So having read The Return of Captain John Emmett and knowing that I was going to be hearing, meeting and dining with Elizabeth Speller at the du Maurier festival in Fowey back in May, it seemed sensible to do some homework before I went. And given that I had discovered the existence of a memoir Sunlight on the Garden A Memoir of Love, War & Madness published by Granta, it then seemed like a really good idea. It's all about not wanting to put both feet in it with a pair of size twelves and then not have a leg to stand on really isn't it...and once you read a book with 'madness' in the title there's clearly plenty of potential for the giant faux pas.
Except Lizzie Speller is a delight, self-effacing, modest and hilarious. It was lovely to meet her in person and then choke on my dinner several times because she is very funny indeed, but we were also able to chat about this memoir and her intentions in writing it.
I love a good memoir especially if it's about a life that spans the same era as mine because I can indulge in a big nostalge over shared recollections, in this case that included AA Milne poems, Moonfleet (one of my favourites books and TV series too) Gt Ormond Street Children's Hospital where I trained and Lizzie was treated in the speech therapy department, music because we both loved Tubby the Tuba and Sparky's Magic Piano and remember Sunday evenings and Sing Something Simple on the radio with the Cliff Adams Singers. I went to see Aladdin on Ice at Wembley, whilst Elizabeth wasn't allowed to go for fear of catching polio and she screamed blue murder at the deprivation, and then who remembers wallpapered ceilings?? Was that not the most hilarious activity and wasn't the fashion for it to be the same as on the walls so a vast amount of pattern matching involved and much regret over buying striped wallpaper. I feel sure the Tinker was an expert.
And who else sang sunny lemontina? I'll leave you to think about that.
So I was feeling a real affinity with Elizabeth's life but for one big difference. We're not big on blue blood chez family dovegrey whilst Elizabeth's family nursed a descendency from two of Britain's noblest families, the Cavendishs and the Howards via her great-grandfather. The lineage went slightly off piste when Gerald Howard (1853-1945) sired eight children via his mistress, Ada Curtis descended from pork butchers and machinists. It quickly became clear that they couldn't keep giving the babies away and indeed one of them would become Lizzie's grandmother, so eventually Gerald made an honest woman of Ada and so the lineage dilutes a little more, whilst various branches of the family cling to the memory and try to keep up appearances, and this all recounted in Lizzie's very humorous style. The book darts hither and thither and in doing so reflects the complexities of this huge family, but for all the humour life is about to become a great deal more serious, and Lizzie can turn it on a sixpence so expect to feel awash with laughter one minute and aghast with horror the next.
It is child number seven, Joan, Lizzie's grandmother now married to Eric Edmonds and I hope I'm getting this right and hope you're following...it really is an incredibly complex and vast family tree (and I must digress to tell you that Eric's brother Stuart Edmonds was the love of novelist Anna Kavan's life) but it is maternal grandmother Joan who, standing in front of a fire at a party one day in 1936, suddenly finds her dress in flames...
'...her lovely dress, her lovely lovely dress. Flames are engulfing one side of it. She beats it with one hand, the other keeps hold of her champagne glass. She is a candle melting. Whatever is Eric doing? Is he mad? Drunk? He is pulling at the curtains, but they won't come down. Another man knocks her to the ground, he rolls her in the stiff old rug -she tries to tell him not to, the rug is valuable - Eric bought it in Paris...'
Joan is in hospital for a year where she is treated by the eminent plastic surgeon Archibald McIndoe, her children, including Lizzie's mother, are not allowed to see her in that time and Joan unsurprisingly is changed for ever.
It is into this family, with its tragedies and skeletons-in-cupboards that Lizzie is born, with her mother's ongoing need to keep up appearances and maintain the family's sense of being slightly cleverer and better connected than those around them, yet not always quite making the grade. To say Lizzie asserts and charts her own course through these choppy waters as both a child and an adult would be an understatement, and I don't want to reveal quite what leads to the severe depression that she will suffer from later in her life, nor to dwell on the prolonged hospitalisation or the treatments, because what shines out from a book like this is something else entirely. It's that ability to 'get better' because ultimately this is a book full of an indomitable and optimistic spirit, one in which Lizzie does eventually emerge older and wiser but also 'better' and very suddenly recovered, the depression an affliction of the past.
Sufficiently better to embark on in-depth research of her family with a list that went as follows...
1) why mad?
3) where did Gerald meet Ada?
4) where did the money come from?
5) where's Rupert?
In the event it would seem Lizzie's mother cleverly side-stepped the madness...
'Instead of being mad she made a career out of judging who else was and became a psychotherapist. You would have thought she'd had enough of that at home but of course treating the disturbed gave her an element of control over the damage and anger that had once been beyond her power to resolve.'
Then there's Rupert. Who's Rupert?
Well he was another of the seven children of Gerald and Ada and I won't reveal more but if you have read The Return of Captain John Emmett and then you read Sunlight on the Garden you may see how the inspiration for the kernel of a novel could be sitting right under your nose. Elizabeth meanwhile then launches herself into a degree in Archaeology and Anthropology at Cambridge, proceeds to a post-graduate degree in Ancient History and now holds an RLF Fellowship at the University of Warwick. When you discover how little time Lizzie actually spent in school it's clear those achievements seem all the more remarkable, a real lesson in tenacity all making it my absolute pleasure to meet Lizzie Speller both through the pages of this book and in real life.