Fighting words

9781911072355

Words In Pain: Letters On Life and Death (edited by Jocelyn Catty and Trevor Moore, Skyscraper, 2019)

As part of my series on memoirs, I review a book first published in 1919 – in which a woman’s passionate voice finds honest expression through her letters.

‘In more than one way am I a hopeless case,’ Olga Jacoby wrote in 1911, ‘and nothing except death will stop me fighting.’ Born Olga Iklé in Hamburg in 1874, she was educated with her sisters in Paris, then moved to England in 1896 after marrying her cousin John Jacoby, known as Jack. He had been brought up in Manchester, and worked in the family’s successful lace-importing business. Olga and Jack set up home in West Hampstead, London and brought up their four adopted children there according to their progressive, ‘socialistic ideas’.

In 1909 Olga Jacoby was diagnosed with a terminal illness. Her doctor, a close family friend, told her he could not save her life but believed he could help to make her death easier if she followed his Christian faith. As a rationalist (and a secular Jew), Jacoby was having none of it. She is not ‘a weak-minded woman’, she tells him, and will live and die on her own terms. Words In Pain: Letters On Life and Death is a collection of the letters that Jacoby wrote (mainly to the doctor) from 1909 until her death in 1913. ‘I must go on fighting as long as I live,’ she tells him. ‘I can’t help it, Doctor, and I love to have you as my opponent’.

Jacoby’s letters show her enjoyment of spirited debate about religion and science (‘Science is turning on the light,’ she tells the doctor, ‘but at every step forward dogmatic religion attempts to turn it out’) and humorously describe family life, and the importance of being open and honest with young children: ‘I do stir their little hearts, too much I sometimes think.’ Her children give her joy and a reason to keep living. ‘I was greatly amused by my boy explaining to me,’ she writes, ‘that even should I die they would not lose me, as they would take my skeleton to keep in a corner of their nursery’. She has adventures, travelling through Devon and Dorset, with her bath-chair pulled by a pony and her son walking alongside. She reads copiously and discusses the work of Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Olive Schreiner and George Eliot as well as Thomas Huxley and H.G. Wells.

Jacoby strives to accept the limited years she has left (‘Know that death is not bad; it is we who make it so, and it is in our power to look at it calmly and even joyfully’) but her despair is often heartbreakingly apparent. ‘I had a sorrowful cry again last night; there is so very much I shall have to leave undone’. Despite her sadness at leaving her beloved family, the tone of the book is (like Jacoby herself) far from downbeat. She has strong views on topics of the day including tariff reform (she is against cheap American and German imports), the importance of workers’ rights and women’s suffrage (she believes women should exert their power as wives and mothers, not as MPs). Her passions help to give her the energy to put pen to paper. ‘When I am peaceful I cannot write,’ she tells her doctor. ‘A storm has to brew; some violent enthusiasm shake me; or a thought, new to me, awake my enthusiasm before the little bit of dormant vitality left in me will arise to the effort of writing.’

Words In Pain is about how to live, and also how to die. Olga Jacoby chose to end her life by taking the sleeping tablets she had saved up, at a time when suicide was still considered to be a capital crime. But  Jack, Olga’s husband, followed Olga’s lead in being honest. Under the heading ‘The Right to Die’, the Globe newspaper reported how during the inquest he sought a verdict of felo de se, and told the jury that his wife’s decision was based on the same principles by which she had lived. ‘His wife only did what she felt she had a perfect right to do, ‘ the report recorded. ‘He did not desire them to return a verdict from sentiment, because if they did it would be an insult to her memory.’

Words In Pain was first published anonymously in 1919, with the identities of the children and doctor concealed. The Times Literary Supplement of that year praised Jacoby’s ‘direct and simple literary style’, and ‘the clear-eyed, exalted spirit in which she faces death’. In 2019 Words In Pain: Letters On Life and Death was reissued in an elegant ‘centenary edition’, with an informative introduction and supplementary endnotes by Trevor Moore, a lawyer and humanist funeral celebrant. He has identified the book’s author and the doctor, and traced her surviving descendents including Olga Jacoby’s great-granddaughter, the psychotherapist Jocelyn Catty. Her excellent afterword ‘Olga in life, death and writing’ adds fascinating details, including the moving stories of what happened to Jack and Olga’s four adopted children. As Sandi Toksvig writes: ‘These wonderful letters prove that true immortality lies in what we leave behind.’

