Have you Been Good? A Memoir - Bittersweet memoir will live long in memory
Lorraine courtney examines a tale of love, loss and the unique bond between a mother and daughter
It's slightly unsettling to review a memoir by someone who is famous. You feel compelled to be a bit indulgent, to give the author the benefit of any doubts. Vanessa Nicolson is the only child of Ben Nicolson, the art historian son of Harold and Vita Sackville-West, and of Ben's Italian wife, Luisa, also an art historian.
Vita Sackville-West is obviously a character of hyperbole. She was the impossibly glamorous aristocrat, complete with ancient name, Spanish Gypsy blood, the reckless, romantic lesbian and cross-dresser, devoted wife to a noted diplomat and diarist, bestselling writer, gardener of genius, the passionate friend of Virginia Woolf and muse of Orlando.
Vita first met Harold Nicolson back in 1910, in a world of balls and parties. She lived at Knole in Kent and then in Mayfair, while he became a junior diplomat in Constantinople. The pair were the ultimate spoiled children of a spoiled age, and the children of an England that no longer exists. Vita was also the author of popular novels such as The Edwardians and All Passion Spent. She was kept in the public eye by her son Nigel Nicolson's intimate account of his parents' marriage in 1973 and then brought back to life again by Victoria Glendinning in 1983.
Vanessa's own parents' marriage was unhappy: Ben was homosexual, Luisa, her mother, was Italian, fiery and difficult. His marriage proposal letter to Luisa is passively frank about his "congenital" homosexuality about which "there is nothing to be done... except to try and deal with it in the most sensible way". Their subsequent marriage was brief and doomed.
A few short years later he was writing about the benefits of a divorce to Luisa and his then three-year-old daughter, saying: "We have got to resign ourselves to the necessity of damaging her."
And so Vanessa spent much of her childhood in Florence with her mother, and then on other school holidays she was abandoned to her father at Sissinghurst Castle, a neglected, pass-the-parcel child, forever in need of love and structure to her life. But she went on to survive it all, plus an irresponsible adolescence where, "boys were the key to social acceptance. To be fancied by a boy (preferably a nice-looking one) was the ultimate goal… We carved our initials into our desks and scribbled 'I luv…' over our exercise books and pencil cases. Our conversation was peppered with titillating innuendo and misinformation about sex".
Otherwise her teenage diaries are full of detailed descriptions of clothes worn, records bought, boys kissed and booze drunk. And there is a near constant fear about not getting pregnant.
After Harold's death, Vanessa inherited Horserace, a Victorian house down the road from Sissinghurst Castle, where she eventually made a home with her own husband and two daughters, and settled comfortably, if a little reluctantly, into motherhood. But it was a choppy path, which was always blighted by her own daughter's epilepsy and the pain around her diagnosis: "The fits could be sudden and alarming. We were constantly on edge, listening out for strange noises, a change in her breathing, the crash in her bedroom or bathroom."
Nicolson describes how her content, happy daughter would dissolve into a seizure, and the isolating effects of her illness, first on her parents, then on Rosa herself as the seizures continued and worsened into adolescence. The medication she needed to take caused weight gain, which was followed by a few miserable years of anorexia. Then everything was about to go right and Rosa started university, no longer consumed by anorexia and happily in love with a new boyfriend she had met there.
Nicolson writes happily about all this, and then the last poignant conversation with Rosa on the morning she drowned in a swimming pool, when Rosa stroppily said her mother was far too "stressy".
This is a memoir that segues effortlessly between time periods so rather than being uniformly linear, Nicolson's recollections are very fresh and real and interspersed with family letters and diary entries. What might make an unremarkable autobiography (which demands factual authenticity and precise chronology) makes for a very compelling memoir.
While some of Nicolson's memories are terrible to read, there are enough joyful anecdotes that the book never feels self-pityingly indulgent as well it might. Her consciousness of the world, of love, loss and the unfathomable bond between a mother and daughter is just beautiful.
Nicolson had always longed for a proper family, and the family she created for herself was her shelter from beginnings that were much more challenging and more fractured. But when your life begins to crumble, all you are left with is pieces, inside and out. This memoir asks the questions, but has no definitive answers. How could it when there probably are none? Our author knows she needs to move on. But motherhood was her moving on from a tough life and after Rosa's death, she doesn't know anything anymore.
It's a book that contrasts three generations and their approach to family life, in a bittersweet tale of loss and redemption across the ages.
This is also a correspondence of a different generation and time, when lovers wrote real letters rather than emails or text messages and everyone kept a diary of their daily life. Ladies, I urge you to put down your iPhones, power off your laptops for a bit and use Vanessa's journals and letters as your inspiration.
Fiction: Have You Been Good? A Memoir
Granta Books, tpbk, 311 pages, €16.10