Wednesday, May 02, 2012

From the dark backward and abysm of time

I have just had a reminder that I haven't made an appearance here for quite a while. (Thanks for the nudge, erp.) And speaking of appearances, what has happened to Blogger in my absence? It looks very different and I have no idea what I'm doing, I'll just press on and hope everything works.

So, what have I been up to? My husband and I have just got around to sorting through the masses of papers and photographs left by my mother-in-law who died almost a year ago. It is a mammoth task but we are hoping to have it all in some kind of order by the end of June when there is to be a grand family gathering. I have been scanning the photographs while the MM is editing the papers. For years, Dorothy told us that she was writing her memoirs and she filled many notebooks and many more sheets of paper with accounts from her long and interesting life - 1916 to 2011. Unfortunately, she wouldn't let anyone see what she was writing and now we find that the notes are far from easy to follow.

Dorothy was a popular after-dinner speaker; her engagement books from the 1980s and '90s are full but they only contain her speaker's prompts for the amusing anecdotes and entertaining  accounts of her childhood in the Devon countryside, her early married life in wartime London, and the family's years in Africa after the war.The poor MM is struggling to piece together her notebook entries, press cuttings and photographs with only his personal memories to guide him. What a shock the rest of the family will have if we can't produce the great memoirs that they have been expecting for years!

I love to read biographies and memoirs of people who have done exciting or unexpected things, overcome difficulties or faced challenges. Among recent reads are these:
Look back with Love, the first of Dodie Smith's four volumes of autobiography. This volume covers the early years of her life in Lancashire between 1896 and 1910. Dodie's father had died when she was only two years old and her mother took her to live with her grandparents in a rambling Victorian house in Manchester. Also living in the house were Dodie's three uncles, two aunts and a maid. 

As one would expect from the author of I Capture the Castle, this is a highly amusing book with vivid portrayals of Dodie's family.Her grandmother was an accomplished pianist, having published many songs and compositions as well as having written a very succesful novel. The eldest uncle, Harold, was a brilliant amateur actor, who introduced his little niece to Shakespeare, Shaw and Pinero and had an obvious influence on her chosen career in the theatre. Family life was full of music, performance and literature.

With all of these young adults to indulge her, Dodie had a rich and colourful childhood. The family was not wealthy but it was happy, loving and talented. This memoir is written in an amusing, self-deprecating style; it illustrates the burgeoning talent of the future novelist and playwright through her fine observations of people, places and events. I'm looking forward to reading the other volumes of her autobiography.


Next I read My Grandmothers and I by Diana Holman-Hunt.

Diana Holman-Hunt (1913-1993) was the granddaughter of the Pre-Raphaelite painter William Holman Hunt. Her mother died when Diana was born and her father, Cyril, spent most of his time working abroad, leaving Diana in the care of her two grandmothers. They were both leading figures in Edwardian society but they lived very different lives and openly disapproved of each other. They vied for Diana's affection but neither of them attempted to meet her emotional needs.

Diana's maternal grandparents, the Freemans, were wealthy and lived in a very grand country house in Sussex with every modern convenience. Diana had servants to look after and every creature comfort but her grandmother was a self-indulgent, fashionable Edwardian lady who showed her little attention or warm affection.

When not living with the Freemans in Sussex, Diana stayed with her Holman-Hunt grandmother in London. Although she also was wealthy, this grandmother was extremely miserly. She kept just one elderly servant who lived in the beetle-infested cellar; Diana was expected to help Helen to carry the coals for the inadequate fires, to clean the house and to share the sparse meals of bad eggs and stews of scrag end. She didn't even have a bed to sleep in when she visited. Mrs Holman-Hunt, 'Grand' as she was called by Diana, was very eccentric; she lived in the past, thinking only of her late husband and his friends, surrounded by his paintings and the props he had used in them. She made Diana dress in some of the costumes from his studio when she entertained or took her to visit her friends and, like the other grandmother, made no concessions to the child's age and interests.

This all sounds very bleak but there is not a hint of self-pity in this biography. It is a brilliantly written, comic account of an absurd childhood. Diana went on to lead a very interesting life and to become an accomplished writer and art critic despite her feckless father and her idiosyncratic grandmothers.


Diana Athill's memoir, Somewhere Towards The End is a different type of book.

Despite being considered  the greatest literary editor in England, Diana Athill had little belief in herself as a writer. When friends and colleagues begged her to write about her life, she declined on the grounds that no-one would be interested in reading about her. Fortunately for us, she was eventually persuaded to change her mind and has produced six volumes of autobiograhy.

Somewhere Towards The End, her sixth and probably final volume, was published in 2008 when Diana was 91 years old, still living independently and as vigorous as ever in her attitudes and opinions. Two years later, she reluctantly decided to move into a retirement home where she continues to be as independent as possible, gives lively interviews and wows audiences at literary festivals with her sharp intellect and humour.

