The hazy black-and-white photograph of a pair of imposing gateposts which adorns the dustjacket of Elizabeth Speller’s memoir of her family suggests that the gardens of her childhood were rather grand. This turns out, intriguingly, to be only half-true: in among the usual middle-class British family tree peopled by characters spiralling up and down the social scale, there was a startlingly unusual connection. In the 1880s and 1890s Gerald Richard Howard – wealthy son of Lady Fanny Cavendish and her husband Frederick Howard MP, and nephew of the Duke of Devonshire – lived with Ada Curtis, a former maid and daughter of a Lincolnshire butcher; the couple produced eight children, including the author’s grandmother. The Howards and Cavendishes are the ‘grand gates’ aspect of Speller’s family, but there are also affluent shopkeepers from the 1920s, a fashionable screenwriting uncle in the 1960s, and a missionary great-aunt in Bulawayo. Speller’s grandmother had a passionate liaison with a Polish soldier during the War, and her great-aunt Gwynneth travelled the South of France with a companion, Sidney, who had dyed red hair and wore make-up.
All promises well, then, for a book full of the rich muddle of family history and with some vignettes that are highly coloured by historical details. But The Sunlight on the Garden does not deliver what its subtitle promises: characters appear, are barely introduced, and then vanish with bewildering rapidity