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Archive for the ‘Memoir/Biography’ Category

for-the-gloryAt a time of year when everyone is talking of resolutions and dreaming of self-improvement, I can think of no better book to read than For the Glory by Duncan Hamilton.  I picked it up on January 1st and did not put it down until late in the evening when I’d finished the last page.  I needed a large box of tissues to get through it all but it is the perfect book to inspire with resolutions that truly matter.  Ignore the advertisements urging you to make 2017 the year you get rich or thin or ultra-fit.  Make it instead the year you become a passionate, committed, generous person.  Make it the year you become more like the book’s subject, Eric Liddell:

Valorous lives like his – which must be calculated in terms of value rather than length – encourage us to make our own lives better somehow.  In his case that’s because everything he did was selfless, each kind act bespoke for someone else’s benefit.  He believed entirely that those to whom “much is given” are obliged to give “much in return” – and should do so without complaining about it.  In adhering to this, he never demanded grand happiness or great comfort for himself.  He grasped only for the things that mattered to him: worthwhile work and the care of his family.  He’d once – on that hot July evening in Paris – grasped for an Olympic title as well, knowing nonetheless even as he won it that the glory of gold was nothing in his world compared to the glory of God.

For those who do not remember the film Chariots of Fire (the famously-scored 1981 Oscar-winner about British runners competing at the 1924 Paris Olympics), a brief introduction: Liddell was in his last year of a Bachelor of Science degree at the University of Edinburgh when the games were run.  The son of missionaries and planning to go into missionary work himself, he believed the Sabbath was a day for God and not for running.  At the Paris Olympics, the events for his signatures distance – the 100 meters, both individual and relay – involved running on a Sunday.  Despite pressure from the British Olympic Association and the press, he instead chose to run the 400 meter individual “only because no other replacement distance was feasible for him.” It was a distance he had little experience with but he ran it gloriously and won.  It is a wonderful story but, as Hamilton makes clear, it was by no means the most dramatic or admirable episode in Liddell’s eventful life.

Eric Liddell was born in China in 1902 and died there a short – but extraordinarily full – 43 years later.  His father, a missionary, and mother, a nurse, arrived there just as the anti-Christian Boxer Rebellion began.  The first few years of their married life were ones lived in fear, knowing how vulnerable they were: more than 250 missionaries, Hamilton reports, were killed in the conflict, along with more than 30,000 Chinese Christians.  The situation in China would not noticeably improve during their lifetime or that of their second son, Eric.  And yet the family was devoted to their work there.

Eric and his elder brother Rob were sent to England to attend boarding school when very young and went years without seeing the rest of their family.  But despite the separation, the family remained remarkably close, all looking forward to the day when they would be reunited in China. From the age of eight or nine, Eric knew he wanted to be a teacher-missionary and follow in his father’s footsteps.

What made Liddell so inspiring throughout his life was his concern for others.  Although he was deeply competitive when race time arrived, even as a very young man he took time out before races to put those around him at ease:

…there are countless anecdotes of his sportsmanship toward fellow competitors that sound a bit like the brightest boy in class allowing everyone else to copy his homework.  In competition he’d lend his trowel, used to dig starting holes, to runners who lacked one.  He once offered to give up the precious inside lane on the track, swapping it with the runner drawn unfavorably on the outside.  On a horribly cold afternoon he donated his royal blue university blazer to a rival, freezing in only a singlet and shorts – even though it meant shivering himself.  On another occasion he noticed the growing discomfort of an Indian student, utterly ignored before an event.  He interrupted his own preparations to seek him out; their conversation went on until the starter called them both to the line.  This was typical of Liddell.  He’d engage anyone he thought was nervous or uncertain, and listen when the inexperienced sought advice on a technical aspect of sprinting.  He’d share what he knew before the bang of the pistol pitted them against each other. 

When success came at the Olympics in 1924, it came with countless opportunities.  But rather than appear in advertisements or make paid appearances, rather than put out a book or write a newspaper column, Liddell rebuffed the offers that came his way.  All except the offers to speak.  Liddell had started preaching while at university, his sporting successes bringing in audiences who might otherwise shy away from religious meetings, and his Olympic success made it possible for him to pack the largest halls available.  To these listeners, in an easy, conversational manner he could share his Christian belief and the virtues he believed we must all work towards each day: “patience, kindness, generosity, humility, courtesy, unselfishness, good temper, gentleness, and sincerity.”  He believed in striving for perfection, in faith and in sport, and that there was honour in doing your best even if you didn’t achieve what you had been striving for.

