If, like me, you keep a notebook(s) of any description, and perhaps wonder what life it may have when you have wandered off into the Great Hereafter, do read on because Elisabeth's Lists A Family Story by Lulah Ellender is a shining example of just how important it might be.
Given her grandmother's notebook, Lulah Ellender has framed her family memoir around the lists that Elisabeth made between 1939 and 1957.
A single book that contains a life story, as the daughter of a diplomat, Elizabeth Knatchbull- Hugesson marries minor diplomat Gerry Young and embarks on the peripatetic lifestyle of the diplomat's wife. It is a way of life Elisabeth has grown up with, she knows what she is taking on. Peking, Madrid, Beirut, Rio de Janeiro will beckon and finally, perhaps the cherry on the cake, Paris.
The diplomat's wife is the ultimate free bonus, the buy-one-get-one-free in the deal, which will require her to set up a home in a house that she will never own, often within the isolated confines of secure compound. She will have to be prepared to move there at very short notice, and when she does arrive have to live up to all the expectations surrounding her competencies as a well-dressed socialite and a charming hostess to a huge crowd of people she doesn't know and whose language she may not speak. Oh yes, and there will be babies who grow into school-age children to cope with too, and whilst there may be plentiful help on hand, no one can experience on a mother's behalf the emotion of dispatching the children off to boarding school in the homeland.
Elisabeth's lists become her best way of being organised and maintaining a modicum of control over a life that can turn to chaos in a moment.
'I study Elisabeth's lists and discover that in one month she had to cater for fifty-six people for tea. twenty for cocktails and twenty-seven to lunch and dinner; another month she had thirteen people to tea, a hundred to cocktails and sixty-three to lunch and dinner. Heads and plates must have been spinning...'
The structure of the lists dispense comfort and reassurance at the time of writing, but now, as a primary source, the lists offer Lulah Ellender the means to investigate and interpret the life of the grandmother she never met...and this whilst her own mother, Elisabeth's daughter Helen, is dying of lung cancer. Through the lives of these two women Lulah is able to confront and express her own grief too. Elisabeth would die when Helen was nine and this book becomes a poignant journey of memory and discovery for both her and Lulah as they explore the life lived. It all makes for fascinating reading. An unknown life of seemingly little interest beyond the confines of the immediate family takes on something special and it has been a privilege to share in it.
Elisabeth will meet hardship and mental illness along the way though I found the episode of post-natal depression entirely understandable given the year, 1941, coupled with the rootless circumstances of her life with Gerry. The wartime pull-yourself-together attitude prevails, adding to the guilt and inadequacy felt by women who can't cope. It is no surprise that Elisabeth finds solace and comfort staying with her cousin Veronica at Parham House in Sussex. The beauty, solidity and permanence of this great Elizabethan house offering something unwavering in the midst of so much uncertainty surrounding roots and home, and through it all the lists continue...
'Hope moves us on and when it dies we stagnate; a list can pull us onward, out of our torpor and into a new life, a new self, in which the world makes more sense and we know what we are doing here. There is a ritualistic quality to Elisabeth's list book, as if the lists are a kind of prayer...'
This is such an unusual book, one that emphasises the importance of maintaining the practice of keeping notebooks and diaries in a digital age; Elisabeth's Lists instrumental in making sure that I started my own note-taking seriously again. I fear for my descendants when they come to sort it all out though, oh for just one single notebook. I had a sort out of old notebooks recently, no coherence to it whatsoever. Bits written in this one and that depending on mood, time and place, and then there are the 4.5 million words (we estimate conservatively) written on here over the last twelve years, and the years-worth of notes about books I've read. Ye gods.
Lulah's mother Helen, in the final months of her life, writes a list of her own memories about her mother and Lulah does likewise about her own life. I came to with a start and realised I must do this about my own family too. The blue notebook, to the right in the top picture, is the journal Bookhound bought me to write through the last few months of the Tinker's (my dad's) life. I couldn't bear to read it again until recently, but I see now that this is where those memories should be written.
Lulah Ellender quotes Hilary Mantel...
'What is to be done with the lost, the dead, but write them into being?'
And I was reminded of the evening spent listening to Hilary Mantel speaking at Budleigh Literary Festival last September. I hunted out my notes (in one of the copious quantity of notebooks) and here's what I jotted down...
'...As soon as somebody dies they become fictional, they become a narrative construction, preserved in memory but in a sense you are not dead if someone still talks about you. The thought hollows you out with a sense of waste and loss for those not known...my greatest joy is to take a name and give them person-hood... a particle of being... doing honour to what is lost...'
Hilary's voice was almost at a whisper, no one moved a muscle and I could feel my eyes welling up with tears, but in a sense this is exactly what Lulah Ellender has done with Elisabeth's Lists, given a voice and person-hood to someone I may never have known about.
'Her lists are almost works of art, existing as simple, pared-down expressions of her spirit.' suggests Lulah, and then towards the end of the book, as the loss of her own mother Helen becomes a reality, the book takes on the qualities of a physical connection, a comforting talisman...
'This brittle, battered book still contains something of Elisabeth and it has begin to feel like an essential companion, something to protect me as we tick-tock forward through time.'
This is a book to persuade your library to buy if you don't want to purchase, but meanwhile please do share thoughts on notebooks, lists and writing it all down because I am sure a lot of you do...
And scroll down to the next post for gifts...