Inventory of a Life Mislaid: An Unreliable Memoir, by Marina Warner, William Collins, 416 pp, £14 99, ISBN: 978-0008347598
This is a book about abundance. It draws into its orbit a profuse cascade of objects and observations, of furniture, fripperies, pictures, tableware, fancy costumes, diamond rings, books, architecture, people, places, anecdotes, family lore, letters, drinks cabinets, Egyptian cigarette tins, rose gardens, magnolia trees, English hacking jackets and Persian poetry. It is also abundant in connections, or disconnections, between different cultures and communities, between documentation and recollection, between time past and time present. Marina Warner, whose works include monumental and enlightening studies of the Virgin Mary, the female form and the traditional fairy tale, now turns her attention to her family background with its disparate strands, her own earliest years and the important places in her life and the lives of her parents.
The most important place for the purposes of this memoir is Cairo, but before we get there there is quite a bit of ground to cover, including the ground in southern Italy where the author’s parents first set eyes on one another. It’s 1944, and Colonel Esmond Warner, a staff officer in the Royal Fusiliers, has arrived in Bari with the Allied troops. There he meets a young woman whose name is Emilia Terzulli – always known as Ilia –- and shortly afterwards letters start arriving at the home of Esmond’s parents in Kensington, announcing his engagement and extolling the virtues of his Italian fiancée.
The Kensington Warners are the celebrated cricketer Sir Pelham (whose Christian name, like that of his better-known contemporary PG Wodehouse, gets shortened to Plum) and his wife, Agnes, or Mother Rat, as she is called – affectionately, one assumes. Their granddaughter attributes to them a sense of relief on hearing their son’s news: Esmond is thirty-six and needs to settle down. (Ilia is fifteen years younger.) Following the wedding in Bari, Esmond dispatches his bride to England, where she takes up residence with her new in-laws, to await the return of her soldier husband from the war.
Marina Warner is a specialist in fairy tales, with all their tropes and implications and their decorative imagery; and it’s hard not to read a fairy-tale element into the journey, as she describes it, of her penniless and intrepid young mother to an unknown country with daunting customs and bewildering protocol. Part of the author’s purpose is to encapsulate the ways in which Ilia manages the transition from Italy to England – an England, moreover, in the grip of austerity and awash in wartime stresses. There is also, as in the traditional tale, a transformation to be enacted, the transformation of Italian Ilia into an impeccable English lady wearing calf-skin gloves and a pair of bespoke brogues – “sturdier by far than a glass slipper”. Ilia, to whom the concept of healthy exercise in the form of country walks had been unknown, wears her hand-made shoes to stride with aplomb into her new life.
Her mother’s original brogues, “deep brown leather … made by hand in 1945, by Peal & Co.”, are included in the “inventory” of significant items which determine the shape of Warner’s distinctive undertaking. They also set going one of the author’s diverting disquisitions (there are many), in which she gets her teeth into the origins and meaning of the word “brogue”, whether it’s to do with footwear or a mode of speaking. These paragraphs only lack an allusion to Brogeen of the Stepping Stones to make the coverage complete. “Bróg” takes the author into interesting byways, and only causes a stumble when she appears to confuse the Gaelic bróg with brón (bróg does not mean sorrow).
Another of Inventory’s captivating digressions concerns the expression “balm of Gilead”, with its biblical, antiquarian, cartographic and restorative associations. The place-name itself brings us up to the present with Margaret Atwood’s “nightmare state” in her novel The Handmaid’s Tale: for sure, there is no balm in this particular Gilead. It’s a different matter, though, when it comes to postwar Cairo with its assembly of Oriental enchantments, its exotic ingredients: the crocodiles and (perhaps) hippopotami on the banks of the Nile, the minarets, the mysterious and vibrant old city quarter, the glorious gardens. This is the site of Warner’s most evocative (and perhaps not entirely reliable) reminiscences, the place to which her parents had come to live in 1947, and where she spent the first part of her childhood.
