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In which some memoirs are recommended

What’s the attraction of reading memoirs? Is it envy for a life one might have wanted, or relief of a life avoided? I studied history and for me its attraction has always been the lives of people, the details, the narratives, their stories. These have enlivened the most recent books I’ve been involved in writing: Retiring with Attitude and The New Age of Ageing.

What’s the difference between an autobiography and a memoir? It is suggested that while an autobiography is the story of a life, memoirs are stories from that life. In other words, memoir has a narrower focus than an autobiography, and it is often more interesting because it is selections.

It occurred to me then that the memoirs you truly fall in love with have less to do with the people that write them and much, much more to do with who you are when you read them. Memoirs are blueprints. They are maps to the lives we wish we had, or cautions from the ones we’re glad we avoided. [Caroline o’donaghue in Memoirs to Change your Life. See below]

From time to time I read memoirs and in this post I recommend a few. The common characteristic is that they are all from the lives of bookish people: all writers or editors.

Testament of Youth by Vera Brittain

How well I remember the BBC tv series of 1978, which coincided with the republishing of these memoirs. It spoke directly to my emerging feminism. The book was not exactly a feminist tract but it reminded us of the role women can play in war and peace, and in politics, and this can produce another generation to follow them.

I read Testament of Youth after finishing my history degree, and perhaps more than any other book Vera Brittain showed how history, especially the history of war is not only about men and their suffering. The Testament of Youth made me understand that the First World War defined the twentieth century, and that Britain before it was utterly different. It was one woman’s story, but she tells of the sacrifice of a generation and its aftermath. The scars are with us still as the current centenary has revealed.

Testament of Youth by Vera Brittain. First published in 1933, republished by Virago in 1978. 661pp

Many volumes by Diana Athill

Alive, Alive Oh! (2015) By Diana Athill was the book choice for one of my reading groups in November. It encouraged some very interesting discussion, about her description of her miscarriage, her family home, her approach to relationships, her life in old age. A volume I go frequently return to is Stet for her stories of the writers she worked with as an editor at Andre Deutsch, including Jean Rhys.

And this is from Somewhere Towards The End (2008)

One doesn’t necessarily have to end a book about being old with a whimper, but it is impossible to end it with a bang. There are no lessons to be learnt, no discoveries to be made, no solutions to offer. I find myself left with nothing but a few random thoughts. One of them is that from up here I can look back and see that although a human life is less than the blink of an eyelid in terms of the universe, within its own framework it is amazingly capacious so that it can contain many opposites. One life can contain serenity and tumult, heartbreak and happiness, coldness and warmth, grabbing and giving – and also more particular opposites such as the neurotic conviction that one is a flop and a consciousness of success amounting to smugness. (177)

Diane Athill has led a remarkable life and has the gift to reflect on her experiences, and gift is the right word here for her readers and friends.

Red Dust Road by Jackie Kay

This is Jackie Kay’s account of tracing and meeting her birth parents as an adult. It is also a tribute to her adoptive parents. This memoir explores what it means to be connected to families known and unknown.

It begins when she met her father in Abuja, Nigeria. He will not acknowledge her unless she agrees to join him as a born again Christian, and he behaves in a way that seems bizarre, praying for her for two hours. In his working life he is a noted tree specialist (having met Jackie’s mother in Glasgow University where he was studying), known throughout Nigeria for his work with trees and their healing properties.

Her mother is less obviously successful, moved away from her own tight family in the Highlands, and with a failed marriage and two more children, eventually disappearing into dementia in Milton Keynes. Both birth parents are reluctant to reveal Jackie’s existence to their own children.

The memoir questions what people are entitled to from each other – should Jackie collude in the secrecy, for the sake of the parents who abandoned her? The final triumphant scene is a meeting with her brother at the airport an hour before she needs to leave for her plane. She is embraced by him and his family.

Red Dust Road by Jackie Kay. Published by Picador in 2010. 287pp

Basil Street Blues by Michael Holroyd

I read this memoir because of one of its themes, to which I was alerted by an article in the wonderful Slightly Foxed journal. It was about secrets and families. It is an account of a family’s unconventional relationships, although on the surface they are presented as quite smooth. This, I suspect, may not be that unusual: a Swedish mother, family with connections to Rajmai tea and Lalique glassware. These businesses gradually declined between the wars until there was nothing left for Michael Holroyd when he came to adulthood. His family lived together in ritualised hate and with some abuse.

