When Miranda Seymour's father died in 1994, three national newspapers accorded him obituaries. "Three obituaries!" exclaimed a furious relation. "What did he ever do?" Well, I wrote one of the obituaries, and it was clear to me.
George Seymour was a very odd man, with a very odd story. He devoted his life to the preservation of a huge house in Nottinghamshire. His obsession with this house was deep-rooted, old-fashioned, obviously unhealthy and - to an outsider - utterly fascinating. He was never ordinary; he was like a character in fiction, or on the stage: physically mannered, imperiously articulate, ruthlessly charming, emotionally extreme. When he walked into a room, it was as though the curtain had gone up. What on earth would he say next?
He had been abandoned by his parents when he was one - his father, a diplomat, had been posted to La Paz. His mother put him in the care of a childless sister, married to the Rev Lord Byron, of Thrumpton Hall, 23 years her elder. By the time George's mother returned, he had transferred all his affections to Thrumpton, a down-at-heel Jacobean pile outside Nottingham. Old Lord Byron teased him with the possibility of making him his heir, but in the event George had to buy the building and go to auction for its contents. Triumphantly, he saved the house.
What we didn't write in the obituaries was that, not only did George Seymour, respectable magistrate and father of two, take up motorbikes in middle age (doing "the ton" all night in full black leathers on his Ducati), but he also took up with two young bikers - of whom the second, after 13 years' night-biking with the squire of Thrumpton, killed himself. Seymour, desolate, died of cancer months afterwards.
Miranda Seymour's book is billed by the publishers as "the first 'posh misery memoir' ". She tells how much she hated her father, a snobbish, selfish, manipulative man who forced her to wear a wig when she was young and mocked the books she wrote later, who sought to implicate her in his treacheries. Yet she tells too how much she "ached" for his admiration; how, more and more, she sees him in herself and sympathises with his love of "the House" (as she calls it) of which she is now châtelaine. She does not tell, because she admits she can't, what exactly was the relationship between him and the bike boys, even though they shared his bed. Was he a wartime coward, who flunked the Army? Did he marry his wife for her money? The questions hang in the air.
In My Father's House is unsparing, shocking as often as comic, the story cunningly constructed and beautifully told. Unlike most "misery memoirs", it is written by a professional biographer, who has had access to her father's letters and diaries, and interviewed survivors. But should the story have been told at all? The author says, "Some names have been changed." But there are photographs of all the protagonists (save "Slav", the castrated Ethiopian who went naked). Her brother, unnamed in the narrative, is alive, as is their mother, Rosemary. To what extent do they have "ownership" of such a story? How absolute are an author's rights?
In 1994, I ended that obituary, "I hope Miranda Seymour writes her autobiography soon." If it weren't for the heroic figure of her mother ("my conscience"), this autobiography might have come too soon. But Rosemary Seymour is given a voice throughout, a Greek chorus that speaks with the sober, accurate wisdom of a wife, mother, reader, friend. Her sagacity is redemptive.
James Fergusson is obituaries editor of 'The Independent'Reuse content