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How Not to Be a Grandmother

My grandmother’s idea of cooking was cracking open a raw egg and hurling the contents straight down her throat. She was a poet, deeply religious, immersed in the world of the spirit, never the flesh, who spent years translating Gerard Manley Hopkins’s poems into Scots – an obscure language then and even more so now. The resulting book and the correspondence between her and Hopkins are still kept in the library at Aberdeen University.

When I was 10, I went to live with her in Perthshire while my father was away in Cyprus. She seemed to me then, with her strange button-up boots, flapping tartan cape and outmoded belief that children should be seen and not heard, a creature straight from the pages of a mouldy history book. My brother and I were only allowed to use the sitting-room on Sundays, and then only for afternoon tea with the adults. Usually we were confined to the morning-room downstairs, next to the kitchen, and felt ourselves hard done by.

However, after reading Diana Holman-Hunt’s wonderful memoir My Grandmothers and I, an account of a childhood spent being passed like a parcel from one grandmother to the other, I realized that I’d had it easy. While my grandmother could be intimidating, Diana Holman-Hunt’s grandmothers were in another league altogether – ferociously egocentric and shockingly indifferent to their granddaughter’s welfare. They come prancing off the page, every line of their dialogue ringing horribly true. Yet I found myself warming to them; their remarkable eccentricities and their determination to live exactly as they pleased were oddly endearing. Even so, it was impossible not to feel outraged on the author’s behalf.

Diana was the granddaughter of the distinguished Pre-Raphaelite painter William Holman-Hunt who died in 1910, three years before she was born. While her father, Hilary, was in India, Diana was left in England in the care of her grandmothers. (What had happened to Diana’s mother? We are told only that she ‘never saw her’.) Christopher Ironside’s wonderfully observed jacket of the first edition, published in 1960, shows the two grandmothers facing each other with considerable distaste – one resolutely flowing and Bohemian, the other a cinched-in model of fashionable propriety.

Diana’s paternal grandmother, the resolutely flowing Edith Waugh, was the sister of Holman-Hunt’s first wife, Fanny, who had died in childbirth. In England at the time (1873) it was illegal to marry a deceased wife’s sister so, scandalously, the couple were married in Switzerland. Grand H-H, as she was known to Diana, or Grand for short, is jealously obsessed with her husband’s genius and lives in a ‘tall grimy brick and stucco house’ in Melbury Road, London, keeping his memory alive and longing for Death when they will be reunited in Heaven.

While Holman-Hunt painted works involving the expression of significant moral ideas, Grand painted the stairs. Tacked to the treads is a notice: ‘Edith H-H painted this staircase in 1905’. A similar notice adorns the bathroom, with an order to clean up after use and ‘kindly confirm that taps are not dripping’. The gas jets burn low and candles flicker over walls hung with glinting swords and daggers, over a collection of priceless paintings by H-H himself, by Titian, Tintoretto, Van Dyck and many others, all covered with silk and taffeta curtains to prevent them fading in the sun.

At Grand’s, breakfast, if it appears at all, consists of very old and smelly boiled eggs that arrive wearing red flannel caps and the word ‘Foreign’ stamped on their shells. For lunch Grand offers Diana sardines, scrag, and Bovril to be drunk directly from the spout of a teapot, and a tempting side plate of boiled bones – the effort of drinking from a spout and chewing bones being considered helpful to Diana’s face which Grand considers is ‘going wrong’. ‘Don’t be ruled by Brother Ass, he’s only your body and a nuisance,’ she says cryptically, at frequent intervals throughout.

The body however keeps intruding. To ‘make herself useful’, Diana has to cut out sheets of lavatory paper from old circulars and paper bags, piercing their corners and threading them on strings. A resourceful child, she puts the softer pieces together and conceals them in the middle, ‘between the back of a calendar from Barkers and an advertisement for nightlights’. Too mean to take a taxi, Grand prefers to flag down an omnibus by barging into the traffic and brandishing her umbrella (a preference that will have serious consequences). Going out for tea means asking the waitress for two empty cups and a jug of boiling water, and having Grand produce, from the depths of her ‘reticule’, a box of saccharin, a muslin bag of tea-leaves, and a creased manila envelope of powdered
milk. Poor embarrassed Diana has to cover her face with her hands. Back home in Melbury Road there is a special tea service, each cup with a label tied to its handle, ‘so-and-so drank from this cup: Lear, Dickens, Burne-Jones, Carlyle, Thackeray, Madox Brown, Meredith, Gladstone, Millais, Patmore . . . twenty-four names altogether’.

