Family History

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!)


28 thoughts on “Family History

  1. What a lovely post! Thank you for the vicarious opportunity to meet Mr Litlove’s grandparents! I very much regret that I never got to known any of my grandparents well (they either passed before I was born or when I was quite young). I think I would have loved that sense of having a living link to history.

    Very excited to see Bluestockings on your list – I absolutely loved it!

  2. Lovely post. Wow. I would have loved to listen to some of the dinner discussions (but would have been far too timid to chime in). My major was history, and I’ve never lost my love for it. It’s the kind of reading I love the most.

  3. That is lovely. Thanks for sharing. I heard whispers of my own grandparents in your discussion, in fact. She went to Vassar and he was in a different line of business; but your comment about managing better at the macro level than at the micro resounds strongly. I think you’re on to something – with your mister’s grandparents, and with mine. Diplomacy indeed.

  4. Gosh! I can’t imagine that situation or how I’d have reacted! Lovely account all the same – what fascinating things happen to people!
    On a different note, going back to Chinese mothers, came across this in the BBC Magazine – – which doesn’t change my position but does give some support to the method! Sorry doing a live link seems beyond me!

  5. They sound like they were a delightful pair and I’m glad you’ve honoured them with some social history books. My grandparents were the other way around: he the epitome of diplomacy and she frank and often tactless. Made for hilarious dinner-parties, though.

  6. Jealous of Bluestockings, and what a lovely post. I always think of my family as the most welcoming family in the world, but I’ve been given to understand we can be a bit intimidating. With all the diagnosing mental illnesses that we do, and whatnot.

  7. Oh my! This sounds so much like stories from the English side of my family that (despite having been convinced all this time that you and I are long lost sisters) I’m wondering if Mr. Litlove and I aren’t related. He’s not a descendent of one of the seven Harrow Hadows, is he? Anyway, lovely description on your part, and I’m envious of your book purchases, which all sound good.

  8. Your in-laws sound like really lovely, interesting people. Thank your for sharing this portrait of them 🙂 I love delving into family history – my family is so small, there isn’t much history to find!

    I read My Mother’s Wedding Dress a few years ago, as part of research for a novel I was trying to write. Can’t remember if I liked it or not!

  9. What a thoroughly delightful post! I am so happy I dropped in this evening.
    I would have been totally intimidated at that dinner table. My own father-in-law was a doctor, world traveler, avid sportsman, and barely even noticed I was at the table, so there were no worries there.
    Thanks for sharing the story with us, and how very wonderful that you were able to acquire that set of books with Mr. Litlove’s grandmother’s gift. I am sure she would be pleased, too.

  10. What an intensely enjoyable pot!! It all comes alive in front of one’s eyes. I laughed out loud several times. It’s the kind of brilliantly recounted personal history writing which I feel even more people than your blog fan ship should have the pleasure and possibility of reading…

  11. What a great story. I think Mr. Litlove’s family would have greatly intimidated me. Heck, my husband’s parents intimidated me at first, they had real crystal and signed Dali prints on their walls. Your book purchases sound marvelous. I am interested in the Cleopatra book so be sure to let us know if it’s as good as advertised.

  12. Oh, I think I would have been both and intimidated and fascinated by such a family – it sounds like something out of a novel. S.’s family is very intellectual and you are expected to bring your A game to the dinner table for vigorous debate, but there are no original Blake paintings in the background…

  13. Hanging. On. Every. Word. Of. This. Post.

    What fascinating family history – and how intimidating! Llew’s dad loves a robust round table, but this is in another league entirely.

  14. Now this post is the best thank you that they could receive! I love it when you share stories like this. What a formidable family–I would have been quaking in my boots meeting them and been tongue tied–I am sure you held your own very well! (Though I wouldn’t mind being a fly on the wall!). Love the sound of your book choices–I especially want to read the Cleopatra biography.

  15. What an interesting vignette you’ve presented to us, litlove… and it does sound like a Merchant Ivory film! (I love their works!) Wish I were a fly on the wall (no, mahogany wood panels, beside the Blake) at those dinners. I was born and raised in the then British colony of Hong Kong until I immigrated here to Canada as a teenager with my family. Those first 15 years of my life had exposed me to a lot of British culture. Actually my parents met each other in England before they were married… while my mother was attending the University of London. Mr. Litlove has an awesome family heritage… his grandfather’s library of 16th C. theology… I should let me son read your post. He’s taking History of German Reformation. And it’s just so sweet that Mr. Litlove’s grandmother is still so thoughtful and kind to you all. I look forward to your reviews of those Christmas books you bought. (BTW, one of the books by Amy Chua, our Tiger Mom, is Age of Empire 😉

  16. What a lovely post! Your thoughts and feelings on your in-laws is something I relate to all too well. My husband’s family, pre-divorce, was similar in scope. Debates abound, intellectual sparring, and the inevitable criticisms that came were par for the course. It was a difficult adjustment because such topics were not conversed about in my own family. Truly, with my extended family the intellect was something to be sneered at somewhat (I’m happy to report that my immediate family no longer even whiffs of this particular malady). Anyway, this is a lovely tribute to your married into family and the books sound wonderful. Look forward to any reviews you do of them! [I have read absolutely none, so I can not possibly offer my thoughts on them.]

