Benedicta Leigh 1922—2000

First Night Design | For My Mother | Mothering Sunday


Benedicta Leigh 1922—2000
Benedicta Leigh 1922—2000 [photo: David Sim]
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.

Benedicta Leigh & Michael Aldridge in See How They Run 1951
Benedicta Leigh & Michael Aldridge in See How They Run 1951

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 Handswhich 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.)

The Catch of Hands
Published by Virago Press Limited 1991

Blurb

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.

Biography

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.

Excerpt

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.

blhiiBenedicta in 1991
[photo: Bill Moody]

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Take care and keep laughing!

Sarah

39 thoughts on “First Night Design | For My Mother | Mothering Sunday

  1. Thanks for sharing Sarah. Truly amazing story. You’re probably right about the long-term effects of Lithium. I hope you’re successful in convincing Virago to republish. Even if it was on electronic format I’m sure it would be useful to lots of people.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. If I don’t have any luck, I’ll probably self-publish. Regarding the Lithium, it’s so difficult to know as she was convinced of so many things about her health over the years and, ultimately, never openly conceded she was bi-polar. Thank you for your comments, Olga.

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  2. this brought back memories of my own mother who suffered from mental health issues, particularly PTSD from a horrific childhood/young adulthood spent before and during WWII. It’s such a lovely piece

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you. That must have been very tough for you. My husband has PTSD and it is still not understand by many. If people tell the sufferer they should pull themselves together and get over it, it means they have no conception of the lasting effects. One may learn to cope with it, but it’s always there.

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    1. Thank you, Beth. Your comments mean a lot to me. I am proud of what she managed to achieve, even if it was only in the last ten years of her life. But it was very difficult to love her when she was alive!

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      1. i think the reason this resonates so much with me, is that my mother was very difficult to love (an understatement), while alive as well. (without the creative side). it was very challenging to sort out all of my emotions when she passed away, but i came to realize that she did the best she could with what she was capable of.

        Liked by 1 person

        1. That is the only way. I came to realise, luckily before Benedicta died, that she could only do what she could, as with my father who was also not the greatest and had never really wanted children. What doesn’t kill you, makes you stronger may be a cliche but it’s no less true for all that. I wouldn’t be who I am or have learned what I have had I not coped. Which is why I’m proud of my wrinkles – full of character, don’t yer know!

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  3. I do hope Virago republishes your mother’s inspiring memoir. I’m so glad I still have my copy. It would be lovely for Virago to make it available again so that more people can read it.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you, Gayle! Did you really ever doubt that I was an actress when I so loved all your marvellous miniature theatres?! I want more but I can see your renewed joy in making jewellery is going to be running a while yet!

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    1. Brilliant is the word! My heart goes out to you regarding your son. Having experienced it, it is very tough, very stressful and yet one marvels at what those affected are capable of achieving. Thank you for commenting, Marilyn.

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  4. Sarah, it’s wonderful to hear your mum’s story and to hear about her work. It was a long journey for you to reach the conclusion that Benedicta could only do what she could do, and some people never get there in relation to a parent. But arriving at that realisation is a freeing thing. Your mum was incredibly beautiful and multi-talented. I hope you do get her book republished. I’d love to read it. Echoes for me here in terms of having a relative who is bipolar. Your insights are so helpful. Really appreciate your honesty and perspectives on what makes us who we are. Your compassion shines through.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Bless you, Ann. There are remaindered/second-hand copies of The Catch of Hands on Amazon if you click the book link above. You’ve probably now realised one of the reasons why I’m writing my memoirs! Compassion is sadly absent in 21st century life, I find. Sometimes, though, I forget that I need to spend some of my compassion on myself or I’m no good to anyone. That’s the problem with being brought up to ‘think of the other person before yourself’!

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    1. Thank you so much, CC, for visiting and following. Much appreciated. I’m so glad you liked this post. My but she was difficult to live with! By the way, I was delighted to discover your historical walking boots and am now following there too.

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      1. Thanks so much Sarah! Yours is a feast of my favourite things. – My late father was in amateur theatre so my childhood day trips were all to the sound of him singing various scores! I am going through the process now of clearing his house full of stage electrics and props. That’s one of the reasons behind History Head in Walking Boots. Cheerio, CC

        Liked by 1 person

  5. What a beautiful woman. A remarkable story. Thank you for introducing me to your blog and your wonderful art and writing. I am so happy you visited so that I could find you here! Thanks for the follow as well. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  6. This topic is closest to my heart tho i rarely write about it on a public forum now. i have been deeply wounded in the past by insensitive to quite horrid comments made by individuals who needed to be medicated and locked up for awhile to get a grip. Just kidding…sort of …

    i read this and felt so sad for all those who’ve walked this path before myself. while my breakdown was fortunately in the 90s not the 60s or worse, earlier, it was still filled with it’s own horrors for myself and unfortunately my children. my grown daughter to this day, still suffers from mental illness. it is by far the most difficult of illnesses to deal with both for the patient and those who love them.

    Blessings to you… xxx

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Bless you, yes, it is the most difficult to deal with for both sides. Too many people have a complete lack of even basic understanding. Unfortunately, my mother had no real insight into her condition which made it doubly difficult. Even at the end she didn’t concede that what she had was manic depression. xx

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  7. Thanks for this article! I picked both of your mother’s books up second hand and read The Catch Of Hands last month. I was so moved, and entertained. Inspiring. I was curious about her so have been doing a bit of Googling, and found this article and just wanted to let you know how much I absolutely loved The Catch Of Hands. Looking forward to reading Unlock, and.. now. Thank you!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. How wonderful to hear from you. I am delighted you enjoyed The Catch of Hands. Benedicta would have been thrilled. I have not yet made any headway with Virago about re-publishing but your words will add to my argument when I do. Thank you, Sue.

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