Sunday, June 21, 2009

A happy childhood memoir

Looking along the shelves of contemporary biographies in the book stores, I see only rows of depressing accounts of childhood deprivation and abuse. I was beginning to wonder if memoirs had become the monopoly of the miserable when I came across Priscilla Napier's A Late Beginner. This was first published in 1966 but my edition is from 1999. It is the story of an Edwardian childhood in a happy, loving family where privilege went hand in hand with duty and responsibility.
Priscilla Hayter was born in 1908 into a world of nannies, governesses, horse-drawn carriages, bathing machines and close family ties. Her father was Sir William Hayter, the legal and financial adviser to the Egyptian government during the period of the British Protectorate, and her mother was Alethea Slessor, daughter of a Hampshire rector.

Priscilla's childhood was spent in Cairo, but her mother brought the children to England each year to spend the summer months with her sisters and their families. A Late Beginner is Priscilla's detailed, witty recollection of the two very different worlds she inhabited during the closing years of the British Empire; years including the Great War, which impacted on her family in many ways.

Priscilla went on to marry Trevylyan Napier, a naval officer who was killed in action in 1940. With a young family to support, she turned to writing biographies of some of her husband's illustrious ancestors then, in 1966 she produced this story of her own childhood experiences. This biography does not touch on her adult life, it ends with her final departure from Egypt at the age of twelve to attend school in England. So what we have is a concentrated account of impressions from her formative years, told so convincingly that they seem to come fresh from the lips of the child.

"Do very small children have thoughts?" she asks at the beginning of the book. Her opinion is that everything that happens to a young child remains in the memory as feeling: "Passionate surges of delight, anger, grief, affection, terror and surprise imprint on the memory a series of highly-coloured photographs with blurred edges; brief incidental exposures without before or after."

Reading her vivid accounts of childish embarrassments, delights and terrors stirred many of my own memories. How I used to dread the scornful laughter of grown-ups and here she describes it perfectly: "If only, if only they wouldn't laugh! Punishment I could have endured. It was grown-up and straightforward and soon over, and carried anyway a certain dignity and importance. It was not diminishing, as laughter was."

Older, more sophisticated cousins had the same ability to undermine the confidence of the young Priscilla. They travelled from India to spend the summer holidays in England, "Their sophistication was electrifying. They even knew to say tiger and not tigers. Would one ever arrive at being so superbly scornful? Thus early do the Joneses raise their never to be drawn level with heads."
Who hasn't been intimidated by the apparent polish and experience of slightly older children? My older cousins could not impress us with tales of tiger shoots but they had the superior status of being boys who had pocket knives and knew Morse code and semaphore.

Another memory common to all families is the childish misuse of language. Priscilla and her brother were taken for their daily walk along the Nile, "A mile south along the river bank was the bridge to Giza, interestingly called the Pongly-Zongly: it was many years before these words revealed themselves to me as Pont des Anglais."

While readers of any age will identify with many of the insights into the child's experience and behaviour, the book is also a vivid account of a time and way of life long past. Priscilla's parents grew up in the time of Queen Victoria and married in the Edwardian era. She describes her mother and aunts as "true Victorians; not in a general way frightened of battle, murder and sudden death, but perfectly terrified of insects." These women left the comfort and certitude of upper middle class life in England to accompany their soldier or diplomat husbands to the far reaches of the Empire; they crossed the ocean twice a year with their children to summer in England and accepted that, at a frighteningly young age, their sons would be left behind to be educated in English schools.

The men of the family grew up with a strong sense of duty and honour. This description of her uncles and cousins is a poignant reminder of just what was to be lost just a year or two later:

"Their voices, heard in mockery, affection, or sternness, rang always with that confident buoyancy that was to sink for ever in the mud of the Great War battlefields, with that unquestioning sense of the rightness and fitness of the Pax Britannica and of their place within it. They basked in what they imagined to be its high noon, in what were in fact its last rays ...... Consciously Christians, of a sort, they fought the good fight against an excess in drinking, smoking or spending; against paying insufficient regard to mothers-in-law or dull old relations. They believed in practically everything except Father Christmas and votes for women, and it made for great peace of mind.... They believed in right and wrong, with a strong line drawn between.... Their self-mastery, and not only or mainly sexual matters, was truly adult; and when the appalling calamity of World War 1 avalanched over them, they confronted it without self-pity. From their loss we all still suffer..... There was something marvellously entire about them."

A Late Beginner is a beautifully written, absorbing autobiography. While it touches on some of the most important issues of the early twentieth century, they are presented, as they were experienced, by a perceptive and imaginative child. It is funny and charming and I am tempted to go on quoting from it. I will select one of my favourite bits as a final offering before recommending that you get a copy for yourself:

"Why should I divide 7 million, 5 hundred and 23 thousand, 8 hundred and ninety-one, by 373? What is the point of long division? None; I decided in a sudden burst of glorious rationality, truly none. This was one of the few sensible rebellions of my childhood; life has never called upon me to long divide.... The rebellion was dramatic and satisfactory, at least at the moment of its inception. I threw my book on the ground, overturned my chair and jumped out of the window."

A girl after my own heart!


  1. I remember when I was little and the Christams adverts for perfume were on TV. I used to think 'parfum de toilette' was barfunder toilet spray. It was probably Tweed or Charlie...
    Loved the review. I won't read the memoirs detailing abuse and neglect. The films made of them are even worse.

  2. My sister and I used to thank God for the gifts from his mountain for years until we discovered they were from his bounty.
    This lovely book had me saying "Oh, just like ...." all the way through.

  3. Thanks for the recommendation - will look out for it either in Dymocks or the library

  4. I hope you enjoy it, Cathy. I've read it 4 times and love it.

  5. Ah , yes, the vexed issue of childhood memoirs . . .

    For those who didn't have the good fortune to enjoy a happy - or at least a relatively uneventful - childhood, the happier versions of childhood memoirs (as long as they are as well written as this one) will read like fiction. But there's nothing wrong with that because they can be enjoyed as such, in much the same way as those of us who were never ever going to go to boarding school, loved all the boarding school stories in comics such as School Friend or Girl. (Remember Wendy and Jinx?)

    I'm not sure what purpose the deluge of misery memoirs has served. Initially, there were one or two well-written examples (I'm thinking of Andrea Ashworth's Once Upon a House on Fire, for example), but the majority are ghosted, so don't even fall into the 'writing as therapy' category. Not very therapeutic for readers either, even - or perhaps that should be especially - for those who missed out on a happy childhood. A bit like spending time only with others in the same miserable boat - claustrophobic and not conducive to healing the human spirit.

  6. Beautifully put, D. I know you would enjoy this memoir simply for the language - faultless grammar! But it comes into the travel book genre and history, too. You can borrow my much scribbled on copy.

  7. Pongly Zongly - what a classic! Thanks for such a great review. I'm liking memoir (sans misery) more and more as I get older. As previous comment says, easily as satisfying as fiction, sometimes more so.


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