With a university degree and an Olympic medal to his name, Liddell was happy to leave Scotland behind and return to the country he always considered his home: China.  Here, he began his work as a science and sports teacher at the Anglo-Chinese College in Tientsin (now Tianjin).  Though logically he knew the move to China had put an end to his competitive running, he continued to train and occasionally competed in smaller meets.  But there would be no more Olympics for him.  From now on, his life was devoted to God and China and, with time, his wife and daughters.

China in the 1920s and 1930s was a perilous place to be.  The country was divided in a bitter civil war and further torn apart by the Japanese invasion.  Millions died, anti-Christian feeling was high, and no place outside of the cities seemed safe.  Liddell lost close friends to absolutely pointless violence and fellow missionaries were killed for their religion.  Which is why, when Liddell finally was offered a rural missionary position after years at the college, the missionary society decided his wife and children could not come with him.  It was work he loved, saying “I have more joy and freedom in the work that I have ever experienced before”, but the separation from his family was bitter.  He could still see them when he came into town for supplies but it was hardly the partnership he and his wife had hoped for.  When his wife became pregnant with their third child in 1941, they decided it was too dangerous for her and the children to remain in China and so she and their daughters left for Canada, hoping one day Eric would join them.  That day never came.

Liddell lived the last years of his life in a cramped internment camp.  As was typical of him, he became the most depended on member of the community, the one who would do anything and who had time for anyone.  As Hamilton describes it, “Liddell was officially the math and science teacher.  He was unofficially everything else.”  He was particularly loved by the children at the camp, who called him “Uncle Eric”, and for whom he organized sports days – including races he would run in (with a considerable handicap, to give the other runners a chance).  And it was at Weihsien camp that he reconsidered his position on the Sabbath: to help keep the children from getting into trouble on Sundays (with no other ways to channel their energy they had begun fighting), he agreed to organise sports on Sunday afternoons.  This was the so-called “Continental” half-day Sabbath that the British Olympic committee had tried in vain, so many years before, to convince him made it acceptable for him to run the 100m on a Sunday.  As one of the boys from the camp remembers “everything he did was for the greater good, including that”.

There were many ways to die under the Japanese during the war but Liddell’s end was not of their making: he developed a brain tumour that triggered a series of strokes.  He died in early 1945, at the age of 43, surrounded by people who loved him and after a lifetime of service to others.

Hamilton has done a wonderful job telling Liddell’s story and it is one that deserves to be known.  I don’t share Liddell’s faith but you do not need to in order to recognize his value and his exceptional strength of character.  He was a man who was rare in his own times, who is rare still, and who should always serve as an inspiration.

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terms-conditionsEvery December, I attend an Old Girls reunion and Christmas carol service for my old school.  It’s a fun event and I always meet the most interesting women.  There’s the Olympian with stories about her time in Brazil this summer, the children’s book author who I adored growing up, the researchers doing amazing work in their labs, and the retirees who now travel the world after lives spent in law, medicine or academia.  It’s a circle I take for granted much of the time but always appreciate reconnecting with around the holidays.  It is also a chance to cuddle babies of younger alum while eating cookies with the school logo on them – a win-win, really.

This year, the event was the perfect thing to get me in the mood for the newest release from my beloved Slightly Foxed (so popular they are now out of stock and waiting for it to be reprinted): Terms and Conditions by Ysenda Maxtone Graham, a history of British girls’ boarding schools from 1939 to 1979.  The cut off date is, delightfully, based on when the duvet became popular, ushering in an era of unprecedented comfort.  Maxtone Graham is having none of that: “the years I longed to capture were the last years of the boarding-school Olden Days – the last gasp of the Victorian era, when the comfort and happiness of children were not at the top of the agenda.”  And capture it she does, in vivid, joyful detail.

But first, an aside: how stupid do you have to be not to adopt the duvet until the late 1970s, Britain?  Of all the things you should have picked up on your continental holidays over the previous two hundred years, this would have been a really practical one.

