This is a book about seven generations of women in one family, my family. Beginning with the birth of my grandmother’s grandmother in 1830, the story travels down the centuries until it reaches my two-year-old granddaughter in 2015. The historical span stretches from nineteenth-century southern Spain, through the diplomatic world of Washington, D.C., at the end of the Civil War, to England’s Edwardian house parties, the wartime deprivation of the 1940s, London in the 1960s and Manhattan during the boom years of the 1980s, before concluding in England in a new century. However, it is not really the historical context with which I am concerned, but rather the women who preceded me and who lived through those times.
The habit of writing down the story of our lives has long been a tradition in our family. My great-grandmother Victoria kept diaries and wrote a book of reminiscences; her daughter, my grandmother Vita, wrote several books about her predecessors including a joint biography of her mother and grandmother, within which she included memories of her own childhood and young adulthood. She also used her autobiographical experience (barely disguised) in her novels. My father devoted a large part of his professional life to writing and editing books by and about his parents, adding a portrait of his parents’ marriage to an unpublished memoir by his mother. At times writing has assumed the role of unjudgemental family therapist, with each new version of an often repeated family story an attempt by the latest in the line of writers to be the most accurate, the most truthful.
Having reached a middle point in my life when I began to find it as tempting to look backwards as forwards, I, too, wanted to explore those generations that preceded me. There were stories I thought I knew well, assumptions I had made myself or accounts that had been handed down by my parents which I had never bothered to question. But familiarity can render truth enigmatic. Just as it is possible to listen but not to hear, so it is easy to look but not to see. This book is an attempt to hear and to see, to connect myself as truthfully as possible to a long line of women, and to hollow out some footholds in a generational path that is already crumbling with time and fading memory.
I wanted to look in chronological sequence at these women who were related to each other, either genetically or through marriage, to see what conclusions I might draw from their collective stories. I wanted to try to understand them, be grateful to them where I should be, forgive them where I could, learn from their mistakes, find the courage to change when, perhaps, they had not been able to.
I also wanted to see how they would respond to the charge of privilege. In monetary terms all but one was born into a materially comfortable existence, even an aristocratic world rich with grand houses and centuries of ancestral culture behind them. Gleaming spoons shine from several of the mouths in this story. But I wondered if wealth and class always amounted to privilege in a broader sense. If a privileged child is one that enjoys a happy upbringing, with parents who love not only their children but each other, then some of these women could not claim that sort of advantage. And if privilege involves having a parent who encourages a daughter to succeed in the world, then privilege was not always a feature in my family.
By considering the group of individuals who were responsible indirectly and directly for my existence, I thought a great deal about the one relationship that every woman has in common. We are all daughters. Whether you are a sister or an only child, adopted or orphaned, a mother or childless, married or divorced, single or widowed, all women are born and remain daughters. I began to see how daughterhood can trap as well as enhance lives. If there is any truth in the old saying that ‘a daughter is a daughter for life, a son is a son until he takes a wife’, parents have always had different expectations of their sons and daughters. There must be a reason why the word ‘daughterhood’ has no counterpart for sons. In our family, sons have been encouraged to distinguish themselves and therefore become distinguished, distinctive, independent, free-standing from their parents. But daughters have at times struggled to leave dependence behind them and to embrace autonomy.
A daughter’s attempt to break free from the parental bond can become an act of rebellion against an assumption that submission is not only expected but integral to the relationship. In our family one response to the feeling of entrapment was to run away, even if it meant abandoning young children. Another was to stand up to paternal authority and other male-dominated relationships by striking unspoken bargains: money, sex or filial subservience. Although I had set out to write a book about the women in my family, as I moved from one generation to the next, the role of fatherhood emerged as powerfully as that of mothers. I began to see that fathers not only played a hugely influential part but that in four of the seven generations, bargain or no bargain, fathers were the better, more loving, more engaged parent.
During the writing of the book repetitive patterns began to emerge with often surprising regularity. Sometimes these patterns were imposed by the circumstances of the time and by the slow-to-change prejudices and opportunities that women have encountered for centuries. And sometimes the patterns became blurred and eventually were abandoned as equality for women edged ever nearer. But often the patterns were more personal and more disturbing. The story I slowly uncovered turned out to be riddled with secrets that parent kept from child and child from parent. Usually these secrets concerned romantic relationships. My great-great-grandmother concealed her love life from her mother; my grandmother went to great lengths to prevent her mother from discovering the nature of her attachments to women; my mother conducted chunks of her life on the other side of locked doors and I found it impossible to confide my most important feelings to her.
