Auntie Mame

I’m going to make it a rule that I only review books immediately after reading them. When I’m in a book, I’m full of enthusiasm for talking about it, and able to see all kinds of significant details. Once I’ve finished it, and maybe read a couple more books, and several weeks seem to have slipped past, then I’ve forgotten all the things I wanted to say and my heart’s not in it any more. Only I have to make an exception for the book I’m going to tell you about now, Auntie Mame by Patrick Dennis, because it was too funny and entertaining not to mention at all. But I read it at the wrong moment, really, because it was comfort food and at the time, I was in no need of it. It didn’t prevent me from enjoying it, but it was the kind of book I wished I’d saved up for a rainy day.

Auntie Mame is apparently an American classic, as it went on to become one of the bestselling books of its day and then one of the top ten Broadway shows of all time. Now Penguin have re-issued it with a plaster pink cover featuring a bejeweled and black-gloved hand, with a cigarette in a long holder balanced between the fingers. This is a fine introduction to Auntie Mame, a New York society woman, progressive in her thought (wedded to extravagantly loopy ideas), able to turn her hand to anything with chameleon grace (old school drama queen entranced by the idea of herself in many and varied guises) and with a heart of gold (the saving grace that makes her endless scheming and self-delusions tolerable). The comedy of Auntie Mame arises from the mismatch between what she is and what she thinks she is, and the performance she puts in to try and cobble the two together. The narrative is written not from her perspective, however, but from that of her young nephew, Patrick, who comes to live with her from the age of ten onwards when his conservative, uptight father dies. Needless to say, his father deeply disapproved of Mame, but had no other relative who could act as guardian. We love Mame because she does love Patrick, even if she cannot resist manipulating him, and Patrick loves her too, although she exasperates him beyond measure.

The book progresses as a series of escapades delivered chronologically as Patrick grows up. In each one some complicated situation arises that threatens to bind Auntie Mame and Patrick to it inextricably, until a combination of chance and pizzazz brings about a triumphant conclusion. So it’s a good old-fashioned classic American episodic narrative, driven by character, a kind of Huck Finn for WASPS. I found that it wasn’t a book I could read a lot of in one go, because each chapter had a chocolate truffle sort of taste to it – hugely satisfying as a one-off, but subject to diminishing returns and eventual biliousness if you binge. Apparently it was written as a series of short stories, but in that form nineteen publishers turned it down because it was ‘unmarketable’. A novel was required, and finally one publisher saw how it could be done. This device (which I won’t bother explaining – it’s not worth it) is the weakest part of the stories and ought never to have seen the light of day. But don’t worry about it because it’s completely negligible and won’t spoil any reader’s enjoyment. And the enjoyment is very much worth having. The book is a winning combination of hilarious character portraits and witty one-liners. For instance, in the chapter in which Mame gets married and turns, briefly, into a Southern Belle, she journeys to her husband’s family home asking “when am Ah gonna meet yo sweet little ole mothah?” (phonetic dialogue being one of Dennis’s favourite devices). The narrator responds crisply that:

‘Mrs Burnside could by no stretch of the imagination be called either sweet or little. But she was old, and I suppose that God in His infinite wisdom had seen fit to make her a mother, although I’ve often risked blasphemy to wonder why. She was built along the lines of a General Electric refrigerator and looked like a cross between Caligula and a cockatoo. Mother Burnside had beady little eyes, an imperious beak of a nose, sallow skin and bad breath. She wore a stiff black wig and a stiff black dress and she sat all day long in a darkened drawing room, her pudgy hands – encrusted with dirty diamond rings – folded over her pudgy belly.’ And young Patrick has no more love for the boy relation he is left to keep company with: ‘Although he was only six months my elder, Emery Oglethorpe was a century ahead of me when it came to a firsthand knowledge of evil.’ Now this novel was first published in 1955 and it may come across as dated and even stereotypical to American readers, who are seeing for the nth time the origins of typical character portraits. But it made me giggle. The situations are so beautifully worked out for the most part (only one disappointed me) and the writing so consistently amusing that it would have been churlish to complain of some degree of familiarity (and bear in mind this probably was original, fifty years ago). This isn’t a book to come to for depth and meaning, though; it is a frivolous frolic of a narrative, a romp and a cancan. It’s glorious camp, dahling, and none for worse for that. Save it up for when the world seems a cruel, hard place.

