True rec­ol­lec­tion

The Irish Times - Friday - The Ticket - - ED POWER - CATHER­INE TAY­LOR

Cather­ine Tay­lor on Rose Tre­main’s en­thralling mem­oir


In seems apt that Rose Tre­main, who has pub­lished nov­els with mu­sic as their fo­cus (Mu­sic and Si­lence, The Gus­tav Sonata) should be­gin her own mem­oir thus: “I can re­mem­ber this: ly­ing in my pram and look­ing up at a white sky. Across the sky, some lines are drawn, like mu­si­cal staves. Flut­ter­ing shapes ar­rive and land on the staves: birds on tele­graph wires”. Her mother, Jane, re­pu­di­ates the lyri­cism of this mem­ory, ad­mon­ish­ing Tre­main in a man­ner we soon learn is typ­i­cal of her less than in­dul­gent par­ent­ing: “Don’t be silly. You in­vented that stuff.”

Rosie: Scenes from a Van­ished Life is the story of how Rose­mary “Rosie” Thom­son, a clever up­per-mid­dle-class girl board­ingschooled in the 1950s, de­nied the op­por­tu­nity of “silly” univer­sity and in­stead sent to “fin­ish­ing” school in France at the dawn of the 1960s, be­came Rose Tre­main, in­ven­tor of “stuff” and now a mul­ti­ple award-win­ning nov­el­ist and short-story writer.

“All ex­pe­ri­ence is an en­rich­ment rather than an im­pov­er­ish­ment, ” claims Eu­dora Welty in One Writer’s Be­gin­nings. Tre­main cer­tainly had enough emo­tional im­pov­er­ish­ment: the sec­ond daugh­ter (her sis­ter, Jo, be­ing four years older) of an arid mar­riage be­tween Vi­ola (known as Jane) Dud­ley and Keith Thom­son, an un­suc­cess­ful play­wright who left the fam­ily when Rosie was 10. Tre­main seems to have been starved of love in early life. She cred­its her and Jo’s nanny, Vera Sturt (“Nan”) with fill­ing some of the emo­tional gaps. Los­ing this stal­wart when she and Jo were packed off to board­ing school on her mother’s swift re­mar­riage was an un­for­get­table wrench, clearly still raw today.


Writ­ers of­ten pride them­selves on their abil­ity to rec­ol­lect, although all mem­ory is sub­jec­tive. Sim­i­larly, writ­ers amass im­pres­sions and in­for­ma­tion; sift through, dis­card much, keep some. They are the se­lec­tive ed­i­tors of their own con­struc­tions, and Tre­main is no dif­fer­ent. The open­ing pas­sages of her mem­oir con­tain rem­i­nis­cences of her ma­ter­nal grand­par­ents’ manor house, Linken­holt in Hamp­shire, where Jo, Rosie, and their cousins spent their hol­i­days, all lov­ingly re­cre­ated on the page: “all through my child­hood, I longed for it – for the mo­ment of walk­ing through its heavy front door and breath­ing its fa­mil­iar per­fume. What was that per­fume? A com­pos­ite of beeswax fur­ni­ture pol­ish, Brasso, French cig­a­rettes and dogs. It was the smell of home.” Tellingly, in the fol­low­ing para­graph: “It wasn’t my home.”

The ac­count of the fam­ily at Linken­holt gives some ex­pla­na­tion of Jane Thom­son’s am­biva­lence as a mother – she was an only daugh­ter, both of her broth­ers hav­ing died young, one from a burst ap­pen­dix, the other in the sec­ond World War. Jane was ban­ished to board­ing school at the age of six. Af­ter her brother Michael’s death, her par­ents shut them­selves down; even the pres­ence of grand­chil­dren was un­able to pen­e­trate their mourn­ing. Yet this does not ap­pear to trou­ble Rosie, who by then must have be­come ac­cus­tomed to the lack of af­fec­tion from her rel­a­tives: “We loved Linken­holt, not them. They were rich and they had cre­ated a beau­ti­ful world around them­selves, and that world was all to us.” Cer­tainly it pro­vided a con­trast to their ev­ery­day life in “dark, post-war Lon­don ... smog-bound, con­strained and con­fined”.


The Thom­son fam­ily lived in rel­a­tive wealth in Chelsea, how­ever, a life of ex­pen­sive ed­u­ca­tion and nurs­ery bliss with Jane so­cial­is­ing and shop­ping, and Keith – be­fore he ab­sconded – away tour­ing one of his failed projects. Tre­main tries very hard to un­der­stand her par­ents, if not ab­solve them – par­tic­u­larly her mother. Some of their chill­i­ness and re­mote­ness comes through in her mea­sured prose: the book reeks of re­pres­sion but also per­cep­tion. Her par­ents’ gen­er­a­tion was blighted by war, their off­spring left to sink or swim.

This is Tre­main’s first work of non-fic­tion and it reads very much like a novel. The years at board­ing school, de­scribed as the “Great Cast­ing Off”, where teenage girls hun­gry for nour­ish­ment of any kind off-loaded their mis­ery into vast dra­matic and artis­tic projects, en­gag­ing in crushes on their equally frus­trated teach­ers, has shades of An­to­nia White’s classic Frost in May. Tre­main writes of “va­cant, ex­haust­ing nights”, the gen­teel “knit­ting hour” in a crowded draw­ing room soon over­taken by the pun­gent re­al­ity of a horde of ado­les­cent girls: “un­washed armpits, dirty hair and men­strual blood”.

Ox­ford beckons, but Rosie is thwarted once more by Jane, who shud­ders at the idea of hav­ing a “blue­stock­ing” for a daugh­ter, and so, obe­di­ent and fu­ri­ous, trudges off to Switzer­land to be “fin­ished” and pre­pared for lit­tle more than a role as a sec­re­tary un­til mar­riage. At 18 she rebels and de­fies Jane by en­rolling at the Sor­bonne. Tre­main did not pub­lish her first fic­tion un­til she was 33 – but this dis­qui­et­ing, beau­ti­fully crafted mem­oir shows that she was in train­ing to be a writer from the start.


Rose Tre­main: a writer from the start.

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