In my TLS review last year I compared Words In Pain to W.N.P. Barbellion’s outstanding The Journal of A Disappointed Man, coincidentally also first published in 1919. One hundred years on, both books are well worth re-issuing and re-reading, and have new relevance in the ongoing debate over assisted dying. ‘But this is not a letter for the Doctor only,’ Olga Jacoby wrote in her first letter, as if aware that she would have, in time, a larger audience for her words.

Ann Kennedy Smith, 5 February 2020 (all rights reserved)

Hidden Lives

Clarke

“Women’s lives were meant to be hidden,” Norma Clarke writes in her memoir Not Speaking (Unbound, 2019). Her Greek mother Rena moved from occupied Athens to London when she married a British soldier in 1945. Unable to speak English, far from family and friends, she had to learn how to survive in a society that did not make her welcome. It was no wonder, Clarke writes, that for Rena and women like her, “those lives came to be all about subterfuge. Secrecy, silence, subterfuge.”

Clarke is a retired professor and literary historian who began to understand her mother better only when she started writing about her. Watching “my untaught mother’s scholarly zeal” with religious pamphlets and icons, Clarke realized that they had more in common than she thought. Themes in Clarke’s book Not Speaking (Unbound, 2019) include romantic and family love, historical war and the effects on those who survive it, and the battle to communicate. My review of this moving and insightful memoir appears (with a lovely photograph of Rena) in the first Times Literary Supplement of 2020, and can be read here with no paywall. My next review – of three fascinating new group biographies of 20th-century women’s “hidden lives” – will appear in the next TLS. It’s published on 17 January 2020 and I’m pleased that my review features on the cover.

Good life-writing has the intensity and narrative pacing of fiction, and the best memoirs have a ruthless honesty about them. “A man who gives a good account of himself is probably lying,” George Orwell wrote, “since any life when viewed from the inside is simply a series of defeats.” In a future blogpost I will list some of my favourite memoirs; I hope you will tell me about yours.

How to write a biography

Virginia-Woolf

“My God, how does one write a Biography?” Virginia Woolf wrote in 1938. Her friend Lytton Strachey’s Eminent Victorians (1918) had already overturned accepted conventions that all biographies should be serious, worthy, and long; before that, the Dictionary of National Biography, co-founded by Woolf’s father Leslie Stephen, also introduced a new approach to writing short lives. Today there are lots of inventive and imaginative ways to write a biography. As Michael Holroyd, the great biographer of Lytton Strachey, said in 2011: “People are writing lives backwards; people are writing parts of lives. Look on the bright side: biographies are getting shorter.”

About a year ago I started compiling a list of the biographies that changed my own thinking about what biography and life-writing can do. Now I have put together my personal ‘top twenty’ out of these, in a strand I called ‘Life of the day’: here they are listed in no particular order. At Number 20 is the revived digital edition of the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, constantly updated, illustrated and with more focus on women’s lives than ever (available online in public libraries; information about the latest update here). Leslie Stephen might not recognize his original Victorian creation that was published in multiple heavy volumes, but Virginia Woolf would surely approve.

