Sunday, 8 August 2010

Who Was Sophie? by Celia Robertson

Celia Robertson has written a memoir of her maternal grandmother, known in her final years as Sophie Curly, but who started life as Joan Adeney Easdale in 1913. Joan published three volumes of poetry when she was a young woman; her work was published by the Hogarth Press and received positive critical attention. By the time Celia was growing up, her grandmother was a drunken, mad bogeywoman kept at bay through legal process; a solicitor dealt with correspondence between Sophie and Celia's mother Jane. When Celia was seventeen, Jane decided to take her to meet her grandmother for the first time; the squalor of her flat, and its bizarre arrangements for catching burglars, were frightening, but the physical reality of Sophie, a tiny and frail old woman, counteracted the images of Sophie as an insane and monstrous creature. Celia continued to visit Sophie regularly after that; following Sophie's death, she was inspired to write the book, to piece together the journey that took Joan/Sophie from young poet to a bag lady haunting the rougher pubs of 1980s Nottingham.

"Poignant" is the word from the TLS review chosen for the front cover, and the poignancy of this book is undisputed and powerful. Joan's descent into madness, her treatment at Holloway Sanatorium, the loss of her children (and their loss of her), and the poverty, violence and squalor of her final years are terribly sad. Celia Robertson's obvious affection for her grandmother, and kindly, loving attention to the story of her life, mitigates this sadness and exposes the value of Sophie's story even at the points where she is, apparently, at rock bottom. Joan is told repeatedly by psychiatrists that she should give up her writing and devote herself to domestic duties. She does, but Joan is a hopeless housekeeper, clumsy, forgetful and unable to budget at all; domestic work for her is no cure. Virginia Woolf appears several times in the narrative, and the story of Woolf's illness is an obvious parallel with Joan's, pointing up an underlying theme of the book: choices for women artists, in the first half of the twentieth century, were limited and often dangerous.

Celia Robertson is overt and frank about the gaps in Sophie's story, the things that can be known and learned about her, and the things that must be guessed at or assumed. This book seems to me to be a brave undertaking, to try to understand the truth of a chaotic life of such a close relative. Who knows what she might have found? What she did find can be disturbing enough. She is also clear that this is her story of Sophie, that other Sophies exist, and could be narrated, by those that knew and loved her. It is Robertson's approach to the narrative, as well as the twists of Sophie's story, that contribute to a richly enjoyable and consuming book.

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