Review by Helen Parry
In spring 1944 the English officer Esmond Warner attended a party in Bari hosted by a widow, Signora Terzulli, and her four beautiful daughters. One of those daughters was Emilia, ‘Ilia’ as she was known. Shortly afterwards, they became engaged, and married just a few months later. Inventory of a Life Mislaid is their daughter’s recreation of their early married life, which took them from Bari to London and from Buckinghamshire to Cairo.
Esmond and Ilia are of course interesting to us because they are the parents of Marina Warner, the famous writer, scholar and novelist. But they are also interesting people in their own right. Esmond was the son of the cricketer Plum and an alumnus of Eton and Oxford; his friends included Frank Pakenham (later Lord Longford), Violet Trefusis, Ivar Bryce (possible model for James Bond) and Penelope Chetwode (writer and wife of John Betjeman). His life was ‘a narrow anchorage of cards and cricket, the school yard, the officers’ mess, the house party, the supper club’. Yet he seems to have lacked something of that easy confidence this class generally possesses. Marina Warner recalls his laughter:
My father’s guffaw, the very seal of the roaring English gentleman, didn’t pack hurt and frustration at first. But its unsettling force rose from the twisted energies of his desires, and demanded acquiescence, forcing the like response on his companions as he laughed. The laugh was a bid for authority […] Esmond did not always know when to laugh. Or that he was asking too much of his companions, when he demanded they find their own discomfiture or defeat funny. [..] Laughter at others’ expense was part of his upbringing, but he never realised it was the mainspring of his jollity.
Ilia, sixteen years younger, had left school aged ten when her father died and grown up in genteel poverty in the Italian sunshine. Despite her lack of formal schooling, she strikes one as highly intelligent, adaptable and sensitive, quick to learn and generous. With immense courage, she travelled alone to London in 1945 to live with her parents-in-law in South Kensington until Esmond should be freed of his war duties in the East. Marina Warner vividly conveys the shock of sooty, smelly, cabbagy London to a young Italian woman. For two years Ilia learnt English, shivered through rural Buckinghamshire winters and wrestled with the intricacies of English cooking, before Esmond persuaded W.H. Smith to let him open a branch of their bookshops in Cairo.
Marina Warner has chosen to structure her memoir/biography as a sort of inventory: each chapter is devoted to a significant object in her parents’ life, some of which clearly still exist (some of which are places or happenings). These things are tangible beside the smokiness of memory. Each object – a hatbox, a silver photograph frame, nasturtium sandwiches, a cigarette tin – sparks off an aspect of their story, but also allows Marina Warner, being Marina Warner, to spin out a series of associations which contextualise her parents in their time and social sphere and give their story richness and depth. So Ilia’s pair of leather brogues from Peal’s leads us to the social significance of this kind of shoe to the upper classes; the etymology of the word ‘brogue’; English country sports; the symbolism of shoes; accents and dialects; the learning of language. The Cairo chapters bring to life not just the cosmopolitan city of the early 1950s but the history of the British presence in the Middle East and its effects, all on the cusp of change.
The latter part of the book is interspersed with some of Marina Warner’s early memories. Not all of these are true. Now she realises that she could never have seen hippos, ‘heavy and slumberous and whiskered, lying half-submerged in the Nile’, because when she lived in Cairo the hippos had gone from the river. Indeed, the idea of ‘truth’ in this ‘unreliable memoir’ is complicated and contested. Marina Warner’s closeness to the subjects of her book allow her imagination to fill in some gaps, to speculate about their feelings and to invent conversations she cannot possibly have remembered (she is scrupulously honest about all of this). Of the impossibility of her task, she writes:
[…] writings may also become part of a strategy to disguise the truth – not intentionally, but as a consequence of wishfulness. A memoir like this one, which needs must be unreliable, since it is not possible to know your parents or their lives and yours before the age of six, substitutes for what really happened and who they really were; its work on their behalf inevitably misremembers or misrepresents, or, at best, embellishes, failing to set out what really took place.
And yet, despite these misgivings, Marina Warner has given us a wonderful book, a sort of hybrid of fact and fiction, myth and history, love and sadness: a book that expresses all her talents perfectly.
Helen Parry blogs at a gallimaufry.
Marina Warner, Inventory of a Life Mislaid: An Unreliable Memoir (William Collins, 2021). 978-0008347581, 416 pp., hardback.
BUY at Blackwell’s via our affiliate link (free UK P&P)