Monday, July 21, 2014

The absent Edwardian father

If my earlier posts have failed to convince you to pick up Slightly Foxed's paperback of Diana Holman-Hunt's memoir My Grandmothers and I, well, there's probably little more I can do. You clearly aren't into Edwardian eccentricity, which is a way of approaching life that makes me shudder to contemplate. Next you'll tell me you're not amused by Lord Byron's keeping a tame bear while at college, in protest at the rules against dogs!

Nonetheless, in hopes that it may convince you to mend your ways, I'm drawing on the book one last time today. This time, it's the character of Holman-Hunt's father, a sportsman and man-about-town in India at the time, who provides the entertainment. Early in the book, young Diana receives a letter from her father, which her more staid grandmother reads aloud to her:
"'My dearest Diana,

'I am posting this letter a month before your birthday to make sure it arrives in time.'" She looked at the date on the post mark.

"Well, get on with it, Mamie!" My grandfather crossed his feet on his stick.

"'Under separate cover I am sending you the skin of a young leopard I shot in the jungle. It will make a good rug for your room, if you get it properly mounted and lined.'" She cleared her throat. "'Some people make the claws into broaches . . . ' How extraordinary, do let me see."

"For God's sake get on with the letter! You're not a savage! Brooches indeed!"

She read on: "'I enclose some snapshots of me and my--'" she hesitated and spelled out a word, "it looks like 'CHIPRARSIES.' I wonder if they can be orchids?"

"Of course not," he grunted.

"'Also of me and my new polo ponies. Their names are Hasty-Hussy, Hot House'--and something I cannot decipher." She peered into the envelope. "There are no photographs as far as I can see."

"Perhaps they were in the parcel." He poked at the paper with his stick.

"Here's one," I said, "of a very big man on a very small horse, wearing a white hat."

"I presume the very big man is wearing the white hat," he said.
It goes on like that, the letter slowed and filtered by the grandmother, huffed over by the grandfather, and impatiently awaited by Diana, until finally the end is reached:
"'I wish you many happy returns and I am your affectionate father. Postscript. It is time you knew it is all rot about fairies and Father Christmas.'"
Happy birthday, indeed!

It is perhaps no surprise that when Diana's father does eventually turn up, he's rackety and fast and unreliable, spending most of his time either hungover or getting that way, while introducing his daughter to ladies of questionable virtue. But all that pales beside his one great accomplishment: fulfilling every unhappy boarding school child's dream, he arrives unexpectedly at the school and, with a dramatic flair that leaves the headmaster fuming, up and removes Diana from the school for good. For a father of that period, I think that probably leaves his performance well to the good, on balance.

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