Normally I loathe it when some famous person of the past is presented in fictional guise: Emily Dickinson, say, or Napoleon, turned into the protagonist of a novel. It seems so presumptuous, an unforgivable invasion of something more elemental than privacy: how the real person would hate having words put into his mouth and thoughts into his head! And then there is the unfortunate fact that the novelist is almost by definition less brilliant and interesting than the person being written about, so that those thoughts and words come out as feeble, unconvincing. In ninety-nine cases out of a hundred, it’s more rewarding simply to read the biography.
Yet there are those hundredth cases that can change your mind (Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall is a recent example.) This time, it’s Janette Jenkins’s Firefly, an elegant novel about an elegant man — Noël Coward, often called by his friends “the Master.” (Playwright, songwriter, actor, singer, director, he was known in the theater business as a “jack of all entertainment trades and master of most.”) To insinuate oneself into the mind of one so devastatingly witty and quick seems intrepid to the point of foolishness, but Jenkins has done it with hardly a flaw. She sets her narrative in 1971; the Master, now elderly and suffering from the mental and physical effects of arteriosclerosis, is puttering around on his Jamaica estate, reflecting on past glories and present indignities. The Jamaica to which Coward had repaired from England as a tax exile in 1948 is no longer the genteel British colony of his salad days; newly independent, it swirls with ganja smoke and pulsates to the beat of reggae. Firefly, Coward’s hilltop refuge overlooking the ocean, has taken on the air of a beleaguered outpost.
Perhaps it always was that, as Coward had originally designed Firefly as a private escape from the horde of house guests — he called them his “bloody loved ones” — who flocked to Blue Harbour, his original estate down the hill from this one: Hollywood stars, London luminaries, and the inevitable “sycophantic men…acting like chorus girls, basking in his glamour.” His longtime companions Graham Payn and Cole Leslie would stay behind at Blue Harbour to care for the visitors, while Coward retreated to Firefly for the privacy he craved. As Payn once reminisced, “He would take house guests from Blue Harbour up to Firefly to have our pre-dinner drinks. Martinis: jolly strong in those days. And we’d be sitting up there, and people would say, ‘Oh, these are rather strong,’ and Noel would say, ‘No, it’s the altitude.’ “
Jenkins presents us with Coward in the last couple of years of his life. (He died at Firefly in 1973 and is buried there.) It is the hippie era, and while Coward is still a very famous man, the glossy, stylish, upper-class entertainment he personifies has gone hopelessly out of fashion. He is a man diminished in both mind and body. “By the time they reach the first bend in the lane, his knees are throbbing and his chest is starting to ache. Noël looks down. Did these legs really dance around a stage, nimble as you like? Did they jump onto surfboards, waterskis, trolley cars?” He lumbers in and out of his pool, pulls himself grudgingly together for the occasional unwelcome guest, browses in the pages of the favorite author of his Edwardian childhood, E. Nesbit. He slips mentally in and out of the England he has left behind with such mixed feelings: “Slow traffic, bent poplars, grey sky.” And he spars with his Jamaican caregiver, Patrice, an enthusiastic youth who longs for a career as a waiter at the London Ritz and practices his dubious skills on the Master: “The poached salmon would be a culinary work of art, jumping straight from the pages of an illustrated Julia Child or Fanny Craddock, if it wasn’t for the effect of the black grape placed where the eyeball should have been. The way the grape has been angled makes the fish look slightly deranged.”
If the novel has a center around which all its layers are wrapped, it is the old man’s relationship with the young servant.
“You want it tuning, Boss?” [Patrice] says. “They play calypso around twelve o’clock.”
“I’m not fond of calypso,” says Noël, heaving himself off the sunbed and tottering towards the edge of the veranda. “Calypso reminds me of those very bad TV commercials for reconstituted rum-flavoured puddings.” He holds out his hand. “I’ll take it,” he says. “I’ll do the tuning.”
He lets the radio drop over the balustrade where it smashes onto the concrete. Patrice puts his hand to his mouth, but says nothing.
“Now,” says Noël. “Perhaps you might go down and retrieve the batteries? Mr. Payn only bought them the other day. They might come in handy for a torch.”
“No need to look quite so morose,” Noël tells him. “Nothing died here.”
He watches Patrice as he walks with a curious grace towards the broken radio. He collects the pieces as if they were small shattered bones.
That Patrice is beautiful, gentle, humorous, and rather intelligent does not need to be stated; we are allowed to intuit sexual attraction here, possibly love, without Jenkins having crassly to point it out. In any case, Coward is an old man who will not impose his unlovely self on spotless youth. The regret of age is here in full, but again, not dwelt on unduly, and whenever sentiment threatens to subsume the brittle surface it is undercut with the sort of camp humor of which Coward was indeed the Master.
While reading Firefly I kept being reminded of another portrait of a powerful character festering in exile: Alan Bennett’s brilliant television play An Englishman Abroad, in which Alan Bates portrayed the Cambridge spy Guy Burgess in his uncomfortable Moscow ostracism, homesick for London gossip, food, and haberdashery. As Bennett did, Jenkins achieves pity without pathos; we enjoy and even guardedly like these prickly renegades but understand very well that they have created their own prisons.
Firefly, it should be pointed out, is open to the public and is a godsend to cultural tourists in Jamaica who take no interest in ganja or Wailers. Nothing has changed since Coward’s time — not even the gaudy tropical shirts hanging in the closet! — and the dining table is set just as it was when the Queen Mother came to lunch in 1965. There is something peculiarly touching about the place, perhaps because of its extreme simplicity. Except for the dramatic beauty of its setting, Firefly is a modest, middle-class abode; one cannot imagine any showbiz superstar of the twenty-first century creating such an unpretentious dream house. Like the E. Nesbit book found on Coward’s bedside table at the time of his death, The Enchanted Castle — and like Jenkins’s quietly eloquent novel itself — Firefly reminds us of the dreamy, struggling London boy beneath the glittering international star he became.