Goat ghosts and other stories…R C Sherriff’s First Steps in the Land of Autobiography
R C Sherriff’s autobiography No Leading Lady was published by Victor Gollancz in 1968. It focuses on his literary career, in particular Journey’s End, and runs through to his final staged play A Shred of Evidence in 1960. It also includes a sprinkling of references to his war service and his family, including his mother Constance. However, these references are brief and offer the reader only fleeting glimpses of his early life. Here at Surrey History Centre there are several abandoned drafts by Sherriff which suggest that the writing process for his autobiography involved an initial phase of experimentation before he finally settled on his preferred approach. These drafts contain interesting information and anecdotes about his childhood in which his father is a more prominent figure than in No Leading Lady.
Several of the drafts refer to his parents’ early servant problems, such as the difficulty of finding a good nursery governess who would reinforce the family’s image as being solidly middle class. His father, Herbert “Pips” Hankin Sherriff, seems to have been particularly keen to find an appropriate woman for this role:
Herbert was an insurance clerk who, like many other Victorians of the middle classes (especially, perhaps, the lower-middle classes), was anxious to maintain an outward appearance of respectability and decorum at all times. So he must have been worried what the neighbours would think when Ada, the eccentric family cook, decided that the Sherriff family home was being haunted by the ghost of a goat:
Click on images to enlarge
Such episodes may have helped provide inspiration for Sherriff’s 1936 novel Greengates, in which the relationship between retired insurance clerk Tom Baldwin and his servant, also called Ada, is characterised as sometimes being a strained one:
…Mr Baldwin went into the doorway and said in a friendly, jocular voice: “I say Ada – I wonder if you can let me have an old broom to get up leaves? Any old thing’ll do”.
There was nothing demanding in his manner, and a polite refusal from Ada would have ended the matter without the slightest difficulty. But the reception of his harmless, polite request was astounding: never before had Mr Baldwin seen such an evil light gather in a woman’s eyes.
“A broom – to sweep leaves!” she shouted – “leaves! – when there ain’t a decent broom in the house for the carpets! Here I am trying to get the bedroom finished an hour late – and tradesmen at the door every half-minute! No! – there ain’t a broom – not for leaves there ain’t!”
Sherriff, R C – Greengates Victor Gollancz, 1936, p. 48
In another draft fragment Sherriff revealed that, prior to Kingston Grammar School, he attended “Mr Bouvoir’s kindergarten school” on Lower Teddington Road in what was then Middlesex. I haven’t been able to track down a school of this name, and it’s possible that Sherriff decided to swap its real name for a fictional one. He doesn’t portray it as being a particularly enlightening experience, and the history lessons at the school don’t seem to have been instrumental in sparking his love for the subject. Nevertheless he characterised his experiences at Mr Bouvoir’s establishment with the gentle humour so typical of his literary style:
Aside from memories of his first school, Sherriff also mentioned in the same draft that he developed an unusual attachment to lamp posts and trees, much to his parents’ initial alarm, although his father felt reassured when one of his work colleagues mentioned that the esteemed 18th century writer Samuel Johnson had reportedly suffered from the same habit. The incident also underlines the ‘hands on’ approach of Victorians to disciplining children:
These abandoned drafts help to reduce the mystery surrounding his pre-Journey’s End life evoked by No Leading Lady to a small extent. It’s not clear why Sherriff ultimately decided not to include an account of his childhood in his autobiography. Maybe, given his self effacing personality, he simply decided it would be too ordinary to interest his readers?
And it’s also likely these drafts contain at least a few ‘tweaked’ versions of real life events. For example, in one of them Sherriff wrote that his birth in 1896 merited the following uninterested entry in his father’s diary: “Son born 11.15 am. Evening went to Kingston to buy a bicycle pump”. Herbert’s actual diary still survives, and the relevant entry suggests he was quite excited about his son’s birth: “…11.45 – A boy has just been born – very delightful – he is squalling away like anything – I recognised his voice before I knew of its sex – I had to go round to Dr Goodman (who is a first rate doctor) at 9.30…” (Ref: 3813/16/6/12). Certainly these drafts highlight how a writer interprets their life story with reference to what they or their publishers imagine are their readers’ preferences and expectations.
Please leave any comments you may have below.
R C Sherriff Project Archivist
Surrey History Centre
Sherriff Catalogues now on Exploring Surrey’s Past
The new detailed catalogues for the Sherriff papers at Surrey History Centre (refs: 2332, 3813 and 9314) are now available for researchers to browse via the Exploring Surrey’s Past website. Type “Sherriff” in the “Person, Organisation” search field to call up the catalogues:
The catalogues can also accessed via SURCAT, the Centre’s online catalogue of archive holdings: http://www.surreyarchives.org.uk/CalmView/