Although spring itself might not be as forthcoming as we’d hope, our Spring issue is just around the corner. The giant Heidelberg machines at our printers in Yorkshire are at full tilt, all rattle and clatter as they press a fresh batch of Slightly Foxed publications. There’s the latest issue of the quarterly to look forward to, as well as our 21st SF Edition and two new paperbacks to banish the last of the winter chills.
The legacies of grandmothers loom large this month. Firstly, there’s a taste of Diana Holman-Hunt’s childhood spent shuttling between two competing matriarchs in My Grandmothers and I
, then there’s news of the forthcoming Slightly Foxed Edition, The Real Mrs Miniver
, Ysenda Maxtone Graham’s lively exploration of her grandmother’s conflicting private and public lives.
We’re throwing a launch party for both The Real Mrs Miniver
and the Spring issue of Slightly Foxed
on Monday 11 March, so get it in the diary and bring along a friend for a glass of wine and a short talk in the bookshop (more details below). If you haven’t entered our competition for older writers yet, there’s still time to send an article in before 28 February. And while we’re on the topic of sending things in, we love to hear about the adventures of the fox as he turns up all over the world, or at least from Islington to Illinois. We’re even putting together an online gallery of his travels, so do send in photos and stories of you with a copy of Slightly Foxed
or any other Foxed paraphernalia
– in interesting places if you have them. Now, though, for a taste of childhood in the shadow of the Pre-Raphaelites:
Diana Holman-Hunt’s childhood was spent between two wildly contrasting households. One, in Melbury Road, Kensington, belonged to her paternal grandmother, Holman-Hunt’s eccentric widow Edith, known to Diana as ‘Grand’. The other, on the edge of the Sussex marshes, was the home of her mother’s parents, Grandmother and Grandfather Freeman.
While sweet-smelling, self-indulgent Grandmother Freeman lived for the present with a full complement of servants to minister to her whims, ‘Grand’ lived entirely in the faded splendour of her past. The two mistrusted one another deeply and competed for Diana’s affection while being spectacularly blind to her needs. Out of an essentially bleak scenario, Diana has woven a small comic masterpiece of pitch-perfect dialogue and deadpan observation.
In the following extract from My Grandmothers and I, Diana goes to stay with ‘Grand’ in London for the first time.
It was not until Fowler and I were crossing London in a taxicab that I began to feel uneasy. I knew she disapproved of Grand and of the house in Melbury Road, where she had taken me many times before but only for the day. When we drew up in front of the tall, grimy, brick and stucco house, I pointed out my name on the blue plaque let into the wall:
‘And see the O.M.? It means the Order of Merit.’ She was not impressed: ‘O.M. Pooh! What’s the good of that? A title now, a title would be nice.’
‘Grand says . . .’
‘Grand fiddlesticks!’ she snapped. ‘A barrack of a place, no butler, no proper staff. I don’t know I’m sure.’ As she rang the bell, she shook her head with disapproval and the cabby nodded. He put my hamper on the step and left us there waiting for Helen.
‘I expect she’s downstairs,’ I said after a while, perturbed by the delay. ‘When she climbs from the basement, her face gets very pink, as pink as her dress.’ For her sake I wished she would hurry.
‘Seeing as it’s afternoon, it’s to be hoped she’s changed from her print and washed and put on her blacks.’ Fowler tapped her foot, as if we’d already been there an hour.
At last, there was a rattle of chains and a scraping of bolts. Helen peered round the door wearing her pink print dress.
‘Ah, good afternoon,’ said Fowler, scowling.
‘Like a cup of tea, miss?’ asked Helen, shyly. I sensed she was afraid of Fowler.
‘I’ll not trouble you,’ said Fowler, her nose pointing in the air, ‘but I’d be obliged if you’d tell the under-housemaid to steam Miss Diana’s velveteens and mind she keeps her kettle off the lace.’ She knew, of course, there wasn’t anyone to tell. She turned to me: ‘Well, I haven’t got all day. I must bustle back to the station. I’m sure you’ll be all right.’ Her expression showed she thought it most unlikely.
‘Oh, don’t go,’ I cried in a panic, throwing my arms round her neck. ‘Please don’t go, don’t leave me.’
‘What a way to go on!’ she said severely, adjusting her hat. Her face was very white and her eyes were shining when she pressed my hand and pecked me on the cheek. Helen and I watched her walk down the steps to the cab but she didn’t look round.
