Diana Holman-Hunt’s childhood was spent between two wildly contrasting households. One, in Melbury Road, Kensington, belonged to her paternal grandmother, William Holman Hunt’s eccentric widow Edith, known to Diana as ‘Grand’. The other, on the edge of the Sussex marshes, was the home of her mother’s parents, Grandmother and Grandfather Freeman.
While the Freeman household ran on oiled wheels, with a full complement of servants to minister to Grandmother Freeman’s whims, parsimonious ‘Grand’, in her big gaunt house full of treasures and valuable paintings, relied entirely on the services of ‘my good Helen’, a taciturn figure who existed in the damp, beetle-infested basement from which she produced inedible meals of scrag end, Bovril and ancient eggs. While sweet-smelling, self-indulgent Grandmother Freeman lived for the present, ‘Grand’ lived entirely in the faded splendour of her past. The two mistrusted one another deeply and competed for Diana’s affection while being spectacularly blind to her needs. Out of an essentially bleak scenario, in which she was passed like a parcel from one to the other and finally left in her teens to fend for herself, Diana has woven a small comic masterpiece of pitch-perfect dialogue and deadpan observation.
Diana Holman-Hunt (1913–93) was the granddaughter of the Pre-Raphaelite painter William Holman-Hunt who died in 1910, three years before she was born. While her father, Hilary, was away in India, she was left in the care of her grandmothers. The cover of the first, 1960, edition shows the grandmothers facing each other with considerable distaste – one resolutely flowing and Bohemian, the other a cinched-in model of fashionable propriety. Both are ferociously egocentric and shockingly indifferent to their granddaughter’s welfare. They come prancing off the page, every line of their dialogue ringing horribly true, every word evoking the manners and prejudices of the period between the two World Wars. Diana’s paternal grandmother, the resolutely flowing Edith Waugh, was the sister of his first wife, Fanny, who had died in childbirth. In England at the time it was illegal to marry a deceased wife’s sister so, scandalously, the couple were married in Switzerland. Grand, as she was known to Diana, is jealously obsessed with her husband’s genius and lives in a ‘tall grimy brick and stucco house’ in London. Lit only with flickering gas jets and candles, it is stuffed with gold, jewels, antiques and an extraordinary collection of paintings by Holman-Hunt and many others, including Titian, Tintoretto and Van Dyck.
There, subsisting on the most horrible and meagre rations, Grand keeps Holman’s memory alive and longs for Death when they will be reunited in Heaven. Diana’s 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, friends, books, hats, marriages 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, she is always bored, always on her way out in search of amusement. She lives off foaming egg-nog or a few pills from a little gold box. ‘High-minded people stifle their greed,’ she says.
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 grasp, both being obsessed with the material world, the body and its functions. Diana married twice, had one son, was a fashion model in the 1950s then an art critic and went on to write two further books: My Grandfather: His Life and Loves (1969) and Latin among Lions (1974) about the Chilean painter Alvaro Guevara. She is one of the best memoirists, one of the bravest and funniest writers I have ever had the pleasure to read.
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