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Before the Sun Set

The backdrop to Priscilla Napier’s childhood was Egypt; the golden years of the Edwardian age were coming to an end, the First World War just around the corner, but for the confident, buoyant upperclass English of her parents’ world the sun would never set upon ‘the regimental band playing selections from HMS Pinafore under the banyan tree’. This wonderful recreation of a time and a climate of mind – a hundred years ago, one realizes, startled – is not just an evocation of place but also of the child’s eye view. A Late Beginner ranks quite simply with the greatest accounts of how it is to be a child, to see with that strange, skewed, uncontaminated vision.

There were three children – William, Priscilla and Alethea. Their father, Sir William Hayter, was legal and financial adviser to the Egyptian government in the days of the Protectorate, a clever, hardworking man, admirably cosmopolitan in outlook and with enlightened views of the Egyptian capacity for self-rule. This was the period of nascent nationalism, the twilight of colonialism, and some, like Sir William, were preparing for it. Writing in 1966, his daughter was able to recognize his liberal outlook, while noting also that for Egypt, at least, colonial rule had not been entirely bad news, coming as it did in the wake of the considerably more brutal regime overseen by the Turks, with universal forced labour and none of the missionary zeal of the British public school administrators who saw their jobs ‘as VSO or the Peace Corps might now think of them; as interesting, dangerous, ungainful and very much in the general interest’.

Priscilla’s elder brother William would one day become the British Ambassador in Moscow; her younger sister Alethea would write superb books, including that innovative and seminal study of a snatch of time and a handful of people, A Sultry Month. Priscilla herself would marry young and lose her husband to the Second World War. But in this book William is a knickerbockered boy, packed off to prep school in England at the age of 8, and Alethea a muslin-clad toddler – all three of them under the firm rule of Nanny, who is as old as the Sphinx so far as the children are concerned but in fact, as Priscilla realizes, recalling the attentions of an Australian sergeant, ‘a fair, freckled and attractive thirty-three’.

It is the recreation of people and of a vivid physical world that makes this memoir so absorbing, so immediate. The parents, kindly and devoted, the cast of Egyptian servants, the other children rampaging around the Gezira Sporting Club, with whom tribal wars are fought – Brits and Greeks and Maltese against the French, the Syrians. The garden, with its lush hot-climate vegetation and the beloved pet rabbits, and the adjacent Nile, rich with water traffic, lined with trees that are studded in the evenings with roosting egrets. The desert picnics – lightly sanded honey sandwiches supplied by ‘a covey of starched nannies’. The night-time terrors: the lions that undoubtedly pace round and round the house, lean and terrible, just as seen in Cairo Zoo. Indeed yes. Oh, yes.

At this point I have to declare an interest. I too grew up in Egypt, a generation later, before and during another world war. I know about the lions. And the unremarkable presence of the Pyramids,
which one never questioned because surely there was nothing unusual about a pyramid, weren’t there pyramids everywhere? And one’s passion for this homeland, the pride in growing up there, and the irritation of being trumped by India – ‘larger, fiercer, wilder, its diseases more lethal’. For me, too, England was a far country, achieved only after a long but enthralling sea journey. And when you got there, its beaches were freezing cold and peopled with supercilious cousins. To read A Late Beginner is to read of my own childhood, with a few temporal adjustments (less white muslin, Swallows and Amazons instead of Masterman Ready, and Churchill a legendary figure with a cigar in his mouth instead of a rather tiresome young visiting politician whom Priscilla’s father had to brief ). When I came to a line in which a donkey brays with its ‘sad, sobbing cry’, I heard it. Not imagined – heard. Across time and space.

Lady Hayter took the children to England every summer, even during the first years of the war, risking possible torpedoes in the Mediterranean – Priscilla was in a state of catatonic terror. She brilliantly evokes the atmosphere of the war, the family summers at Sidmouth, doing all the ritual things but with the mothers and aunts quiet and tight-lipped with anxiety, and, by 1918, the widows everywhere, and the aunts with grim, lined faces, who would never recover from the deaths of only sons. William was by now at prep school, and did not see his father for four years; his sisters, coming to England less often, still absorbed in the carefree, hedonistic life of Cairo, seemed like strangers, though for Priscilla school was looming, England’s long tentacles reaching out. There would be the train journey across the Delta, the waiting ship, the journey to a place that was not home, as there was for me.

She is an enchanting writer – sharp, shrewd, funny. The apparent artlessness of A Late Beginner is of course a nice deception. The book is a deft marriage of colourful observation and recall, with passages of idiosyncratic and highly intelligent reflection. She conjures up the First World War period by way of its props, the ladies’ hats like ‘dishes piled high with fruit and flowers and with the wings of birds’. The way in which Edwardian houses were furnished with bits of dead animals – wild buffalo horns jutting out of skulls, heads of black panthers with gleaming yellow glass eyes, the dust of the Edwardian countryside (one thinks at once of Hardy’s descriptions). But she darts off also into perceptions about that time, about the nature of Englishness, about that other world that seems both yesterday and another age.

Her father was seventh out of a family of sixteen – his background that of prosperous gentry, but a family of that size at once sets them far apart from us; today such profligate fecundity would raise eyebrows at any level of society. Yet for families like this there had been a long heritage of waste – ‘six out of seven family sons might be, often were, killed in foreign or civil wars, or by disease’. And Priscilla Napier proposes, with a flourish, the sustaining role of the noncelibate English clergy; ‘in some Norfolk, Gloucestershire or Yorkshire rectory, Edmund, the eighth son, supplied with a modest income and supplying himself with a pretty wife, was unconcernedly chugging out a fresh set of Rogers, Henrys, Williams, Thomases, Charleses, Johns and Stephens, to be mown down, swept overboard, burnt up by Flemish or Indian fevers’.

This is the kind of memoir-writing that is invaluable social history – eye-witness stuff with the gloss of subsequent wisdoms. But to bring it off with such panache is a rare achievement. Priscilla Napier’s genius is this idiosyncratic eye, an enviable turn of phrase, and an ebullient wit. The jacket photograph of the original edition shows a round-faced, slightly scowling child tricked out in white muslin, with the Sphinx and a bit of pyramid as background. Her parents are formally dressed – her mother in long skirt, high-necked blouse, wide hat, her father and a friend in jackets, ties, boater and trilby. They seem a pastiche, almost, of an unreachable period. But as soon as you start to read, everyone leaps from the page; you can hear the voices, feel their presences – and not least the presence of the plump scowling little girl, as you share her view of the bewildering and exasperating challenge of adult requirements.

Childhood is universal; circumstances may vary wildly, but the child’s eye view remains very much the same – without preconceptions, without expectations, simply absorbing and recording. Priscilla Napier’s eye was maverick and astute; she had the advantage of spending those crucially perceptive years in an exotic and complex country. And she was a child at the point when, as we can now see it, a particular era was coming to an end. The good fortune of her readers is that she was able to find such a beguiling and compelling voice with which to tell her story.

Extract from Slightly Foxed Issue 21 © Penelope Lively 2009

This article also appeared as a preface to Slightly Foxed Edition No. 5 (now available in paperback): A Late Beginner

About the contributor

Penlope Lively is a novelist, short-story writer and writer for children. For her, an Egyptian childhood has been a formative and inspiring experience, as it was or Priscilla Napier. Her own memoir of growing up English, far from England – Oleander, Jacaranda – is a Penguin Modern Classic.

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