Born Benedicta Hoskyns in 1922, my mother spent a large part of her childhood on the island of Malta where her father was serving in the Rifle Brigade.
She later spent a year drawing from life at Salisbury School of Art. During World War II, she nursed with the Red Cross in Auxiliary Hospitals and Convalescent Homes throughout the country, also finding time to write, produce and play in several revues for her patients.
The war over, she trained for the stage at RADA where she received commendations from Sybil Thorndike and Laurence Irving and won the George Arliss prize as well as sharing the Dialect prize with Cyril Shaps.
Her subsequent career included repertory at Windsor, Bromley, Sheffield, Coventry and Nottingham, No Other Verdict at the Duchess Theatre in the West End (“stealing all the notices as the maid” she would tell me gleefully) films such as The Eternal Question and Hands of Destiny.
In 1955 she married my father, the actor Richard Vernon, and after giving birth to me and my brother Tom, she gave up the stage to look after us, though occasionally returning to do the odd episode of such series as The Main Chance with John Stride.
Diagnosed as a manic-depressive in the late 1960s, there followed a series of breakdowns. It was only in the late 1980s that she was able get her life back on an even keel. After divorcing Richard, she wrote an autobiography The Catch of Hands, which was published by Virago in 1991 and won The Mind Book of the Year Award in 1992. She followed this with a work of fiction, Unlock, and Remind Me of the Sea, also published by Virago. Following this association with the mental health charity, Mind, she spoke at a Stress Against Women conference and contributed details of her treatment at the hands of professionals for MIND to use in their campaigns.
In 1997 her health began to deteriorate and she had to be sectioned once again. Chronic renal problems were diagnosed in 1999, probably a result of the length of time she had taken the anti-psychotic drug, Lithium. She died in Kingston Hospital on 8 February 2000.
Sarah Vernon © 2014 (adapted from a bio originally published on Rogues & Vagabonds in 2001.)
With the piquant with of Colette, the lyricism of Laurie Lee and a passion all her own, Benedicta Leigh tells the story of her life — a life made remarkable by her determination to rescue it. Born in the 1920s, to parents who allowed her delightful eccentricities and dreams of glory, her childhood and adolescence were a restless seeking out of life.
But after her beloved father’s death during the Second World War, and the suicide of her lover some years later, came the first of many shattering breakdowns. It is twenty years later that, with an undeniable force of will, Benedicta Leigh bravely takes up the sword to tackle the nightmares, and to loosen the knot within herself.
Extraordinarily perceptive, The Catch of Hands is written with powerful candour and a painterly skill. Benedicta Leigh’s is a unique voice, full of beauty, longing, pain and courage.
Benedicta Leigh was born in Hampshire in 1922. After working as a VAD during the Second World War, she trained at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art, and has since performed widely in the theatre. Although she has written most of her life, this is her first full-length work. She has two grown-up children, and lives in London.
In this remarkable autobiography, Benedicta Leigh portrays with painterly skill her insouciant, untrammelled childhood and her troubled adult years. Using language with a wonderful freshness and originality, hers is a unique voice, full of beauty, longing, pain and courage.
The bullet bit into my forehead as I skidded across the lawn and crashed to the ground The decks ran crimson, and away by the hedge my mother slowly hauled up a great dandelion, its acrid milk spattering her knuckles. She was too busy to notice the rattle in my throat, my dying, my death, oh, the perfection of it, and she missed Ned the cabin boy weeping over my body and saying ‘O Captain, Sir, what will we do? Mr Peyton is dead and done for, and who shall drive the boat now?’ ‘Well, not him, anyway,’ said Captain Tollemache. ‘Get a coffin and some flags, and we will have a long dull funeral and a party with ginger-beer. Everyone can come but Nanny, and my caterpillars will do an entertainment.’
I heard the boys whining and thumping up in the nursery as I turned over on to my stomach. My mother had gone indoors, leaving her straw hat on the steps, and spikes of grass bent beneath the anxiety of a beetle’s progress. Over my shoulder blades a concentration of heat spilled, and the dog of war walloped towards me and leaned against my shoulder, a raggle of tongue pushing into my ear.
I said, ‘You’re being rather intimate with me today, my dear,’ as I stroked him. His coat felt like a hot flannel. I sang: ‘O dog of war, who forged thy dread breath?’ And I sang that if it was stew for lunch, then I would be sick unto my plate a great lot….
While there are copies to be had of The Catch of Hands and her second book, Unlock And Remind Me Of The Sea, they are now out of print. I am hoping to persuade Virago to republish. At the time, Benedicta received a number of letters from people saying how much the memoir had helped them immeasurably by allowing them to realise they were not alone.
An interesting postscript is that in January this year, I commented on a post by Judith Haire at the Mentally Wealthy blog about my mother’s bi-polarity and mentioned her memoir. An instant response to my comment came from Jean Davison who said, ‘That’s so interesting, I bought that book years ago and kept it on my bookshelf. I have it in my hands now. It was one of the books that inspired me to write my own memoir and try to get it published, which I eventually did.’ (The Dark Threads – a vivid memoir of one young woman’s psychiatric treatment)
It is a small and supportive world out here.
Benedicta in 1991
[photo: Bill Moody]
Take care and keep laughing!