If asked for a list of my favourite authors, Rose Tremain would certainly be on it, and pretty near the top. Of her 14 novels and five collections of short stories, I have read probably half with every intention of reading the others when the opportunity arises.
What strikes most readers of Tremain’s work is how different each of her books is from any other. In setting, time period and even to some extent genre, Tremain has traversed the globe and history for inspiration, from 17th century England to 19th century New Zealand via rural France and World War II Switzerland, to name but a few. In each case she has re-created those times and settings with complete conviction. I can think of few other contemporary authors with her range. Famously, she has criticised the “write what you know” platitude of lazy creative writing tutors, arguing that if you only write what you know you will soon run out of material.
“I also realised that by inventing Robert Merivel, (the protagonist of her 1989 book, Restoration) a male character distant from me in place and time and appetite, my imagination gained hugely in strength, so that the book’s many inventions could slip neatly into the folds of found history. From this book onwards, I consciously searched for subjects way outside my own experience,” she said in a lecture to the Royal Society of Literature.
Tremain, then, is not an obvious candidate to join the band of writers keen to share their life story in the form of a memoir. From someone who has so conspicuously made a point of separating her fiction from her life, Rosie is an unexpected book. And the question with which I both started and finished it was “why?” Why, at the age of 70, after a prolific and highly successful career, would Tremain choose to publish a slim volume charting her early life up until her late teens? And why, for that matter, would anyone choose to read it?
The latter question is relatively easy to answer. Readers who love Tremain’s work will be keen to read what formed her and there is no better place to start that exploration than in childhood. Many will be looking for links to her books, and in this case they will, perhaps predictably, find little satisfaction.
In footnotes Tremain occasionally links specific events to minor details in her writing and she shares one moment of “epiphany” and explanation but readers looking for more will be disappointed and must be sent away with D.H. Lawrence’s admonition to “Never trust the teller, trust the tale”. Clearly, Tremain’s intention was not to share her imaginative journeys or creative processes.
It is difficult, therefore, to resist the conclusion that this was a book Tremain wrote largely for herself, for although her childhood had its happy moments, it also had many demons. And chief of those was her seemingly loveless relationship with her mother, Jane, which is the aching heart of this memoir.
“Man hands on misery to man. / It deepens like a coastal shelf. / Get out as early as you can, / And don’t have any kids yourself,” wrote Philip Larkin in his poem, This Be The Verse – but his advice was too late for both Tremain’s grandparents and parents.
Mabel and Ronald Dudley, Tremain’s grandparents, had three children. Their two sons died, one from a burst appendix, the other in war. There was seemingly no love left for Jane, Tremain’s mother, who in turn had little love for Rose and her sister Jo.
What the Dudleys did have was a huge house and acres of land, and it was at Linkenholt Manor that Tremain spent her happiest days. Her father was a playwright who abandoned Jane for another woman and Jane in turn sought other relationships.
“The grown-ups,” Tremain pithily observes, “had entered a period of sexual madness, quite beyond us to understand.” The emotional warmth and heart of her childhood was left to her beloved Nan, the paid nanny.
Tremain was sent off to boarding school but denied the possibility of a place at university because her mother did not want a “bluestocking” for a daughter and was instead sent to finishing school in Switzerland.
About all of this Tremain writes, as you would expect, with wonderful vividness. At boarding school: “We had exactly half an hour to wash and dress – in yesterday’s underwear, in the day-before-yesterday’s underwear – because nothing was laundered more than once a week. Hair-washing – done in a basin – was a rationed activity and there were no showers, only ancient baths of stained enamel, with a line marking the permitted height of the water, to which we had access twice a week. I think we all stank like polecats”.
It would be easy to dismiss Rosie as the story of a poor little rich girl and there are, it has to be said, moments when it is just that. In material terms, this was a privileged upbringing. But what is also clear is that the emotional void created by her mother and father has left its scars. Tremain would hate me for saying it, but I can’t help feeling it would all have made a wonderful novel.
Rosie: Scenes From A Vanished Life
Author: Rose Tremain
Publisher: Chatto & Windus, memoir