‘Well, miss, you haven’t shrunk,’ said Helen. This was the only joke she ever made. She bolted and barred the door. My throat was sore with worry. I stared at our dim reflection in the glass of the portrait of Grandpa Holman by Sir William Richmond and saw I was nearly as tall as Helen.
‘The mistress is in the sitting-room. You know your way, miss, don’t you?’ Helen vanished down the basement stairs.
In the inner hall one jet of gas burned low and blue on an iron bracket, casting a glinting light on the brass plates, copper trays, daggers, scimitars and swords that dotted the walls, between oil paintings. Grandpa Holman’s portrait of himself as a boy, Christs, virgins and saints, great-uncle Waugh who was drowned; all gazed down at the Burmese gongs, supported by gilded dragons – these were a present from Papa and didn’t look right. A pair of tall church candlesticks, festooned with rosaries, stood each side of a massive table which was draped with altar cloths and shawls. On it stood a red chalk drawing and Chinese bowls filled with silver money. There were no flowers or signs of life: no coat flung down in a hurry, no secateurs, gloves or parasols.
The sitting-room door opened slowly. Suddenly Grand was there with her arms outstretched like a cross: ‘My pet! I thought I heard voices. Come and give me a hug.’ She was straight and bony; her brooches, chatelaine and buckles pressed sharply into my ribs.
Nothing was changed in the sitting-room; perhaps the leafy Morris paper was a little darker. The Della Robbia, covered with dust, still hung over the fireplace, the vases held the same sprays of honesty and peacock feathers, and the spindly bamboo tables, as before, tottered under the heavy weight of papers.
A purple taffeta curtain was pulled across the Van Dyck crucifixion. Grand had said long ago that Crucifixions and St Sebastians were less valuable than Holy Families. Sensitive people couldn’t bear to see the blood, or the cruel arrows sticking into dripping wounds. I couldn’t bear them either. I spun round on my heel; another curtain of faded orange silk was drawn across the Bellini; a small piece of St Joseph showed in a corner.
In the day-time, the more precious pictures too were covered, to prevent their fading by the sun; this precaution gave the effect of many windows of odd shapes and sizes, placed at different levels on the walls, through which peeping Toms could pry. I hated this sensation and wished all the pretty wallpaper was showing but I knew of course, as Grand had told me, that only poor uneducated people didn’t like pictures on their walls.
‘Shall we draw the curtains?’ I asked, taking off my woollen gloves. Without speaking she whisked a muslin veil off the Byzantine black Madonna, revealing the dark face under its jewelled crown.
‘The gold background is nice,’ I said, flinching from the wicked squinting eyes.
‘The furious seascape below is by Mr Ruskin.’ She leant forward to examine it more closely. ‘His waterfalls and rocky coasts are better. Take off your coat, my pet.’
An inverted coolie hat, filled with catalogues and crumpled paper bags, lay on the Moorish throne which was made of ebony, inlaid with ivory stars and little bits of glass. Grandpa Holman had painted this in his picture of Isabella and the Pot of Basil.
‘Everything’s the same,’ I said, stroking a huge oak chest.
‘The Hobman chest, remember?’ She raised the lid which was carved inside. ‘Made in the Spanish Netherlands as a travelling altar. It once held the sacramental vessels but now, as you see, it’s crammed with clothes which the models wore; in fact, when it stood in the studio, Holman called it his “prop box”. See, here is Miss Siddal’s dress for Sylvia.’
‘Guggum’s dress,’ I said, fingering the folds. Danish ancestor Hobman had used the chest as a trunk when he brought his furs to England. He must have had a lot – fur coats, fur hats, fur boots, fur gloves, fur trousers, fur combinations, fur . . .
‘I told you, I hope I did, I always forget, Holman’s name was really Hobman? It was his Christian name; he was never called William. One day, looking up some papers in connection with a lawsuit, he found the clerk had written “Holman” by mistake. From that day he used no other name, and when I heard that Queen Victoria said: “We consider Hunt too ordinary a name for such an extraordinary man: we would like you to use a hyphen,” I naturally used the double-barrel. Beloved Holman . . . Come my pet, it’s only four o’clock, for a whole hour we will do as you like.
© Diana Holman-Hunt