Spectator – Carla Carlisle

I always like reviews that begin ‘I should confess that the author has been a friend for 30 years’. You know that what follows will be friendly, gently objective. But this isn’t really a review and I can’t honestly claim friendship. I met the author a year ago at a theatre in the West End. I noticed her because she was tall, elegantly bohemian, wearing a hat and hoping for a return ticket for the sold-out Mary Stuart. I sold her my spare ticket for half price.

Before the play began, we established that we’d both left husbands at home nursing colds. That we each had one son. That we both lived in the country on farming estates that we’ve diversified. That she was a writer, a claim I found harder to echo when she revealed her name: Miranda Seymour.

The play, starring Harriet Walter as Elizabeth I and Janet McTeer as Mary, Queen of Scots, portrayed both women as trapped and morally disfigured by their obsessive ambitions. By the interval, Miranda and I were too transfixed by the drama on stage to dwell on our own picayune similarities. Over glasses of red wine, we tried to unravel truth from drama: did Elizabeth I ever meet Mary Stuart face to face? Apparently not, but Friedrich Schiller’s play is built on this idea, culminating in an unforgettable scene when they meet in the pouring rain; Elizabeth protected by her umbrella, Mary vulnerable and drenched to the skin.

As we say goodbye, Miranda and I scribble emails on ticket stubs. She tells me she has a brother who lives in Suffolk. We say we’ll get in touch. But, of course, we don’t. Still, as soon as I read about her new book (in last week’s Country Life, reviewed by Hugh Massingberd), I rushed to buy a copy of In My Father’s House, the life of her father, George FitzRoy Seymour, the story of an English country house, Thrumpton Hall, and the story of her own unhappiness. I read the book in one greedy sitting.

And spent the rest of the week haunted by it. First, there was the feeling of fami-liarity, that I knew these people captured in the family tableaux by Sir John Lavery and Julian Barrow, had entered Boodle’s by the women’s entrance, was on first-name terms with the iridescent manners, the divinity of land, the demi-gods of primogeniture. And then there was the startling familiarity of the writer’s own unhappiness.

I thought of another memoir of a difficult father, by Sally Belfrage, with a memorable prologue: ‘I’d put it this way: happy memories are all alike?they fade into a pleasant blur; miserable memories stay distinct for-ever. Maybe that’s why so many claim to have had an awful childhood, while the actual children that you see look generally content enough… yet all the while they are collecting evidence for what will turn into their bitter past, gathering recollections that will cling to them like burrs.’

Miranda Seymour looks content enough. A writer at the peak of her form, she’s been liberated from snobbishness by the obsessions of her father, made strong by the long suffering of her mother. Perhaps she can now pluck the burrs from her sleeve.

A few weeks ago, I sat next to the writer’s brother at a small lunch party. I’d wondered why the daughter inherited the house (blamed in the book on losses at Lloyd’s), but painful for an only son, raised in the religion of undivided land. By the time I’d finished his sister’s book, I thought that Thomas Seymour had received the greater legacy. Call it Deliverance.