The arrival at a new foreign posting for a junior diplomat’s wife in the first half of the last century was no glamorous picnic, as she grappled with a ceremonial sword in a golf bag, three months supply of toothpaste, a crate of hot water bottles and enough safety pins for every emergency. Born in 1915, and having lived in Brussels, Paris, Latvia, Persia and China as a diplomat’s daughter, Elisabeth Knatchbull-Hugessen, aged 24, married Gerry Young, a man from her father’s profession. With marriage she continued the familiar routine of packing and unpacking, and arriving at, and departing from, different countries. As the unpaid ‘two-for-the-price-of-one’, she accompanied Gerry on postings to 1940s Spain during the aftershock of the Civil War; to Beirut in 1944, riddled with Anglo-French tensions; to exotic but politically riven Rio in 1947; and finally to the glamour of Paris in 1956.
Each country involved adventure, unpredictability, hurdles imposed by new languages, danger and the tedium of official sociability. One month in Beirut she attended 13 tea parties, 60 cocktail parties and 63 lunches or dinners and was served ‘stuffed intestines, yards of them’ as well as ‘rats turned inside out’. At times she encountered heat, cold and bedbugs and a sense of shifting identities, of not knowing where she truly belonged. Throughout this two-decade-long peripatetic existence Elisabeth made lists in ‘a small red-brown, marbled hard-back journal’, fulfilling ‘the human impulse to seek order and clarity through the act of writing things down’.
These lists in Elisabeth’s neat hand-writing, reproduced throughout the book in facsimile, form the spine of Lulah Ellender’s biography of her grandmother, a story of vulnerability, resilience and love, quietly and beautifully told. Each list represents a significant marker of a moment, of shifting priorities, of the ebb and flow of the private and the public life of a grandmother who died 15 years before Ellender was born.
Lists, as Ellender points out, have always ranged from the practicality of grocery shopping to profundity, as when we ‘lasso our grief, madness and dreams with neat lines’. Elisabeth makes lists of wedding presents; of ‘things’ that once belonged to a much-loved but tragic, complex brother; lists of clothes to pack for new, tiny children; lists of close friends to contact in times of great need; Christmas presents lists; lists of eggs laid by ambassadorial chickens; a list of recipes headed ‘simple cooking’; and a list written after the birth of a baby when she was suffering from severe, undiagnosed postnatal stress headed ‘Things that worry me’. And within this process of making order out of confusion, rationalising loss, helping memory not to slip through the gaps, ‘a form of autobiography’ is slowly revealed.
Although the challenges and stuffy monotony of diplomatic life are enlivened by the humour of the captivating Elisabeth, she is also tossed by a sequence of emotional waves that threaten to submerge this gutsy, buoyant woman. Post-natal depression, homesickness, alcoholism, homosexuality, sibling suicide and her own mental instability all ripple around her and occasionally threaten to submerge her.
As Ellender researches, uncovers, interprets, comments and responds to the life of her grandmother with uninhibited insight, she also finds herself working out her own place within this narrative. Early death has straddled two generations of women, and Ellender is suddenly confronted by the realisation that a hereditary gene may bring illness into her own life and that of her children. It is here that the real poignancy and originality of this book emerges: not so much in the backward look at a past generation living in an apparently rarefied world, but in the stark immediacy of the present as the threat of the cancer that Ellender’s adored mother Helen has been suffering for a while begins to accelerate.
Just as her grandmother’s lists created structure in the rootless life of a diplomatic wife and mother, so the gradual creative process of writing this book becomes a receptacle in which Ellender can store and secure her own thoughts, and especially the precious but potentially evanescent memories of her mother. As the chances of Helen’s survival recede, and as her life unravels ‘in increments’, the book of Elisabeth’s lists becomes for Ellender ‘an essential companion, something to protect me’ while her fear of loss is ‘like walking along a rotten wooden bridge suspended over a raging river’, the edges of her life ‘blurry and uncertain’. But, she says, ‘I can’t look away now.’
As she perseveres with a story that travels between past, present and future, it is Ellender’s own courage at confronting and living through these painful truths that makes her book so powerful and enriching.