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Dickens and Agatha Christie made my childhood bearable

To escape her deeply dysfunctional family, the young Sally Bayley retreated into library books and preserved her sanity

23 June 2018

9:00 AM

23 June 2018

9:00 AM

Girl with Dove: A Life Built by Books Sally Bayley

William Collins, pp.270, £14.99

Girl with Dove is a memoir by Sally Bayley, a writer who teaches at Oxford University, of growing up in a squalid, dilapidated house in a Sussex seaside town. It contains her mother Ange, her aunt Di, her grandmother, an unspecified number of siblings and a variety of temporary inhabitants who joined the Zion-seeking cult that evolved around Ange and Di. There are also a few longer-lasting denizens, such as Uncle David (first encountered unconscious on the sitting room floor), the sinister Woman Upstairs, and Poor Sue, who later seems to come to some kind of Poor End.

If this all seems a little hazy, it is because — as Bayley notes — facts were thin on the ground in her house and her book is written entirely from the standpoint of the child she was, living (though often apparently starving, with her mother more preoccupied with the cultivation of her roses and provision of elocution lessons for her children than with meals) in the middle of chaos and trying to make sense of scenes and characters as they rushed past. The confusion is increased by the decision to exclude certain facts surely known even then, such as the name of her town (Worthing, probably) and her exact number of siblings. The readerly fog starts to descend early, and only increases.

The start of the chaos, if you can locate such a thing, seems to have been the disappearance of her baby brother during the long, hot summer of 1976. ‘The Nappy Witch came and took David away and Mummy went to bed for a very long time… She didn’t wake for years.’ Who or what the Nappy Witch was — a social worker (which would suggest the family chaos was already in spate), death or a snatching — is never fully explained, though it seems death is the most likely culprit and maternal grief and depression the major distorting forces from then on.


Bayley retreats into books in a way even the most intensely bookwormish have surely rarely managed. One of the first is Milly-Molly-Mandy, discovered in the local library. Bayley refers to Milly-Molly-Mandy’s friend as Sweet Sue, which at first looks like a misremembering of the character Little Friend Susan. But then, as Bayley’s memories of the stories metamorphose into a tale of Billy Blunt’s father sweating as he catches sight of the girls’ ‘pale rose flesh beneath a white cotton hem’, you are left unsure whether Bayley is suggesting a childhood knowledge of local perversion.

Later, characters such as Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple, Jane Eyre (who else are you going to identify with when you have a madwoman upstairs in your home?) and Betsey Trotwood become as virtually living beings to her and she slips in and out of their stories and imagined thoughts in life and in the book. The voice and experiences of young Sally slide in and out of that of the Red Room’s suffering inmate, various mysteries in St Mary Mead and David Copperfield’s travails (unless he merges with one of the many other Davids, aside from the missing infant, that pepper the book) until the whole thing takes on a distinctly hallucinatory quality. It makes for a brilliant evocation of the porousness for children between reality and fiction; but in the absence of any factual footholds elsewhere, it makes judgment and orientation impossible.

The cult peters out, but Ange’s neglect of her children (there is one abortive meeting with Bayley’s — probable — father but he doesn’t stay around) doesn’t improve, and eventually Bayley takes herself to the doctor. There in the surgery, rather movingly, the child who habitually plays with words like spinning tops (when her mother accuses her of vanity, the word ‘had sharp edges that went straight into my stomach. Vanity was a long white van you drove around full of mirrors. Before long, the van crashed because the mirrors at the back distracted you. Vanity was a crushed white van with a smashed face and a bleeding body’) cannot find the words to explain her situation. ‘This wasn’t a room for telling stories in.’

Nevertheless, the doctor — an old acquaintance of Ange — intuits enough to get social services involved, which results in Bayley being ostracised, beaten and eventually taken away in an ambulance to a children’s home. She puts herself into the care system (her family sign the paperwork without demur) and there the book ends. The back flap tells us she is the first person from the West Sussex County Council care system (whose social services are thanked) to have gone to university.

The book is beautifully written and if you can ignore the explosion of questions it detonates in your mind at every turn and just let its poetic rhythms lap over you and wear you into a slightly different shape from the one in which you began, that is probably the best way. But it left me longing for more of Bayley’s recollections from a place of relative tranquillity, a greater twist of the kaleidoscope to bring those fragments of childhood into a more distinguishable pattern. Facts can provide a vital torque.


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