  1. Hermione Lee’s Virginia Woolf (Vintage, 1997), showing new ways of combining scrupulous research,  brilliant writing and inventive structure: “There is no such thing as an objective biography, particularly not in this case.” (Lee)
  2. Footsteps: Adventures of a Romantic Biographer by Richard Holmes (Harper Perennial, 1985) – a highly influential and inspiring book about travelling in the footsteps of your biographical subject: “If you are not in love with them you will not follow them – not very far, anyway.” (Holmes)
  3. Phyllis Rose’s Parallel Lives: Five Victorian Marriages (1983) is a classic study of love and power, soon to be reissued by Daunt Books: ‘If we managed to suppress marriage, what would we have left to tell?’
  4. A Sultry Month: Scenes of London Literary Life in 1846 (Faber& Faber, 1965) by Alethea Hayter is a pioneering biography that brilliantly evokes the searing personal crises of a group of writers and artists over one suffocatingly hot summer.
  5. A Suppressed Cry by Victoria Glendinning (1969; reissued by Virago with a new introduction in 1995): the heartbreaking story of Newnham College, Cambridge student Winnie Seebohm’s short life. ‘I could, had I waited, have written a longer and different book. It might not have been a more telling one. Too much information can blur the issues.’ (Glendinning)
  6. Marianne Thornton, 1797-1887: A Domestic Biography (1956) by EM Forster. A biography of the great-aunt who helped him to become a writer, and Forster’s only published memoir: my Slightly Foxed essay is here. The Times critic observed that ‘Mr. E. M. Forster, one of the most reticent of authors, has adopted an unusual way to tell us something about himself’
  7. Claire Tomalin’s The Invisible Woman: The Story of Nelly Ternan and Charles Dickens (Penguin, 1990): “This is the story of someone who – almost – wasn’t there; who vanished into thin air.”
  8. Janet Malcolm’s brilliant and acerbic The Silent Woman: Sylvia Plath & Ted Hughes (Granta, 1993): “The biographer at work… is like the professional burglar, breaking into a house.”
  9. Ann Thwaite’s Emily Tennyson: The Poet’s Wife (Faber& Faber, 1996) opened my eyes to the fascinating woman overlooked by most of Tennyson’s biographers: ‘I have always been interested in the lives of nineteeth-century women who managed, in spite of the restrictions they suffered, to live full and fulfilling lives.’ (Thwaite)
  10. Frances Spalding’s sensitive, imaginative and scrupulously researched Gwen Raverat: Friends, Family and Affections (Harvill, 2001): ‘running through her work, both her art and her writing, is a deep sense of the importance of life, and a reverence for the texture and fabric of the everyday world.’ (Spalding)
  11. Frances Wilson’s The Ballad of Dorothy Wordsworth (Faber & Faber 2008): ‘Dorothy walked out of the life that she and others expected of her.’
  12. Janet Browne’s Charles Darwin: The Power of Place (Cape, 2003): ‘Darwin was one of the most human of men … his biography is in part the biography of Victorian family life – of what it was like to make and live with science.’
  13. Grand Pursuits: The Story of Economic Genius by Sylvia Nasar (2010) is about the tragedy and triumph of great economists’ lives 1850-1950 (especially good on Alfred and Mary Paley Marshall and Beatrice Webb).
  14. John Aubrey, My Own Life (Chatto & Windus, 2016) by Ruth Scurr: “Because I chose to write Aubrey’s life in the form of a first person diary, I had to get as close to him as I could, despite the passage of time”
  15. Outsiders: Five Women Writers Who Changed the World (Virago, 2017) Lyndall Gordon’s group biography of Mary Shelley, Emily Brontë, George Eliot, Olive Schreiner and Virginia Woolf: ‘All were readers before they became writers, which is to say each heard the one before her in a chain of making.’
  16. A Secret Sisterhood: The Hidden Friendships of Austen, Brontë, Eliot and Woolf (Aurum, 2018) by Emily Midorikawa and Emma Claire Sweeney is an enjoyable, beautifully written book; I wrote about it here. Virginia Woolf was, Katherine Mansfield wrote, ‘the only woman with whom I long to talk work.’
  17. Jenny Uglow’s delightful, beautifully illustrated Mr Lear: A Life of Art and Nonsense (Faber & Faber, 2017): ‘If we follow him across land and sea, to the borderlands of self, can we see where the art and nonsense are born?’
  18. Combining research, parody, diaries, interviews, lists and wicked gossip, Craig Brown’s Ma’am Darling: 99 Glimpses of Princess Margaret (4th Estate, 2017) is a skilful, experimental and very funny biography.
  19. Alexander Masters’ Stuart: A Life Backwards (HarperCollins 2005), the heartbreaking life of a homeless “chaotic” Cambridge man, told with sympathy and humour: ‘Stuart does not like the manuscript. He’s after a bestseller, “like what Tom Clancy writes.”‘
  20. The revised Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, now in its 58th update with 61,184 articles and 11,724 portraits, researched in partnership with the National Portrait Gallery London. The ODNB has an increasing number entries on women (making up past oversights), and I’m proud to have contributed three of these (about the Ladies’ Dining Society, Caroline Jebb and Mary Martin Ward) in the past three years.