Another pattern concerned parental, and particularly maternal, jealousy. This often occurred when a daughter established her personal and professional independence, especially when a new generation was able to benefit from new freedoms, both social and political, that had not been available to her mother’s. Sometimes the response to this jealousy was to sabotage a daughter’s chances. At othertimes it was to abandon her altogether.
Some of the women inherited a fear of intimacy, especially when the example set by their own parents proved lacking, through distrust or infidelity or simply the erosion of the original loving bond. Several of the women demonstrated their lack of self-worth and self-belief by slipping in middle age and later life into loneliness and isolation, numbing unhappiness in an addictive dependence on drink, money or sex. Only rarely did an individual, ensnared in this way, manage to break through the dependency.
The importance of place, sometimes in exchange for a human relationship, reoccurred in several generations. There are beautiful places in this story, Knole and Sissinghurst among them, two of the houses that several women in my family, including me, have at times loved above anything or anyone else. When relationships were at their most fragile, or had failed, a place, a house, a room of their own, even a pair of gates behind which to hide, offered the reassurance of security and uncritical continuity. And yet a sanctuary afforded by bricks and mortar rather than human comfort is open to its own peculiar vulnerability. Not only does it encourage isolation and therefore loneliness, but financial difficulty, wills and the quirks of inheritance laws can destroy such seemingly indestructible bonds.
A book that travels through generations moves to the rhythm of birth and death. Only with my parents’ deaths did I consider mortality as something I, too, might one day experience. Penelope Lively has identified how with age ‘the capricious nature of time’ suddenly accelerates at a gallop, in contrast to the earlier amble of childhood. I now try to disguise that acceleration from my daughters, glossing over a painful arthritic thumb, vaulting a gate to show I still can, easing myself whenever possible out of daylight and into the softening glow of a candle when a camera is directed towards me. In part this book is an attempt to overcome the fugitive nature of time and, in many cases, the transitory nature of love.
My father loved to quote Virginia Woolf at me; from her, he had inherited his favourite refrain. When he was a schoolboy, lazy about homework and exhausted with the idea of keeping a diary, she had told him that ‘nothing has really happened unless it is written down’. Despite the ubiquitous presence of Twitter and Instagram, ensuring no single fleeting thought or happening goes unrecorded, this premise now seems crazy to me. It vaporises the concept of immediacy, even the existence of the moment for anyone who may be incapable or unwilling to commit their experience to paper or photographic documentation. The oral tradition has no place in this argument. But while my susceptibility to my father’s caution has taken a long time to wane, I am growing increasingly sceptical. I wonder about the purpose of writing things down, of making records, of continuing to store the huge quantity of yellowing notebooks that have filled drawers and filing cabinets in passages and hallways all my life when most of it will mean little to later generations. At the very moment when I am adding to the clogged-up family cabinets, piling yet more words on top of a word mountain, part of me is rebelling. Just this once, but never again, I feel. The thing is, of course, things happen: people love and live and cry and laugh and die without a permanent record being made. Precious moments – the birth of a child, the sun glinting on the sea – are more precious for their fleetingness in the mind than for their dry durability in print. It is the fallibility of memory that gets in the way, plays tricks, distorts, blurs and causes the illusion that time has veiled the experience of life so effectively, making it invisible to the mind’s eye. Records can be useful, but only if one identifies the meaning within their jumble and attempts to find a buried narrative. With the flimsiest scraps of information – a photograph here, a letter there, a wisp of bridal lace, a dancing slipper, a glass obelisk, a hedge in a garden, the dedication in a book, the scent of lemony soap, a snatch of song, the glimpse of a once-familiar painting, the memory of picking home-grown raspberries, still dewy in the early-morning garden – it is possible, with thought and time, to discover what a mother and father were once like. Clues, both written and preserved through objects, can lead to discoveries about a long-dead grandparent, a great-grandparent and even a more distant ancestor and invite an exploration of one’s own relationship to them.
Once again it was Virginia Woolf who compared thinking to fishing, ‘the little tug – the sudden conglomeration of an idea at the end of one’s line’. The act of remembering can often prompt this little tug, the ‘Oh, that is what it was all about. Now I understand.’ Of course this search for the illumination of mysteries carries with it the danger of uncovering things that were never meant to be shared; one can be left with uncomfortable secrets that cannot be unremembered. And yet it is often when those people who made us are no longer alive that we can reassess and be free of them and work out for ourselves exactly who we were and who we are.
Copyright © 2016 by Juliet Nicolson