Marion McLeod reviews the new memoir by English novelist Rose Tremain, who summons up memories of a girls’ boarding school smelling of “unwashed armpits, dirty hair and menstrual blood.”
It’s not strictly relevant, I know, but 10 years ago I interviewed Rose Tremain at her flat in Tufnell Park. I liked her enormously, and not only because she gave me an excellent lunch. She was warm, friendly, amusing. But a couple of English reviewers have declared her new memoir Rosie jangling, even cold. I’m baffled by this reponse. I found Rosie poised and intriguing.
Memoir often attempts to recreate the emotions of earlier selves, leading the reader to experience the fear, say, of a small child. Or the joy or despair. It’s as if the tale is told from the child’s point of view. Tremain isn’t interested in doing this. Tremain is now 74, and the narrative voice in Rosie is a mature one.
She looks back over decades and reports on her first 18 years in a strong, analytical style. Her chief concern is to investigate, and more in sorrow than in anger.
I was a bit disappointed to realise that I was to be deprived of literary gossip. One day Tremain might write a sequel or sequels – even a full autobiography – recalling her burgeoning writing career (the tally now stands at 14 novels and five short story collections), her literary awards, her time as a Booker judge (twice). Those chapters would be immensely readable. Ditto an account of her two marriages, her life as a mother (one child, Eleanor, now a therapist) and adoring grandmother of two.
Eleanor has a walk-on part in Rosie. As does “my beloved partner of twenty-five years, Richard Holmes”. Biographer and historian, Holmes is also very much present, assisting Tremain as she tries to solve the central mystery of her life: why did her mother never love her?
She had a privileged childhood. Tremain’s great-grandfather, William Thomson, was for nearly thirty years the Archbishop of York. Rosie’s first memory is Churchillian. She is lying in her pram, looking up at the sky. Winston Churchill made the same claim. Frankly, I find it hard to believe either of them but I dare say that reveals a lack of imagination on my part. I’ve been told that children used to be put out in their prams till they were older. Prams were much bigger then, but even so . . .
Tremain’s mother was also scathing about her daughter’s pram memory so I’m allying myself here with the bad mother, the villain of the piece. Cold, uncaring, blowing smoke from a du Maurier set in a long black cigarette holder, Lady Jane Thomson showed Rosie and her older sister Jo no signs of love at all.
Why? Tremain is still baffled. “Had she longed for boys?” Had her mother (Rosie’s grandmother) been unable to love her? Jane’s two brothers had died – first Roland, whose appendix had burst when he was 16 and away at Harrow, and then Michael, killed in Germany in 1945. The parents had loved their sons but not their one daughter.
Rejected by her parents, Jane later focussed all her attention on Keith Thomson, a playwright, though not a very successful one. She married him and they had the two daughters, Jo (the talented one) and Rosie. The girls were taught to be revere the business of writing, to tiptoe in their father’s part of the house. “As many writers do,” Tremain writes, “Keith used his work as an excuse not to join in many family things.” Clearly it was not paternal love which succoured the girls.
It was Vera Sturt who did that. Commonly known as “Nan”, she, like many other nannies in rich families, provided the missing maternal love. Rose Tremain recognises how extraordinarily lucky she was. Nan was the anchor in the Thomsons’ Chelsea house, she was “the kindest person I’ve ever known”. Rosie shared a bedroom with Nan for ten years. Nan brushed her hair, made porridge or toast, took Rosie to school, played with her in the nursery and, before bath-time, took her down to the drawing room to her parents, Jane and Keith.
It was a stable routine. Until, when Rosie was ten, Keith fell madly in love and ran away with a young woman who had worked with him on a production. “People in love are ruthless, and Keith handled his leaving of us badly.” His abandoned wife was too upset to cope with her daughters. Boarding school was her obvious solution. After all, she herself had been sent off to board when she was six, two years younger than everybody else in the school.
With the children out of the way, Jane embarked on a love affair with her husband’s cousin, Sir Ivo Thomson. Everything was done terrifyingly fast, Tremain recalls. When she and Jo come home to Chelsea at their first break, Jane announced she was going to marry Ivo. Ivo will buy them all a house in the country and they will have two more siblings. And a dog!
“That night, my eyes hurt. . . I began to tug out my eyelashes, one by one. I must have looked like a weird albino monkey.”
School was cold in a different way. Freezing cold. And smelly. The horrors of boys’ school have often been recorded but not quite like this. It smelled of flesh, “of unwashed armpits, dirty hair and menstrual blood.” Clean knickers were a rarity since laundry was done only once a week. “I think we all stank like polecats.”
Ninety-nine percent of the girls were stick thin. “Hunger gnawed at us all, right through our school years.” Rosie turned to writing – poems, and out of some sort of homage to her father, plays. Writing freed her.
There’s no doubting the insight and compassion in her fiction. Where many novelists repeat a small repertoire of tunes in different keys, Tremain – way before diversity became fashionable – depicted characters extraordinarily varied in age and time and place. All those years of fiction have honed Tremain’s narrative skills so that this non-fiction piece is moving, thoughtful and thought-provoking. Its structure is unusual – with its tonal shifts and jumps from present to past and back again. But it’s subtly and successfully done.
Rosie: Scenes from a Vanished Life (Chatto & Windus, $40) is available from Unity Books.
The Bulletin is The Spinoff’s acclaimed daily digest of New Zealand’s most important stories, delivered directly to your inbox each morning.