On her seventh birthday, Elisa Segrave’s five-year-old brother Raymond drowned in their grandmother’s swimming pool. From that day onwards, her mother Anne was emotionally detached and alcoholic. ‘My mother was only 42 when I, my father and my two remaining brothers lost her — to grief.’ Rebuffed by her mother in the days after Raymond’s death, Segrave writes chillingly of the moment she began to hate her dead brother.
Years later, when Anne was suffering from Alzheimer’s, Segrave came upon her diaries and discovered that her mother had been one of the highest-ranking women at Bletchley Park, had worked in bomber command and had visited Germany as part of the British reconstruction team in 1945. She had also turned down more than 20 offers of marriage.
Anne had a correspondent’s eye and her diaries are absolutely great:
In Eaton Place, there was a house on the corner which had had the whole of one side removed by a bomb. On the sidewalk lay pieces of furniture, of sofas, curtains and other things and a gold winged chair looked out rather forlornly from the midst of the rubble. The stairs were intact and led up and up into nothing at the top.
She’s constantly going on adventures and falling in and out of love with both men and women. She’s bored and depressed by Bletchley Park, where the other people are weird, but finds that she’s rather good at the job. Her account of Germany in the aftermath of the war is fascinating.
Segrave falls upon the diaries, devotedly studying the woman she might have loved if things had turned out differently. Reading fond descriptions of herself as a baby ‘was as though my mother was passing me a bowl of cherries. I hoped that they would never end.’ She says the diaries made her feel more tolerant towards her mother — but there’s not much sign of that. She never forgives Anne for giving herself over to grief: ‘I was still a child myself, who resented my mother’s lack of attention.’
As she reads, she searches for clues of Anne’s later behaviour. This has the odd effect of making Segrave seem unreasonable. She pounces upon every flippant remark, analysing it for signs of selfishness or irresponsibility. When Anne goes to parties against doctor’s orders or enjoys a hearty afternoon tea after a nasty romantic episode, Segrave starts ringing alarm bells while everyone else is sitting back and enjoying Anne’s youthful frivolity. When Anne complains to her diary that there are too many foreigners in London, Segrave tuts: ‘Presumably these were refugees from war-torn Europe; Anne did not seem to appreciate this.’
Emotional journeys are tricky things to recount, and Segrave had a particular problem with this one because hers didn’t take her very far. She dutifully reports on her own feelings as she goes along, often picking up the thread after diary entries with lines like: ‘This made me sad.’ The technique can be rather jarring, as if you’re listening in on a therapy session. When Anne learns she’s going to Germany to help with the reconstruction, Segrave writes: ‘I was excited by this and wished that I too had been able to witness postwar Europe. My own life seemed dull in comparison.’
The expected wave of sympathy for her mother never really comes, and Segrave replaces it with general melancholy, framing the book with an elegy to her own childhood — impressionistic glimpses of her mother’s blue eyes, a stream in the woods, primroses in the garden:
How much of my life has been spent trying to awaken that magic, to get my mother to smile again, to laugh happily with me like she used to in Spain, in our garden with the apricot tree, to dance with me as she did long ago in that other garden at North Heath — Grey Lady dancing! Boop boop-a-doop!
Segrave seems to have deliberately echoed the last lines of Black Beauty, which she quotes: ‘Often before I am quite awake, I fancy I am still in the orchard at Birtwick, standing with my old friends under the apple trees.’ Used as a template for page upon page, this moving form of reminiscence loses some of its power, especially when combined with rather heavy-handed self-analysis. Segrave has a sad tale to tell and fantastic material at her disposal, but it seems that her relationship with her mother is still all too raw.