Reviewed by Gill Davies
Lulah Ellender’s book – subtitled “A Family Story” – is part biography, part family history, and it includes reflections on her own family which gradually emerge from the broader narrative. At its centre is the life and early death of her grandmother, Elisabeth Knatchbull-Hugessen, who was born in 1915 into an upper-middle-class English family, and died in 1957. She was the daughter of a diplomat, and the family lived in China in the 1930s. She met her future husband when riding with her father and people from the embassy in Nanking. Rather romantically, she was shot in the head by a bullet fired by a Chinese, probably intended for the ambassador. A young diplomat , a “quick-thinking, dashing hero” – called Gerry Young saved her by removing the bullet with a thin key. They later married and she continued the peripatetic life she had always known. They lived in Spain where Elisabeth had the “job” of a diplomat’s wife at the start of World War II; then they returned to England with Elisabeth experiencing wartime and motherhood in the Home Counties. After the war they were posted to Beirut, Rio and Paris.
This life makes for interesting reading. The book’s origin and framework is a book of lists that Elisabeth started when she married in 1939. It was saved by Elisabeth’s daughter, Helen, the author’s mother, along with a Dior dress and other heirlooms. The lists are varied and revealing, from wedding presents and who gave them, to jobs to be done in the newly-weds’ flat (lining drawers, doing laundry, getting a curtain for the shoe-cupboard) and the assigning of chores to different days: “Monday: Tidying, flowers. Tuesday: shopping. Wednesday: Accounts. Thursday: Mending. Friday: Gardening”). These lists remind me a little of the experience of the narrator in Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca who discovers with horror all the tasks that need to be done as the wife in a grand house – planned menus, telephone calls, and correspondence. Indeed the periods and settings of the two books have similarities and I was also reminded of those Persephone Books revivals of early and mid-20th-century women writers – like E. M. Delafield, Winifred Watson, and Dorothy Whipple. There are some delightful ones. She keeps hens during the War and notes all their eggs in her “Egg Register”. For Christmas 1947 she lists the presents she will put in the children’s stockings and those they will give to Nanny. There are garden party guest lists; the food and drink for a cocktail party in Beirut in 1945 (including such English favourites as tongue mousse, kidney and sausage pilau, sardine balls, stuffed eggs and Russian salad).
But it isn’t nostalgic or sentimental. There are dark passages too – like the lists she makes when she is trying to cope with depression and tragedy, including her brother’s things that she has to dispose of after his suicide (their parents are too distant – in more ways than one – to attend the funeral). Ellender also writes about the grief she feels for her mother whose illness and death haunt and inform the book: “It seems especially savage and poignant that just as I am beginning to piece Elisabeth’s life back together, my mother is told hers is coming to an end.”
The lists are a revealing insight into the lives of a section of the English upper middle class at a particular time. Supplemented by diaries, scrapbooks and journals, the recollections of other family members, and contemporary historical accounts, this is a revealing minor social history. It is also enlarged by Ellender’s thoughts about family, memory, social change, the psychology and personal politics of recording, listing, ordering. The book movingly connects past and present lives, grandmother, mother, and children. “My mother represents one strand of a spidery thread with which I am spinning Elisabeth’s story. She is my connection to everything, my reference point, my beginning. And she is unravelling. So I hold more tightly to the other end of the thread – the yellowing paper and cracking cloth spine of Elisabeth’s book of lists.” Ellender uses lists, photographs and journals, even a coroner’s report and a death certificate, to try to bring alive people she never knew.
I have done a bit of family history myself and know how fascinating it can be to unravel a mystery or uncover an unknown relative and to link their lives to social changes and wider historical events. But what different worlds! Elisabeth’s privilege (class status, wealth, family connections, travelling the world) could make her seem alien, even unsympathetic, but Ellender’s focus on the everyday and the social life of a now lost world is fascinating. It was a life of privilege, and comfort. But it was also a rootless and emotionally deprived life lived on the move, renting flats and houses around the world, being sent away to school, to England and so on. Ellender’s explanation for the behaviour of Elisabeth’s parents at times of crisis is “the overarching sense that they must constrain and resist any emotion or instinct in the interests of British foreign policy” – but it made me wonder if they were just cold and rather selfish, themselves the products of a distant and distancing Victorian upbringing. Certainly their daughter, though immensely privileged and confident, is also frequently isolated and mentally vulnerable. Ellender thoughtfully analyses the psychological consequences of upper-middle-class life – the dislocation of families and relationships. She notes the repression around sexuality and gender roles including the desperately sad suicide of her great-uncle and the periods of mental disturbance experienced by her grandmother but barely recognised as such. (She was prescribed iron tablets for post-natal depression and clearly felt guilty and inadequate when she found herself unable to cope.)
Elisabeth’s Lists is a good read – varied, revealing, sad and funny. It wears its research lightly but still manages to inform and delight. I expect Shiny readers will throughly enjoy it.
Lulah Ellender, Elisabeth’s Lists: A Family Story (Granta: London, 2018), 978-1783783830, hardback, 318pp.
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