The Sunlight on the Garden, by Elizabeth Speller

The blue-blood blues
Click to follow
The Independent Culture

The author's mother, despatching her nervous daughter to a party, would attempt to boost her morale by saying: "Never mind, you'll be the only girl there in Debrett.'' This curious and compelling memoir charts the fortunes of several generations of a family hitched on one side to the aristocracy and on the other to trade and the working class. It is a saga of strange alliances, wilful snobbery, and an abiding streak of tragedy. Names tumble dizzyingly through the pages, the narrative jumps about in time; you are forever turning back to the family trees at the beginning to check who Gerald was and which bit of the 20th century we are in now. Something of a challenge to the reader, but it works once you get used to the bumpy ride, and Elizabeth Speller's dry wit is a pleasure.

The aristocratic connections were Howards, Cavendishes, Leveson-Gowers. Her grandmother's blue blood came from a duke and a couple of earls, making her an interesting catch for the ambitious businessman she married. The dilution stemmed from her great-grandfather's union with a butcher's daughter. The author's grandmother is the tragic figure, pitched eventually into "madness'' by the circumstances of her day and by disastrous life events; her family had always been isolated, and clung with a kind of desperation to their origins.

Her own daughter - the author's determined, rather gallant mother - shopped always at Harrods, even when family finances were not that robust. She was also remorselessly and pathetically snobbish: "Ours is a very old family.'' "And all shits,'' mutters her husband.

Much research has gone into this short book, and indeed Elizabeth Speller gives credit to her researcher and others who helped. All those names that trip through the pages have had to be checked and placed in context, the historical background filled in. But there is no sense of the lurking card-index; the method is anecdotal and in a sense novelistic - the author cheerfully attributes responses and reactions to those no longer available for questioning, which serves rather nicely to bring people to life. And a bizarre lot they are, from great-grandfather Gerald who seems to have initiated the family practice of marrying "out'' of the blue blood, to his daughter who does the same.

Her husband prospered as a businessman, and appears to have turned a swathe of Gloucestershire into gravel pits back in the mid 20th century. I remember the outrage and don't exactly warm to him. Neither did the local gentry; "the upper classes seemed oddly reluctant to recognise us as their own''. Maybe the gravel pits had something to do with it, never mind the uniformed chauffeur and the Rolls-Royce.

His wife went, embarked on a new wartime life helping with Polish forces in Scotland, fell in love with one of them and had an extended, unsatisfactory relationship. And then she plunged into depression, and was in and out of mental institutions pretty well for the rest of her life, occasionally returning to her husband's rather grand home and entering herself in the visitors' book as "homeless, nameless'', "no fixed abode''.

And this, in a sense, is the core of the book. Elizabeth Speller too has had a prolonged breakdown, and the last part of her story is a vivid andmoving account of this; she has had to wonder if there is some genetic curse. Probably not - simply another young woman who fell victim to circumstances but, in this case, profited from the more advanced treatment of a later age, and was able to pick up her life and cast a shrewd eye upon the oddities of her ancestry and make them the prompt for a book that explores the social quagmire of the early 20th century.

Penelope Lively's 'Making it Up' is published by Viking