On his retirement, my dad did what many new-retirees do – research the family tree. There were no surprises apart from discovering that a child was born out of wedlock, raised by his grandmother as her own, and grew up not knowing that his ‘sister’ was in fact his biological mother. On a spectrum of family scandals, it’s lightweight.
Author Eleanor Anstruther had a lot more material to work with, and the result is her fictionalised family history, A Perfect Explanation. Essentially, Anstruther’s father, Ian, was sold to his Aunt Joan for £500. The story also includes postnatal depression, Christian Science, a kidnapping, much family bitterness, a long legal battle, and a large emerald ring.
Anstruther’s grandmother, Enid Campbell, descendent of the Dukes of Argyll, grew up in a castle surrounded by servants. After the death of her brother in the First World War, Enid was expected to marry and produce a heir. She did so, however her beloved first son, Fagas, had medical problems from the outset. Enid, in a loveless marriage to Douglas, and under the constant and disapproving rule of her mother, decided that the only way to secure her family’s future was to produce another heir – “…heritage dictates and heritage always wins”. That child was Ian.
The story is told from three perspectives (Enid, Joan and Enid’s daughter, Finetta) and over two time periods – the years between the World Wars, and a single day in 1964, when Enid, elderly and living in care, is awaiting a visit from Finetta. The three characters provide perspectives on sibling rivalries, family duty, and the role of mothers.
At the heart of this novel is grief – Enid’s grief over the loss of her father and brother; for Fagas and the life he was not able to lead; for herself and her unfulfilled dreams. However Enid’s grief is expressed predominantly as anger and therefore she appears bitter and vindictive. In the book’s endnotes, Anstruther said that she hoped the book would provide a way for her father to feel more kindly toward his mother – could the Enid of 1964 be explained by understanding the Enid of the 1920s (a woman who was devastated by post-natal depression but doing what she could to please those around her)?
Enid realises that her feelings about motherhood are vastly different from those of other women. As she’s grappling with this, her Christian Scientist friend assures her that anyone in Enid’s situation would do the same. Enid responds, “Would they? Then why aren’t there thousands, hundreds of thousands of women running for the doors of their houses?”
The descriptions of Enid’s depression and her perceived isolation are well written, capturing the relentlessness and monotony of her situation, as well as the desperation –
It was only Monday. She had a whole week to rouse herself. She could turn on the taps in the bathroom and pretend to be having a bath while lying on the floor and staring at the ceiling. Then she could go back to bed again, her thoughts covered with gauze, a bandage stuck with exhaustion and tiny hands, a white blaze of nothing through which she couldn’t see and didn’t want to.
Joan and her not-so-secret lesbian affair with the no-nonsense Pat are a highlight. Joan and Pat reside in London, socialise with the Bloomsbury set, drink gin and play cards. Pat’s droll asides about Joan’s family provide light relief in what is an otherwise grim story. On being ‘engaged’ in a child’s upbringing, Pat says –
It’s like a fashionable craze, having to be simply tremendous with one’s offspring. My parents were distant mountains I had no inclination to climb. I had no problem with it.
I found this story absolutely gripping and pretty much hit Google as soon as I finished reading. File it under ‘truth is stranger than fiction’.
4/5 It’s bananas. And heartbreaking.
The choice for Anstruthers when they go out for luncheon? Lamb chops followed by jam roly-poly.