My parents didn’t want me to marry Frog. I did though and they never forgave me, and I never forgave them for trying to stop me.
We’re not very good at dealing with conflict in our family. We sweep things under the carpet and smile. I carried on visiting my parents and we carried on chattering about inconsequential things, my migraines – which started with my marriage – a sign perhaps that all was not well.
‘Well,’ said my brother as we walked round his farm after my mother’s Thanksgiving Service in March. ‘That’s it then. We’re orphans now.’
(Our father died in 2006.)
‘Yes, isn’t it wonderful,’ I said. ‘Free at last.’
I shocked my brother, but I meant it.
But it's not that simple, is it?
As I said in the previous post, Frog and I brought back a lorry-load of stuff from my mother’s house, including boxes and boxes of books which my four siblings who had already been through the bookshelves didn’t want. I piled them up in the conservatory and started to go through them. Most of them I rejected out of hand: novels I knew I’d never read; history and biography which I find boring; books of my father’s on boats, World War Two, shooting. One book however caught my eye - A House Full of Daughters by Juliet Nicolson.
I remembered my mother showing it to me a few months before she died. I’d thought at the time that it sounded vaguely interesting but my mother couldn’t really explain its significance to me because she had no puff left to talk and her brain was addled by all the drugs she was taking to stay alive. In any case, I used to tune out when she went into long stories about her grand friends or described aristocratic family trees. She did however say something about a friend with the extraordinary name of Philippa Tennyson d’Eyncourt. How could I forget that?
I picked the book up and saw that it was inscribed to my mother ‘with thanks and love’ from the author. I then found my mother’s name in the Acknowledgements. I started to read the Prologue and came across the following:
A daughter’s attempt to break free from the parental bond can become an act of rebellion against an assumption that submission is not only expected but integral to the relationship.
Yes! I thought.
I delved further. The book turned out to be an account of the women in the Sackville-West family. The author is the daughter of the aforementioned Philippa and grand-daughter of Vita Sackville-West (gardener and one-time lover of Virginia Woolf). According to the family tree in the front of the book, Juliet was born the year after me, and Philippa the year after my mother.
Knole House, the Sackville family seat, is in Kent a few miles from where I was brought up and where several of my family still live. We went to the house once on an outing from school although I don’t remember much about it. More vivid is the sexually-charged game of hide and seek (or something) I played with friends in my early teens in the park one summer evening.
My mother was friends with Bridget Sackville-West who lives at Knole.
|Knole Park (photographed by Suz, my mother's carer)|
I began to understand the significance of the book, and because my discovery of it seemed both apt and timely – not to say synchronistic – I began to read.
The book takes each of the women in turn down the centuries, starting with Pepita the Spanish dancer with whom 'Old' Lionel Sackville-West fell in love in 1852. While all of them struggled with convention and the limitations imposed on them, not to mention the inhumanity of the upper classes (or am I just biased?), it’s Philippa’s story where I am now with its lack of both love and a meaningful occupation that’s really touching my heart. In fact, I’m finding it almost unbearably sad.
I am relishing my freedom, and I probably couldn’t talk to my mother about Philippa even if she were still here, but I’d like to.
|One of my mother's last outings - visiting Knole to have lunch with Bridget|
(photographed by Suz)