Caradoc King, the well-known literary agent, was adopted in 1948 as a baby into a family of three girls, shortly joined by a fourth, presided over by a difficult, unhappy mother and her feebly adoring husband. He grew up unaware of the adoption and has never discovered its motive. His adoptive mother, Jill, the moving spirit behind every family decision, may have simply longed for a boy. If so, she was singularly ill-prepared for standard boyish delinquencies. Young Carodoc liked playing with matches, embroidering the truth, and inspecting — in a spirit of scientific enquiry — the private parts of his younger sister. This memoir describes King’s upbringing in a spacious but sparsely furnished 18th-century house in the Essex marshes, where money was tight and discipline tighter.
Some of the harshness may have been generic to the period. The penalty for King’s fondness for matches was to have his hand pressed onto the scorching metal of the stove chimney. We are never told if his sisters were treated as strictly. The character of Jill is presented as a mystery, yet it resonates through an accumulation of incidental detail, such as her mildly demented injunction that the children were not to smile in photographs because it might seem like showing off.
Carodoc went to primary school in Colchester with ‘I am a liar’ embroidered on his sweat shirt, before being dispatched, aged six, to a tiny prep school in Suffolk run by two brothers and a sister as in a novel by Ivy Compton Burnett. The lies continued — he claimed in a geography class that he had just returned from a holiday at the Taj Mahal (this was in the mid-1950s). But the enlightened sounding regime at Nowton Court — staffed almost entirely by demobbed officers — found a way of going with his mendacious flow, and taming it. Unfortunately the difficult birth of another son propels Jill into the arms of the Catholic church and Caradoc is removed from Nowton House. By then a pattern has been set; King makes up for the awkwardness and inadequacy of his relations with his parents by latching onto the kindness of teachers. He continues to be naughty, but never wants for champions as one school follows another.
This book may look like a misery memoir but it doesn’t read like one. The energy of its problem child protagonist is directed at turning knocks to his own advantage rather than proving his victim status. His disposition is generous, unselfpitying and sanguine. The headmaster at Nowton Court beats him till he bleeds, then puts his arms around him, and later invites him back to the school to make not exactly a pass, but a gentle stab at something not unrelated. He is clearly not the sort of chap to thrive in the current educational climate, but just as clearly a benign factor in the life of Caradoc King. So is Father Roger, the Jesuit headmaster of Belmont Abbey, who treated his young favourite to wine-soaked tutorials and pulled strings at Oxford when he muffed his exams.
It was Father Roger, delegated to the task by Jill, who finally told him, aged 16, about the adoption. King’s overwhelming reaction was relief. Though he exchanged pious letters with his ‘parents’ saying the fact of the adoption made no difference to either side, ‘in 15 months they would each write separate letters saying the opposite’. King was cast out of the family into which he had never fitted, and taken in by Jill’s sister until he left for university.
Decades later King tracks down his birth mother in time to meet her before she dies. Better not give the ending away — suffice it to say that Problem Child is a refreshing celebration of sinners over saints.