Eleanor Anstruther’s father Ian was sold by their mother to her Aunt Joan in 1930 for £500 (around £30,000 in today’s money) after a legal battle for Ian that went on for ten years. She grew up with this version of it: His mother was mad and awful, he’d had a lucky escape. But, says Eleanor in the epilogue, what I didn’t know, and would never know, were the emotions that went with it. With her father’s blessing, using letters, legal and medical reports, she set out to write a fictional account that would make some sense of it, hoping to give him a version of his mother he could love. That she couldn’t do. Enid’s behaviour was unforgiveable. But what Eleanor does do is show us what a toxic brew of aristocratic expectation, misogyny and psychological intimidation created the tragedy.
Enid is completely unsuited to marriage, sex and motherhood, but she’s a girl and that’s what girls do in aristocratic families where a male heir must be provided. Her mother Sybil’s reaction to the telegram announcing her son’s death in battle is to point a steely finger at Enid and say, “You must replace him”. Who knows what Sybil’s feelings are? This is a world in which loss of emotional control is not to be tolerated. Enid is spoiled by wealth, childish and silly, it’s true, but when she’s genuinely suffering there’s nobody to recognise it. And she does have real suffering, with the accident that cripples her first son, and the depression that follows the birth of her second. There’s no guidance, no adult understanding. It’s no wonder that she behaves like a needy, angry child, and there’s no solution. No perfect explanation.
The book moves skilfully between the 1920’s and 1964, as Enid’s daughter Finetta visits her mother in her nursing home. The disregard for daughters has carried on: Enid hates Finetta, and Finetta isn’t interested in her own daughter but adores her son. But, it seems, Ian has broken the mould with his daughter Eleanor. He wanted her to tell his story, and she’s repaid his confidence with a deeply-imagined picture of broken people who, as Aunt Joan said, “made rather a hash of it.”
I listened to this as an audio book and it worked very well in that mode. I was rivetted.