THE BOOK was on the table in front of us, along with the teapot, the two cups, and a plate of mince pies. It was a book and not the manuscript I expected and, if I’m honest, feared.
“Privately printed, as you see,” Toby Greenwell said.
“Your father had that done himself?”
He picked it up and handed it to me. Like many such books, it had no jacket but a shiny cover with a picture of a young girl with pigtails and wearing a gymslip. She was standing in a green meadow and the title of the novel had been amateurishly done in black letters by someone who was no expert in the art of Times Roman.
“When we spoke,” I said, “you told me your father had mentioned this book to you but you never saw it till after he and your mother were dead. He was quite a distinguished novelist. He’d had—how many books published?”
“Twelve. They weren’t bestsellers but they were—well, I think ‘widely acclaimed’ would be the phrase, don’t you?”
Toby is not a writer himself and never has been. He is an architect, retired now, and living with his wife and the one remaining child still at home in a house he designed himself in the Surrey hills. We met in the Highgate house he’d inherited from his mother six months before, Victorian Gothic and not much admired by him, though he grew up there. Martin and Edith Greenwell lived there from sometime in the 1930s, a few years before Toby was born, until Martin and then Edith died. It was there, while going through the contents of the house, all of which now belonged to Toby, that in a bookcase in Martin’s study he found the privately printed novel. I asked him if he could remember what his father had said about The Child’s Child and the reasons he gave for its having never been published.
“My dad told me the title,” Toby said, “and that’s how I knew what it was. He hadn’t said he’d had it printed and bound and—well, as you see it now. I was surprised to say the least. Less so when I remembered what he’d told me about it. You have to know that my mother was quite vehemently opposed to any attempts to have it published. I know that from him, not her. Apparently, she would never discuss it.”
I asked Toby if he had spoken to her about it.
“Oh, yes. After he was dead. I didn’t know about the bound book then. I thought it was somewhere among his papers in manuscript. My mother’s comments were memorable, to say the least. Perhaps you have to remember that she was born in the last years of the First World War, which made her very old when we spoke about the book.”
“What did she say?”
“That she had read it but was too disgusted to finish it. I think it was partly the fact that it was a true story or based on a true story, someone my father knew. If it were published, none of the people they knew would speak to them again, but she was sure no one would publish it. And she was right. He did try with the company that your brother works for—they had published all his previous books, there were nine by then—and his editor suggested he make certain changes. The character of Bertie could be made into a woman, for instance. Maud might be three years older than she is in the novel. But it was the homosexual element that they objected to. This was 1951, sixteen years before the act that made homosexual activity between consenting adults in private legal became law.”
“I take it your father didn’t agree to modify the book?”
“No, and when you read it, you can see why he wouldn’t. I’m no literary critic, but I can see that you have to try and get into the sort of climate that existed then to understand perhaps why he wanted to write it and why he wouldn’t change it. Hence, private printing. You see, it was not only about getting understanding for homosexuals that he was very keen on, but also about changing the attitude to illegitimacy and what he called ‘unmarried mothers.’ What would you call them now?”
That made me smile. Toby had his naïve moments. “ ‘Single parents,’ I should think.”
“But that’s fathers as well.”
“I know. It’s called equality. It’s also called political correctness.”
“Anyway, that’s the other theme of the novel. Would ‘theme’ be the word?”
“I expect so,” I said. “Why not?”
“One theme then is the injustice with which gay people were treated in the thirties and forties and the other the injustice with which—er, single parents and their offspring were treated. There’s a brother who’s gay—that’s the man my father knew—and his sister who has an illegitimate baby—”
I interrupted him, “Don’t go on. Let me read it.” I had another glance at the book before putting it in my bag. “I’m not an agent, you know. Well, you do know. You know I’m a university lecturer, working for a PhD that happens to be more or less about one of the themes in this book.”
“As you know, it was your brother who suggested you might be the right person to read it. I thought he’d read it, but as he reminded me, though he’s in publishing, it’s in marketing, not editorial.” Toby spoke almost humbly. “I just want you to tell me if you think it will find a publisher. I think I listened to my mother too much and I still hear in my head the things she said.”
I said that of course I would read it, but it might take me a bit of time.
“I think my dad would have liked you to look at it. He wanted it published, but as it stands, not expurgated, not neutralised to suit a narrow-minded readership.”
“I’m not sure that narrow-minded is the term,” I said. “They were of their time. They were the society of the day. Whatever I think of your father’s book, I can guarantee no one is going to want to expurgate it. We live in an entirely different climate of morality and sexual behaviour, a whole world of difference.” I looked at him, guessing that he was thinking of his mother’s disapproval. “As you know, young people today, many of them or even most of them, wouldn’t understand what you and I have been talking about.”
“That’s true. My own children wouldn’t.” In a burst of confidence, he said, “My mother is dead. It couldn’t have been published during her lifetime, but it could now. I keep telling myself that and feeling more and more guilty about what I’m doing.”
“Time enough to feel guilty if and when it’s published. Let me read it.”
I took The Child’s Child home with me, where my grandmother had all twelve of Martin Greenwell’s novels in hardcover. They were first editions, all with their original jackets, each one a little work of art and all a world away in taste and design from the pigtailed child in the green field. I looked inside, but of course The Child’s Child wasn’t listed among Greenwell’s previous works. It occurred to me then that a friend’s mother had once told me how she’d smuggled a copy of Henry Miller’s Sexus through customs when coming home by sea from France sometime in the 1950s. A world away from today’s contraband, when it would be drugs, not a book.