To escape the freezing English winters, a trial to his southern-born wife, and in response to the seductiveness of the cosmopolitan city (where he’d been stationed during the war), Esmond Warner had persuaded an old school “chum”, Billy Smith, to set up a branch of WH Smith in Cairo, and to establish him, Esmond, as its proprietor. It was then goodbye to the world of country house weekends, of hunting lodges, tennis girls à la Joan Hunter Dunn, the “old-boy” network, Maple’s and Liberty’s and the shops along Bond Street – but not before the infant Marina had acquired some illustrious godparents in the persons of Lord Longford and Violet Trefusis, and a quantity of small garments decorated with discreet English smocking.
Like those of her near-contemporary, Penelope Lively – another child growing up English in Egypt – Warner’s parents were prominent participants in the social life of European Cairo. Shepheard’s Hotel, the Gezira Sporting Club, the “whisky soirées”, excursions to the Great Pyramid (where the three-year-old Marina was perched on a donkey and led along a track by the future absconder Donald Maclean, then a diplomat attached to the British embassy in Cairo), the friendships in varying degrees with distinguished Egyptians and “louche” European incomers: these, and other atmospheric particulars, embody the glamour of a distant and colourful era. For Esmond and Ilia, Cairo, with its rituals and its romantic aspects, lived up to their separate expectations.
If the Warners’ marriage was not altogether solid or secure, as the couple’s daughter suggests, it was bolstered up by plentiful distractions and the pressures of expediency. In several respects, not least the age difference, the two were not well suited to one another. There are intimations – no more – of infidelities on the part of Ilia (whose husband kept her short of spending money and was prone to frightening, though short-lived, rages). No one can be comfortable investigating their parents’ sex lives, and Warner does not stray into this area – though she makes it clear that her deepest allegiance is to her mother, Ilia, whatever the truth of the latter’s extra-marital friendships. Things taken for granted in childhood, or currents of feeling sensed but not understood, are interspersed here with the views and assessments of the adult storyteller. It is all extremely vivid and engrossing.
Warner has said in an interview (Guardian Review, March 6th, 2021) that writing this book left her feeling somewhat “exposed” – but, she added, “I still take refuge in stories”. To impose a narrative outline on painful or deeply personal material has a steadying or distancing effect indeed, and the stories of Inventory are a testimony to the author’s tact and expertise. They range widely, it’s true, but always home in on the central core of the memoir, Cairo. Warner’s irrepressible scholarly impulse finds an outlet in a variety of intriguing side-issues: not only brogues and balm, but “the odd-sounding word, rastaquouère”, meaning scoundrel, and all the Marys of the bible, are subjected in these pages to informed and free-ranging scrutiny. Contemplation of Mary Magdalene, for instance, with her “precious jar of balm” (more balm), somehow engenders an allusion to the conservative social campaigner Mary Whitehouse and her association with the author’s godfather, Lord Longford. (Warner describes an occasion in London during the 1960s, when, following lunch at one of his favourite restaurants, she finds herself walking with her godfather to the accompaniment of “friendly” cries from passers-by: “Lord Porn!” “How are you doing today, Lord Porn?” This is at the height of his mission to clean up Soho.)
Cairo. Throughout the Warners’ time in the charmed city, revolutionary undercurrents were gaining momentum. Rumbles of unrest were everywhere, though perhaps not tremendously apparent to members of the haute bourgeoisie, with their lavish lifestyle and hedonistic pursuits. Not that the ruling class, en masse, was indifferent to Egyptian rights and aspirations. There were those among the European contingent who nourished no sense of racial entitlement – though undoubtedly many did. The staff of WH Smith in the city centre was mostly Egyptian, and Esmond had established an antiquarian section devoted to books about Egypt. But none of this mattered when the impending uprising took place. On a terrible night in January 1952, from the top-floor windows of the Warner family flat at 10, Sharia el Gezirah, the city could be seen ablaze. The WH Smith bookshop was destroyed with the rest, with burned-out Shepheard’s Hotel and Barclays Bank, with cafés, department stores, cinemas, theatres and restaurants. Marina Warner was just five years old, when, with her mother, father and younger sister, she left Cairo for good. Inventory is structured to allow the reader some inklings of the way her life progressed; but the heady Egyptian experience was burned deep into her consciousness, or subconsciousness, and intensified by the fires that left the city in ruins. It was the end of a kind of idyll, and of a way of life.
Patricia Craig’s Kilclief & Other Essays is published by Irish Pages.