Rosie: Scenes from a Vanished Life by Rose Tremain

Reviewed by Harriet

I’m a huge admirer of Rose Tremain’s brilliant novels, and very fond of childhood memoirs as a genre, so this one was a must for me. It’s the story of growing up in a world that might seem comfortable and privileged, but one with many uncomfortable spikes under its apparently smooth surface.

Rosemary Thompson, always known as Rosie, was born in 1944, the younger daughter of a not very successful playwright, Keith Thompson, and his wife Jane. It was a very conventional middle-class household: Rosie and her sister Jo were in the care of their nanny, Nan, and lived their lives mainly in the nursery quarters of the London house, being ‘taken down to see the parents’ every day before bath time. They were taught to be in awe of their father’s writing, always having to be very quiet on the stairs when they passed his study. He was a somewhat remote figure, and they never felt sure whether he actually liked them. As for Jane, she seemed to care little for the two girls she had given birth to. Herself the product of loveless parents, she was happy to hand the care of them over to Nan, the woman without whom, it’s impossible not to realise, saved them from severe psychological problems as they grew up. The book is dedicated to her.

So life in London was not particularly joyful, but Rosie and Jo had something always to look forward to – their visits, three times a year, to their grandparents’ house in the country, Linkenholt Manor.

Our love for it was uncontainable. Our day to day lives in a dark, post-war London were smog-bound, constrained by the walks to school and back, to the Italian corner shop, to the sooty parks, the skating rink, the swimming baths. But at Linkenholt, we were free. Around the house on the hill were spread two thousand acres of chalky farmland, owned by our grandfather, across which, on our Raleigh bicycles, in corduroy dungarees or sometimes improbably dressed as Indian chiefs, we were allowed to roam.

It sounds idyllic, and in many ways it was, but the atmosphere in the manor house was no warmer than at home – their mother’s brother Michael, the apple of his parents’ eye, had died in the war and a pall of grief hung over the household. Despite this, the children enjoyed their rural freedom. There were moments of joy at home, of course: the best game she and her mother played occasionally was one in which they pretended to be each other – role play as it’s called now, probably very healing, and resulting in much shared laughter. But mostly she felt her mother was constantly poised on the edge of anger.

Everything changed when Rosie was ten. Not only was there no more Linkenholt – both grandparents died – but also her father suddenly and silently disappeared with another woman. Some bed-hopping ensued and then Jane remarried to his cousin, Sir Ivo Thompson, who bought a country house for them all to live in. The girls were sent to a boarding school, Crofton Grange, so that her mother and her friends ‘could forget all about their children’s future’:

Instead they could go to plays, go to films, go to restaurants, get drunk at lunchtime, flirt, shop, swear, take taxis, waste money, go dancing, have sex, and wander through London in the dawn light, laughing, determined  to forget the war that had stolen their youth and so many of the people they loved.

Indeed, another appalled mother, witnessing Jane putting her weeping daughters on the school train, saw her turn to her friend, link arms, and say, ‘Good! Now we can get on with life’.

Boarding school was a mixed blessing, and perhaps gave the girls a chance to develop their talents and personalities away from the cool atmosphere at home. Rosie’s sister Jo became a successful artist, and Rosie herself was viewed as talented in that direction. There is in fact a rather bizarre scenario in which she was urged – instructed, even – to paint a mural of Milton’s poem ‘Il Penseroso‘ on a ceiling, all during a term when she was to have exams. In fact she was, not surprisingly, considered bright, and would have liked to go to university, but her parents had other plans and she was whisked off to a finishing school in Switzerland, where she seems to have had a whale of a time. The story ends with Rosie having managed to decamp to Paris, where she felt able to rebel against the constraints of her childhood.

Although Tremain did not publish her first novel till 1976, and showed little sign of her ambitions in that direction as a child, this memoir has a number of moments in which, in footnotes, she points out the parallels between her childhood experiences and episodes in her novels and short stories.

As beautifully written as you’d expect from one of Britain’s most celebrated living novelists, Rosie is a wonderfully readable and thought-provoking account of an upbringing that, despite its physical comforts, could have crushed the spirit of a lesser child. Far from being a misery memoir, it’s full of moments of joy and entertainment, and a real tribute to the persistence of the human spirit.

Harriet is one of the editors of Shiny New Books.

Rose Tremain, Rosie (Chatto & Windus, 2018). 978-1784742270, 210pp., hardback.

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