Edition: Pan, 1958
Review number: 1504
I'm a big fan of Patrick Dennis, although the difficulty of finding his books nowadays means I haven't read all that many of them - three out of sixteen (all published under various pseudonyms, his real name being Edward Everett Tanner III). Even the normally reliable Fantastic Fiction only lists the two Auntie Mame books.
This is the third of his books, the first under this name, and was hugely successful in the fifties, made into a play and then an Oscar nominated film with Rosalind Russell as the title character. The trailer for the film describes it as "the one you've been waiting for", and expects the watcher to guess the name of the title character. So this was a huge phenomenon at the time, and yet it seems to be almost forgotten today. (It later became a stage musical and another film.)
It is a parody of an autobiography, scenes from a bizarre Bohemian childhood. The narrator, named as Patrick Dennis, is sent as a nine year old to be brought up by his aunt after the death of his father. This catapults the boy into a completely different world - one which many today would still consider unsuitable for the raising of a child. In her company, he expands his vocabulary, meets a lot of strange people, and gets involved in many scrapes, as he becomes an integral part of his vivacious aunt's life. The last scene in the book depicts Patrick, now married and respectable, being persuaded by Mame to let his seven year old son join her on a trip to India: although the book's chronology would indicate that she was by this point in her seventies, she had not changed a bit. This also sets up Dennis' second novel, Around the World with Auntie Mame.
Auntie Mame and its sequel are lit up by the larger than life character of Mame. I can easily imagine that she would be tiresome in the long term in real life. Indeed, the portrayal by Rosalind Russell in the film is wearingly strident to me, even in the short dose of the trailer. The literary version of the character has a lot more charm, and her dominance of the book makes liking Mame crucial to enjoyment of the humour.
It's easy to see why it was so popular. It's still immensely funny, and
bears comparison with the best comic fiction ever written. Why, then, is it so much less well known today? Dennis himself stopped writing and became a butler before his death in 1976, but already by then his books were out of print. It is possible that revelations about the author's lifestyle (he was bisexual and was involved in the Greenwich Village gay community) made publishers less keen to promote his work. Indeed, a number of publishers rejected Auntie Mame, presumably because of its endorsement of an unconventional lifestyle, tame though much of it seems today. Maybe it was the opposite: in the liberated 1970s, did people no longer feel shocked enough by Dennis' writing to want to read it? I don't know what happened, but whatever it was, Patrick Dennis was too good a writer to deserve it.
My rating: 10/10.