Tears and recriminations: goodbye to all that

To his wife and sons, Robert Graves was a selfish old man. His daughter has fonder memories.
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WHEN SHE was 12, Lucia Graves and her brothers had measles. Their father, the poet Robert Graves, abandoned his writing to give his children a rare treat. In the dark of their bedroom, Graves recounted the Greek myths. He told his daughter she resembled Persephone, the Greek goddess who swallowed six pomegranate seeds in the Underworld, which meant she had to return there for half a year. As Lucia relates it in her book, A Woman Unknown, her father's storytelling was a potent experience. Ever since, like Persephone, she has seen herself as moving between two worlds: the Mediterranean of her childhood, and England, where she now lives.

Since he died in 1986, Robert Graves's own mythology has been fuelled by various biographies recounting the artist's journey out of Victorian repression to the unconventional sexual accommodations necessary for his poetic talents. He lived with his long- suffering second wife, Beryl, and their children in the village of Deya on Majorca, where Graves also sought relationships with young female muses.

Lucia's elder brother William has written a warts-and-all account of his childhood, called Wild Olives. To his serious-minded son, Robert Graves's predisposition for extra-marital affairs and marijuana parties was embarrassing. He depicts Graves as a self-obsessed, foolish old man.

Lucia Graves is the first to admit that her memoir will do little to slake thirst for more gossip: "How could I write about myself and not include him?" However, unlike her brothers, she remembers him with enormous fondness. "I've always felt peaceful about my relationship with my father. We had a connection. I was the only girl. My father idealised women, and put them on pedestals."

Like many people with dual nationality, Lucia is exaggeratedly good mannered. However, several times during our meeting her good manners give way to irritation. Take, for example, our conversation about her father's muses: there was beautiful Margot, who also seduced her younger brother Juan; volatile Cindy, who almost succeeded in persuading Graves to leave his wife; and Julia, 17 to Graves's 70 years.

"I don't think I mentioned the muses in my book," says Lucia tartly. "I don't like the word `muses'. To me they were people." So how did she tolerate them? "To him, the world was led by women; the muses were part of this. He had to be inspired by them to write, although some people got hurt." Her brother William describes how his mother suffered in silence. "It was very difficult," Lucia agrees. "But she understood the most important thing was that my father was able to write."

In one of her book's most compelling sequences, Lucia describes the trauma of being an outsider in Franco's Catholic Spain. The nuns at her school liked the well-behaved 12-year-old, and wanted to save her from hell's fires. But, not being Catholic, the best she could hope for was Limbo. Lucia asked her father if she could become a Catholic. By the end of the year she had been enrolled in the International School in Protestant Geneva.

For Lucia, her father's contradictions are amusing rather than hypocritical. She describes taking him to a film version of his story, "The Shout". One scene had a couple in a bath together. Graves declared loudly, "How disgusting". "I thought, how funny he is so prudish," says Lucia. "But he was born in 1895."

In his final years, when Graves was enfeebled by senile dementia, Lucia would read to him. "He tried to write, but the words wouldn't come."

Robert Graves died at the same moment his daughter drew out from the typewriter the final page of her translation of his book, Wife to Mr Milton. Immediately, she says, her image of him reverted to that of an energetic man wearing his hat, striding through Deya. It is a picture which she lovingly perpetuates in her memoir.

`A Woman Unknown, Voices from a Spanish Life' (Virago,pounds 18.99)