Michael Holroyd is a distinguished biographer, so he knows a thing or two about stories from people’s lives. With interesting relatives he reflects what should or shouldn’t be revealed. Above all he makes it clear that stories from one’s life cannot be told without the stories of many other people.

Basil Street Blues by Michael Holroyd. Published by Slightly Foxed in 2015. 364pp

Related Posts

Memoirs to Change your Life by Caroline o’donaghue in The Pool. November 2015. A list of suggestions from an American point of view.

And more recommendations

The Outrun by Amy Liptrot, published in 2016 by Canongate. It is the author’s account of her flight from the Orkneys, into East London and alcoholism and returning to the Orkneys to haul herself back to sobriety.

In Gratitude by Jenny Diski (2016) published by Bloomsbury, being both the story of her troubled adolescence and living with Doris Lessing, and her account of terminal cancer.

A Chelsea Concerto by Frances Faviell first published in 1959, reissued by Furrowed Middlebrow in 2016. This is Chelsea in the Blitz.

Do you have any memoirs to recommend?

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A Chelsea Concerto by Frances Faviell

As a child born in 1948 my vocabulary included the word duringthewar. Adult conversation I overheard often included it. It was years before I realised what duringthewar referred to. By that time the adults had become largely silent about their war experiences, something my generation often remark upon. The silence was strange because their war experiences, like Frances Faviell’s, had often been intense and they influenced the post-war period.

And who knew? There is a form of writing called blitz-lit according to the foreword to A Chelsea Concerto. In my experience this is a unique book and worthy of its republication by Furrowed Middlebrow. First published in 1959 it is a vivid and authentic account of one young woman who was living in Chelsea during the Blitz.

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Frances Faviell

Frances Faviell could not keep silent about her experiences, as she noted in the Prologue:

And the ghosts will not recede or leave me in peace. Pushing, jostling, thrusting away their grey forms they blossom before my eyes from the muted cobwebby hues of memory to those of warm pulsating life. They will not recede; insistent and determined they force me to take up my pen and go back with them to the summer of 1939. (2)

So who was this writer who could not let her memories rest? Frances Faviell was her pen name and she had already written three novels: A House on the Rhine (1955), Thalia (1957) and The Fledgeling (1958) and a memoir. But she was also a painter, as the language of the quotation might suggest. She was known as Olivia Fabri and had studied with Henry Tonks at the Slade School of Art, married a Hungarian painter and travelled with him discovering a talent for languages. Before the war and without her first husband she had settled in Chelsea to be among artists. Her facility for languages was put to use in her work supporting the ever-complaining Belgian refugees who arrived in Chelsea in the first months of the war.

I have sadly been unable to find any paintings by Olivia Fabri or Frances Faviell on the internet. But the lurid cover of the book is from a painting by her.

The Blitz in Chelsea

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As the events recede the collective memory of the Blitz is of a relentless bombing on London from the outbreak of the war in 1939 to its conclusion on VE Day in June 1945. But the truth is more particular. Other cities suffered badly from aerial bombardment, not least Plymouth (where Frances Faviell’s mother lived) and Bristol (home of her sister). I was born in Coventry, another city ravaged by bombs, and I later taught history in one of its secondary schools. Pre-war Coventry was somewhat hard to find.

Between November 1940 and the Spring of 1941, following the ‘Phoney War’, there were 71 major air raids on London, in which 40,000 civilians were killed. Raids took place most nights. Being on the River Thames, Chelsea was badly hit. It must have been an intense time of heightened emotions and sharp experiences. Raids reduced in the summer of 1941, but began again with the V1s (Doodlebugs) and V2s in the last months of the war.

A Chelsea Concerto covers just under the first two years of the war, from its outbreak in September 1939 to the raid that demolished Frances Faviell’s home in Cheyne Walk on 11th May 1941.