 

A sense of home: ‘Period Piece’

 

‘This is a circular book. It does not begin at the beginning and go on to the end; it is all going on at the same time, sticking out like the spokes of a wheel from the hub, which is me.’ Gwen Raverat, Period Piece: A Memoir of a Cambridge Childhood (1952)

 

Period Piece

Gwen Raverat’s account of growing up as a member of the extended Darwin clan in Victorian Cambridge has never been out of print since it was first published in 1952, and it has recently been reissued as a collector’s hardback by Slightly Foxed. ‘Humour, tenderness and affection are the keynotes of Period Piece,’ Hazel Woods writes in her introduction, ‘but there is a fierce and passionate undercurrent that tells you something about the artist Gwen became.’ Period Piece features punting, picnics on Grantchester Meadows and problems with corsets and bicycles, all illustrated with Raverat’s delightful drawings, often featuring the family’s put-upon dog. “My mother had the first lady’s tricycle in Cambridge. Our dog Sancho was horrified to think that anyone belonging to him would ride such an indecent thing”. It’s the perfect book to read in a garden on these sunny summer days.

I’ve been thinking about Period Piece again because tomorrow evening I’m giving a talk for Literature Cambridge (see their website here for details of courses in 2019 and 2020). My talk is part of the final evening of this year’s ‘Fictions of Home’ course, and will take place in Darwin College, which was founded as Cambridge’s first graduate college in 1964 and incorporates both of Gwen Raverat’s former riverside homes, Newnham Grange and the neighbouring Old Granary. I’ll be discussing three women who changed Cambridge: Anne Clough, Helen Gladstone and Ida Darwin. Ida’s later sister-in-law Maud was an American from Philadelphia who married George Darwin in 1884. They hired an architect and turned Newnham Grange into their family home. Their first child Gwen was born there in 1885.

Raverat biog

Recently I re-read Frances Spalding’s excellent biography of Gwen Raverat, revealing Gwen’s unhappiness as a child and her long struggle to become an artist. She found happiness when she enrolled as a student at the Slade, and made friends in the Bloomsbury set including Virginia Woolf (then Stephen) who came to Cambridge to visit. They sat in Newnham Grange’s garden together and Virginia smoked one of Gwen’s father’s cigars. In 1911 Gwen married Jacques Raverat, part of their ‘Neo-Pagan’ circle. Then the war came and their friend Rupert Brooke was killed in April 1915, on the same day as Gwen’s first cousin and childhood companion, Erasmus Darwin. There were other sadnesses, as during the war the ailing Jacques was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. Gwen and Jacques had two daughters, probably through artificial insemination, and the family went to live in Vence, but his condition slowly worsened and he died there in 1925.

His death after years of pain triggered a deep depression in Gwen, but she kept on working and became recognized for her brilliance as as the first modern wood engraver. She and her two daughters returned to Cambridge in the 1930s, and during the Second World War Gwen Raverat spent four years drawing maps for the Naval Intelligence Division. In 1946 she moved back into the Old Granary next to her former home (both houses are now part of Darwin College), and her mother Maud died the following year. Living there again, admiring the reflections on the river, and sifting through old letters and diaries made Gwen decide to write about her own life, as she had always wanted to do – though she claimed to hate writing – and capture something of her past. She told her publisher that she saw the book ‘as a social document – to be a drawing of the world as I saw it when young, not at all as a picture of my own soul (though I suppose that gets in by mistake)’ (Spalding, 397).

The memoir is a circling back to the childhood that, aged 66, Gwen Raverat could still recall vividly, especially now that she was living again in the house by the river. Reading Period Piece today in the light of Raverat’s subsequent life shows just what a remarkable book it is. There are hints of unhappiness– her parents’ ‘hands that understood nothing’, but she observes them and growing up among Victorians with humour and forgiveness. Compared to the darker times to come, the sunny days of her Cambridge childhood were bright indeed. If you get the chance, do go into Darwin College’s gardens and stand on the riverbank where Virginia Woolf once daringly smoked. The view from there is lovely.

©Ann Kennedy Smith, 25 July 2019. (All rights reserved.)

Sources

Hermione Lee Virginia Woolf (Vintage, 1997); Frances Spalding Gwen Raverat: Friends, Family and Affections (Harvill Press, 2001)

Figuring Out Popova

 

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If you picked up a copy of Figuring in something as old-fashioned as a bookshop and had never heard of Maria Popova, it would be hard to fathom exactly what you were looking at. It’s a hefty book with a bright yellow cover adorned with a mysterious flower-trumpet-diagram. On the back, instead a snappy blurb, there’s a meandering quotation from the book’s introduction that leaves you none the wiser. A glimpse inside gives few clues to the book’s contents, with lower-case chapter titles like “unmastering” and “that which exhausts and exalts”. It’s a disorientating experience, but the message is clear: Popova wants readers to abandon their preconceptions and simply dive in.

