A friend at college many decades ago was the daughter of a respected Kensington GP who was deeply involved in the history of the area. On one occasion when I was visiting she mentioned that her father was discreetly relieved at the recent death of a particularly eccentric and demanding patient, a novelist who, as a leading light also of the local history society, had had to be treated with especial tact.
‘Who was she?’ I asked.
‘Oh, she’s mildly famous, I think, but you’ve probably not heard of her. I wouldn’t have except that she’s been the bane of Daddy’s life. Rachel Ferguson.’
Rachel Ferguson! My absolutely favourite author from the time (aged 12 or 13) when I graduated from E. Nesbit to nibbling at books written for grown-ups (or ostensibly for grown-ups, but we will come to that). And so she was dead, and now I would never be able to meet her and tell her how much I admired the way in which she evoked the special character and atmosphere of places – Kensington in particular, in both the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, but also riverside suburbs and seaside resorts, the backstage of theatres, and grand houses where the events of long ago have left their mark. As a Hearing Distant Thunder bored and lonely teenager imprisoned in a badly run girls’ boarding school, I had empathized deeply with the aching spinsterhood of Alas, Poor Lady (1937) and had longed, like the main characters of The Brontës Went to Woolworths (1931), to be friends with actors, singers and comedians. But most of all I had been fascinated by A Harp in Lowndes Square (1936), in which, more than any other novel of hers, the past is not dead but is both recoverable and surmountable.
In A Harp a character suggests that fragmented dead voices might be picked up – perhaps through the use of a wireless, then a relatively new invention – if one went to the right location, even if the four walls that had once contain
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