First of all, before I get into reviewing a book about deep, dark secrets, let me just inform you that my own are on view over at Necessary Acts of Devotion, where the delightful Quillhill interviewed me and posed some of the most thought-provoking and tricky questions I’ve had to answer in years. It was a lot of fun to think up responses, so thank you, Quillhill.
Now I’ve always been fascinated by family stories; I’m so intrigued by the strange and complex patterns of genetic repetition, the way tales get passed down as self-fulfilling prophecies, the politics and the love and the civil warfare. Families are little microcosms of the society they live in, exaggerating the ideologies of the day, and yet always striving through their youngest members to do something different and break out of the mould. I loved reading A Profound Secret as it was clear that Josceline Dimbleby was interested in the same kinds of family patterns as I am, and found the discoveries she made about her ancestors to be completely thrilling. But then again, she did have more illustrious and interesting ancestors than most of us. Rarely do we come across a stash of carefully preserved love letters from one of the most prominent members of the Pre-Raphaelite movement to our great-grandmother, for instance, which was the event that sparked off this book. Josceline Dimbleby’s great-grandmother, May Gaskill, was a charming, gracious and thoroughly miserable woman, locked into a now loveless marriage with a man who was alternately bullying and depressive when she met the painter Edward Burne-Jones. He was in his late fifties but a great appreciator of women; he had had a string of deeply loving friendships set alongside his marriage, only one of which blossomed into a full affair. After that damaging experience, he restrained himself to passionate but platonic friendships, accompanied, as was indeed the case here, by a stream of ardent letters. Despite a full painting schedule and many calls on his time, Burne-Jones managed to write a reasonably regular five times a day to May; now there’s devotion for you. What interested me was that the post got delivered this frequently in the nineteenth century. No wonder email had not been invented back then, and no wonder also we had to dream it up when the postal service became so stingy.
But I digress. Burne-Jones’ letters are moving to read. Some are intensely passionate: ‘It’s terrible that one creature should have such power over any other – and I lie under your feet – and have no will or strength against you. Why did I leave you today – I left all my happiness with you – a poor thing come back here, a poor shell and my heart was away – my heart nestles under your feet so tread softly…’ To rather beautiful promises of love and protection:
‘…you see May, it is these things of the soul that are real, and the only real things in the universe – and the little hidden chamber in my heart where you only can come is more real than your little bedroom – if you can believe it – I will furnish it for you – such a couch for your tired soul to lie on, and music there shall be always, soft and low, and little talks when you are refreshed – news of the outer world – when you are rested and can sit up and stand I’ll open a little magic window and you shall choose what land you will see and what time in the world – you shall see Babylon being built if you like – or the Greeks coming into Greece.’
For six years, up until the painter’s death (at 65 of heart failure) the relationship between them sustained them both, although it seems that Burne-Jones was the more constant of the two. May, like many relatively well-off people of her era, traveled extensively, partly for her health which was fragile. Nowadays I think she might have been diagnosed with ME, but there was also clearly a desire to escape her husband in her world tours, some of which lasted months. The author often comments on how these lengthy trips took her away from her children, and expresses some modern childrearing concerns about the effect this might have had on them. May had three children, all of whom turned out rather strange, to say the least. The book is as much about Amy, her eldest and best loved child as it is about May, and the mysterious circumstances of her life and death. I won’t say more about that, as the book is cleverly structured as, in part, a kind of detective story, in which Amy is posed as the enigma to be solved and I don’t want to spoil the story for you. But it is clear that a deep depressive vein ran through the family, and a kind of melancholy emotional intensity. Dimbleby’s rather delightfully caustic 94-year-old aunt, Diana is quoted as saying that: ‘I think that generation rather reveled and made the most of their loneliness and misery, and felt they must leave evidence in letters for all the world to find. Lovely of course for writers like you.’ But that deep romanticizing, idealizing streak that was in the family and rampant in the art and culture of the time must also take some responsibility. After Amy’s death, May burned all her letters and anything that could be constituted as evidence of her true past, and in its place had glorious marble memorials made, blocked off her room as a shrine and created a family myth about Amy’s beauty and perfection. It is little wonder that she was frozen in her grief and unable to mourn properly and move on.
At the end of her life May had something of a renaissance. With the outbreak of the First World War, she started a library, based on charitable donations, that was circulated to the wounded soldiers in hospital. This venture took off beyond her wildest dreams, became a dramatic success and resulted in over 6 million books and magazines being distributed to soldiers around the globe by the end of the conflict. After that she kept going, trying to persuade hospitals to maintain a library to distract the convalescent and having some success despite much opposition. Altogether this was a wonderful story of a family and a rich and intriguing portrait of the end of the Victorian era and I would thoroughly recommend it to anyone.