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Rose Tremain's memoir of a privileged childhood devoid of adult love

Rose Tremain: preoccupied with breaking the cycle of family unhappiness. Photo/Getty Images

In Rosie, English novelist Rose Tremain evokes a “vanished life” of boarding school, servants, nannies, country houses and shooting parties.

As a child, novelist Rose Tremain preferred fiction “rooted in familiar things, which could, in the imagination, become other things”. For the novelist, “it is a harder (and more grown-up) task to imagine the real world afresh, making it seem both familiar and yet new, than it is to imagine goblins or elves …”

It’s this subtle, realist sensibility that informs her memoir of an upper-class family in the post-war period. Rosie is a vivid, precise evocation of a “vanished life” of boarding school, servants, nannies, country houses and shooting parties, ranging from early childhood to her years in a finishing school in Switzerland.

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It is equally a study of cruelty in families. The young Rosie endured no material hardship or physical punishment; the monstrousness lay beneath the surface of the “real world”, emanating like a poison from Rosie’s mother, Jane, a refined, elegant, pretty woman who appeared, from the outside, entirely sweet and harmless.

The violence in the family was psychological. Tremain describes it in such a restrained way that it’s possible to imagine reviewers – especially British ones, perhaps, given that country’s bracingly chilly attitudes towards children – asking bullishly, “Is that it? No beatings?”

Tremain makes it clear that her mother suffered in her own early years. Jane Dudley was an unloved daughter and was sent away to boarding school aged six. The youngest pupil there, she was bullied and tormented. The harsh emotional neglect permanently warped Jane’s personality and Tremain describes a mother who was narcissistic, cold, solipsistic, and, as a consequence, recreationally malicious towards her daughter.

Later children in the family feared Jane, jumping to do her bidding and calling her “the Godmother”. Tremain notes, “So then, I reason that, though years may pass, lovelessness can lay the seeds of tyranny. The tragic, rejected ‘Little Dudley’ was, in her middle years, a despotic woman …”

Preoccupied with breaking the cycle of family unhappiness, she refers to her own daughter and grandchild and imagines, with horrified incredulity, visiting on them the kind of nastiness inflicted on her by Jane. It’s unthinkable.

It’s not misery throughout – things improved for Rosie when she was separated from Jane. Once she’d survived the initial shock of being sent to boarding school after her parents’ divorce, she found companionship and intellectual fulfillment, throwing herself into her studies and experiencing an epiphany on a summer evening when she realised that writing was the only thing she wanted to do. With the encouragement of an English teacher, she planned to go to Oxford, only to be thwarted by Jane, who refused to have a “bluestocking” for a daughter and packed her off to be “finished” in Switzerland.

The young Rosie was spared a life of lovelessness by her warm and affectionate nanny, Vera Sturt, whom she called Nan. In 1991, Tremain met a psychiatrist at the Toronto Harbourside literary festival who “reaffirmed very forcefully to me something we all now know to be true: that any human life, if the childhood is devoid of adult love, will almost certainly be a troubled one”.

Tremain was lucky, the psychiatrist told her. Nan’s love had undoubtedly saved her.

ROSIE: Scenes from a vanished life, by Rose Tremain (Chatto & Windus, $40)

This article was first published in the May 19, 2018 issue of the New Zealand Listener.