An Education, By Lynn Barber

Reviewed,Deborah Orr
Wednesday 21 September 2011 17:25

It's quite peculiar, this celebrated journalist's memoir, and that is its peculiar charm. It's not peculiar with a capital P, like JR Ackerley's landmark memoir, My Father and Myself, in which family revelation is endlessly shocking and curious, pored over and understood. Barber's parents, if they ever kept secrets from her, are keeping them still. In fact, at times, An Education is peculiarly anodyne, as when Barber spends pages ridiculing her mother's elocution lessons.

Yes, elocution lessons seem absurd, now that a regional accent is no longer a dark and mysterious force that magically binds you to your region. But back then, the senior Mrs Barber was doing nothing that the demands of aspirational culture did not require.

Barber understands that much in her memoir is cruel to her parents, and explains in her introduction that she decided to write it anyway. She also explains that the book grew out of an essay that appeared in the literary magazine Granta, and is now chapter two within An Education.

It is in chapter two that Barber's parents – working-class people who had bettered themselves and were determined that their only daughter should better herself still further – are most ruthlessly exposed. It tells of Barber's affair as a schoolgirl with Simon, a friend of the notorious slum landlord, Peter Rachman, who was much older than she.

This creepy, borderline-paedophile boyfriend was feted by Barber's parents who, after a lifetime of encouraging her to get herself into Oxbridge, pressurised their daughter into accepting a marriage proposal, at 17, from this unattractive con-man instead. It's likely that they saw this as a way of keeping their daughter near them, instead of losing her to the big wide world, But Barber never analyses.

Only her own discovery of another wife and a couple of children saved her from disaster and sent her to Oxford to study English literature as previously planned. But even though she escaped, Barber never seems to have got over what she still sees as her parents' attempted betrayal.

It's a little-told story, in this culture that places so much importance on "social mobility": of how the achievement of decisive reinvention sometimes estranges children from their parents, with much unintended bitterness, and leaves the children uncertain of who they are. Barber tells this story, but with such a scrupulous avoidance of insight or speculation that you don't even know if she knows that it is what her story is about.

Barber worked very hard at Oxford but only enough to get by, in the academic sense. In perhaps a subconscious sneer at her father's Open University law degree, which he toiled so hard for in the evenings, Barber put fun, glamour, enjoyment and sex first. Breaking all her parents' rules, she still bagged herself a husband who was handsome, unlike Simon, "good", unlike Simon, and from a top-drawer English family, unlike Simon – or her parents.

Barber's parents had no friends; her own married life was a whirl of social activity. Barber's mother acknowledged her disappointment at having had only one child; Barber had two, to whom she is close. Barber, as a child, mocked her parents for believing their Edwardian family home was big and grand. Barber's own family home was big and beautiful. And this was not all. Barber also had a colourful and lucrative career that took her to the top of her profession, where she still is, unassailable, admired and hugely influential.

Except that Barber's husband died, suddenly, in 2000, while her parents outlived him. Barber had already written chapter two when she lost him. In the rest of the book, there is a sense of a woman who, without her husband to anchor her, is no longer sure of who she is. Barber's memoir is funny, bold, incisive, clever and interesting. But underneath all the brave chutzpah, wit, jokes and verve, it is touching, naïve and tenderly confused. Barber says her early experience of her schoolgirl affair taught her that people are "unknowable" and that this informed her ability to interview people well. Yet Barber interrogates herself very little. She finds herself unknowable too.

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