I loved every page of this book but the introduction is particularly dear to my heart, especially when Maxtone Graham describes the prototype founders of girls’ schools:

…girls’ boarding-schools tended to be started, almost by accident, by two unmarried daughters of a widowed Victorian clergyman, who needed to “take in” a few pupils in order to pay the bills.  These sisters were often called Maud or Millicent, women with unflagging energy and small waists, who had a vision of how a girls’ school should be, and who brought their schools into existence through dogged determination, enlisting wealthy professional men (often cousins) to form the necessary company and invest in the enterprise.  These women were driven by zeal for the idea that girls could be properly educated together, as were their brothers.  They thrived on obstacles in their way.  The historians of their schools say things like, “All this might have daunted lesser mortals than the Wingfield-Digbys.”

Delightfully put and full of truth.  My own school’s history tells an almost identical tale.

In chapters ranging from “Choosing a Suitable School” to “Teaching Nuns and Kitchen Nuns” and “Fresh Air and Other Discomforts”, Maxtone Graham looks at the experiences of girls at a wide variety of schools.  Some were miserable, some happy.  Some schools valued education, while at others it seems to have been a foreign concept.  We hear about students who discovered boarding school life had little to do with Mallory Towers and others who excelled and made friends for life.

I loved hearing about the characters of the different schools.  There were so many small, obscure ones, including complete disasters where parents recklessly deposited their daughters without taking the time to discover the headmistress was an alcoholic or that the teaching staff was disappearing, leaving the upper year girls to take over teaching the younger ones.  The overachieving academic schools (school?  This seems to have been a rarity) provide few good anecdotes.  The snobbish schools that had little interest in teaching girls much beyond deportment and how to find a husband, on the other hand, are horrifyingly enjoyable to read about:

Southover was known as “the school where everyone married everyone else’s brothers”; and those brothers would certainly have been members of the landed gentry or above.  If you read the list of pupils’ addresses at the back of the Southover school magazines of those days you find a mouthwatering selection of old rectories, castles, manor houses and farms.  The acceptable home address was: name of large house; village it was quite near; county.  It was not done to live at any kind of obscure urban address, such as 24 Whitfield Road, Haslemere.  Only about one girl in the whole list did live at that kind of address and I pity her, because it stands out.  If you did have an urban address it had to be a London one, and ideally Cadogan, Belgrave or Eaton something.

The Catholic boarding schools appear to have been even more elitist:

Mother Bridget taught Latin to the juniors and she kicked off the first Latin lesson for the new 11-year-olds in 1976 with this ice-breaker: “Now, hands up any of you whose house is open to the public.”  “Quite a few hands did go up,” remembers Maggie Fergusson, “and this started a chat about a few of the girls’ stately homes, before we started doing any Latin.”

You do finish the book wondering how the girls at most of these schools managed to make their way in world.  Yes, marriage can keep you out of the workforce you are ill-prepared for (that was the typical solution for the girls from the earlier years covered in the book) but by the 1970s a year at finishing school and then an early marriage weren’t on the cards for most women.  Maxtone Graham talks about their post-school lives with the women and their attitudes are varied.  Some are angry that their schools never even considered the idea their girls would want to go on to university or give them enough education for a practical career while others thought the old ways “made for a better, more stable world than today’s world of career-ambition, with all the anguish, stress and risky postponement of parenthood it can bring.”

It is a charming, completely bonkers world and, for the most part, I am delighted it is gone.  British schools aren’t particularly spectacular these days (see recent PISA scores), but at least there is an attempt to educate everyone in basic subjects to a certain level.  It is horrifying to think how some of these schools would have performed in this era of standardised testing.  The ability to remain ignorant has been severely curtailed and thank goodness for that.

However, as Maxtone Graham concludes, academic achievement isn’t the only thing that matters and the boarding schools of old had their virtues:

There was an innocence about these establishments.  They were not all about self-advancement or money-making.  They were run on a shoestring by women with high moral standards who needed to make ends meet and did so by taking in girls and forming their characters.  As much by accident as design, these girls emerged into adulthood with sources of inner strength and resolve that (often literally) can’t be measured by exam results.  The worst of the hopelessness has gone, but so have the best of the eccentricity and the most well-meaning of the amateurishness.

