A popular new literary genre has emerged in recent years, comprising books that interweave authors’ memoirs and reflections on the books that have accompanied them throughout their lives. In Katharine Smyth’s debut memoir, All the Lives We Ever Lived, the book that she turns to for solace following the death of her beloved, alcoholic father from cancer is Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse. For Smyth, it is the one book that tells ‘the story of everything’. To counter the ‘awful shapelessness of loss’, she sets out in a scholarly way to make sense of her family relationships and to come to terms with her grief through the close reading of her literary heroine’s best-loved novel.
The parallels between the artistic Ramsay clan and her own tight-knit family, where she is the only child, are not immediately obvious, though both families suffer the loss of a parent and spend their happiest times in summer houses by the sea. Drawing on Woolf’s diaries and letters, Smyth artfully personalises To the Lighthouse’s themes of loss, family, marriage and the meaning of life in the face of death. Sometimes the conflation doesn’t work – Mr Ramsay, who fears ‘insignificance’ and has done his best work before the age of forty, is not, for example, the same brand of ‘failure’ as her architect father, who gave up on all ambition. The story that she conveys most powerfully, however, has no analogy in Woolf’s novel: her experience of growing up as the child of an alcoholic. Much of her life is dominated by crises caused by her father’s drinking and the fear that her ‘gentle and loveable’ father would suddenly become a ‘brutish stranger’. Smyth is an elegant writer and she explores her deep, complicated love for her father in lyrical yet restrained prose.
Smyth’s book is a fine example of a fresh approach to literary criticism, which frees it from the confines of academia. Sally Bayley, who teaches at Oxford University, goes a step further in bringing classic literature back to life by peopling her compelling childhood memoir with characters from her favourite novels. Girl with Dove, written from the point of view of herself as a young girl, tells the story of growing up in a dilapidated, cold, filthy house with her mother, grandmother, aunt and other strange inhabitants who drift in and out, including members of a religious cult. Bayley confesses that facts are ‘thin on the ground’ in her family, but the ones that do emerge are often harrowing. No one has a job, her baby brother has mysteriously ‘disappeared’ and her flower- and poetry-loving mother, who is alternately aspirational and bitterly depressed, neglects her children to the point of barely feeding them and bans all men from the house.
Like many sensitive children, Bayley takes refuge in books, and escapes to the local library, where she quickly graduates from Milly-Molly-Mandy to adult detective fiction. The first character she identifies with and introduces into her household is Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple, who she hopes will help her to unravel the mysteries surrounding her family. She is soon joined by, among others, the shunned orphan Jane Eyre and Betsey Trotwood, who will protect her, as she did David Copperfield. These characters become real to her – ‘When I first read Jane Eyre, I couldn’t sleep for months thinking about Bertha. I saw her everywhere’ – and mingle seamlessly with the peculiar people she lives with, sometimes sharing their names. Her own childish impressions and thoughts are interspersed with those of her imaginary friends and with long quotations from her chosen novels. It is difficult to keep up at times, but the blend of fictional and real voices forces the reader to question the reality of Bayley’s childhood self and experience its slipperiness. Events are hazy but she finally escapes from her brutal, chaotic home by putting herself into the hands of doctors and social workers. Her author biography tells us that she is the first person brought up in the Sussex County Council care system ever to go to university.
In a departure from books about reading, Emma Darwin has written a memoir about writing. She is one of Charles Darwin and Emma Wedgwood’s 151 great-great-grandchildren, but throughout her successful career as an author of historical novels she has always resisted trading on her family name. When she hits a creative impasse, however, her agent persuades her to write a novel based on her illustrious Darwin and Wedgwood ancestors. This is Not a Book About Charles Darwin is the story of how she started to write a novel about her family, provisionally called ‘Black Shadow and Bone’ and, in the end, abandoned it. The narrative arc of her memoir follows the progress of her novel as she delves deep into her family’s history and archives in search of a subject, and develops storylines around its more interesting members, who include Erasmus Darwin, Tom Wedgwood, one of the first photographers, and John Cornford, a radical poet who was killed in the Spanish Civil War. She also uncovers connections to the composer Ralph Vaughan Williams, the poets Robert Browning and Rupert Brooke, and the Bloomsbury Group. Many of the fictional scenarios she sets up are knocked down because of technical hitches or their implausibility, or because the characters simply do not work. After many false starts, she determinedly moulds a wartime love story out of the lives of Cornford and Imogen, a photographer, though it never comes together. She wryly comments that ‘The Tangle is in the Topic’ would have been a more fitting title.
Darwin reaches some very low points during her journey into the past, not least when she suffers a heart attack, and she is unsparingly honest about her battles with self-doubt, her struggle to establish a separate identity as a writer, the difficulties of earning a living and the sheer hard graft of writing. Many biographies have been written about Charles Darwin, and while this thoroughly researched book may shed some light on his less well-known progeny, its reflections on the rewards, pitfalls and craft of writing will prove to be a wise, witty and informative guide for aspiring writers.