The Child’s Child
WHILE TEACHING at a university in West London, I had been working for a PhD on a subject with which no one among my family and friends seemed to have any connection: single parents or, in the phrase Toby Greenwell had used, unmarried mothers. As my supervisor remarked after I chose the subject (and she reluctantly approved), it would be a bit absurd in a climate where nearly half of women remain unwed. So “Single Parents.” Such women in English literature was the idea, but I was still asking myself—and Carla, my supervisor—if this should be extended into life. Into reality. Would this make it too much like a social science tract?
When my grandmother died, I had already begun reading every English novel I could find that dealt with illegitimacy or with the mothers of illegitimate children. I was living in a flat in West London that I shared with two other women and a man, a not unusual configuration in overcrowded oughties London. The day before her death I had visited her in hospital, where she had been for just a week. A stroke had incapacitated her without disfiguring her, but she could no longer speak. I held her hand and talked to her. She had been a great reader and knew all those works of Hardy and Elizabeth Gaskell and a host of others that I was reading for my thesis. But when I named them, she gave no sign of having heard, though just before I left I felt a light pressure on her hand from mine. The phone call from my mother
came next morning. My grandmother, her mother, had died that night.
She was eighty-five. A good age, as they say. No one ever says “a bad age,” but I suppose that would be mine, twenty-eight, or my brother’s, thirty. We were just the age when people tire of sharing flats with two or three others or crippling themselves with a huge mortgage for two or three rooms, but at the time of our grandmother’s death we could see no end to it. We mourned her. We went to the funeral, both of us in black, I because it is chic, Andrew because as a fashion-conscious gay man, he possessed a slender black suit. My mother wore a grey dress and cried all the time, unusual for her in any circumstances. Next day we heard from her solicitors that my grandmother had left her house in Hampstead jointly to my brother and me.
I have been honest about why we wore black, so I may as well keep up the honesty and say we expected something. Verity Stewart—we had always called her Verity—had a son and a daughter to leave her considerable fortune to (and she did leave it to them), but as we were the only grandchildren, I thought we might get a bit each, enough, say, to help with getting on what’s called the property ladder. Instead we got the property itself, a fine big house near the Heath.
Fay, my mother, and her partner, Malcolm, expected us to do the sensible thing, the practical thing: sell it and divide the proceeds. Instead, we did the unwise thing and kept it. Surely a house with four living-rooms, six bedrooms, and three bathrooms (and about three thousand books) was big enough for a man and a woman who had always got on with each other. We failed to take into account that there was only one kitchen, one staircase, and one front door, congratulating each other that neither of us played loud music or was likely to have a party to which the other was not invited. There was one thing we never thought about, though why not I don’t know. We were both young, and if we had
none now, each had had several partners, and one of us, perhaps both, was likely to have a lover living in.
In Andrew’s case that happened quite soon after we moved in.
James Derain is a novelist, his books published by Andrew’s firm, as were Martin Greenwell’s, which is how Andrew knew about Martin’s literary output. They met at a publisher’s party. The occasion can’t have been the anniversary of Oscar Wilde’s birth or, come to that, his death, it was too late for that, but it was something to do with Wilde, a hero of James Derain’s. At that party James told Andrew about Martin Greenwell and a book he’d written but never published that was based on the life of James’s uncle or great-uncle. That party was the start of their friendship. It led to a relationship—and soon, a falling in love, which they celebrated with a trip to Paris for the weekend. They went to look at Wilde’s newly refurbished tomb. It had been restored to Epstein’s original pristine whiteness before its surface was damaged by the lipstick of all the women who came to kiss it over the years. Who would have supposed lipstick could scar marble? Andrew was happy about the lip imprints, saying it almost made up for all the women who spat at Wilde in the street after his downfall.
Andrew and I had made a rough division of the house, the rooms on the left-hand side, upstairs and down, mine, and those on the right, his. That was all very well, I got one bathroom, he got two; I got three bedrooms and Verity’s study, he got my grandfather Christopher’s study and three bedrooms. But we had to share the kitchen, which was enormous, and on my side of the house.
“How many places have you lived in,” Andrew asked, “where you’ve had to share the kitchen with two or three other people?”
I thought about it, tried counting. “Four. It seems different in a place this size.”
“Let’s give it a go. If we can’t stand it, we’ll have another kitchen put in.”
It didn’t much concern me. The house was marvellous to live in—in those first weeks—and like my grandmother I spent most of my time blissfully reading. It was spring and warm and I sat reading out in the garden, comfortable in a cane chair with a stack of books on the table in front of me, all of them fictional accounts of unwanted pregnancies and illegitimate births. Sometimes I raised my eyes to “look upon verdure,” as Jane Austen has it. Only one such birth in her works, only one “natural child,” and that one Harriet Smith, for whom Emma attempts the hopeless task of encouraging a clergyman, and therefore a gentleman, to marry her. Harriet may be the daughter of a gentleman, but somehow her illegitimacy negates that and makes her fit to marry a farmer but no one higher up the social scale.
One book I didn’t look at was The Child’s Child, and I wasn’t conscience-stricken, not then, though I did mention it to Andrew, who came out into the garden before going to work. He hadn’t exactly forgotten about the book but seemed to drag it up out of the depths of memory before light dawned.
“It’s been lying in a cupboard for half a century,” he said. “No harm done if it hangs about for a bit longer.”
Something happened that afternoon which was to have great importance in my life, as much as it has had in Andrew’s. I met James Derain.