I’m not entirely sure I agree, being torn between my love of eccentrics and my bone-deep belief in the importance of academic achievement.  But what I am not torn over is my love for this book.  It bubbles over with humour and warmth and made for one of the most pleasurable reading experiences I’ve had in a long time.  Male or female, Old Girl/Boy or not, this is a book everyone can – and should! – enjoy.

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new-i-was-a-stranger-bunkerbooksIt is Thanksgiving weekend here in Canada.  As I write this, the turkey is roasting, the pies are made, and I am thinking about what it means to be thankful.  But I am thinking about that less because of the day than because of the book I just finished reading: I Was a Stranger by General Sir John Hackett, originally published in 1977 and, with their typically unerring excellence of taste, reprinted by Slightly Foxed in 2014.

Hackett was thirty-three years old and a career soldier serving as commander of a British parachute brigade when, during the Battle of Arnhem in September 1944, he was severely wounded and taken prisoner by the Germans.  In the hands of the enemy and weak following major, life-saving abdominal surgery, Hackett was already focusing on the important things: making an accurate record of the battle and drawing up the list of recommended commendations, and determining how to escape.  Thankfully for him, the well-organised Dutch resistance was at hand and, while still very weak, he was spirited out of the hospital (battle notes in hand) and into hiding with the de Nooij family in Ede.

A deeply Christian family, the de Nooij household consisted of four middle-aged sisters and John and Mary Snoek, the twenty-something children of one of the sisters.  Immediately impressed by the gentleness and kindness of the whole family, Hackett knew of the immense risk they took in sheltering him and was hugely grateful for it:

A fighting soldier in war-time takes the danger and tensions that bear upon himself for granted.  It is quite a different thing to contemplate the actions of other people, in observing their bravery, contrivance and self-sacrifice, in protecting and looking after someone thrown by hazard into their care.  There is nothing to be taken for granted here.

Hackett’s life in Ede was simple and quiet.  At first, he rested and recovered from his wounds, carefully nursed by the family.  As his health improved, his urge to exercise and strengthen himself ahead of the inevitable escape was necessarily in conflict with the need to keep him safe.  The family stayed close and, with a bevy of tricks to fall back on, managed to take him for walks under the eyes of the less-than-watchful Germans.

But mostly, due to his health and the winter weather as the months passed, this is a book about indoor life.  Hackett devours with real pleasure what books the family is able to bring him: the Bible (which he started each day by reading from), the complete works of Shakespeare, some Dickens, Vanity Fair, an eclectic handful of novels, collections of Wordsworth’s and Scott’s poetry, and a massive anthology entitled One Thousand and One Gems of English Poetry (which he mentioned when he appeared on Desert Islands Discs in 1980).  But mostly he savours the time he spends with the family – who truly become his family as time goes on.  As he recovers, they always seem to be able to find an egg to feed him or something warm to clothe him in, little gestures that become large ones at a time when everything was difficult to find and there was never enough to go around.  For his thirty-fourth birthday, celebrated while he was still recovering in bed, the family sat at the piano and sang English songs (his favourite hymn, ‘Abide with me’, and all the verses of ‘God save the King’) loud enough so that he could hear:

My feelings as I listened would be hard to describe.  Such loving kindness to a stranger in adversity, on whose behalf these people had already accepted so many dangers with such modesty and courage, was a thing beyond words then and never to be forgotten afterwards.

Their kindness on his birthday left him in tears and his open admittance of that is one of the many things that makes this book such a warm and precious one.  For all the kindness and love the Nooij family showed Hackett was rewarded with his complete dedication to and adoration of them.  His love and respect for them is written on every page.

Hackett in later life

Hackett in later life

Hackett has a sense of humour as well and the book is peppered with humorous recollections and asides.  It is, in fact, one the least angst-ridden books you could imagine.  Hackett takes particular pleasure in recording the tricks and sly taunts the Dutch wield against their German oppressors but he also enjoys the everyday moments of humour, such as one of his early encounters with John, after arriving at the de Nooij house:

John came up to see me.  He had a little dictionary in his hand, his finger marking a page.

