In My Father's House, by Miranda Seymour

The house that self-delusion built
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The Independent Culture

The present obsession with houses is all to do with how much they are worth, how we can tart them up, and then what inflation-busting profit we can make by selling them on. An older variant of the British love affair with property, though, has more emotional roots. The upper classes have long passed the family seat down from one generation to another, sacrificing almost everything else to cling on to the ancestral pile in which is invested an almost mystical significance.

Miranda Seymour comes from just such a background. Best known as a novelist, children's writer and inspired biographer of Mary Shelley, Ottoline Morrell and Robert Graves, she grew up in Thrumpton Hall in Nottinghamshire. Though she is undoubtedly posh, a distant relative of the Dukes of Grafton on one side and Lord Howard de Walden on the other, her family was what is politely called a minor branch. By accident of birth neither Seymour parent had been in a position to inherit and therefore were predestined to be sacrificed into genteel poverty as every asset was settled on the first born in their families in order to keep the family estate and seat intact.

However, as Seymour recounts, her father was not about to accept his fate. By sheer will and force of personality, this one-time bank clerk in Fakenham managed to persuade a childless aunt and her titled husband first to treat him as their surrogate son and then to name him as the heir to Thrumpton. Just as the prize was about to fall into his lap, however, it turned out the estate was so deeply in debt that he was, after all, going to miss out. This was the period immediately after the Second World War, when Britain's stately homes were shutting up shop faster than independent booksellers are today.

Fortunately George FitzRoy Seymour - he insisted on the FitzRoy because he believed it reminded people he was descended from a 17th-century royal bastard - had taken the precaution of marrying an heiress and, with the help of her family, managed to secure a hefty loan that meant he could buy Thrumpton and live thereafter as if to the manor born.

This intimate memoir sets out as a tale of George Seymour's obsession with Thrumpton - always referred to as The House - and what it cost him and those around him. It is a daughter chronicling with an unflinching eye her father's single-minded determination, as well as his self-delusion, his snobbishness and the emotional neglect of his wife and children that came as a consequence of his exclusive love for a heap of bricks and mortar, undiminished even when a massive power station was built next door.

As someone who grew up in a 1960s bungalow on the Wirral, I struggled to get inside his head. Yes, there is a childish part of us all, encouraged by stories of kings and princesses, that would like to be master or mistress of a large house, ideally with a drawbridge. A teenage reading of Jane Austen with her tales of Pemberley prolongs the dream. But the adult in us baulks at the maintenance bills and, as our tastes develop, we realises that just because these places are old that doesn't mean they are either attractive or desirable. They are just big.

For this reason, some sense of why Thrumpton (unfortunately near in pronunciation to Trumpton) is so special would have been helpful. Miranda Seymour, however, seems to take it as read and indeed, since her father's death in 1994, she has taken on the mantle of chatelaine and keeper of the flame. What you are left with are a few black and white pictures of a large, imposing, many-chimneyed place that could just as well be a private school, nursing home or nunnery.

It is only when Seymour moves away from her central theme to explore her own relationship with her father that the plebeian reader is truly drawn in. For George had other passions in his life - not, it seems, either his wife or children, but much younger men with whom he shared a passion for motorbikes and with whom he spent most of the last quarter of his life riding pillion.

Memoirs such as this one only really work if the author is prepared to be painfully honest, and Miranda Seymour is certainly that. One of the best features of a well-structured tale is the constant presence, at the writer's shoulder, of her elderly mother saying "you've exaggerated that" or "did that really happen?". For any memoir is, of course, entirely subjective and is therefore more akin to a novel than a biography. A measure of Seymour's success is that, while I would happily give a guided tour round Thrumpton a miss, I couldn't put her book down and had to read it all in one sitting.

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