But for my friend’s practical suggestion it is doubtful if I should ever have written a line! He relieved my anxiety about my powers of compiling a stupendous autobiography, and made me forget that writing was a new art, to me, and that I was rather old to try my hand at a new art. My memory suddenly began to seem not so bad after all. For weeks I had hesitated between Othello’s “Nothing extenuate, nor write down aught in malice,” and Pilate’s “What is truth?” as my guide and my apology. Now I saw that both were too big for my modest endeavor. I was not leaving a human document for the benefit of future psychologists and historians, but telling as much of my story as I could remember to the good, living public which has been considerate and faithful to me for so many years.
How often it has made allowances for me when I was nervous on first nights! With what patience it has waited long and uncomfortable hours to see me! Surely its charity would quickly cover my literary sins.
I gave up the search for a motto which should express my wish to tell the truth so far as I know it, to describe things as I see them, to be faithful according to my light, not dreading the abuse of those who might see in my light nothing but darkness.
I shut up “Othello” and did not try to verify the remark of “jesting” Pilate. The only instruction that I gave myself was to “begin at the beginning.”
THE STORY OF MY LIFE
A CHILD OF THE STAGE
This is the first thing I remember.
In the corner of a lean-to whitewashed attic stood a fine, plain, solid oak bureau. By climbing up on to this bureau I could see from the window the glories of the sunset. My attic was on a hill in a large and busy town, and the smoke of a thousand chimneys hung like a gray veil between me and the fires in the sky. When the sun had set, and the scarlet and gold, violet and primrose, and all those magic colors that have no names, had faded into the dark, there were other fires for me to see. The flaming forges came out, and terrified while they fascinated my childish imagination.
What did it matter to me that I was locked in and that my father and mother, with my elder sister Kate, were all at the theater? I had the sunset, the forges, and the oak bureau.
I cannot say how old I was at this time, but I am sure that it wasn’t long after my birth (which I can’t remember, although I have often been asked to decide in which house at Coventry I was born!). At any rate, I had not then seen a theater, and I took to the stage before many years had passed over my head.