I tracked down a copy of this after a good bit of searching – it was the author surname that caught my attention (I find the lives of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood interesting in a rather morbid sort of way) as I doubt that the name Holman-Hunt is particularly common. And indeed I was correct, Diana Holman-Hunt was the granddaughter of the famous painter, but born three years after his death, arriving into the world in the bed that the Great Man died in. With a father who is mysteriously absent for more than the first half of the book and who proves himself utterly inadequate for the remainder and a mother who is never mentioned, Diana spends her childhood being ferried between the homes of her two contrasting grandmothers, an upbringing which she chronicles in this entertaining and deeply affectionate memoir.
Holman-Hunt’s two grandmothers are known as Grandmother and Grand, with the former being Mrs Freeman, a distant relative of John Everett Millais, and then the latter being Edith Holman-Hunt, ‘fortunate enough to be widow to the Great Artist’, to put it in her own words. The Freemans live in a tightly-run household in Sussex staffed by a full complement of servants and where Grandmother Freeman’s word is gospel, Diana’s days are governed by ‘tasks’ and nothing less than perfection is acceptable. By contrast, Grand wafts around her ‘frowsty’ dark home with only ‘my good Helen’ to serve her – and Helen is truly good for very little, producing inedible meals, refusing to tidy and generally remaining monosyllabic. Grand’s Kensington home is more of a shrine to her late husband than a house – the tea set is labelled with the names of the great and the good who drank from the cups although Diana objects that they can’t have ever all sat down together. Diana returns from visits to Grand with unwashed hair and wrinkled clothes and a general state of hungriness – Grandmother Freeman is always appalled and the passive-aggressive correspondence between the two has a humour of its own.
Despite Diana’s date of birth being 1913, this memoir has a distinct Victorian theme – I read it with the voice of Lady Bracknell in my head. Diana is called upon to ‘utter’ in the drawing room, and then instructed at another point to enter a room with the word ‘prune’ as it will make her mouth appear a better shape. The child Diana gallops into the room, dressed in her ‘classical dress’ as a Greek goddess, shouting the word. There is also the unfortunate tennis incident that leave the child with a black eye. My Grandmothers and I is a nostalgic piece, reflecting back to childhood when things were simpler but also for these grandmothers themselves. Grand’s home is a mausoleum, full of mementos of her marriage and her husband’s fame and her conversation full of those who are dead. Having read The Model Wife, it was interesting to hear the Millais-Ruskin scandal from a contemporary perspective – Diana is ordered to forever defend the reputations of ‘Euphemia’ and ‘Uncle Johnny’, her grandfather’s close friend. There is a humour to how Diana parrots her grandmother’s words, but the grief and loss behind them is undeniable.
There is a deeper shame though behind Grand’s constant chatter – Edith Holman-Hunt was second wife to the painter, with her sister being his first wife. Edith and Holman-Hunt had to go abroad to Europe in order to marry due to laws against marrying the sister of one’s deceased wife. Florence Holman-Hunt died in childbirth, her marriage to the painter was short, but there is such tender tragedy to the aging Grand’s muted panic that in all these years of her widowhood, her sister has been reunited with Holman-Hunt in Heaven. The author’s love and warmth for all of her grandparents is obvious – while her cousin breaks her shell collection and is a spoilsport, her father does little for her other than posting her a ‘leper skin’ for her fifth birthday, it is the grandmothers who are clearest positive force in her life.
There is the muffled panic in the background of the Freeman household that Grandfather has lost his sight and is almost blind – the worst happens later when he has the dreaded fall, plunging his wife into the despair that has hovered over her for so much of the book. Grandmother abstractedly tells Diana that from now on she cannot live with them, that it is fortunate enough that she will be married in ‘a few years’, which to the adolescent Diana is clearly alarming. She is assured that thanks to Grand, Diana will be an heiress but instead she is sent to an inferior boarding school before being ‘rescued’ by her father several years later. Yet, with his reappearance, Diana’s father is finally revealed as the worthless individual that he truly is, leaving her abandoned, almost penniless and having to take a low-paid job in order to support herself, all the while living in the squalor of Grand’s decaying home. Grand and her father are reluctant to allow her to visit her now widowed Grandfather and when her father finally vanishes for good, Diana finds herself unwanted by her other relatives who make their excuses to abdicate responsibility. The loveliest moment of the book comes however when Grand unexpectedly dies (hit by a bus) and she received a note from her Grandfather, incapacitated by his earlier accident but to her obvious relief, able to offer her ‘a place to go.’
It is tempting to wonder with a memoir such as this to what extent the author is holding back. Certainly she never explains her mother’s whereabouts. The characters are drawn so large, larger than life, that one wonders about the accuracy – but again, My Grandmothers and I captures the way in which a child perceives the adult world. The older Diana in the second part of the book has a different perspective; she can see Grand as a far more diminished figure, some vulnerable who needs to be protected and these figures who were once so omnipotent – particularly Fowler and the other servants from the Freeman household who were so omnipotent in the eyes of her younger self – they too become fallible and faded. My Grandmothers and I has more of the feel of a novel than a memoir though – she most certainly was not starved for material and indeed in having sung her family’s song in so beautiful a way, she is carrying them forwarrd to another generation, just as her Grand would have wanted.
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