Rose Tremain at the Hay Festival

If you’ve not yet read “Rosie” – this piece does contain the odd spoiler.


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Rose Tremain’s new book – and the subject of her talk at Hay – was “Rosie: Scenes from a Vanished Life”.

I was drawn to Rose Tremain’s talk for two reasons. The first obvious – but the second is that one of my WIPs is a memoir, and I am particularly interested to gain whatever insights may be available.

As with Maggie O’Farrell, I made a point to read the book in advance of the talk – despite the kindle price being an eye-watering £10. So, let’s kick off with my review …

This proved to be a hard review to write, for whilst one can empathise (sometimes even from personal experience), it is always difficult to read such an indictment of selfish parenting. Rosie’s mother was an unloved and tolerated daughter, especially poignant as both her adored and preferred brothers were lost young – one to childhood illness and the other in the final week of the war.

Both Jane and Keith – Rosie’s parents – were pretty self-absorbed, resulting in their being (respectively) uninterested and uninvolved parents. Rosie and and her sister Jo were fortunate in having Nan – their much loved nanny, who through her actions and behaviour, taught them how to care and love for others.

Much of this story is of a relatively priviledged childhood – certainly they were safe, well-fed and provided for – there was ‘just’ the absence of parental (and grandparental) love and affection.

Why was the review hard to write? Because the story it tells feels brittle, perhaps because the emotion behind it still is.

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Rose Tremain was talking to Peter Florence at Hay. As with Maggie O’Farrell, the opening question was ‘why write a memoir?’ to which Ms Tremain’s gave a very different response – “Mountaneers climb mountains because they’re there” although she did go on to elaborate “It’s also about going backwards into childhood, before the end arrives, to make some sense of it.” Ms Tremain is 74, so the sort of age one thinks back on life and when a memoir is not unexpected.

Stating unequivocally that she couldn’t have written the book if her mother had still been alive as it would have been hurtful, the discussion immediately focused on the main thrust of the memoir. Despite both parents being less than caring, it is evident that Ms Tremain felt her early life more negatively impacted upon by her mother, Jane, than her largely absent father, Keith. Societal norms and expectations of the mother as the parent responsible for caring aside, I believe the key aspect is that he was largely absent, so while Ms Tremain may have felt his lack of involvement, her mother’s disinterest was ever present and so felt more keenly.

At the time, parents – particularly those in certain social classes – weren’t especially involved in the lives of their children, so one could ask why did Ms Tremain feel so keenly? I cannot answer for that, nor was that specific question asked, but one particular section of her memoir caused a genuine a spark of anger in me on her behalf. Rosie’s mother removed her from boarding school before she was able to complete her studies, in order to send her to a Swiss finishing school. Why? Especially when it was clear that Rosie was a considerable talent who was being prepared for Oxford? Hard thought it might be to believe, it was that Jane didn’t want a bluestocking for a daughter. A more vapid reason is hard to imagine.

Turning to the work of writing, Ms Tremain described the process as akin to “threading the stories like beads on an invisible string.” Expressing her view that the “prime rule of fiction applies equally to a memoir – that of emotional and intellectual truth”, she went on to state how she stuck faithfully to the mantra “Don’t invent things, even though we only remember it ourselves in “spots of time”. When asked if there there was a different compassion or exactitude in memoir, and whether a discussion of a comparative nature took place (with other involved parties), Ms Tremain confirmed that, yes, of course it did, but only after the first draft. Completing the examination on the differences between memoir and fiction, Ms Tremain expressed that “the form is a curtailment, as the marvellous gorgeousness of fiction is that it develops and grows and expands. Memoir has to stay on the pathway.”

At the end of this session, I came away with two thoughts. The first – one of mild curiousity – was to wonder whether Ms Tremain had set boundaries around the subjects available for discussion and limited it solely to the contents of her new book, or whether the interviewer had made that choice.

My second thought was there are two kinds of people. Those who despite being made unhappy during their childhood perpetuate it for their own children by following the same path, whilst the other kind make an active choice to make life different for their children.

Jane Thompson – Rosie’s mother – was one of the former, whilst Rose Tremain is decidedly of the latter.


© Debra Carey, 2018

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