In my review of Figuring for this week’s Times Literary Supplement I did place it in a category, describing it as an unusual form of group biography (there’s a snippet of my review below – the rest is behind a paywall, but there’s an excellent essay by Ruth Scurr in this special ‘life writing’ TLS, free to read here.) My view of Popova’s book reflects my own interest in the stories of the women she describes (Margaret Fuller, Maria Mitchell, Rachel Carson) and the author herself might disagree with me about labelling it as a biography. She’s a Bulgarian-born writer who lives in New York and is the author of a popular blog ‘Brainpickings.org’ that has been covering a wide range of subjects for 13 years.

Brainpickings

Paradoxically perhaps, the Brain Pickings website is an up-to-the minute format that goes against what Popova sees as the Internet’s tendency to place a high value on everything new. “It suggests that just because something is more recent, it’s more relevant,” she says, “yet, in culture, the best ideas are timeless, they have no expiration date.” (Guardian interview, 30.12.12)

Popova’s new book Figuring also aims to spark interest in what links a wide variety of ideas and people over a period of four hundred years. She tells the intermingled stories of individuals who refused to conform and passionately defends their choices. It’s a “cosmos of connections” with Popova as the astronaut author-pilot and personal guide. Fasten your seatbelts, readers.

©Ann Kennedy Smith (27 April 2019)

Cosmos of connections

Great Lives

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A study of Strachey reading, by Dora Carrington

Just over a hundred years ago, in 1918, Lytton Strachey’s Eminent Victorians was published and biography changed forever. To celebrate the centenary of this groundbreaking book, I decided last year to compile a list of 100 of my favourite biographies and memoirs that have been published since then, and post each one on Twitter as my ‘Life of the Day’, with the hashtag #lifeoftheday. My list is not in any particular order or organized by theme, but as I have now reached the halfway mark, here’s a selection of a few of them.

The first biography I chose was Virginia Woolf’s Flush: A Biography (Hogarth Press, 1933), an imaginative account of the life of Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s mischievous little cocker spaniel. All her life Woolf experimented with different forms of biographical writing, but even before Flush was published she regretted it, believing it would prevent her from being taken seriously as a writer. Yet after her friend Sibyl Colefax praised it, Woolf said: “I’m so glad that you liked Flush. I think it shows great discrimination in you because it was all a matter of hints and shades, and practically no one has seen what I was after.”

One of the first biographies that made me want to write about ‘forgotten’ women was Ann Thwaite’s Emily Tennyson: The Poet’s Wife (Faber 1996). In her preface Thwaite wrote: “I have always been interested in the lives of nineteenth-century women who managed, in spite of the restrictions they suffered, to live full and fulfilling lives.” She showed that Emily Tennyson was musically gifted and independent-minded, something that biographers of her more famous husband had failed to notice.

Claire Tomalin’s The Invisible Woman: The Story of Nelly Ternan and Charles Dickens (Penguin, 2012) ‘is the story of someone who – almost – wasn’t there; who vanished into thin air,’ Tomalin writes. I included Frances Wilson’s The Ballad of Dorothy Wordsworth (Faber 2008) for its vivid opening pages (“I half dread that concentration of all tender feelings, past, present and future which will come upon me on the wedding morning”) that instantly reveal the passionate inner life of William Wordsworth’s sister.

download.jpgNot all overlooked lives are female: I love The Fortunes of Francis Barber by Michael Bundock (Yale, 2015) for its fascinating story of the “intimacy, possessiveness, exasperation and love” of the close friendship between a former child slave and Dr Samuel Johnson. My own blog celebrates friendship, so it’s not surprising that several of the biographies I chose also take this as their subject.

Secret Sisterhood imageA Secret Sisterhood: The hidden friendships of Austen, Brontë, Eliot and Woolf (Aurum, 2018) by Emily Midorikawa and Emma Claire Sweeney showed how these writers’ friendships with other women underpinned their lives and writing, sustaining and challenging them to greater creativity. I wrote a review of it here. Michelle Dean’s Sharp: the women who made an art of having an opinion (Fleet, 2018) is another engaging group portrait, in this case of the connections between ten 20th-century female thinkers and writers.  Alethea Hayter’s A Sultry Month (Faber, 1965) is a pioneering biography that brilliantly evokes a summer of fierce heat and personal crises for a close-knit group of writers and artists in 1846 London. It’s a book that still has a huge impact.

