Anthony Sattin

Marina Warner becomes her mother’s ‘shabti’

Through carefully chosen inherited objects, Warner imaginatively reconstructs her parents’ marriage and bears witness to her mother’s difficulties

Dame Marina Warner at the Annual Edinburgh International Book Festival in 2016. Credit: Getty Images

There comes a time after the death of parents when grief subsides, the sense of loss eases, and you, the child, are left wondering who those people were. What were they like? Not as you knew them as parents, but as people? For most of us, as the cliché goes, time is a healer, and these questions, thoughts, urges and memories lose their urgency. For others, and Marina Warner is clearly one, there is a more active, urgent, passionate and, yes, Proustian process at work — a need to bear witness — and it does not leave you alone until the questions are answered.

For Warner, the questions relate in particular to her mother, but a decade passed before she approached the objects, images and written words her mother left behind. There were no doubt many reasons besides grief for the delay — Warner is a busy author and academic. But this question of what her parents were like, especially her mother, has demanded an answer, and for a reason that became obvious when I looked online for evidence of her parents. On a website devoted to the peerage, her mother is listed as ‘Emilia (?)’. No family name and no place or date of birth. The ‘life mislaid’ of the title is that of her mother, and the story that this ‘inventory’ reveals is of her hopes, desires and expectations, of her triumphs and defeats.

The author’s father, Esmond Warner, a round-faced old Etonian with a receding hairline, congenial manner and piercing laugh, had fought as a Desert Rat in North Africa before landing in southern Italy in late 1943. In Bari, Esmond, then in his late thirties, met Ilia, in her early twenties. After a few visits to the family home, he proposed and they quickly married. While he moved on to fight elsewhere, his wife, like some war booty, found herself on a plane to London.

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