  17. Nymeth – I had very similar circumstances – by the time I was 6, only one grandmother left and a step-grandfather. It’s always interesting to acquire more family and pad your own out! And delighted to know you loved Bluestockings – good news!

    Bluestocking – lol! It IS the perfect book for you, isn’t it?

    Grad – I have done shamefully little history across my life, but the upside of that is that I have it all ahead of me to enjoy!

    Pagesofjulia – is Mary McCarthy’s novel, The Group, about ex-Vassar students? I’ve even reviewed it myself but am too lazy to check! I think our grandmothers had to learn diplomacy; those alpha males were out building empires, commercially and geographically. Home must have looked a little small scale in comparison. 🙂

    Bookboxed – fascinating link, and it confirms me in my old behaviour of choosing university candidates for their qualities first and foremost. I figured the work they were all capable of doing, with practice, but what I wanted was resilience, passion, assiduity. And I never believed we were genetically determined! Thank you for the grist to my mill. 🙂

    Lilian – at least they make for good anecdotes! 🙂

    Charlotte – I would like to have been a fly on the wall at those parties, or ideally behind a two-way mirror. I could enjoy it more that way!

    Jenny – lol! Another family I would love to watch but from behind glass. Actually, I’m not sure I wouldn’t be able to resist sneaking out to get a diagnosis. 🙂

    Emily – he’s not related to that family, no, but I have no doubt he is related to you in spirit! (Why do I think your birthdays are close – his is 21st Feb). We could just insert you right into the middle of us, couldn’t we, and you’d fit in seamlessly!

    Becca – I come from a little family, too. Very useful to have another person’s huge family to observe and steal anecdotes from! And I’ll assume optimistically you liked the Picardie as a bad impression might have lasted longer!

    qugrainne – your father sounds like he’s worth a post of his own! Generally, I like being able to watch without being observed in my turn. It’s a sneaky but cosy position!

  18. Bee – aw bless you. Hugs to you, my friend. What a lovely comment!

    Stefanie – isn’t it funny and awful at once, that meeting the other person’s family? Mister Litlove was astounded by mine because we all kept quiet while he was speaking and listened respectfully – he didn’t always know where to put himself! Signed Dali would definitely have thrown me, too. And I’m really looking forward to Cleopatra – I will most certainly review it!

    Dorothy – I am a wuss about being put on the spot. One of my reasons for choosing academia was this hope (misplaced) that I’d learn to deal with it!

    Rebecca – they were all lovely people, and you could feel that, so really the fault if any resided in me. 🙂

    Courtney – I could take or leave the artwork. It’s the discussion that’s the tricky part! I do believe that most partnerships involve two people from radically different families. It really must be a genetic pattern designed to thin the blood!

    Doctordi – I vividly recall the anecdotes you’ve shared with us about your in-laws, and I think they have their moments too! Very glad you liked the post. 🙂

    Danielle – I held my own better with his grandparents than with his family – the numbers were against me there! 🙂 I have to ration these stories out as so little happens in daily life I never seem to have much personal stuff to relate. But I enjoy telling them too. I’m really looking forward to the Cleopatra! It will definitely get a review here.

    Arti – I just think other people’s family history is so fascinating. I’ll bet the ex-pat life in Hong Kong is really quite something. And how interesting that your parents should have met like that in London. Also, that is such an intriguing study choice your son has made – I hope he really enjoys it. As for Amy Chua, isn’t it funny how coincidences abound once you start looking into a writer – the cultural world is one big tangled up network, I think!

    Kimberly – I’m convinced that marriages (and particularly first marriages) happen between families that are very different in nature. It’s a sort of pre-determined thinning of the blood, I think! And I’m also convinced that all families have a sort of ‘stance’ on intelligence, what it’s like, what it can do, what it’s value is. It’s probably the place where the most rebellion goes on! I’m looking forward to all my history books – it’s a lovely new area of reading for me and I’ll be learning all sorts of new things. 🙂

  19. This was such a lovely post and a great way to introduce your latest book acquisitions to us. The grandparents sound like such lovely people. I have to say I would have been intimidated at those family dinners!

  20. I love this post. I always imagined Mr litlove as old stock, but for some reason I was thinking military. What an exciting pair of eople to have as your grandparents.

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  22. What a great family to have joined, and a beautiful description of a clearly much-admired grandmother (and a grandfather who also stirred emotions!). I wish I had the skills to write as well about my own beloved grandparents who have passed on this year. And like you I am from a quiet family and have married into a noisy one.

    The books are going on my TBR.

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