‘Good day, Mr Hackett,’ he said gravely. ‘How is your corpse?’

I thanked him equally gravely and said that it was well.  He discovered later from Miss Ann, to his dismay, that the little dictionary had not told him everything and he wondered whether he had been wholly tactful.

Throughout, Hackett has a wonderful eye for the simple details of a scene.  It is difficult not to read about the first leg of his escape route, a snowy bicycle ride with John through the countryside, without shivering with both cold and excitement at their daring.  And it is impossible not to feel at peace when he describes his early morning winter walks with Aunt Ann, one of the de Nooij sisters, taken to help build his strength:

Soon dim figures of men could be seen in the growing light plodding to their work, huddled-up shapes like birds in the cold.  Others on bicycles were struggling through the snow.  A cart would pass with the horse pulling strongly, the wheels squeaking against packed snow, or crunching and clattering on the ice.  There would be a glow in the dark where a man stood still for a moment and the sharp surprising tang of tobacco smoke would drift over the morning air.

After four months in the Netherlands, Hackett managed (with the help of the resistance and, of course, the de Nooij family) to make his escape back to Allied-controlled Europe and, very shortly, back to England and his wife.   But as soon as Ede was liberated he was back with supplies for his Dutch family and letters of thanks from his English one.  As the postscript makes clear, the families remained close for the rest of their lives.  I cried as I finished the book, thankful for the courage and the kindness of the de Nooij family and, an equal gift, the humility and the gratitude of John Hackett.

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More Was LostI woke up early this morning to finish reading More Was Lost by Eleanor Perényi.  In 1937, the American Eleanor was travelling in Europe with her mother when she met her future husband, Zsiga Perényi, a minor Hungarian nobleman almost twice her age (not difficult when you are still in your teens).  After a brief courtship, they married and returned to the Perényi family home in Hungarian lands that had been given over to Czechoslovakia after the First World War (lands that are now part of the Ukraine).

One of the guiding rules for the women of my family is that you do not marry Hungarians.  Especially aristocratic ones as they are inevitably impoverished.  They may be romantic and dramatic, but they inevitably morph into morose depressives with a penchant for attempting to kill and/or further bankrupt themselves (see Sunflower, another NYRB Classics reprint).   I can’t say this has been a pressing concern in my life so far but it is excellent advice nonetheless and has steered other women in my family out of the path of danger.  Clearly, no one had ever thought to pass this advice on to Perényi.

It is a fascinating world that the young Baroness Perényi finds herself in.  Not the shallow artificial whirl of Budapest society but a deeply rural hamlet where feudalism is still the preferred way of life for both peasants and masters.  The first half of the book follows Perényi as she settles in her new home, making her mark on the family’s castle (really more of a large house, in the way of most Central Europe castles), studying Hungarian (to the disapproval of both nobles and peasants, who  view this adaptability as disappointingly middle class), and learning to run both the castle and the estate, with the help of the family’s various servants.  It is not a difficult life by any means and Perényi has great fun for several years, gossiping with the steward, redecorating the castle, and meeting her husband’s marvellously colourful friends and relatives.  Modesty and reserve, she soon learned, were not Hungarian virtues:

In the conversation there was constant interruption.  Nobody seemed to listen very attentively to what anyone else was saying.  Also no one dreamed of trying not to talk about himself all the time, and setting forth his ideas with great care.  There was a phrase which literally meant “I am so with this thing.”  Or in other words, “This is the way I feel about it” – and I heard it all the time.

Coming from hardworking America – and witnessing daily the efficiency of the Czech-run state in which she lived – Perényi was somewhat baffled by the Hungarian aversion to work.  Her comments on this were some of my favourite passages in the entire book:

No one in Hungary is interested in business, and most Hungarians are certainly not very good at it in any case.  After the last war, a good many members of the nobility had to go to work.  They were fantastically inefficient, and it was not entirely lack of training.  There was really no excuse for the inability to cope with practical affairs that most of them showed.  It was simply that they despised business because it was middle-class.  The peasants, too, looked down on commerce.  And as everyone seemed to be either a noble or a peasant, business and the professions were gratefully turned over to the Jews.  So, of course, were the arts.

