Enid Algerine Bagnold, one of the great novelists and playwrights of the twentieth century, was born on October 27, 1889, in Rochester, Kent, the daughter of Colonel Arthur Henry Bagnold and his wife, Ethel Alger.
After a childhood partly spent in Jamaica, where her father was stationed with the Royal Engineers, Enid was educated at Prior’s Field School, Godalming, and afterwards in Marburg, Germany, Paris and Lausanne. In her youth, she studied art with Walter Sickert in London, sat for the French sculptor, Henri Gaudier-Brzeska, and worked as a journalist for Modern Society, edited by the notorious Frank Harris, who became her first lover.
During World War I, she worked as a nurse, and her first book, A Diary Without Dates, an exposé of hospital cruelty, won her instant celebrity when it was published in 1918. In the same year, a volume of her poems, The Sailing Ships, appeared, followed by her first novel, The Happy Foreigner.
In 1920, she married Sir Roderick Jones, the wealthy head of Reuters. Their first child, now Laurian, Comtesse d’Harcourt, was born in 1921, followed by three sons, Timothy, Richard and Dominic. In 1924, the Jones family bought North End House, Rottingdean, and soon afterwards acquired 29 Hyde Park Gate, London, entertaining lavishly at both residences.
Enid Bagnold’s literary acclaim increased with the publication of her second novel, Serena Blandish, in 1924, and her enchanting children’s story, Alice and Thomas and Jane, in 1930. But it was National Velvet that was to make her world-famous. Inspired by her daughter Laurian’s obsession with horses, this story of a young girl, Velvet Brown, who wins a horse in a raffle, and then, disguised as a boy, rides it to victory in the Grand National, has never been out of print since its publication in 1935. In 1944, it became a Hollywood film, providing the 12-year-old Elizabeth Taylor with her first starring role, then a stage play in 1946, and finally, in 1960, a long-running American television series.
Enid Bagnold’s first play, Lottie Dundass, was staged in America in 1941, and in London in 1943, starring Dame Sybil Thorndike and Ann Todd. An amateur production of Lottie Dundass was presented by the Rottingdean Players at Rottingdean Village Hall on the 14th and 15th October 1955 with local girl Barbara Whatley, later a highly successful stage and television actress. The performance on Saturday 15th October was attended by Enid and her friend, a heavily disguised Elizabeth Taylor whom Enid had brought specifically to see Barbara Whatley’s performance, and in whom she saw great promise. Elizabeth Taylor agreed with Enid and responded to Barbara’s performance with a kind letter of praise and congratulations.
Her fourth play, The Chalk Garden, presented in New York in 1955, starring Gladys Cooper, won the Silver Medal of the American Academy of Arts and Letters. When it opened in London in 1956, starring Edith Evans and Peggy Ashcroft, it was hailed by Kenneth Tynan as “the finest artificial comedy to have flowed from an English (as opposed to an Irish) pen since the death of Congreve”. It was filmed in 1963, starring Edith Evans, Deborah Kerr and Hayley Mills.
After further plays, The Chinese Prime Minister, starring Edith Evans, and Call Me Jacky, with Dame Sybil Thorndike and Edward Fox, the writer won perhaps the greatest literary acclaim of her career in 1969 with the publication of Enid Bagnold’s Autobiography. Her final play, A Matter of Gravity, starring Hollywood legend Katharine Hepburn, opened in New York in 1976, the same year in which Enid Bagnold was created a Commander of the British Empire by the Queen.
Katherine Hepburn loved A Matter of Gravity: “It was a delicious play. It had quality …. I didn’t care what it was about.” In the spring of 1975, Enid reported proudly to friends: “The great heroine has arrived – Katherine Hepburn. I’ve taken a suite for her at the Royal Crescent (hotel in Brighton).” Once Hepburn was committed, it was a question of pinning Enid down to finish the outstanding rewrites. Hepburn and her secretary, Phyllis Wilbourne, would arrive every day at North End House with picnic baskets full of crisp salads and fruit for lunch to ensure that Enid had no excuse to disappear into the kitchen preparing meals. Hepburn, being in no doubt that she was re-creating Bagnold on stage, thought it important to study the original at first hand. She said later: “It has been a real treat pretending to be you all these months. Very rewarding.”
In 1978, International Velvet, a screen sequel to her celebrated bestseller, was filmed by Bryan Forbes, with Tatum O’Neal, Nanette Newman and Sir Anthony Hopkins. Her last book, Letters to Frank Harris and Other Friends, was published in 1980.
Enid Bagnold (Lady Jones) died on March 31, 1981, at the age of 91. Her ashes were buried at St. Margaret’s Church, Rottingdean, the village that inspired her two greatest successes, National Velvet and The Chalk Garden. Her eldest grandchild, Annabel, is now Viscountess Astor, and her great-granddaughter. Samantha Cameron, is the wife of Britain’s current Prime Minister.