Claudia FitzHerbert

Cuckoo in the nest

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.

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.

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