KATHLEEN HALE'S 18 marvellous books about Orlando the Marmalade Cat could only have been created by somebody with an exceptional sense of humour and an extraordinary artistic talent. To spread wide any of their generously filled folio pages is to become mesmerised by the detail, wit, and grace of the drawings. Clearly, a large number of people were equally mesmerised by Hale herself, from the moment she arrived in London in 1917 after an art course at Reading University, 'with only a few shillings in my pocket, my pince-nez delicately chained to one ear, and no qualifications whatsoever for earning a living.'
After a certain amount of genteel starving in garrets, she fell on her feet by becoming Augustus John's secretary. She found in him and his wife Dorelia parental substitutes that made up for the early death of her own father and her tempestuous relationship with her mother. From then on, she romped her way around Bohemian circles in London and Paris, breaking hearts left right and centre. She preferred 'Fitzrovia', on the commercial fringes of Bloomsbury, to the more precious air of Chelsea, and her common sense and charm saw her through situations in which a more egocentric spirit would have come to grief.
Determinedly independent, she designed book jackets, coloured in maps for the Ministry of Food, gained muscle as a land girl, and then lost it all again when jobs and funds ran out. Taken to hospital suffering from undernourishment, she met the charismatic John MacLean, whose son Douglas she eventually married. The breadth of Hale's acquaintance and the frankness with which she tells her story make this book a lively chronicle of inter-war Bohemia as well as the story of a remarkably likeable person; and it proves that sexual liberation did not by any means begin in 1963.
It also makes one realise how circumscribed by time and place are our new and not notably successful rules for marrying and bringing up babies. Hale had the first of her two sons in 1930, when she was 32. Knowing her own limitations and her need to go on painting (something Douglas always encouraged her in), she took on a Scottish nursemaid to look after her first baby, but only after she'd had six months to get to know what he was like. She was delighted that little Peregrine 'fixated on her rather than me for I was anxious to avoid an Oedipus complex - Freud was then all the rage'.
When her marriage went through a bad patch, she went to see a psychoanalyst who hinted that her only way forward was to have an affair. She chose an old beau unlikely to get too seriously involved, and 'when, in the nature of things the affair ended . . . the analyst proved right, for my marriage was recemented. And, mercifully, even my painter's back was cured.' We women who devote ourselves night and day to our children and then punish our husbands for straying by divorcing them, as it is now almost de rigueur to do, could surely learn from this.
Hale is first and foremost an artist, but she can put in words what she sees with unusual accuracy. Her friend Eric Earnshaw-Smith, married to Antonia White, was 'tall and excessively thin, with a fine head, thin silky ginger hair, and a pince-nez. He would fold his long legs into our deck-chairs, like a folding deck-chair himself. His movements, though elegant, were angular, and his long bamboo fingers stuck out in all directions when he smoked his cigarettes in their long holder, like stick insects.'
Best of all, this zestful tale sends one back with new eyes to the Orlando books themselves (now being reissued in their original format by Frederick Warne). Besides bursting with visual jokes, they are stuffed full of celebrations and caricatures of the people, animals and places that Hale loved. She herself identifies with the irrepressible Tinkle. The beanpole-tall Mr Cattermole is Earnshaw-Smith, the Byronic and beautiful Catnapper is Lett Haines, the lover who saved her marriage. Owlbarrow is Aldeburgh, accurate to the last decorated seaside villa, and parts of Rabley Willow, the Edwardian house near Elstree where the family flourished for 30 years, recur like leitmotifs.
Douglas died in 1967, but Hale herself is still 'hale and hearty' (the title of a Thirties Gaumont British film of her at work with metal sculpture) at the age of 96, painting more busily than ever after a successful operation for cataracts. The book's generous scattering of colour reproductions of her work made me want to see much more of it. What is shown is so good that it even raises the question as to whether the labour of making the 128 lithographic plates required for every Orlando title did not do her a disservice by keeping her from other art. How about a full-scale retrospective of her achievements in book illustration, poster-making, metal sculpture, and oil painting? Kathleen Hale herself, now a great-grandmother, would undoubtedly be the life and soul of the party.
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