Consolation

Background

Here is the text of a short article I wrote about the book.

I was conscious, growing up, of a mystery about my grandmother. I did have a few tantalizing details about her early life: she was illegitimate; she never knew either of her parents; she had been brought up in Paris, in her own household, with servants and a governess, but no family, either real or adopted. Why she should have been treated in this way, though, I had no idea. And while I did know her mother's name, I had only the haziest notion (which turned out to be wrong) about who her father was.

My few memories of her, of course, come from the other end of her life. I recall an intelligent, lively woman, who showed great affection towards me and my elder brother. But she was also given to outbursts of unappeasable rage and suspicion: I vividly remember her asking me, when I was five, what other people said about her, and the terrible storm that erupted when I told her. She died a few months later. But her sense of alienation and rejection lived on, first in my father, and then — through him — in my brother and me. Like a lot of lonely children, I took refuge in reading. Only much later did it strike me that many of the books I loved were classics from my grandmother's own youth, like The Wind in the Willows and The Story of the Treasure Seekers. It was in that sudden flash of insight that the idea of Consolation was born.

With the help of a genealogist friend of my mother's, I began to try to piece together the truth — or as much, at least, as was still discoverable after such a long time — about my grandmother's birth and upbringing. It was an extraordinary journey, starting with the Times report of a sensational divorce case in 1881, and leading me into the world of a large, secretive Victorian family — immensely wealthy, riven with jealousies and insecurities, and peopled by an extraordinary cast of characters: horse-racing indigo planters; cricket-playing missionaries; a Deputy Opium Agent in the Indian Civil Service. For all the strangeness of this landscape, though, I kept stumbling on odd coincidences: the house we had ended up living in in Bristol is less than two miles from where my grandparents met; my mysterious great-grandfather was born in Normandy, where we have a holiday cottage — and when my wife and I visited his birthplace, Avranches, we found still more strange echoes there.

But there was still a gap in the middle of the picture: the great-grandmother who had abandoned her bastard daughter at birth and refused ever to see her again. I was approaching the moment in the book where she was due to appear as a character; but — despite all our efforts — she still remained what she had been all my life: no more than a fairy-tale embodiment of heartlessness and malignity, without feeling or individuality.

And then, by a wonderful piece of serendipity, I received — more or less out of the blue — a huge package, from a distant cousin whose existence I had never suspected (and who had never suspected mine) until the genealogist had tracked her down. Inside was a treasure-trove of material: birth- and wedding-certificates; pages from family albums; and sheaves of photographs — not only of my great-grandmother herself (I couldn't help sensing, in her expression, a continuing defiance of my attempts to find her), but also of the legitimate family she had gone on to have after my grandmother was born, and of the house where they lived. It was enough to give me a way into her world, and to allow me to write the tragedy of my grandmother's birth from her point of view with — I hope — real understanding.

Cover of Consolation

Faber and Faber (06 August 2009)
ISBN: 9780571238064

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