Chelsea Old Church, Cheyne Walk Restored (albeit it red brick) and re-consecrated (1958) after severe blitz damage in 1941 by Alexander P Kapp via Wiki Commons

Chelsea Old Church, Cheyne Walk Restored (albeit it red brick) and re-consecrated (1958) after severe blitz damage in 1941 by Alexander P Kapp via Wiki Commons

A Chelsea Concerto

Her account begins with the outbreak of war and proceeds to record how the impact of war grew steadily, culminating in two terrible nights in April 1941. Frances had signed up as a Red Cross nurse and trained to work in a First Aid Post (FAP). She also undertook volunteer work on the switchboard for civil defence communications and looking after the families of Belgian refugees who found themselves in London. Like all Londoners, there was also fire watching duty, to deal with the thousands of incendiary bombs.

In her area she had many friends. The children were evacuated, and returned as the dangers appeared exaggerated. They disappeared again when the bombs arrived. The young men joined the forces and disappeared, older men and women took on war work. In Chelsea there were also the working class families, who ran shops businesses. The old couple who slept with their horse is the stuff of myths, but really happened.

Frances Faviell kept open house until she was bombed out, and she supported her many friends. They became homeless, suffered breakdowns, needed support with their children, or came to to pet the dog or to exchange news.

She tells stories of real suffering and of heroism, including her own.

‘Take off your coat,’ said the doctor. I took it off. ‘And your dress,’ he said. ‘It’s too dangerous – the folds may catch in the debris and bring the whole thing down – better without it.’ I took off the dress. ‘Fine,’ he said shortly when I stood in the ‘black-outs’, as we called the closed black panties which most of us wore with uniform. ‘It’ll have to be head first. We’ll hold your thighs. Go down first with this torch and see if it’s possible to give a morphia injection or not – I doubt it. Ready?’ ‘Yes,’ I said faintly for I was terrified. ‘Better hold the torch in your mouth, and keep your arms tight by your sides,’ he said. ‘Can you grip the torch with your teeth?’ I nodded – it was as if I was having a nightmare from which I would soon waken. ‘Ready?’ Two wardens gripped me by the thighs, swung me up and lowered me down the hole. ‘Keep your body absolutely rigid,’ said the doctor. ‘Don’t be afraid – we’ll hold you safe,’ said the large woman. ‘I ought to be doing this – but I’m too big.’

The sound coming from the hole was unnerving me – it was like an animal in a trap. I had once heard a long screaming like rabbits in traps from children with meningitis in India, but this was worse – almost inhuman in its agony. (130)

Fear came late to Frances Faviell as the end of 1940 approached.

Up to that time I had not minded the Blitz at all. I had just married, and we were very happy, although the occasions when we were both together were increasingly rare. Richard was frequently away on a tour for the Ministry, and I was often on night duty, but the bombs only seemed a macabre background to our personal life, and the fact that either of us could be a victim of the Blitz seemed a remote thought. … (166)

Fear seems like a rational response. Here’s her description of the raid in April that brought down her house, killing three of its occupants.

We had never experienced such a night – bombs seemed to rain down – and in the intervals of their explosions which tonight were the loudest and longest we could remember we could hear the guns in the planes as the fighters chased them. The sky was alight with flares, searchlights, and exploding shells – it was a magnificent but appalling sight. The fires which we could see were terrifying – the largest in the direction of Victoria, was enormous and appeared to be increasing. Behind us, much nearer, there was a terrible blaze in the direction of Burton Court. (212)

Moments later the house was hit and Frances, Richard and the Dachshund barely escaped.

She retells her experiences of the time in everyday detail, with much humour and sharp observations about the way in which the Blitz affected Londoners. And she is mindful of the damage being inflicted in turn upon German cities by the RAF and the Allies.

Such experiences have not been confined to history. Sadly, such an account reveals something of what it must be to live in Aleppo at this time. War is ever with us.

Thanks to Furrowed Middlebrow at Dean Street Press for the review copy.

A Chelsea Concerto by Frances Faviell first published in 1959, reissued by Furrowed Middlebrow in 2016 235 pp

Related Posts and Books

Scott, who writes the Furrowed Middlebrow blog explored A Chelsea Concerto in some detail in 2013.

Heavenali reviewed this book enthusiastically in October on her blog.

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Millions Like Us by Virginia Nicholson (2011) published by Penguin. Virginia Nicholson wrote the Foreword to the new edition of A Chelsea Concerto.

I also reviewed a novel from this new imprint in October. A Footman for the Peacock by Rachel Ferguson.

 

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