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Thrumpton Hall

In a rather insignificant way, Miranda Seymour's Thrumpton Hall: A Memoir of Life in My Father's House proved a disappointment. Writing in The New York Times Book Review, Charles McGrath grouped George FitzRoy Seymour, Ms Seymour's father, with such "impossible and eccentric English parents" as Evelyn Waugh and Lord Redesdale. But George turns out to have been little more than a dreary if elegant fetishist. The object of his fetish was a great house just outside Nottingham. Thrumpton Hall may have been a family home but it was not his family's. To be sure, Seymour came from fairly grand stock; the "FitzRoy" in his name came from his mother, a daughter of the Duke of Grafton (whose family began with a bastard of Charles II). George would marry the daughter of the Baron Howard de Walden, but he would never have a title of his own. As for Thrumpton, it had been in the Byron family (some time after the great poet's decease). George's aunt spent her married life there, and, childless, took charge of George when his father, a diplomat, was posted to South America. But Thrumpton Hall belonged to George Seymour because he bought it.

So far as the house went, George Seymour was an exemplary steward. He repaired it and refurnished it, and managed to operate it without the help of the National Trust. He clearly loved it. The trouble was that he loved it more than he loved anybody. His wife and children, while not overtly abused, appear to have served as accoutrements befitting a gentleman's home. While she was writing this book, Miranda Seymour was asked by her mother why she didn't have much to say about her life before the age of fourteen (when she moved downstairs from the nursery to a proper bedroom).

Fluently, she rattles off a list of scenes: the after-tea visits from the nursery to the library downstairs to listen to a chapter from The Pickwick Papers, our father's favourite of Dickens' novels; the Christmas party for all the children from the village, with old-fashioned games being played around a candlelit tree; our annual winter visits to the pantomime and the circus; playing croquet in the garden; eating impromptu picnics up on the hill above the House;l walking through fields thick with buttercups, down to the foaming weir... "You had a wonderful childhood. I can't imagine anybody being better looked after." She's plucking at the pockets of her purple velour suit. "And now, all you remember are the bad things..."

To which the author replied,

"It isn't that I remember only the bad things," I say. "It's just that they're more personal. I know they happened, the scenes you're talking about, but they don't seem quite real. It's as though they were part of a stage play."

My mother flinches as if I'd struck her; nevertheless, I believe I'm telling the truth. The upbringing that had been devised for my brother and myself replicated, as closely as possible, our father's idealized memories of his own first years in the House. Revisiting the past through the expeditions, games and pastimes he arranged for our enjoyment, he left no room for us to receive new impressions. Everything, as we were aware, was a repeated process. These secondhand experiences have left only the faintest of traces behind. I remember them less well than pictures in the books from the nursery bookcase.

If Thrumpton Hall fails to deliver on the eccentricity front (about which the author makes no promises in any case), it more than compensates as a family memoir. If George Seymour appears to be the tiresome prisoner of an obsession, his widow and daughter are lively critics of his legacy. Amazingly in light of her husband's somewhat shabby (and distinctly un-romantic) treatment Rosemary Seymour springs again and again to her husband's defense, and the snippets of gentle argument that her daughter includes in Thrumpton Hall read like sketches for an engaging novel. Miranda Seymour, a novelist as well as the author of several literary biographies (including a portmanteau book on Henry James's circle, among whom figured Howard Sturgis, the brother of her father's paternal grandmother), knows how to fashion a satisfying read, and one of the more intriguing tensions in Thrumpton Hall is the struggle between her desire to be scrupulously honest and her determination to avoid the tedium of gratuitous indiscretion.

The book might have been longer; it might have been shorter. How would you have handled, for example, the strange and prolonged coda of George Seymour's love life, invested as it was in two rather "tough" young men (sweethearts actually) with whom he liked to speed around Britain on motorcycles? Were these attachments sexual? Probably, but Ms Seymour, quite understandably, doesn't want to go there. Just as understandably, she is fascinated by the juxtapositions into which his attachments, first to "Nick" and then to "Robbie," led him.

Enthusiasm for fast bikes, late night fry-ups at motorway diners, and a bit of slang had not reduced my father's acute sense of his place in the world. Visiting London, he continued to dine at his club, to visit his barber, to purchase hair lotion in Jermyn street, and to study, at leisure, the Daily Telegraph, for confirmation that the civilized world was in decline. (At Thrumpton, he preferred to read, with Robbie, the jaunty and more downmarket Sun.) It gave him continuing joy that an earl's elderly daughter consented to chat with him twice a week on the telephone. He flinched as if pierced when a stranger failed to rhyme his surname with the capital of Peru. He cringed when I mentioned that I had forgotten, while posting off a letter, that a duchess's name should properly be preceded on the envelope by the words: "Her Grace."

And she is candid about her response: "I hope that Robbie never understood how much I hated him for supplanting me." This, even though she lost respect for her father as a girl, when she caught out his histrionic streak.

The incident was sparked by some private grief of his in which I, a little girl with fine, mouse-brown hair held back by an "Alice" band, had no share; my memory is only of the shocking spectacle of a grown man crying. He wanted, he said, to kill himself; all reason for wishing to live had gone. Sitting beside him, I looked sideways at his b ent head and the tears falling on to his knees. Sobs blocked my throat when he told me that we would all be happy when he was dead. How could he think such a terrible thing? Weeping, I flung my arms around his neck and hugged him, rubbing my cheek against his. Too young to understand that the atmosphere of drama thickening the air was meat and drink to a nature such as his, I agreed to the pact on which, still sobbing, he insisted. If he promised to do himself no injury, I, too, must swear never to make an attempt on my life.

That set me off. I had only to picture my body, stiff and cold in a starched shirt, to feel emotion swelling to hysteria.

Tenderly, he stroked my hair. "You and I are too alike, my darling. We feel these things so much."

"I won't. I'll never I swear it! But don't please don't." I couldn't speak the words. Carefully, he mopped by blotched cheeks with a freshly pressed handkerchief smelling of limes; gravely, we shook hands on our agreement. I went to bed tearful but exalted. It's not often a girl of nine gets to save her father's life.

Readers will spot the flaw: if I wished him dead, I should have welcomed this unexpected answer to my prayer. But suicide comes under another heading; the word, even to a child, is heavy with horror. Suicides, in the myths and folktales on which I feasted during raids upon the tall nursery bookcase, were among the damned, buried at crossroads, forbidden to be in churchyards. I could with my father dead by accident. I could not wish that he should take his life.

My father was in the best of spirits the following day. When I asked, a little reproachfully, how he was feeling, he looked surprised. Teh moment at which I lost respect for him was the one in which I saw that he had no idea what I was talking about. It was all words.

This account appears on page 64, by which time no attentive reader will regard little Miranda's prayers for her father's death as excessive.

If Thrumpton Hall is a book about a house fetishist, it is perforce not a book for them. Although she is the current chatelaine, and avidly entrepreneurial about renting the place out for weddings and so forth, Ms Seymour seems diffident about the house's glories: she'll tell us that she's alive to them, but she stops short of proprietarially cataloguing them. It's just possible that she does not want to place troubled memories of her father with openhearted pleasure in her house between the same book covers. (August 2008)

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