The book that got me interested in writing about marriage is Parallel Lives: Five Victorian Marriages (Penguin, 1983) by Phyllis Rose. It’s an insightful, thought-provoking evocation of the troubled marriages of Dickens, Carlyle and Ruskin that’s a pleasure to read and Rose asks ‘if we managed to suppress marriage, what would we have left to tell?’ More recently, Daisy Hay wrote ‘a portrait of a marriage unobscured by mythology’ in her Mr and Mrs Disraeli (Chatto & Windus, 2015), which shows her biographer’s skills of ‘watching for alternative narratives, listening to things not said.’ I love Michael Holroyd’s explanation of how he ended up writing about the famous theatrical partnership of Ellen Terry and Henry Irving in A Strange Eventful History (2008): “it was impossible to write about Ellen without Irving elbowing his way in and trying to upstage her – and once that happened the rest of the families crowded in and I was in for the long haul.” (The Guardian, 2008).

Some of the best biographies remind us of the pitfalls of life writing. In Virginia Woolf (Vintage, 1997) Hermione Lee shook up biography traditions by reminding us in the opening chapter that “there is no such thing as an objective biography, particularly not in this case.” In his equally influential book, Footsteps: Adventures of a Romantic Biographer (Harper Perennial, 1985) Richard Holmes showed the pleasures of ‘footstepping’ your subject, visiting the places they went to and seeing what they saw. “If you are not in love with them you will not follow them – not very far, anyway,” he warns. Yet the besotted biographer is not necessarily a good thing, as far as his or her subject is concerned. ‘The biographer at work,’ wrote Janet Malcolm provocatively in The Silent Woman: Sylvia Plath & Ted Hughes (Granta, 1993) ‘is like the professional burglar, breaking into a house, rifling through certain drawers that he has good reason to think contain the jewelry and money, and triumphantly bearing his loot away.’

In her prize-winning Aristocrats (Chatto, 2004) Stella Tillyard offers a more positive view of why life-writing matters: ‘biography (especially biography that deals, as this one does, with romance and royalty) often gives intimacy without context, and history without biography offers context without the warmth of individual lives.’ Craig Brown also deals with romance and royalty in his witty and irreverent Ma’am Darling: 99 Glimpses of Princess Margaret (4th Estate, 2017). It was awarded the James Tait Black Memorial prize for Biography in 2018, and like Virginia Woolf’s Flush it’s a reminder to all biographers not to take themselves – or their subjects – too seriously.

‘Marianne Thornton’, E.M. Forster’s biography-memoir

Slightly FoxedE.M. Forster’s novels continue to be read and loved around the world. However, his final full-length book, a biography of his great-aunt Marianne Thornton, has been largely overlooked by critics and forgotten by readers since its publication in 1956. That’s a shame, as it shows that Forster was a brilliant writer of nonfiction too. It connects themes familiar from his fiction – including a home loved and lost, forbidden passions, second chances – and its final section is the only published memoir he ever published of his own young life. I’m delighted that ‘Prayers Before Plenty’, my essay on this fascinating book, appears in Slightly Foxed this month. They have kindly given permission for me to reprint it here.

 

Prayers before Plenty       Ann Kennedy Smith

In 1953 the writer E. M. Forster, then aged 74, was sorting through old family papers and thinking about the past. He had recently moved back to King’s College, Cambridge, and the high-ceilinged spacious room where he sat was filled with treasured objects from his previous homes: shelves overflowing with books, framed family portraits on the walls and blue china plates neatly arranged on the mantelpiece. Letters gathered in a drift around his shabby William Morris armchair as he pored over his great-aunt Marianne Thornton’s diaries and recollections. She had died when he was 8, but it was thanks to the money she left him that as a young man he was able to study at King’s and later to travel to Italy. It was Marianne, more than anyone else, who had helped him to become a writer, and now he wanted to tell her story.

When Marianne Thornton, 17971887: A Domestic Biography was published three years later, it was greeted as a literary event. It had been five years since the appearance of Forster’s Two Cheers for Democracy, his collection of critical essays (see SF no. 44), and he had not published a novel since A Passage to India in 1924. Marianne Thornton was widely reviewed, for the most part warmly, although some critics confessed to feeling puzzled by its subject matter. Why, wondered the Spectator, did Forster want to cast his considerable charm on the Clapham Sect, that ‘particularly uncharming clan’? The New York Times critic admitted that only the writer of A Passage to India could have persuaded him to read ‘a conversation piece about English family life among the suburban dynasties’.

