Reimagining Noël Coward

Janette Jenkins' new book recasts the notorious thespian's life

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Janette Jenkins talks about late thespian Noël Coward, the inspiration behind Firefly.

In 1969, Time magazine interviewed the quintessentially English playwright, actor, singer, director and professional bon vivant Noël Coward in what proved to be his final few years. ‘I acted up like crazy. I did everything that was expected of me. Part of the job,’ admitted Coward.

If Coward’s life was one giant performance, then British author Janette Jenkins has teased out his hidden complexities in her novel Firefly. The book reimagines Coward’s final days in his real-life Jamaican hilltop retreat of the same name. We meet Coward in his early 1970s when his health is failing. As a younger man he shimmered on stage, gaining energy and verve from the bright lights and attention. But in Jamaica, aged, with ‘squashy, marbled thighs’, and largely alone in his self-imposed tax exile, Coward wilts in the soporific sun. In the book, he lolls around the steaming gardens and floats comatose in his pool, daydreaming about his former glories.

‘I like the idea of somebody who once had the world at his feet and now, because of old age, because of illness, because he wasn’t quite in fashion, he sort of feels lost,’ explains Jenkins. ‘I could have written about when he was on top, a great success. [But] I wanted to write about somebody who has had that, and probably knows they will never get that golden era again.’

Jenkins paints a man famous for his many faces; she presents his forcefulness, his charm, his temper, his flirtatious philandering, his razor-sharp wit and acid tongue. ‘I think he is very different to how people believed or expected him to be,’ considers Jenkins, speaking over tea in a London café on a drizzly winter’s afternoon. ‘People always expected him to be “Noël Coward” – I’m sure that’s true of famous people today.’

In Firefly, Coward’s waning life force is contrasted with his bouncy young Jamaican houseboy, Patrice. Patrice is hired to look after the ‘boss’ – taking him on agonisingly slow walks, cooking him lunch, helping him dress – but he yearns to work as a waiter in The Ritz, London. When he asks Coward to write him a reference, Coward hesitates. This is the 1970s; he fears that Patrice will end up in a South London hovel rather than performing silver service. But there is also a selfishness in Coward. ‘That is the only bit of power Coward has. [It is] a little bit of him stamping his feet and saying: ‘I don’t want him to go. That’s my thing, England.’

Ultimately, what makes Firefly linger long after the last page has been turned is its exploration of the indignity of death. Coward passed away at Firefly after a heart attack in his bathroom. ‘You just think Noël Coward would be lying in bed, having a glass of bubbly, saying something witty [when he died],’ says Jenkins. Yet in reality when he collapsed ‘his false teeth had fallen out’.

Firefly is a novel about death, loneliness, exile and, in Coward’s case, estrangement from home. Jenkins concludes that it is ‘not just about Noël Coward. It’s a book about friendship and old age, power, immigration and a sense of place. An Englishman, famous for being very English, in somewhere so far away.’
Firefly, Dhs44, is available at www.amazon.com.

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