18 thoughts on “Auntie Mame

  1. This post brought a huge smile to my face. I was in a production of Mame (the musical version) several years ago. It was so much fun! I played Pegeen Ryan, which was a great part, but she has a little less to do than in the book (only in two scenes). I was also in the chorus for the first act, so I got to dress as a flapper and just generally have a great time. Oh, and our Mother Burnside was played by a man–he gave hands down the best audition and was just wonderful! (He was also built along the lines of a General Electric refrigerator, which helped.)

    I actually hadn’t heard known about the book until I was in the musical, so even though it is known here, it has sort of faded in popularity. I’m curious about the devise you think should not have seen the light of day. Is it the one do to with authorship?

  2. Ahh, one of my most favorite “frivolous frolics of a narrative.” For your next rainy day, if you can find it, read The Loving Couple (Dennis writing as Virginia Rowens). I read a fascinating biography of the author called Uncle Mame a number of years ago, which I also loved. As so many good humorists often do, he had quite a sad life.

  3. Sorry, this may be a little odd but I wonder about the twinge I felt when I read the post’s opening. I understood from it that novels, for the most part, seem to be something akin to rich food. They are consumed, the lips smacked for a little while, and then, a morsel or so on, the experience slips away to meet a rather ignominious end. I don’t want to take the food metaphor too far but it was your reference to the book as comfort food that started me wondering if it could explain why I felt that twinge. I agree, by the way, novels do seem that in my life. The odd thing is that I feel a bit disloyal to the book when I use it in a way that really doesn’t nourish so much as mask a wound not itself treated by the narrative. I suspect some evolutionarily created cognitive slippage when I feel this (like empathy run amok amongst the non-living). Still even if it isn’t a fault exactly, acknowledging potential biological origins to the experience doesn’t diminish the feeling of guilt. Sometimes I hold a book I’ve long since read and think I should have taken more seriously the insights I had when reading it. As if, if I had, my wounds, my need for comfort, would not still be so great. Am I looney tunes? It probably goes a long way to explaining why I tend toward non-fiction and poetry.

  4. I read this ages ago and thought it a great romp, too! I like the idea of a book being like a cancan–that seems so spot on with this book. I don’t remember the device he used to connect the stories/episodes–that’s long since faded away, but you do have me a little curious. There is a sequel that I read (Around the World with Auntie Mame), so if you did like the first, you might keep it in mind when you’re in need of more light-hearted entertainment.

  5. I read Dennis’s The Loving Couple a couple years ago (thanks to Emily!) and enjoyed it a lot, but was bothered by the datedness and the stereotypes. Still, I should read this one because I was a member of the chorus in a high school production of the musical, and it would be great fun to read the source.

  6. I can’t believe I’ve never read the book — I must have seen the film thirty times; it was a mainstay of my childhood … so much so that many lines from it have become catch phrases between me and my mother. We are wont to exclaim, in moments of extreme stress, “There is no such place as San Francisco!” as Mame does in the film when she becomes hopelessly flustered in a job as a telephone operator.

  7. Have you seen the film, with Rosalind Russell? My mother absolutely loves the film, and she is constantly quoting this one line about “some Aryan from Darien with braces on her brain”–particularly now that my sister lives in Connecticut and actually meets people from Darien. But it isn’t my favorite film ever. Maybe I’d like the book better.

  8. Claire – I’d love to know what you think of it – and how nice of you to drop by. You know I’ve been wondering for ages if you are the Claire I used to know at the university? Apologies if you are not – it’s a big blog world!

