Unlocking the padlock

Eleanor Anstruther
Opinion - Books Monday, 29 April 2019

Eleanor Anstruther recalls the challenges she faced in researching a painful family history for her Desmond Elliott Prize-longlisted debut

On a recent visit to Pan's Garden - the former home of my father's grandmother, Dame Eva Anstruther - I was reminded of how many avenues I had to turn my back on in the process of writing A Perfect Explanation. It was Eva (daughter of the 4th Lord Sudeley, devotee of Pan, keen on witchcraft) who forced the marriage between my grandfather, her son, Douglas Anstruther, and my grandmother, Enid Campbell, by announcing their secret engagement in the Times before Enid's family could quietly break it off - an act that led to Enid's banishment. I remember in the course of my research how tempting it was to give Eva a voice: this fascinating, complex woman, another rebel of her time, and why I had to let her go.

Choosing how to tell a story is as much about saying no as it is about saying yes. There were so many strands to this one, so many voices who wanted to be heard, that early drafts of the book are a mass of attempts to bring everyone in. No one wanted to be left out, yet excluding certain people, places and events was inevitable. It was impossible to hear the heartbeat with everyone talking, and had I taken the reader down every avenue, getting lost would have been inevitable too.

"Finding the heart of a story isn't so much about facts as it is about knowing what moves you"

Looking back at my notes, I was amazed to see that I began my research in 2004, a good three years before I wrote the first draft, and 13 before final proof. I'd forgotten this. It's a haze in my memory. All I knew was that I had found something, a puzzle with a padlock that I worried and worried, trying every combination before the catch opened and I could start to put it together, understand, and see the picture it made.

The facts of the story are these: Enid married Douglas against her will, and on the death of her brother at Gallipoli was forced to provide the family with a replacement heir. Fragile, abandoned and unheard, she broke down, setting off a series of catastrophic events that led to the sale of her son (my father) to her sister, Joan, for £500.

It was both a blessing and a curse to have so much archive material to work with. My father kept everything - the seven bound volumes of letters between Enid and Douglas written during the year of their secret engagement. Boxes of correspondence between Lady George Campbell (Enid's mother), Joan (Enid's sister) and Douglas during the years of Enid's disappearance. Carefully preserved files of medical papers, Enid and Douglas' divorce papers and, of course, the extensive documents charting the legal battle for custody of my father.

There was also an entire trunk of photographs, the real people staring out at me, daring me to get it wrong; and added to that were their homes - Inveraray Castle, Strachur House and Bryanston Square, all still there, all with invitations to visit, allowing me to sit where my ancestors sat, and look at the views they looked at. Last were the graves of each of them, the dates marked indelibly in stone.

These facts and places were immovable. I couldn't fudge it, change dates and times to suit me and make the telling easier. The events of the book didn't happen over a year of everyone losing their minds, the decisions a result of panic. Instead, the terrible choices were made over decades. What were they doing all that time? Why didn't any of them stop and think, write a letter, say sorry, ask for help when they had the chance? This was the puzzle, the padlock I worried, the pieces I turned over in my hands. How to explain it in a way that made sense? What to include, and what to leave out?

Finding the heart of a story isn't so much about facts as it is about knowing what moves you. My ancestors were wealthy, privileged people, constrained by the mores of society and the collective grief of the First World War, but this was only background. Yes, they let money guide them, and regretted it; but what touched me, and gave me my heading, was this: that they were people - people who cried and felt frightened, who silently struggled with the deaths of loved ones, with mental illnesses and hidden passions, who were at a loss when it came to emotion, and whose needs went unheard. While for a decade they demanded that I listen to them, at the centre of their story lies the tragedy that they had not listened to each other.

A Perfect Explanation by Eleanor Anstruther is published by Salt Publishing at £12.99. It has been longlisted for the 2019 Desmond Elliott Prize.

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