Let’s be honest: the most enjoyable aspect of this book, for me, were all of the comments about the the efficiency of Czech bureaucrats and the general useless of Hungarians.  I believe the book should be subtitled “Ways in Which Czechs are Better than All Other Central Europeans”.  As this is pretty much the theme of my life, it was very gratifying.  Perényi clearly had a soft spot for the Czechs, who were nowhere near as romantic or appealing as the Hungarians, but whose roads were passable, border guards efficient, and policies fair to all citizens.

In the second half of the book, the war intrudes.  From the Munich Crisis in 1938 to 1940, when, pregnant and at her husband’s urging, she left Europe to return to America with her parents, Perényi bounced around Europe, seeing the action unfold from Budapest, their country estate (whose location – in terms of what country – was in flux), Paris (where her father was working), the south of France, and Italy.  It is less cohesive or original than the first half but fascinating nonetheless.

This is very much a young woman’s book.  Perényi was only in her late teens and early twenties in the years she describes and still only twenty-eight when the book was published in 1946.  She is happy to be the charming American girl who married a handsome man and went to live in a castle, rather than a political commentator and it shows.  Perényi is far better at chronicling her delight with her new husband, 20th Century feudalism, and Hungarian country gentry than she is at contextualizing her place in a world tearing itself apart.  She wanted a simple love story and the world gave her a war instead.

It is no wonder then that, when she sat down a few years later to write this book, she used it to mourn what she had lost: a home, a way of life, and so many beloved people – some of whom were by then dead, some of whom lived but she despaired of ever seeing again, and some of whom, like her husband, had drifted too far away to ever return to the old intimacies.

 

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Only in NaplesI have itchy feet.  Spring always brings it on, the urge to run far from the office and have an adventure in some foreign land, and every spring I manage somehow to resist it.  But only with intense literary aid.  If I did not have travel memoirs to escape into at these desperate moments, who knows what would happen.

Right now, two of the three books I’m reading are travel-focused: Driving Over Lemons by Chris Stewart, about an English couple who moved to Andalusia in southern Spain, and Like a Tramp, Like a Pilgrim by Harry Bucknall, about walking the Via Francigena from Canterbury to Rome.  They are both perfectly suited to my mood and I can’t decide which I like more.  Farming in rural Spain is far from my idea of perfection – or even, let’s be perfectly honest, something I could tolerate for more than a week – but Stewart has won me over.  On the other hand, the Via Francigena fascinates me, as all pilgrimage routes do, and it’s one of the few pilgrim routes I could see myself doing one day.  This is why I keep flipping between the books, loathe to neglect either.  Bucknall at breakfast and before bed, Stewart to accompany me to and from work.  For someone who rarely has multiple books on the go, this is a shocking aberration.

Of course, these are not the first travel memoirs I’ve read this year.  Let us be serious.  They are the fourth and fifth, following the excellent trio of I’m Off Then by Hape Kerkeling, a German comedian’s account of walking the Camino de Santiago (okay, that makes it sound dire and I promise it is not), Falling in Honey by Jennifer Barclay, about an English woman who visits and then moves to a remote Greek island, and, my favourite of the bunch, Only in Naples by Katherine Wilson.

After finishing university, Katherine Wilson moved from America to Naples to take up a three-month internship at the U.S. Consulate, following her family’s tradition of complimenting classroom learning with an “experience abroad”.  Her parents had done the same and had marvellous memories.  Naples, however, was not the vision of a European experience her family had in mind for her.  Upper-class overachievers who graduate from Princeton go to Tuscany, not the seedy south.   But upper-class overachievers can rebel too, albeit in a very small way (government service not being a particularly rebellious pursuit, even in Naples).

In Naples, Katherine finds her introduction to her new city through the Avallone family.  Salvatore, a twenty-three year old law school student, will go on to become her husband.  But the book is really about Katherine’s relationship with Raffaella, the glamorous and eminently practical matriarch of the Avallone family, and the lessons Katherine absorbs from her about Italian culture and cooking – and the management of Italian families.

