When I met Mister Litlove’s grandparents, many years ago now, it was a revelation for me. I’d never been in a house before with a chequered marble floor in the hallway, and a grand piano in the sitting room, and original works of art by William Blake on the walls.
‘And you’re the first son of the first son, aren’t you?’ I asked Mister Litlove.
‘Yes, and I have seven aunts and uncles, three siblings and nineteen cousins,’ he replied. ‘It doesn’t work that way.’
There was a portrait of his grandparents hanging up above the sofas on which the originals sat. When Mister Litlove’s grandfather found out that I was studying modern languages at university, he broke instantly into German and quizzed me in it. Thankfully by this point, I’d been at Cambridge for a while, where being unexpectedly pounced on and asked to perform was par for the course.
This was something I had to learn about my husband’s family, though, which was oriented towards fierce intellectual discussion. I had initially found this quite terrifying. In my family, it would have been considered the nadir of impoliteness to make any guest feel in the least disconcerted with regard to their opinions and we trod very gently indeed in the capacity of hosts. But in the end, I found out that I could quite enjoy being a spectator at Mister Litlove’s gladiatorial dinnertime discussions, mostly because there was really no need for me to participate, listeners being at a premium. I always found myself a bit jolted when the spotlight of attention suddenly plunged onto me, but if visitors (or out-laws, as the romantically-linked were known) took too long a breath when composing a reply, the conversation would charge on happily without them.
I fear that my intrusion into his genetic legacy may have thinned the blood dangerously, though. In later years, when our son was still quite little, we were all at Mister Litlove’s family home when one of his uncles visited. In good tradition he bore down on our son, wanted to know what his favourite school subject was, and then threw some maths problems in his direction before the assembled company. Our son ignored him completely but with the air of one politely blindsiding a terrible faux pas in which an adult had mistaken a maths equation for a social exchange. In this way the generations move on.
Anyway, I digress. Mister Litlove’s grandfather was an extremely intriguing sort of man. I think he was born in America, returning to England in 1919 aged 12 to attend boarding school. This he loathed, as so many poor children did in those barbaric times. But after a night of fervent prayer he woke to a blinding white light and a reassuring voice speaking to him. This religious vision proved a turning point for him, and was a foundation stone in his personal mythology. But whereas most people might have turned to spirituality for purely personal support, it was a measure of this man that simply following religious practice was not enough. Later in his life he would help found the Synod of the Church of England, the governing and legislative body that regulates its practices, and he was renowned for having one of the finest libraries of sixteenth century theology in existence. There was always a whiff of the Empire around Mister Litlove’s grandfather; he wanted to master and to own and to regulate, but he did so from an old-style position of benign paternalism.
This played out in his career, too, which was taken up with business. During the Second World War he organized the supply and allocation of newsprint, and it went so well that he ended up being invited to speak publically about his views on business management and, ultimately, to write books on it. His belief was that a company ran best when it ran on profoundly ethical principles, when all its employers were cared for and treated fairly. The spiritual was enmeshed, again, with the entrepreneurial, or maybe it was just his understanding that even the spiritual needed to be organized and regulated if it were to function efficiently. His aim was always high and his vision broad, and he expected the same from those around him, including his family. His descendents all revere his memory, but I suspect he may, given his drive and ambition, have been a complex person to live with on a daily level. When he wrote his memoirs he managed to produce a book that failed to mention a single one of his eight children and of his three daughters there was not one, for various reasons of friction, that he walked up the aisle. Perhaps, he was better at macro, rather than micro, management, and even though his family was large, it was maybe not quite on the scale where he thrived.
His wife provided a remarkably graceful counterpoint to his determination and competitiveness, and together they were a perfect example of marital yin and yang. When I met them, after a solid fifty years of marriage, they had their double act off pat; whichever trait or quality might have been lacking in Mister Litlove’s grandfather, his grandmother was instantly on hand to supply. She is, and indeed remains, the most diplomatic person I think I have ever met. I have never heard her reply to any conversational gambit or any question with anything less than a perfectly tactful and considered response. I mean, she astounds me, and I don’t know how she keeps it up. But I have the strangest impression of disappearing in front of her, my own spikes and discontinuities flattened out by the smoothing actions of her charm. Mister Litlove’s grandmother brought aristocratic ballast to the union, coming from a ‘good’ family, and she was no intellectual slouch herself; both she and, incredibly, her mother, were among the earliest students at Oxford. Only she gave it all up after a couple of years in order to marry Mister Litlove’s grandfather. Although there were a lot of babies and then a huge number of grandchildren, she wrote several history books, and added the chapter about the family to her husband’s memoir that, I will tell you on the quiet, we all rushed to read first when the book came out.
I had never, in the course of my entire twenty-year-old life, encountered a set of grandparents like this one, but they welcomed me with graciousness and warmth, and meeting them always held a faint air of fascinating unreality, as if I had walked onto the set of a Merchant-Ivory film.
The very small point of this rather lengthy post is to say that Mister Litlove’s grandmother is still vigorously alive and every Christmas she sends each member of the family a cheque as a gift. This year, I put a chunk of it towards books (of course) and specifically, books with a social history dimension in honor of her interest in history (and my developing interest, too). I thought you might be interested to know that I got:
Stacy Schiff – Cleopatra
Justine Picardie – My Mother’s Wedding Dress; The life and afterlife of clothes
Catherine Gildiner – Too Close To The Falls
Joyce Tildesley – Egypt; How a lost civilization was discovered
Gillian Tindall – The House By The Thames, and the people who lived there
Jane Robinson – Bluestockings
The Diary of Lady Murasaki
(Sorry, was going to post a photo but ran out of steam!)