividend.” He was grateful for the dividends but also acknowledged “the constant failures,” which were “painful, when not just laughable, and boringly repetitive.” Failure, come to think of it, was also the theme of most of his films—the failure of soldiers and spies, bank clerks and salesmen, Cambridge scientists and hapless peers. In his spiritual life, it was his recognition of the failure of natural virtue and the abiding need for sacramental grace that strengthened his faith.
As dutiful as Read is about retailing Guinness’ personal characteristics—his hypochondria, his delight in his Hampshire home, his tart tongue and refusal to suffer fools gladly—there was an essential inscrutability about the man. Ronald Neame, who directed him in The Card (1952), The Horse’s Mouth (1958), and Tunes of Glory (1960) told the Independent after his death: “The diffident, the introvert side of him is something that’s been slightly questioned. Was he doing a Greta Garbo, telling the world he wanted to be alone but wanting to be a star? No. Alec was self-effacing, and that was genuine. But he was an extremely difficult person to know. There is a kind of loneliness in his performances, which is him in life. I very much doubt even if his wife really knew him. I got fairly close to him, but I didn’t really know him. Nobody did.” His wife, Merula, would have disputed that. As she jotted down in a memorandum before her death: “With all the contradictions of his makeup, there was always the rod of truth up the middle which was what I recognized when we first fell in love. I knew I could always trust him.”
Merula comes out admirably in the book. Guinness constantly found fault with her, belittling her children's books, her artwork, her cookery. Yet Merula saw her husband’s flaws as the result of his compulsive fussiness and forgave him. Read praises her forbearance: “To a number of the Guinnesses’ closest friends, while Alec remained his old difficult self, it was Merula who gained in wisdom and goodness…, achieving the genius of sanctity that had eluded Alec.”
In “the minute details of daily life, where . . . men excel each other only by prudence and by virtue,” Guinness did not altogether shine. Yet, to be fair, if at times he was insufferable, he was a loyal friend and a faithful husband. He was grandly munificent. He recognized his faults and sought to combat them. In summing up his character, Read compares him to Evelyn Waugh, who once said “I know I am awful. But how much more awful I should be without the Faith.” Guinness could have said the same. As could many readers of this brilliant book.
Edward Short is an independent writer at work on a book about John Henry Newman and his contemporaries.