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Relations by Jane Miller

Chips with everything

What a jumble a family is! All those mothers and fathers, along with their parents and their parents' parents, not to mention the great aunts and uncles, all going back and back. The only reason most of us are not overwhelmed by our familial inheritance is that so much is forgotten, tidied away, thrown out or consciously concealed. Those old brown photographs that do survive often lack names. Most lives remain only as hearsay.

Jane Miller's family happened to be the rare ones who left written records. On her father's side they were English dissenters. Great-grandfather Collet Dobson Collet was part of the middle-class wing of Chartism, an enthusiastic supporter of causes and friend of Karl and Jenny Marx. His sister Sophy wrote the life of the Indian reformer, Raja Rammohun Roy, who was connected to anti-slavery circles. Collet's daughter Clara was to become an advanced woman of the 1890s. She worked with the investigator of poverty Charles Booth and wrote on women's employment. Her friends included Eleanor Marx and novelist George Gissing.

In contrast, Miller's maternal grandfather was Redcliffe Salaman, who came from a line of prosperous Ashkenazi Jews and wrote a pioneering work of history, The History and Social Influence of the Potato. Miller too is fascinated by the ordinary, and possesses the ability to reveal it as redolent in meaning. After reading her account of a journey to visit her 91-year-old mother along the A40, this humdrum route will never be the same for me. She intimates so poignantly how elusive hopes and indefatigable adaptivity lurk behind the façade of decaying suburbia.

The arbitrary is very much part of the jumble Miller sorts through in Relations. The Salaman name changed from Solomon because of a spelling mistake. Her parents married because they thought, mistakenly, that a baby was on the way. The significance of chance is accentuated by her eye for nuanced details: bubble and squeak in the British Restaurants or the raspberry pink lipstick worn for a party.

A recurring theme is how one becomes a woman. The formidable Sophy and Clara faced this in the 19th century, while Miller's mother wandered vaguely through femininity by refusing practicality. For her part, at Cambridge in 1954, Jane Miller knew that "There was a realistic expectation that even with a degree I would need to take some man's dictation before long".

Slightly older than the women's liberationists of the early 1970s, she recoiled from their utopianism, though she was to be influenced by feminism in her own work. Uneasy in the confines of gender difference, she seeks to stretch out beyond exploring femininity. At the core of Relations is the question how we disentangle what we acquire from our families from the influence of the times in which we live.

The book's style is that of the drift of memory. Drift is not without perils as a structure; the reader can simply drift off into vacancy. Miller's narrative is not always successful in shifting scenes and moods. Her ability is rather in crafting cameos; Relations is dotted with acute observations that jolt us into recognition. This is a book which arouses pleasurable reflection, evoking wonder at the extraordinary nature of what appears obvious, and the elusiveness of those closest to us.

Sheila Rowbotham's 'A Century of Women' is published by Penguin

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