I finally received my “Bible” for Christmas, BR’s own In and Out of Character, which in literary terms is more of a memoir than a true autobiography. In the past, I’ve only read snippets here and there from searching the book in amazon, or quoted on this site or on basilrathbone.net. I must admit that reading it from cover-to-cover gives me new insight. While Basil’s bio is not completely “factual,” I believe it is honest in what it reveals about him and Ouida.
I think he did truly love her, whatever her foibles. As a teacher of writing and literature, I think the preface one of the most important parts of the book. He begins by dismissing any ideas that he is going to reveal anything damaging about the people he loves, perhaps already putting aside the speculations and criticisms of any who knew him well and knew about any of the inadequacies of the marriage. According to the section where he describes meeting Ouida, he calls her “Titian-haired” and he also refers to her as a natural redhead with alabaster skin. In his narrative, he is the one who makes the first move physically. He describes many aspects of his relationship with Ouida which woud make them a good match — they share the love of the same books, music, theater, the arts. (As a long-married person myself, I have to agree that a “long run” marriage needs this as much as or more than sexual chemistry.)
I think he does refer in subtle ways to some of the more intimidating aspects of her character. He often calls her more “conservative” in terms of discipline and morals regarding the upbringing of their daughter and later on, her respect for social conventions. He comes across as more free-thinking and liberal, and emotionally a bit of a softy. (I was surprised by the many sentimental moments, particularly about his childhood and wartime experiences.) I do think Ouida probably did give his life more discipline and was a controlling influence in some ways, perhaps some positive, others negative (although you won’t hear that from him!)
I find it interesting how he reveals in veiled ways that both of them were sexually experienced before marriage and that helped them also get along as a couple. Also, yes, he was a ladies’ man before Ouida. Not counting the wartime “almost” dalliance with “Marie” and his first roll in the hay with “Esther”, in his theater days, he refers to at least three ladyfriends — another “Marie”, “Kitten,” and his first “Juliet” (not to mention “June” in the U.S., his date when he first came as a guest to Ouida’s, and whom he admits he rudely abandoned). All of these while still legally married to (but separated from) Marion. He describes these escapades charmingly — with no rancor or misogyny, a real gentleman who loves women. So, he was no “St. Basil,” but a bit of a bohemian enjoying the free loving lifestyle of the theater.
He adored Cynthia, his daughter, who is described as a willful but charming child, and if there were difficulties between him and Ouida in the 40s, I could see him as being inclined to stick it out with her and overcome them for the sake of the child.
The book also allows me to hear his side of some of the stories I’ve read on the posts. For instance, on the encounter that Jed Harris describes over whether Rathbone should take the role of Dr. Sloper, Rathbone admits that he is excited about the play, but that she didn’t like it. Rathbone said she didn’t care for the role because it was not a “glamor” role, but that of a mature man in his 50s, perhaps a transition for both of them in acknowledging middle age.
Rathbone describes Harris as a man of enormous charm who was unable to win over Ouida, and Rathbone admits Ouida “proceeded to reconstruct the play along lines as she saw it.” For his own part, Rathbone said that “whatever happened… I intended to do the play,” and he acknowledges that “her version of the play would require major revisions, and I knew Jed was not sympathetic to them.” Here, you do see the picture of a husband humoring his wife, but also determined to make the right decision for his own career. It’s an interesting passage where you can see the tension of the marriage, the “agree to disagree” component of it.
Despite these disagreements, I never get the sense of resentment of Ouida, and in fact, she’s depicted as an accommodating wife, particularly about managing the many moves and transitions required by his career, which involved transporting a household to the opposite coast while he was busy touring in a play or making a film.
Overall, the book is filled with Basil’s voice, which is at turns charming, sentimental, wistful, reflective, very British, and even occasionally humorous. He loves a good story and he’s a skillful raconteur. Toward the end, there is a yearning for the past and the usual complaints about the modern age, which are as relevant today as when they were written; he describes TV as “Like a monster New York garbage truck the industry was devouring material every day of the week,” and this before the days of the Kardashians and Honey BooBoo!
As the book ends, I get the sense of an intensely spiritual person, moved by music and the arts, which absorb many of the last pages. While his last paragraph looks forward to his future anniversaries with Ouida, in earlier passages, there are indications of his awareness of the possibility of his own passing, but it’s an awareness without fear. Before his sudden illness during J.B., he tries to visit a church, but finds the doors closed and he feels a vague sense of anxiety. His treatment at St. Carmel also brings with it a sense of comfort, both from the nuns and the lovely nightly music, and from his receiving the sacrament from the rector of his own church, which is Episcopalian. (Ah, Basil, we are kindred spirits.) Yet, like many Episcopalians, he is a bit of a free-thinker, accepting spiritual leaders from many faiths (he speaks positively of Bishop Sheen and of many Jewish colleagues).
His chapter on Judas describes his intellectual and spiritual process in trying to understand the man who betrayed Jesus, and his discussion of the various roles of J.B. also reveal a man of complex beliefs. He clearly has a belief in the afterlife and a sense of comfort in that; during his hospitalization, he describes feeling connected to his loved ones who have gone before him: “Mother and Daddy and Beatrice and John. And one prayed again as then, so many years ago; and those who had gone before came back for a fleeting moment and a reunion in blessed memory was consummated.” This also is not the first time in the book that he refers to experiencing the presence of his deceased family members.
When I finished the book, I felt a sense of loss, a sense of the loss of this man’s voice, which was a presence to me as I read it during my many travels over the holiday week, and even a loss of his ideas – a national theater program in the U.S. – what a wonderful dream (especially for a mother who has a daughter with a degree in theater)! I don’t see his life as tragedy, but of one of missed opportunities, but on his part, no regrets, except for his early failed marriage. The book does not reveal all, but it does reveal the kind of man he was – flawed, modest, funny, gentle, intellectual, spiritual. No, you won’t get any “dirt” on Ouida or anyone else because that’s not the kind of man he was, nor would I want him to be any other than what he was. – ROSEMARIE