To an alarming extent, I could identify with Katherine who “spent my childhood overachieving at private schools, and in college I could have majored in Surpassing Expectations or Making Mommy and Daddy Proud”.  She is not apologetic about her financial independence and I loved the family’s attitude towards trusts: “interest could be skimmed off for emergencies, but the phrase tapping into capital was akin to shooting up heroin.”  As someone whose days are spent doing financial planning, this is music to my ears.

I loved this book.  Katherine writes well about food and the Italian food culture – and about her conflicted relationship with it when she first arrives in Naples, pudgy and suffering from a binge eating disorder.  It is a warm and funny and kind book, a memoir not just about discovering a new culture but about growing up and coming into a new family.

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My-History-coverMy favourite biographies to read are those of people I know next to nothing about.  I can crack open the book without any of the trepidation I feel when I read about my idols – there is nothing more disappointing than discovering that someone you deeply admire is actually a self-pitying bore, unrepentant adulterer, vegan, or in possession of other similarly off-putting character traits.  No, much better to stride out into the unknown.  And that is just what I did when I picked up My History by Antonia Fraser.

Despite being a devoted student of history, I’ve never actually read any of Antonia Fraser’s books.  I think I had a copy of Mary Queen of Scots lying around the house for a few years but, in general, my areas of interest don’t overlap much with Fraser’s, at least when it comes to historical research.  When it comes to the details of her life, however, I am absolutely fascinated.

Going into this book I knew two things about Fraser: that she was an author and that her first marriage had broken up when she’d fallen in love with Harold Pinter.  Her memoir of her relationship with Pinter, Must You Go?, has been on my to-be-read list since it was released several years ago.  One day I’ll get around to reading it but I think this memoir of her youth and early adulthood was a much better introduction to Fraser, for me at least.

Fraser was the eldest of eight children born to Frank and Elizabeth Pakenham.  One of the great delights of the book was learning about both her parents, each fascinating figures in their own right.  Both Oxford-educated, they were passionate about politics (both ran for office), religion (they converted to Catholicism, though at different points), and social reform.  Their interests kept them busy and allowed their children to grow up with only mild parental intervention.  Fraser enjoyed this and spent much of her teen years in a vaguely dreamy state, spinning fantasies about favourite historical figures or dashing characters from novels, even while being dragged about the countryside by her campaigning mother:

I was even delighted to sit on the platform at the end of the row because in the romantic haze in which I chose to live, the Marquis of Vidal, saturnine hero of Georgette Heyer’s great novel Devil’s Cub, might see me sitting there and…after that I was vague, and even vaguer about the circumstances in which the Marquis of Vidal or his like would attend a Labour Party meeting in Oxford in February.

(Having just read Devil’s Cub for the first time last year, I can only wrinkle my nose at Fraser’s choice of Vidal as her romantic hero.  But perhaps that’s the benefit of reading a book for the first time at twenty eight rather than fifteen – you are much less likely to fall in love with aristocratic murders.)

But it’s not just Heyer’s characters who fuelled young Fraser’s daydreams:

Aged eleven, I had discovered Trollope in a huge green-and-gold edition in my parents’ house.  (I learnt later that there was a lot of wartime Trollope reading among the grown-ups ‘to get away from the war’.)  Thus I was temporarily obsessed by the character of Lady Glencora Palliser in Can You Forgive Her?  The tiny, tousle-haired heiress and her fatal love for the wastrel Burgo Fitzgerald occupied most of my waking thoughts.

Anyone who loves both Heyer and Trollope is clearly a kindred soul.

As we hear – in a charmingly self-deprecating style – about Fraser’s pleasant wartime childhood, excellence at school, and (rather too briefly described) adventures as a young working woman, we are also introduced into her alarmingly well-connected world.  She vacationed in Italy with the Italian Prime Minister’s family, met Bernard Berenson in Florence (BB has shown up in my reading a least one a month this year), had her wedding portrait taken by Cecil Beaton (his gift to the bride), worked for the publisher George Weidenfeld, and was the niece of Christine Longford (whose novel Making Conversation is available from Persephone).  There are countless other connections that I’ve forgotten but it’s an excellent resource if you’re ever stockpiling information to play six degrees of separation.  Which I always am, obviously.

Starting as a complete stranger to Fraser, this was a wonderfully entertaining introduction to her and her fascinating family.  Now I just can’t wait to read The Pebbled Shore, a memoir written by her mother, Elizabeth Longford.