There is only one servant, the loyal and indomitable Helen who lurks in a dark basement kitchen where the floor crawls with black beetles. Every night Grand summons Helen to bring in the tripwires, booby-traps and bells which are cunningly arranged across the ground floor to foil burglars. Diana, whose bed is a couch in Grand’s room, is too terrified to sleep, imagining the burglars tumbling over the wires below or, worse, inflamed with rage, seizing the weapons off the walls before coming upstairs where there are boxes of jewels, a pearl tiara, ropes of jade and amber, amethysts, emeralds, opals, a bag of gold under Grand’s bed, and a chest with more labels: ‘WORTHLESS SENTIMENTAL SOUVENIRS’, ‘IT IS DANGEROUS TO OPEN THIS DRAWER’ and ‘BEWARE! OPEN THIS DRAWER AT YOUR PERIL’. Diana does so – to find it is stuffed with gold coins.

Her maternal grandmother, cinched-in and fashionable Grandmother Freeman, lives in an altogether less frightening house by the sea in Sussex, with her blind husband George, once a successful barrister. For Grandmother Freeman, books, hats, marriages, friends and conversations are either ‘suitable’ or ‘unsuitable’. Some ‘unsuitable’ things are merely ‘rather unfortunate’ but others are ‘very disagreeable’ or, worst of all, ‘disastrous my dears!’ Children are demanding and dull, ‘too extraordinary’. A tremendous snob and socialite, she is always bored, always on her way out of the house in pursuit of amusement.

Pinned up in front of Diana’s Sussex bed is a list of her daily tasks, compiled by Grandmother Freeman and showing ‘as a dark patch on the curtain against the light’. The tasks include deadheading flowers, learning poems off by heart, walking a troop of pugs, and knitting white operation stockings for wounded soldiers. Grandmother Freeman sets an example by taking up her knitting needles at lunch. Meticulously dressed, often wearing a hat, she pushes away her food after only a few mouthfuls and swallows one or two pills from a little gold box. High-minded people stifle their greed.

Unlike Melbury Road, the Sussex household is full of servants who offer Diana comfort and distraction: Hannah, Tilly, Arthur who drops his aitches, Johnstone the slurring butler ‘who drank a lot of port and was fuddled every afternoon’, the stalwart Fowler who, on behalf of all the servants, presents Diana with a blue teddy bear on her birthday, and Mrs Hopkins, the cook, who provides the cake which is eaten downstairs in the ‘hall’. The birthday gift from her father is a parcel containing ‘the skin of a young leopard I shot in the jungle’. Not knowing what to with this ‘leper-skin’, Diana bundles it up and tosses it into a cupboard. It is her father, keen on tennis and riding and all things athletic, who insists that Diana should wear a harness ‘made of canvas and buckled behind’ to ensure her shoulders are always in the correct position. Reading the scene when Diana finally burns this dreadful article, I almost cheered out loud.

Her other Sussex ally is her blind grandfather, George, who has to be spoon-fed and watched at all times in case he falls. Her relationship with him is tender and touching. She reads to him in the library and he gives her advice though, when she wants to know the facts of life, he fudges and refers her to her grandmother, who suggests she might look it up in the Book of Directions. The search for this volume becomes a running joke and she doesn’t track it down until near the end of the book. The facts of life turn out to be ‘ghastly’, she tells her friend, ‘much worse than we thought last summer – a sort of operation . . . When I get married I shall have an anaesthetic.’

There are wonderfully comic scenes throughout the book, such as Grand’s excruciating soirées where Diana has to give guided tours of her grandfather’s paintings, now splendidly revealed with their curtains drawn back; or one of her father’s rare visits, when he takes Diana out to a nightclub, gets drunk with ‘joy-girls’ in black feather boas, and the two of them return home, blundering into the tripwires and setting off the bells. ‘Papa isn’t feeling well,’ explains Diana. ‘Calamity!’ screeches Grand. ‘Where did I put that stomach pump?’

The book concludes with both grandmothers dead and Diana visiting her grandfather, George, who is perhaps the only one who has never really loved her. ‘I recollect Byron’s lines,’ he says, when they get tipsy together: ‘“And if I laugh at any mortal things, ’tis that I may not weep . . .”’

Diana Holman-Hunt has taken the most miserable of childhoods and turned it into a comic masterpiece, one that admirably demonstrates the truth that it is the spirit that counts, not the body: a truth that, in spite of all their self-denial and protestations, the grandmothers never completely grasp, both actually being obsessed with the material world, the body and its functions. It made me review the way I remembered my own grandmother, to consider how she was caught in her era, to think about my responsibilities now that I, too, am a grandmother with a much-loved granddaughter soon coming to stay. How quickly one generation’s normalities become the embarrassing eccentricities of the next. Diana Holman-Hunt captures this magnificently in one of the bravest and funniest memoirs I have ever had the pleasure to read.

Extract from Slightly Foxed Issue 18 © Linda Leatherbarrow 2008
This article also appeared as a preface to Plain Foxed Edition: Diana Holman-Hunt, My Grandmothers and I


About the contributor

Linda Leatherbarrow’s short story collection Essential Kit contains some consideration of grandparenting skills, along with gorillas and long-distance walkers. Her grandmother Edith Anne Robertson’s Translations into the Scots Tongue of Poems by Gerard Manley Hopkins (1968) is (predictably perhaps) now out of print.

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