In the sixty years or so since Marianne Thornton’s first publication, it has been leafed through by biographers and scholars rather than read. I think this is a shame, and that this book deserves to be better known. In 2000 it was reissued as part of the Abinger edition, and in her introduction Evelyne Hanquart-Turner describes Marianne Thornton as a portrait of a modern Britain in the making, with illuminating glimpses of banking, Parliament and politics, the Church of England and the spread of popular education over nine decades of the nineteenth century. I would add that at a time when British identity is being much discussed, it is a book that seems more relevant than ever.

I discovered it in a King’s College archive, where I was working on a book project last summer. It was just before May Week, that con­fusingly named time in June when the students celebrate after their exams are over, and a marquee was being put up on the front court lawn. The sounds of heavy machinery and men working drifted in through the open window and made it hard to concentrate on hand­written letters, so I took down Marianne Thornton from the shelf and began to read. Within minutes I was transported back to another June day in 1806, and a horse-drawn carriage with election ribbons fluttering, going home to Battersea Rise, the house at the heart of this story.

Marianne was born in 1797, the eldest of nine children of Henry Thornton, a wealthy merchant banker and Member of Parliament, and his wife Mary Ann Sykes. Their home was Battersea Rise, an enlarged Queen Anne house on the north-west edge of Clapham Common in south London. The Thorntons belonged to the ‘Clapham Sect’, a close-knit group of friends that included William Wilberforce, Zachary Macaulay, Granville Sharp and James Stephen, who brought their combined influence, intellect and evangelical zeal to social reform. Their place of worship was Holy Trinity Church on the Common, presided over by the charismatic Reverend John Venn, and their social centre was Battersea Rise, where lively meetings were held in the oval library with a view of a magnificent tulip tree in the garden.

Battersea Rise was a perfect playground for Marianne and her younger siblings. ‘It satisfied in them that longing for a particular place, a home, which is common amongst our upper and middle classes,’ Forster observes: ‘some of them have transmitted that long­ing to their descendants, who have lived on into an age when it cannot be gratified.’ Writing this in his college rooms, he was think­ing of Rooksnest, the cottage in Hertfordshire where he had lived as a child and which he later commemorated in his novel Howards End. He had mourned its loss all his life; King’s College had provided him with somewhere to live, but it did not feel like home.

From the first pages of the book it is plain that Marianne Thornton is as much about Forster as it is about his great-aunt. Threaded through the book are his wry observations, teasing out connections between past and present and poking gentle fun at his illustrious forebears. At times he is combative, reminding us that although the philanthropic Clapham Sect cared passionately about abolishing the slave trade, they were supremely complacent when it came to in-equality within their own society. ‘When the slavery was industrial they did nothing and had no thought of doing anything.’

But this is a domestic biography, Forster reminds us, and the Thorntons did home life exceedingly well. Adored friends such as William Wilberforce – ‘fragile, whimsical, inspired’ – and the intel­lectual ‘bishop in petticoats’ Hannah More regularly dropped in for dinner. ‘Prayers before plenty,’ Forster observes, ‘But plenty!’ Conver­sations around the table ranged from parliamentary politics to missionary work, from economics to education, and little Marianne was encouraged to take part. Her father taught her about finance and brought her along to his election hustings and George III’s opening of Parliament. Despite the constant fear of a French invasion there were long holidays at the seaside, ‘comparable with the jauntings of Jane Austen’ in their elaborate organization. Fear of Napoleon Bona­parte was the only cloud over this sunny childhood, and Marianne vividly pictured him striding into Battersea Rise and chopping down their beloved tulip tree. Nonsense, her young friend the future his-torian Thomas Babington Macaulay assured her: when ‘Old Boney’ came, he would simply stab all the children in their beds.

The world-changing historical events of 1815 were overshadowed for Marianne and her siblings by painful personal loss when both Thornton parents died within the year. Forster skips over the ‘super­abundance’ of long, pious letters from this period and instead describes 19-year-old Marianne’s first trip to France, where she and other British tourists flocked after Waterloo. There she fell in love with all things French, and this gave her, Forster is convinced, her Gallic insouciance towards class differences which lasted for the rest of her life.

