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Friday, December 30, 2011

Once on a blog on fire

In about 2000 Once In A House On Fire was everywhere, like a track that everyone was listening to except me. In book shops and coffee shops and on buses, the lot. I was working like a maniac for my A Levels at that time, on the final straight to my long time ambition, to get into Oxford. What with Chaucer and John Donne and Suetonius and John Stuart Mill and all the rest, a passing interest in Andrea Ashworth’s memoir, available in all good book shops and not the subject of an imminent examination, was put on the deal-with-me-another-day shelf.

That “other day” has just come to pass, and 12 years after first deciding upon it, I have read Once in a house on fire. It has set me on fire too. It is a candid, monstrous and poetic source of truth and light and I am amazed by it.

Andrea Ashworth’ story begins when she is 5 years old and her painter and decorator father dies in a freak accident, leaving her young mother a widow with two little girls to look after alone. There then follows a tale of two step-fathers, of beatings and punchings and unending anxiety. In addition to the violence, there is sexual abuse, although this is less serious and shorter in duration. It feels wrong to be calibrating such things but there you are. Andrea’s mother shrinks from a nice looking good time girl to a bruised and emaciated desperate heap of whom even kindly relations despair. All of this takes place against a backdrop of grinding poverty, potato dinners and periodical homelessness.

Most of us can remember things from childhood, but Ashworth seems able to remember things as they happened. Her memories do not have the feeling of having been re-processed and squished into convenient shapes and sizes. They are what they are. They are both real and urgent.

Like that other memoir of domestic warfare Chelsea Child, there is a mismatch between the deprived circumstances of the writer in childhood and her ability to write so fluently in adulthood: one is left wondering how she managed it. The big difference is that in the case of Once In A House On Fire, we know from the inside flap that Ashworth is (or at any rate was) a junior research fellow at Oxford. Therefore, we know that despite it all, somehow, she must find a means of escape. As a result, I for one raced through the narrative, looking for where the road out must be.

Truth, it turns out is stranger than fiction, and Ashworth was never on the receiving end of a “big break”. There were no towering intellectuals in the family or the neighbourhood, no amazingly inspirational teachers. She did get a scholarship, but could not take it up. So, she went to a bog standard school like all of her neighbours. Hers was the triumph of an outstanding mind against a sea of troubles and the terrible truth is that it must have been in some way attributable to those troubles. She is not too shy to acknowledge that.

The strange love and attachment which the abused feels for the abuser is dealt with – both in the person of Ashworth’s mother, and in the child herself who admits to remember the pulls of love towards men who beat her up and treated her as a household slave. There is nothing shy or pedestrian about this novel, and I find that I can’t say more than that.

Friday, December 2, 2011

Curiouser and curiouser: A Book of Secrets by Michael Holroyd

I have always deeply loved the work of Michael Holroyd. On this blog, I have reviewed Basil Street Blues, and I have also enjoyed, but in a non-blogging way, his biographies of Augustus John, Lytton Strachey and his “group” biography of Ellen Terry, Henry Irving and their families. All of this Holroyd mania is based on something more than the simple fact that I enjoy reading about the people and periods that this writer addresses. I also find his narrative voice funny and intelligent and humane. But, even beyond that, the work of Michael Holroyd brings out some secret childhood part of me that does not otherwise get much of an airing. The reality is that if life had been different, I would vey much have liked to be a private detective.
I imagine myself, possibly in the 1920s or ‘30s with a flat in London, armed only with an A to Z, a good knowledge of Somerset House and an ability to get chatting to anyone. Like all romantic detectives, I believe that most of the time, things are traceable, and one discovery leads to another. If it doesn’t, then I am content to consign it to history. That appears to be how Michael Holroyd gathers information. He never seems to be in an awful hurry and he accepts, as all thinking biographers must, that there will be gaps, probably better described as gaping chasms, in his knowledge.
The reason for this gushing introduction is the enormous sense of sadness I felt, in reading the final chapter of his latest offering A Book of Secrets; Illegitimate Daughters, Absent Fathers, in which he describes it as “my last book”.
A Book of Secrets is about a collection of women, books and a place, that all connect to Ernest Beckett, second Baron Grimthorne, a 19th Century banker and have-a-go politician. Beckett had a wife and children and he also had mistresses and they had children. Holroyd focuses on those who resided and were born on the wrong side of the blanket. He alights first on Beckett’s mistress, Eve Fairfax whose bust was modelled by Rodin during her glory days and sold to a museum in Johannesburg in more straightened times. Then he moves to the potential offspring of a liaison between Beckett’s son and a married woman (whom he later married himself). From this his focus falls on Beckett’s most famous illegitimate daughter, Violet Trefusis nee Keppel. His adventures weave in and around the lovely Villa Cimbrone, near Ravello and take in the modern day survivors of his protagonists, both biological and emotional.

The story of Alice Keppel and her daughter Violet Trefeusis is well known already, as is the affair between Violet and Vita Sackville-West.

Really, I was most interested in Eve Fairfax. She fascinated me because I had never heard of her, and she seemed to sit on the edge of so many things. She appears to have suffered greatly for the fact that Beckett never married her and nor did anyone else. As a result, she ended her life destitute and rightly described as a “genteel tragedy”. She was positionless and that was her problem. Her contribution to history appears to have been an enormous scrap book, in which the great and the good were encouraged to write and stick things. We must assume that many of them did so under duress and with a degree of embarrassment. By the time Eve dies, she is 106 years old, and I almost wept for the sadness of her life. I felt that Holroyd was completely right in his comment that although she lived in Victorian and Modern times, she seemed to belong to neither.

A Book of Secrets is exactly that. It is by no means all worked out, but the mysteries are there, as is the desperate desire to know about oneself and others. It has been a pleasure reading it and I recommend it warmly.