It's Endsleigh Salon this evening with the delicious theme of 'Guilt' and I have decided that I will make this book fit the theme because I think it's clear for all to see that several people may... just may, have felt enormous guilt about their part in the story I am about to recount.
We'll be sipping tea ourselves down at Hotel Endsleigh and you might also need a pot of your own for this one, and you'll have to concentrate for this first bit because I need to explain quite how this book arrived in Devon because I was asked if I would like a copy of the memoir Searching for Grace by one of the authors, Carol Henderson. Carol is a friend of the daughter of a retired GP fisher-friend (whose family are mentioned very briefly in the book) of Bookhound's...are you with me? Carol e mailed me about the book from her home in Wellington, New Zealand and then very kindly sent a copy which duly arrived in that huge sack of post we eventually had to drive through snow to collect for ourselves on Christmas Eve, and I was delighted that it did because here was more lovely Christmas reading.
Searching for Grace a book I'm about to explore in more detail than usual here because it is currently not readily available in the UK, (though if you're in New Zealand you're in luck) but one that definitely should be for the light it shines on a period of time that's much in our national consciousness right now, with Downton Abbey conversation everywhere and a second series to come. Reading it proved to be the perfect adjunct to all that Christmas watching, because it's not only contemporaneous with the era, thus offering further fascinating insights into the lives of the privileged, but it's an extremely well written memoir and I couldn't put it down.
Have you ever wondered about the fate of those children born out of wedlock to the Edwardian aristocracy who were then silently whisked away into obscurity so that the season could continue, the presentations at court needn't be interrupted, the lovers could still be bedded and the summers could still be spent languishing on the Riviera? I'll admit I hadn't given it much thought at all until Carol's book arrived and I settled down to read the poignant story of her mother Heather Tovey's life.
The family memoir predominantly written by Heather (nee Campbell) who was born in London on... well when was Heather born? She thought it was March 3rd 1911 but had no birth certificate to prove it, and nor could Heather apply for one from Somerset House because they held no record of her birth. When Heather came to apply for a new passport in New Zealand in 1975, the country where she had lived for nigh on forty years, that lack became the focal point of her story as she proceeded to trace her life back to those earliest memories of growing up in Edwardian London in the care of three sisters, one of whom she knew as 'Mummy' and who had indeed been loving, but in a strangely remote way.
Slowly the mystery unfolds as Heather travels to England at the age of sixty-four to search for her roots and her past. What became apparent as I read was just how important known parentage and identity can be and how unsettled and rootless it is possible to feel without those constants in your life. Heather had grown up with secrets, a child's awareness that all is not quite right, the brick wall when the questions are asked and this coupled with the knowledge that Heather unearths, that she was indeed a child of the aristocracy, all had me deeply engrossed in this very readable book.
Heather had long suspected that she may be an illegitimate child of a daughter of the Maple family, the owners of that great furniture empire, in which case she had unwittingly met her mother Lady Grace Weigall in her Hill Street home in Mayfair on many occasions. The GP and family friend who seemed to have acted as her guardian and provider, Dr Leonard Boys, had more than a passing interest in her welfare too though he was not her father. Grace had been three months pregnant with Heather by an unknown man when she married Sir Archibald Weigall in 1910, and indeed there are pictures in the book of Grace, heavily pregnant with Heather, as she accompanies her new husband on the campaign trail that will see him elected as an MP.
Dr Boys had been present at Heather's birth and had then immediately taken her in the hushed hours of night, wrapped in a shawl and still unwashed and unfed from the delivery room, to the waiting family of spinster sisters with whom the care arrangement had been made. Most heartbreakingly Heather had also unwittingly played with and wrapped her dolls in that black shawl for many years without knowing of its greater significance.
Quite who takes responsibility for the non-registration of the birth is a debatable point, I have always thought it was the parent's responsibility but Dr Boy's collusion with the circumstances and his professional accountability is much-debated in this book, as is his role as the go-between. Forgive the pun but the saving grace is that Heather and her carers are well provided for and it is Dr Boys who keeps the supply of money flowing from an unknown source and maintains a watchful eye over proceedings in a sort of god-fatherly way, whilst taking his vow of secrecy concerning Heather's parentage to the grave. It is his widow who finally tells Heather the truth about her birth mother and as for Heather's father, his identity remains uncertain, though there was much speculation and plenty of titled men in Grace's life to choose from.The potential scandal can only begin to be imagined had it got out, and quite what everyone who knew her thought Grace had done with the baby born six months after her marriage remains open to speculation.
The book is full of deeply poignant reading as Heather imagines and describes some of these key moments in her young life and who can know how painful that may have been for her to recount.Then there are the ongoing uncertainties and insecurities that Heather has taken into her adult life, lying about her age and secretly marrying the New Zealand artist Gordon Tovey before emigrating to Plimmerton, north of Wellington in New Zealand, to start a new life with him at the age of eighteen. Except Heather has more baggage than she can have possibly imagined, and through her life the leaden weight of that starts to increase until it becomes an almost intolerable burden. The letters to Heather in New Zealand from Mummy urge her to put it all behind her but, as the written words traversing thousands of miles become the vehicles of confession and admission of so many of the secrets surrounding Heather's origins, she is most certainly unable to do that.
The veneer covering Heather's insecurities is often painfully thin and easily scratched to reveal the rawness of what lies beneath, as when she gives birth to her own daughter Carol, the co-author of this book who inherits her mother's cause and researches it further after her death. Or when Gordon sinks into alcoholism and takes a mistress to which Heather displays a limitless degree of tolerance and capacity in coping with his infidelity, perhaps deeply rooted in the infidelities of those who have treated her so badly in her own past. Whilst it's easy to read a book like this and impose your own emotional coping strategies, Heather clearly had her own methods too and used them to shore herself up and protect herself from further hurt.
Knowing and finding her family becomes an obsession that will haunt Heather for the rest of her life, and when she does find a sister, Priscilla once married to Viscount Curzon, and is initially welcomed but subsequently rejected, the pain makes for very sad reading. Priscilla's assertion that if only she'd known of Heather's existence she could have given her a great deal of money when it was distributed from the estate, to make up for the little that Heather had received, somehow misses the point entirely... this was about something no amount of money could buy, it was about belonging.
In fact Heather taps into a seam of sadness, despair, depression and instability within that extended family that perhaps has its deep roots in the fickle nature of those moneyed ancestors. Lady Grace Weigall,
Heather's mother, a wealthy serial adulteress with a string of country seats (now luxury hotels Petwood in Woodhall Spa in Lincolnshire, Engelmere in Ascot) and plenty of lovers to meet there, reminded me slightly of Idina Sackville of The Bolter fame. When I read that at eighteen months Heather had almost been whisked back into the aristocratic fold but for Mummy's protestations at the damage it would do, I could only but think what a fortunate escape that had been for her. Whether Heather was ever able to see it in that light seems uncertain, and indeed it is Carol who takes up the burden of the past after Heather's death and finally achieves that search for a different kind of grace, along with some sense of closure for the family and in honour of her mother's memory.
So forget all the fictional accounts, here is a true story, wonderfully written and a brave and honest indictment of a time when class was everything, when reputations and social standing for those classes in society took precedence over all else, when an unwanted child's life could be spirited away out of sight, when money could buy silence and secrecy and when lives could be cruelly manipulated beyond the grave. A powerful and really excellent read about Heather Tovey (nee Campbell) a woman of indomitable spirit, and my sincere thanks to her daughter Carol for sending me a copy.