Aunts, generally of an antic or highly unconventional kind, are a literary staple. Anyone wanting to find the best of them would do well to turn to Rupert Christiansen’s excellent companion study of the breed, The Complete Book of Aunts. Literary uncles are rarer, but no less enjoyable to meet. Nancy Mitford’s Uncle Matthew is one of the great comic creations, while Laura Shaine Cunningham’s Sleeping Arrangements is moving and funny by turns. A memoir of the two very peculiar bachelor uncles who brought her up after the early death of her mother, it is one of those yardstick books: you couldn’t really like anyone who didn’t like it.
Now Selina Guinness has written a memoir, The Crocodile by the Door, which introduces a memorable new uncle. On the surface, he seems rather ordinary: a retired schoolmaster living alone in a mouldering Irish house, Uncle Charles is benign, reticent and kind. All the best stories have other, untold stories concealed in their fabric and this is no exception. Charles is adorable yet mysterious. What is certain is that he has provided a haven, both literal and otherwise, to his niece.
Hidden behind their lifelong closeness is another story, again only glimpsed here, concerning her own childhood. While she is never gung-ho, Guinness doesn’t go in for self-pity or analysis; she just gets on with things, quietly and patiently and with great sympathy and tact. As luck would have it, she is also a very fine writer with a lovely turn of phrase.
It is worth mentioning that, although the author and her family are related to the brewers of the same name, they have no fortune. The house where Uncle Charles grew up and still lives is tumbling into disrepair; his niece and her new husband, who come to share the house with him, are academics. No one has any reserves of money. If they did, this would be a very much less engaging book. Or really, there wouldn’t be a book at all: rich people mending broken things isn’t much of a tale (although it compares pretty favourably to much of the current fare served up by reality television producers). Stories need adversity and the overcoming of obstacles and The Crocodile by the Door has plenty.
As a farmer’s wife I am all too familiar with the labyrinthine bureaucratic procedures involved in getting paid to grow food. Coming from the sheltered groves of academe, Guinness finds these surprising. She is not helped in her task by the ancient tenant farmers, whose portraits she draws with restraint. Dublin property sharks circle the land. Trustees stifle innovation. Crucial documents, maps and farm records are kept in old, overstuffed carrier bags, if they are kept at all. The ceiling leaks and the boiler floods. Everything inside the house is falling to pieces.
But the author loves the place. Readers will be delighted that in the end she prevails, and has produced such an engaging book into the bargain.
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated 1 December 2012