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Subtitled, Elegy for an Obsessive Love, this is Miranda Seymours biography of her father. But if you are expecting hearts and roses, think again, for it is a painfully candid account of a mans total ruling passion for a house, Thrumpton Hall a passion which took priority throughout his life. Everything else was secondary as was everybody else, even his wife and children.
George Seymour was born into the genteel ranks of the lesser nobility (his uncle was 10th Duke of Grafton). Because of his parents' posting abroad, he spent much of his time, from the age of 2, with his childless Aunt Anna and her husband, Charlie Byron, a rector, (of the same family as the poet, Lord Byron) at their home, Thrumpton Hall in Nottinghamshire. His obsessive love of this 400 year old, rose brick, mansion came to dominate his life. Even at seven , in a school essay, he wrote, When I am the squire of Thrumpton Hall, I shall look after my people and I shall preach to them on Sundays and this desire never left him.
The author is at pains to discover the roots of and reasons for this house becoming her fathers raison detre. Maybe it was his lack of friends throughout his school life, brief army career and job in banking This is accounted for by the fact he was an insufferable little prig ridiculously spoilt and indulged by his mother, father and aunt alike. Maybe his loneliness and frequent isolation from his mother and father made him regard the house as a security blanket.
More likely it grew from his own pretentious nature. From his very early years, he demonstrated all the attributes of a sanctimonious snob. He never failed to mention at any opportunity his connection to Charles II, albeit a very tenuous connection through one of that monarchs ladies of the bedchamber! One of his favourite hobbies was listing every link he could claim to aristocracy. For years he courted an large assortment of aristocratic connections despite their obvious indifference. It might have been that he saw ownership of the house as a passport into more genteel society but, if that was the case, he never succeeded in gaining the recognition or advancement he sought.
Whatever his motives, George determined to acquire Thrumpton and, it is even suggested by the author that it was a factor in determining his choice of wife. His uncle had put house on the market and he was desperate to raise the money to buy it when he met, courted and finally married Rosemary and she was the daughter of one of the richest men in the country! Whatever the truth of this, he did eventually acquire the Hall. From then on he devoted himself to its upkeep, determined that it would not suffer the fate of many such grand houses which fell into dereliction after the second world war.
Much of the later part of the book focuses on the tyrannical side of this insecure and unexceptional man, who, whether consciously or unconsciously, constantly sought to control and undermine his wife and daughter. It recalls how he all but dictated what his wife wore. This is illustrated by the story of when she daringly appeared in an inappropriate sequin dress (which her daughter had encouraged her to buy in secret) at an important reception at the Hall. In front of all the guests, she suffered the humiliation of him roaring at her to go and change into something more suitable. As always, she meekly obeyed. He even invented a family game where the object was to encourage his offspring into criticism their mothers lack of charm!
His daughters appearance was the subject of constant criticism and jibes and the author is not afraid to show herself in the unflattering light of a plump teenager who was not the ideal of stately, slim, charm which her father would have wished in his quest for perfection! She constantly sought his approbation even to the lengths of wearing a long wig for many years until her hair fell out. At the same time she describes weeping into her pillow some nights, vehemently wishing he was dead. She admits that her feelings for her father were completely divided between love and hate and recounts some anecdotes illustrating a more compassionate side of his nature but they are painfully few.
In his forties, George was starting to exhibit all the first signs of what was to become a midlife crisis. This presented at first by frequent solitary outings roaring down tto London in a sports car and staying at the family flat. Whilst there, he would make no secret of the fact that, he would meet up with attractive young ladies, rejoice in their beauty and take them dancing. Hot on the heels of this behaviour was born his next and final obsession when he purchased a Ducati motorbike. For the rest of his life, he indulged himself in this passion, riding out on overnight excursions and longer trips usually accompanied by one of the two younger men who came into his life when he was in his fifties.
Its a strange fact that when recounting these years, the author seems to have had a battle to accept that these liaisons were if a sexual nature.(although her mother accepts it unquestioningly). Even when the beautiful Nick accompanies her father on a visit to her Corfu home and he asks that they share a room, she does not specifically accept the nature of her fathers sexuality. When Nick announces his intention to marry to the assembled Seymour family, her father breaks down in a fit of histrionics and tears. Nick is succeeded by Robbie, an uneducated, long haired and rather scruffy cockey, who came to be almost a fixture at Thrumpton Hall accompanying George out on motorcycle jaunts most nights, in all weathers and often only returning for breakfast.
The dichotomy of Georges personality in the latter years of his life is curious as he remained an utter snob but sought the familys acceptance of this unlikely companion for whom he developed a complete and enduring love which lasted ten years. The fact that George remained a pillar of the local community, fulfilling the duties of a magistrate and local squire whilst leading a parallel life which would have been socially unacceptable to many of those he sought to impress, was very much down to the fact that Rosemary acquiesced in this, apparently without complaint, rapidly dismissing any suggestion that there was anything improper in the arrangement. The fact that she, George and Robbie often appeared at various local events together, in apparent harmony, discouraged any gossip that there was anything abnormal in this relationship.
George died in 1994 and the account of his last few years, suffering a painful illness and acute depression, is quite harrowing.
All Georges bullying, unkindness and unreasonable demands were accepted with dignity and a seeming lack of resentment on Rosemarys part. The text is peppered with little interjections on her part as she urges her daughter not to be unfair, corrects her on certain points, gives her own point of view on certain events and generally acts as an apologist for some of her husbands outrageous behaviour. Her mothers total subservience to this man and apparent lack of any desire to contradict or oppose him was a source of annoyance to her daughter in her younger years. However during the course of the book, she comes to see that, far from weakness, it was a natural part of her mothers great inner strength, in that she accepted everything because it came to suit her. Even if her husbands lack of devotion was a bitter pill at times, she was quite content in her life at Thrumpton, even in its solitary moments, secure in the knowledge that her husband would never leave her because he relied on her, not least, for the help and support she gave in maintaining his beloved Thrumpton Hall.
This is not only Georges story. It also documents the relationship between mother and daughter and how the author develops a better understanding of and relationship with her mother. My heart often goes out to Rosemary during the narrative as she struggles between loyalty to her dead husband and complicity in her daughters determination to analyse and, at times, assassinate his character. I was thrilled to find the transcript of an interview with Miranda Seymour, post publication, where she exclaims that her mother loved the book
The whole story is an extraordinarily riveting read. At times it can acutely embarrass the reader as one, seemingly, intrudes on private grief, an unwilling witness to this saga of misplaced love and the tragic consequences to the man himself and his family. But maybe there are some voyeuristic tendancies in us all which render this story horribly fascinating even during its most uncomfortable moments. This is mainly due to the authors amazing ability to create a well structured tale which roams (seemingly effortlessly) between sumptuous, warm, detailed descriptions and nostalgic reminiscences and the harsh, uncompromising details of her fathers ridiculous actions, cutting words and, thoughtlessly, vicious behaviour. This is a book I would have no hesitation in recommending.
Miranda Seymour is an acclaimed author of many best selling fiction and non fiction titles. Her biographies include lives of Mary Shelley, Ottoline Morrell, and Robert Graves She also writes many reviews and articles for leading newspapers and literary journals. She now lives in London and at Thrumpton Hall where she claims her fathers influence still comes back to haunt her as if he never left.
The book is published by Simon & Schuster ( ISBN 978-0-7432-6867-7). It is presently only available in hardback - rrp £14.99 but presently available on Amazon at £10.49. The paperback edition is due for publication in February 2008.