Saturday, 3 December 2011

In My Father's House by Miranda Seymour

Subtitled Elegy for an Obsessive Love, this memoir tells the story of Miranda's father George and his lifelong, demented, all-consuming passion for a Nottinghamshire manor house, Thrumpton Hall - and of Miranda's childhood and upbringing in the context of that passion.  George was parked with a childless aunt and uncle, Charles and Anna Byron, at Thrumpton when he was a small child; his father, a diplomat, had been posted to South America.  George was felt to be too fragile to endure La Paz, so Thrumpton it had to be.  He drank in his Uncle Charlie's old-fashioned manners and attitudes, and his love for Thrumpton; the snobberies of his mother and grandmother - a distant, wrong-side-of-the-blanket descendent of Charles II - produced a sense of entitlement that led to school essays detailing how he would be a marvellous squire of Thrumpton when he grew up.  Uncle Charlie liked to tease, and sometimes leaned towards leaving the house to George, sometimes towards his Byron nephews.  When they both died in the Second World War, the path seemed to be clear for George - but things went awry, and George and his wife Rosemary eventually had to raise an enormous loan in order to buy Thrumpton.

Having installed himself, George began to realise his grandiloquent childhood dreams, but was, of course, permanently thwarted by the tendency of people not to conform to plan.  His children disappointed him; the villagers were unimpressed by his lordly ways; a power station was built just down the road that could turn a summer day to winter, belching out black smoke.  The House (it's always capitalised in the text) consumed vast amounts of money, energy and time.  George martyred himself to the House, and he wanted his martyrdom recognised and admired.  When his family - particularly his wife and daughter - failed to come up to the mark in this respect, he undermined them in turn, criticising their appearance, their clothes, their hair.  Miranda wore a wig for much of her teenage years since her own hair didn't meet George's standards.  And when his children were grown up and better able to resist his control, he sought admiration from younger, working-class men.

Miranda Seymour has used her father's diaries and letters - he was a prodigious letter-writer and would complain of being neglected if he didn't get a letter by return of post - her mother's memories, and her biographer's skills to construct this memoir, an effort to "make my peace by trying to understand the kind of man he was".  She is unflinching in her scrutiny of her father and of herself, often to the distress of her mother, whose voice punctuates the book as a kind of chorus, complaining when Miranda goes too far or is too indiscreet, defending her husband and her marriage.  She is often very funny, and there is a lot of humour here, usually caused by George's outrageous behaviour or by Miranda's outraged reactions.  One argument culminated in the (adult) Miranda pelting her father with boiled potatoes and then biting the table-leg.  But I found this book profoundly sad; George's lonely childhood leads inevitably to his overvaluing of heredity and property, his adult failures, and his tempestuous relationship with his children.  In some ways he is a less likeable Mortmain, and perhaps Miranda's story is Rose's version of I Capture the Castle rather than Cassandra's.  He also has much in common with Alison Bechdel's father in Fun Home, another house-beautiful obsessive with a taste for younger men.

This is a remarkably skilful book, compelling and complex, written with great frankness but also delicacy and insight.  The paperback has an awful pastel-tinted cover and looks like misery lit.  Don't be deceived - there is a real treat inside.


  1. This sounds wonderful - I love any obsessions with houses, and mention of I Capture the Castle sealed the deal for me. Thanks for your lovely review, Tanya.

  2. Thanks Simon - I'd love to hear what you make of it. Do you have other house-obsession recommendations?