Friday, September 08, 2006

Vivien Leigh Again   posted by DavidB @ 9/08/2006 04:59:00 AM

There are more interesting things about Vivien Leigh than whether or not she was Anglo-Indian [see Note on terminology], but I have now consulted a few biographies, so I will summarise the evidence.

The biographies I have seen are by Anne Edwards (1977), Alexander Walker (1987), and Hugo Vickers (1988).

First, it should be explained that Vivien's original name was Vivian [sic] Hartley. Her father was an Englishman named Ernest Hartley, of well-documented Yorkshire stock.

The uncertainty is on the maternal side. Vivien's mother's Christian names were Gertrude Mary, but this is about the only undisputed thing about her. Her family name is given variously as Yackjee, Yackje, and Yackje with an acute accent on the 'e'. There are also three versions of her birthplace. According to Anne Edwards, she was born in Ireland (version 1) and educated in an Irish convent school. According to Hugo Vickers 'it has been invariably stated that Ernest's wife, Gertrude Yackjee, was also born in Yorkshire' (version 2). Vickers's term 'invariably' is incorrect, because we have just seen that an earlier biographer (Edwards) gives a different version. In any event, Vickers goes on to say that the 'Yorkshire' version is also false, because 'Gertrude's passport reveals that she was born in Darjeeling (version 3) on 5 December 1888'.

Where Gertrude's ancestry is concerned, the 'official' claim of part-French ancestry appears to be fictitious. Vickers says:

Due to the mythomania of Hollywood producers and others, a number of conflicting stories have grown up about the origins of Vivien's parents. Just before the shooting of Gone with the Wind, for example, David O. Selznick informed Ed Sullivan: 'Scarlett O'Hara's parents were French and Irish. Identically, Miss Leigh's parents are French and Irish'.

In fact, there is no evidence of any French ancestry. Gertrude did however probably have some Irish ancestry. Anne Edwards claimed that Gertrude was wholly Irish - born and raised in Ireland. This is probably false, but the fact that her family was Roman Catholic, and their choice of Christian names like Gertrude and Mary, does suggest an Irish connection. According to Vickers, there is a story in the family that Gertrude's maternal grandparents, named Robinson, came from Ireland to India to avoid social disapproval of their mixed marriage (one was Catholic and the other Protestant), but they were killed in the Indian Mutiny of 1857. Their daughter (Gertrude's mother) was left in an orphanage and cared for by nuns. While she was in the orphanage she was seen by Michael John Yackjee, 'a man of independent means', who 'decided to make her his bride', married her, and had a large family. This all has a fairy-tale ring to it, but stranger things have happened. Gertrude is described as having auburn hair and blue eyes, so she must at least have had a substantial proportion of European ancestry.

There have however been persistent rumours of something more exotic. According to Alexander Walker, 'some of the close friends Vivian made in her schooldays felt that the child's great beauty confirmed what they had heard about her mother being part-Indian by birth'. On the other hand, Vickers says that 'most who recall the Hartleys in India remember that Mrs Hartley had Armenian blood, believing that this explained Vivien's dark Eastern beauty'.

Vickers goes on to record an interesting discussion with the writer Xan (Alexander) Fielding. Fielding is the grandson of Mary Yackjee, Gertrude's sister, who married an Englishman named Percival Fielmann (later changed to Fielding). According to Vickers,

To this day he [Xan Fielding] is uncertain of his grandmother's origins, but he believes they might have been half-caste Parsi Indian. One of his aunts, Orlene, was very dark, and both Gertrude and Vivien had tight hair which crinkled easily. If the half-caste theory is true, it explains why so little information has been forthcoming. Both the pure Indians and the British in India looked down on the half-castes. Thus, such origins were invariably disguised. The name Yackjee was sometimes changed to Yackje [with an accent], or they used the inherited maternal name of Robinson, though this does not appear on Gertrude's marriage certificate.

The claim of social prejudice is borne out by anecdotes about Ernest Hartley's relationship with Gertrude. At one point when a friend asked him who was the girl (Gertrude) in the front seat of his car, he replied evasively 'It's the chauffeur's sister'. (But perhaps she really was?) When Ernest announced that he wanted to marry Gertrude his friends told him he must expect social ostracism in the British community of Calcutta, and he was required to resign from his exclusive clubs, though he and the charming Gertrude later regained social acceptance. The reaction of the British community does at least suggest that Gertrude was suspected of being 'half-caste'. (It is interesting, by the way, that Hugo Vickers could use the now-verboten term 'half-caste' as late as 1988.)

None of this is conclusive evidence. The book by Vickers is by far the most thorough and well-researched, and has an impressive list of sources, including close family members. But even Vickers does not seem to have explored the family background in India; quite reasonably, as it was only peripheral to his subject. From internet sources it appears that a more recent author (Gloria Moore) claims to have definite knowledge of Vivien's part-Indian ancestry, but I do not know whether this would stand up to investigation. The biggest puzzle is the origins of Michael John Yackjee. The name, in any of its versions, is not British or Irish - at least, I did not find a single Yackjee in online British telephone directories. In a general internet search for the name Yackjee, the only examples are from Bengal, but it must be uncommon even there. Nor does it look Armenian, as most echt-Armenian names end in -ian or -yan (e.g. Gulbenkian, Petrosian, Egoyan). I leave the puzzle for our intrepid and cosmopolitan readers to solve.

Note on terminology
The term 'Anglo-Indian' usually refers to someone from a community of mixed British or Irish and Indian ancestry. In the 19th century it was common for the lower ranks of the British military and commercial classes in India to marry Indian women, who would convert to Christianity (Catholic or Protestant). Their offspring could not easily marry either British or Indian partners, and therefore became a distinct endogamous community, with occupations mainly in the railways and public services. Anglo-Indians in this sense should be distinguished from the offspring of mixed Anglo-Indian marriages in Britain today. There is also an older usage of 'Anglo-Indian', used to describe the higher levels of British society in India under the Raj. In this sense the term is analogous to 'Anglo-Irish', and does not imply any Indian ancestry. Intermarriage at the higher levels of society was rare after the 18th century. This old usage can cause misunderstanding when people like Rudyard Kipling or Augustus De Morgan, whose ancestry was entirely European, are described as 'Anglo-Indian'. There are also people of mixed Indian-European ancestry where the European side is not predominantly British or Irish - e.g. French, Portuguese, or Dutch. Intermarriage would produce all kinds of complicated mixtures. 'Eurasian' would be a better term than Anglo-Indian in these cases.