Like Dodie Smith and Diana Holman-Hunt, Diana Athill grew up in the home of a grandmother. It was a privileged upbringing, although it was many years before Diana realised that her parents had no money of their own, that the house in Norfolk and the lifestyle and expensive education came courtesy of her grandparents. I wonder if it was the influence of these Victorian grandmothers that produced such confident, articulate and courageous women?

While Look Back With Love and My Grandmothers and I are accounts of the early life of their authors, Somewhere Towards The End is about ageing and the prospect of dying. It is a more thoughtful book than the other two but not at all gloomy. Diana Athill writes with the same honesty and lack of arrogance as the others. If you want a flavour of her vitality and a hint of what you will read in her books, read this interview that she gave in January 2011 in The Telegraph or the interview she gave to The Guardian in 2010 about her decision to move into a retirement home.

 I think that everyone who has lived through interesting times - and that is probably everyone throughout history! - should pass on their stories to those who follow. Not everyone can write as well as the writers I've mentioned here but the simplest diaries and memoirs give an insight into daily life. But please, if you are jotting your memories in notebooks or on scraps of paper, think of the children or grandchildren who might have the task of making sense of what you have written and don't hide your brilliant thoughts in shorthand notes!


  1. Oh Monix, welcome back to blogland, and I love your choice of books; I want to read all 3. I enjoy a good memoir. I bought I Capture the Castle and Pre-Raphaelite painters are my favorites so you can see my interest.
    Best wishes in your daunting task of organizing your MILs memoirs.

  2. Hello! I too like the look of all three books! Your late MIL sounds like a fascinating woman, I do hope you can get as much of her life down as possible.
    Not too long ago I found out that my Mother had thrown out a lot of old photos as 'you wouldn't know who they were'. I was gutted, I really wanted to keep them and she could have told me who they all were.
    My own MIL is going to copy all her photos and annotate them for me so my girls will know where they come from.
    No-one seems to like the new Blogger format!!

  3. Terra

    Thank you, it is good to be back but already I have to say I'll be away for a while! I'm off to visit first my son and then my daughter over the next few days. 'Twas ever thus.

    I'm sure you'll love these memoirs.

  4. Rattling On
    Do get your aunt to press on with that labelling of photos. It has been a nightmare finding really interesting-looking pictures and not being able to identify the occasion or people in them.

    Yes, Dorothy had an adventurous life but she was much more of a raconteur than a writer. My husband kept trying to get her to record the talks she gave but she always pressed the wrong button or forgot to switch the recorder on at all!

  5. m. What kind of software are you using?

    1. e, which software are you referring to?

    2. Software you are using to catalog your MIL's artifacts and photos.

    3. I'm not using any special software, e; just Word and Picasa for the photos. Can you recommend something to make it easier?

    4. No. I investigated the available software and found them either way too expensive and the cheaper or free ones too cumbersome for a one-time project. I use Paint for editing. It's easy and works fine, but I should try Picasa for photo arranging.


  6. Am great admirer of Diana Athill's writing and of her attitudes towards ageing. She's become something of a role model for me.

    Meanwhile, it will be interesting to see how future generations tackle wading through their ancestors' personal blogs, for example, and the enormous outpouring of (very public) words that online media has made possible. Very different from private journals and letters and all those handwritten notes . . .

    1. I think her writing is inspirational, too, D. I don't have all of her books yet but I'm working on it.

      I must say that most modern outpourings are too much for me as an outsider to bear so I think family members are going to be very embarrassed by some of them. Discretion has disappeared from disclosure just as decorum has left public behaviour!

  7. All these books sound just great! I have DA's Instead of a Letter on my shelf but haven't read it yet.
    And what a job for you. Do you regret taking it on?

    1. Nan, I'm sure you would enjoy DA's writing style - very clear and direct.

      Sorting mother-in-law's photos and papers has been time-consuming and quite challenging but I think my children and their cousins will appreciate it when the work is finished. I sometimes think I would rather be doing something else but regret is too strong a word.

      Many thanks for letting me know about Margaret at BooksPlease.

  8. I love how you said 'regret is too strong a word.' Isn't language a wondrous thing.
    I knew you would want to know.

  9. All books sound interesting - I have read Valerie Grove's "Dear Dodie, the life of Dodie Smith", but not her own biography.
    I'm not reading a lot now though - just dreaming of all the books I'd like to read.

  10. Let me just point out a typing error, as it made me think that Diana Holman-Hunt died at a very young age: fortunately, she only died in 1993, not 1933.

    1. I don't know if you will ever see this belated reply, bruessel. I have just discovered (0n 21 August!) a whole lot of comments for different posts that have been sitting in my Google spam filter awaiting moderation. I can't think why they have been singled out. Thank you for pointing out my error which was, of course, a typo.


I love to read your comments and promise that I will reply as soon as I can leave my garden, sewing room or kitchen!