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The Summer of the Great GrandmotherBack in late 2012, Lisa reviewed The Summer of the Great-Grandmother by Madeleine L’Engle.  Familiar with L’Engle’s children’s books, I had not known until then she had written any non-fiction, never mind four volumes of very personal “Crosswicks Journals”, focusing on her own life.  I almost immediately read and adored Two-Part Invention, the fourth Crosswicks book, but The Summer of the Great-Grandmother remained on my To-Be-Read list.  Until now.

Published in 1974 (14 years before Two-Part Invention), The Summer of the Great-Grandmother is L’Engle’s record of the last summer of her mother’s life, spent at Crosswicks, L’Engle’s Connecticut home.  L’Engle’s mother is ninety and suffering from dementia.  Though a doctor friend assures L’Engle at the beginning of the summer that her mother is not likely to die soon (not, in the circumstances, a particularly comforting message), she only lasts a few months.  It is a rapid and far from graceful decline but, perhaps thankfully, one that she is not entirely present for.  L’Engle, spending a summer with four generations of family under one roof (not to mention the young friends brought in to help care for her mother), is caught between moments of delight – a family wedding, the joy of having her granddaughters with her for the summer – and the exhausting duty of watching the sharp, engaging mother she knows fade away.

This is not a distressing book.  Not in the way Two-Part Invention was, certainly.  In that book, L’Engle struggles to make sense of her husband’s cancer diagnosis and – within a few months – his death.  But the death of a parent, particularly one in her nineties, is the most natural thing on earth.  That doesn’t make it cheerful, exactly, but L’Engle spends most of the book thinking about her mother’s life and the family members who came before, remembering the stories she was told as a child that her mother, robbed of her memory, can no longer tell.  Memories are important, something that is shown all the more clearly by the loss of them.  This book is L’Engle’s way of ensuring that her mother is not forgotten, even if L’Engle herself should one day start to forget:

How many people have been born, lived rich, loving lives, laughed and wept, been part of creation, and are now forgotten, unremembered by anybody walking the earth today?

And yet it is not a biography – it cannot be.  L’Engle, whose memory of her mother is “the fullest memory of anybody living”, knows that even she only has a partial portrait of the woman who her mother is and was:

I am trying to take a new look at my mother’s life and world, and I find that I can do this only subjectively.  I can look objectively at Mother’s life only during the years before I was born, before my own remembering begins, when I did not know her; and even they my objectivity is slanted by selectivity, my own, hers, and that of friends and relatives who told me stories which for some reason Mother had omitted from her repertoire…

But there attempts at objectivity fall apart, and biology makes me subjective, and this is the other strand of the intertwined helix, my very subjective response to this woman who is, for me, always and irrevocably, first, Mother; and second, her own Madeleine.

How long does family memory last?  For how long will our descendents remember us?  Two generations, certainly.  But three, four?  By the fifth, what will your great-great-great-grandchildren know about you, other than that you must have existed?  Will they even know your name?  They almost certainly won’t know anything of the family you came from, all the family stories you heard growing up, the legend of uncle so-and-so, the scandal of great-aunt whatshername.  That small fraction of their lives that we know will be forgotten, just as the facts of our own lives will be forgotten.  It is natural – our memories are not that long and we, already bent under the weight of expectation loaded on us by living (or still remembered) relatives, certainly don’t need to feel that umpteen generations of ancestors are judging us as well.  But we would not be human if we did not, even while embracing logic, long to be remembered, to leave our lasting mark on the world.

That is what this book is: a record of L’Engle’s mother, a determined effort to ensure her life will be remembered, as well as the lives of her parents and grandparents.  And what lives they were.  Full of breathless brushes with danger, moments of tragedy, and far too many women named Madeleine, L’Engle’s family tree is full of fascinating characters.  In fact, the more distant ancestors – with their encounters with a pirate and a empress , not to mention flights from flaming cities – rather take over the book, edging out L’Engle’s mother much of the time.  And that is a pity because she sounds like a fascinating woman who, particularly in early years of her marriage, lived an excitingly cosmopolitan life.  It was an extraordinarily well-lived life and this book is a beautiful, loving testament to it.

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