    Kathleen – it is a lot of fun, unapologetically so!🙂

    Lilian – I have never seen the film – I wish they’d show it over here! And the book is full of such funny one liners, like when Patrick (quite grown up now) reprimands his fiancee’s grand wedding plans with the comment ‘Just how long do you think it’s going to take you to prepare for this production, now that Zeigfield’s dead?’ I did chuckle a lot over it.

    Teresa – I’m tickled by you and Dorothy both having taken part in a production of this! Pegeen would have been a great part to play. The device occurs at the start of each chapter. The narrator has supposedly read a Reader’s Digest article about an ‘unforgettable character’ and he quotes from the magazine, each time as a lead in to Auntie Mame doing something similar but way more outrageous. It’s not terrible – just a bit contrived and redundant!

    Claire – you have an Auntie Mame-type aunt??? Wow. I am in awe. Even a passing similarity would be quite something. And I can quite see why this is a classic comfort read – I would be tempted to return to it again myself!

    Emily – the Penguin edition had an essay on Patrick Dennis’s life at the back. I was going to go into it but had already written too much (as usual!). I must say I would be intrigued to read more about him now as it sounds like an incredible life, literally incredible in places. And I’d love to read more by him – he’s hard to get hold of over here, but maybe Penguin will reissue more. I hope so.

    Mary – interesting comment! Umm, I wonder whether the impulse to use fictional insights might itself be redolent of the wounding – that we feel strenuously and slightly self-punishingly as if we need to be fixed or mended in some way. Whereas the real issue is whether we can gain access to all the qualities and attitudes that we need and which we always already have. We’re never truly broken, just sometimes opaque or bewildered. And whilst all fiction has something to say, no matter on what level that fiction operates, it also has the possibility of putting us in a different place. It may show us that we can still find amusement and consolation when we are sad or distressed, and that in itself might be enough. It might give us access to a place inside ourselves where it is always summer, despite the wintry conditions outside (to paraphrase a quote a friend sent me yesterday that I loved). This is not to say that books cannot teach us things intellectually – they certainly can. But I tend to think they have other transformative powers too, in the act of consumption, and that they may also have their uses. Well, that’s just my feeling – do disagree if you want!

    Danielle – I am so glad you liked this too, and I will certainly keep an eye out for the sequel. It was a delightful read!

    Dorothy – I am entranced by the thought of you in a high school musical. Was it fun? If this isn’t quite your style of thing, I wouldn’t worry about it. The world is packed full of good books. I think having acted in the production may well discount you from any further involvement (I used the same excuse in college over a Brecht essay when I was at that time acting in The Caucasian Chalk Circle….)

    Eva – I’d love to know what you think of it!

    David – how I would love to see the film! I had no idea one existed. I’ve just looked it up on amazon but it’s prohibitively expensive over here at the moment. I’ll keep an eye on it – hopefully a cheap copy will turn up soon. I can imagine it is full of eminently quotable lines!

    Jenny – I haven’t seen the film (although I’d like to) so can’t make a reliable comparison. But as I mentioned to Dorothy, it IS a very particular form of humour and there are plenty more comfort reads in the sea, as it were. But I do love the way this book seems to be embedded in the lives of so many of my blogging friends!

    • Lovely response – gentle as ever. So I am looney tunes! OK, I can live with that. In fact it’s rather nice as I take it to mean that I really don’t have to strive for health since I probably wouldn’t recognize it if I saw it. Thanks for the giggle.

      • Oh no! I didn’t mean or say that at all. I’m saying that books can be used in all kinds of ways, with no disrespect meant to them (and we can choose how best to use them for ourselves). And I’m saying that health and happiness may not always respond well to striving – that having faith in ourselves and our ability to change and develop might be just as good. It wasn’t a comment that was intended to dictate to, or define, you! Just to offer my own perspective on these things.🙂

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