Eileen Joyce: A Portrait by Richard Davis

Fremantle Arts Centre Press

$29-95 264pp

 

Reviewed by Stuart Hille

 

Eileen Joyce

Eileen Joyce

 

 

One of the difficulties experienced when reading a biography is that we know the general outline of the subject’s life before the first page has been perused. For the biographer, the task is relatively straightforward – data collection and interpretation with a soupcon of anecdotes. The challenge is to combine all this given material in a way and at a pace that maintains the reader’s interest.

To Richard Davis’ credit, his biography ‘Eileen Joyce: A Portrait’ achieves just that. His style is fluid and trim , his analyses elucidate the material and he carefully avoids that uncomfortable sense of turbidity that imbues so many biographies ( generally when the author has a hidden agenda ). This book is indeed well – toned and attentively metered.

However, it can’t avoid what appears to be the inevitable lull experienced in all biographies. This occurs when the subject’s life goes through a period of stability or regularity ( in Joyce’s case : 1937 – 1946 ). It is here that the writer becomes ineluctably caught up in the mundane routine of the referent.

Obviously Davis can’t ignore the fact that Joyce’s artistic life, due to the travel restrictions imposed by WWII, was forced into a time of fixity. Being a compulsive worker, she relished the hectic pace of performing in hospitals, studios and all manner of concert venues throughout the UK and such stalwartness appears to have endeared her to the public and press while simultaneously turning her name into an eminently marketable commodity. But this does not afford a great deal of riveting biographical reading.

One appreciates the author’s impasse but perhaps this could have been alleviated somewhat if he had chosen a less inventorial approach. The reader can all but guess which of the ‘heroic’ concerti would be featured at a specific concert or which of the litany of cloyingly titled (and sounding ) pieces would jostle for face-room in a solo recital. Nowadays, one cringes with embarrassment at the very mention of naming a piece ‘Lotus Land’, ‘Rustle of Spring’, ‘Si Oiseau J’etais’ et al.

While the public life of the pianist had become repetitious, her private existence was anything but monotone. Her marriage to Douglas Barratt, despite the birth of a son (John), quickly deteriorated – assuming that there had been at least a modicum of feeling to begin with.

Douglas died under enemy fire while serving aboard the HMS Gossamer in 1942. On his final shore leave, Joyce made sure that her husband came home to an empty house – depriving him of the chance to see his son for what would have been the last time. It was an Eileen Joyce trait, as we shall later see, to show overt bitterness towards those who most piqued her.

It wasn’t long before she was again ploughing through her established performing schedule with admirable determination. Privately, she had met the entrepreneur Christopher Mann. By accounts, it was more than mutual infatuation for the two, according to Mann , some three years later, were married in 1943. Despite the fact that they lived together as husband and wife for thirty seven years, it has been questioned whether they did so in true conjugality. Davis puts it nicely: ‘The benefits of their union were great to both parties but, if they were not legally married, the ‘illegality’ added another skein to the web of subterfuge and more weight to Eileen’s baggage of lies’.

Her mendacity has become quite legendary in its breadth and confusing in its mission. She must have been gormlessly naive if she didn’t realise that her deceit would be unearthed before her death. Perhaps she neurotically believed that her lies created an artistic mystique. Whatever the case, it would have been difficult, as she grew increasingly senile, to remember why those around her were, let us say, celebrating a milestone birthday or how she came to be born in a tent in remote Western Australia when in fact she as born in a hospital in Tasmania.

One wonders whether Christopher Mann helped to forge and promulgate some of the later falsities and exaggerations. Being a highly successful agent and promoter, he certainly had the right pedigree. Moreover, like his wife – perhaps even more so – he could show rancour and induration. As a case in point, Mann’s treatment of his stepson, applied with the full collusion of his wife, could have been lifted from the darkest of Dickensian novels.

Davis deals with the subject towards the end of his book although, it is to be assumed, he can do little more than to touch upon its issues. Unless John Barrett decides to publish an expose, for cathartic purposes, we will never know the full extent of the psychological abuse. Equally so, we are left with inconclusive justification for Joyce’s persistent lies. There is, however, one incontrovertible reality that threads her attitude towards others although, given her profession, this in itself forms yet another ambiguity.

We need go no further than what is evinced by her playing (the book is accompanied by a disc of selected performances ) because there can be no duplicity or dissemblance here. One becomes somewhat awed by her craftsmanship: dynamics that span degrees from ‘the point of sound’ through to powerful fortissimi, phenomenal dexterity and an excellent adaptation of style – all demonstrated within a carefully measured framework. Yet the more one listens, the more one perceives a low emotional temperature. There are passages of grace and subtlety but not sincere poignancy; nimble but not Delphic; pyrotechnic but not full-blooded or rapturous. Her style forms the most elegant of hedgerows but it doesn’t allow us to see the garden just beyond. Or perhaps we really do not want to see it.

Here is a woman who adored haute couture, relished film roles, gave her audiences everything they asked for (in the true spirit of Edna Everage), practised with incredible sedulity and yet could spurn the love offered by her family, could be condescending in her treatment of the general public, coveted honours and was prone to create an intangible persona through deception. Ironically, she developed an altruistic facet later in life as we know well from her generous donations to the University of Western Australia’s music department. Such apparent philanthropy would not seem to have been motivated by any sense of penitence but rather from a realisation that, with her life drawing to a close, she needed to leave a meaningful legacy. This she achieved.

Richard Davis, with complete objectivity, follows all the convolutions of his subject to create a fascinating biography. He offers the occasional explanation or interpretation to allow the reader to pause and reflect. However, one aspect of the book, evident from the earliest chapters, is its lack of reference to any episodes of levity or humour in Joyce’s life. One conjectures there was very little comedy in the way it was lived.

© Stuart Hille 2004



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