Invisible Ink: No 171 - Madeleine Henrey


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The Independent Culture

Dying three years short of her century in 2004, Madeleine Henrey became a writer almost by chance, so it’s all the more surprising that she was a French woman writing in English for the British market. This miner’s daughter had grown up in the impoverished backstreets of Clichy and moved to Soho with her seamstress mother, where she found employment with a French newsagent.

It was while working as a manicurist at the Savoy Hotel that she met her future husband Robert. The ex-Etonian journalist helped her improve her English, and she gave him tips on writing gossip. Small and elegant, although suffering from intermittent ill-health as the result of childhood malnourishment, Henrey saw London through Robert’s gilded viewpoint. He bought them a house she loved in Normandy, but with the outbreak of war they moved back to her beloved adopted city.

She wrote just three novels, but found her calling in a different area; memoirs. It’s a mistake to think a writer can produce only one autobiography. Henrey wrote over 30 non-fiction volumes, and a great many were about her own life. She often used her husband’s name, mainly because she felt he had contributed greatly to her writing. And she found success with stories about her colourful life in London.

The Little Madeleine brought her the largest readership, and was peppered with vivid recollections of her difficult early life, written without self-pity or sentiment. An Exile In Soho and Madeleine Grown Up displayed her fascination with her chosen country. She wrote about London during the wartime air raids, during the Coronation, about London’s families, its boroughs, social life and customs, and there was a London trilogy, including The Incredible City and The Siege of London (it is hard to discern the third volume, as several other London titles are listed, but impossible to find).

Later, she wrote two volumes about her actor son’s experiences starring in Carol Reed’s The Fallen Idol. Without any previous experience, eight-year-old Bobby delivers an extraordinary performance as the lonely son of a French ambassador. He hero-worships the embassy’s butler, but when he misunderstands what he sees, the film becomes a thriller in which the truths concealed from a child cause tragedy.

For once this is an author I haven’t read, for the simple reason that she’s completely out of print. Surely her London books could be gathered together and re-released?