Her brother Henry, three years younger, was more straitlaced, but brother and sister ran the Thornton family as a team. Together they fought to save the bank where he was a partner when it was hit by a financial crisis in 1825: told through Marianne’s recollections, the story is as exciting and dramatic as any novel. Henry coped less well when their younger sister Laura fell in love with a poor Irish clergy­man. ‘Money must marry money, as it had always done hitherto,’ Forster observes drily, and he cheers when, thanks to a particularly spiky letter from a bishop, love wins the day. Laura married the Reverend Charles Forster, and among their ten children brought up in a ‘happy insanitary’ rectory in Essex was Eddie, the future father of the writer.

Marianne remained unmarried and devoted herself to Battersea Rise and to Henry’s three children after he was widowed. The young Forsters often came to visit, and the garden was filled with the sounds of laughter and games. Even sensible Henry occasionally entertained the family with his favourite trick before setting off for work at the bank: after setting fire to a newspaper, he would place it on the seat of his leather armchair then sit down firmly to put the flames out. ‘The vision of that substantial extinguisher descending cheers me,’ Forster writes: ‘the sun comes into the library again, the trees wave freshly on the lawn, tiny cousins collide and jump . . .’

Then Henry fell in love with Emily, his unmarried sister-in-law, and everything changed. Their marriage was not sanctioned under existing British law (the Marriage Act of 1835 made it illegal for a man to marry the sister of his deceased wife) and the ensuing scandal broke the Thornton family apart. The law would remain unchanged until the twentieth century, and writing in Cambridge in the 1950s, when homosexual love was still outlawed in Britain, Forster’s anger flashes off the page. It was, he writes, ‘yet another example of the cruelty and stupidity of the English Law in matters of sex’. Victorian disapproval did what Bonaparte and the banking crisis had failed to do: it destroyed Battersea Rise.

Marianne Thornton immerses us in a lost nineteenth-century world and, as Forster asks, ‘Where else could we take such a plunge?’ It is an invitation to enjoyment, demonstrating Forster’s brilliance as a non-fiction writer and providing us with links to our personal, cultural and national past that otherwise would be lost. Marianne’s story unfolds against a rich historical background, from Georgian England to Queen Victoria’s Golden Jubilee, in which the Thorntons played an active role.

However, I think that this warm and engaging book is about more than British history and the decline and fall of an influential suburban dynasty. By choosing Marianne as his subject, and telling her story in the way that he does, Forster stresses the importance of personal relations, and the life of the heart and mind rather than public life. He connects his own story to his great-aunt’s, and the book’s delightful final section is both a memoir of his young life and a love letter to Rooksnest, his childhood home. ‘I took it to my heart,’ he writes, ‘and hoped, as Marianne had of Battersea Rise, that I should live and die there.’ It was not to be, but by writing his great-aunt’s story he was able to see that kindness and love were what mattered in the end, and to let go of the past. King’s College was his last home, and he was among friends there.

Battersea Rise was swallowed up long ago, and the lawn on which the tulip tree once stood is now covered by houses and streets. Holy Trinity Church still stands on a corner of Clapham Common though, and I went there recently, carrying my copy of Marianne Thornton. With its high steeple surrounded by tall, waving trees, the church looks much as it did in the Thorntons’ time, and as I approached the imposing portico, the sound of south London traffic seemed to fade away. On an outside wall a stone plaque scarred by Second World War shrapnel commemorates the evangelical and abolitionist work of the Clapham Sect. Then, as I arrive, there is the human touch. A friendly notice on the porch welcomes rough sleepers, and inside a caretaker is boiling a kettle. On a far wall a small brass plaque to Marianne Thornton glints in the shadows.

Ann Kennedy Smith lives in Cambridge and is working on her first biography. She is not related to the Kennedy dynasty, so far as she knows.

© Ann Kennedy Smith, Slightly Foxed: The Real Reader’s Quarterly, Issue 58, Summer 2018.

This article first appeared in Slightly Foxed: The Real Reader’s Quarterly, Issue 58, Summer 2018.

The independent-minded quarterly that combines good looks, good writing and a personal approach, Slightly Foxed introduces its readers to books that are no longer new and fashionable but have lasting appeal. Good-humoured, unpretentious and a bit eccentric, it’s more like a well-read friend than a literary magazine. Single issues from £10; annual subscriptions from £40. For more information please visit www.foxedquarterly.com