What is the secret for living a long and happy life? The Rain Tree, a memoir by Mirabel Osler suggests that it must be a question of deep, lovingly attentive engagement in every part of life, and a respectful desire to experience each moment just as it is, the good, the bad, the triumphant and the tragic. I’m not sure that I can count the appearance of two elderly lady authors – Diana Athill and now Mirabel Osler – writing beautifully reflexive commentaries on their lives as a trend, but if it has a possibility of becoming one, I’m all for it. There is much to admire about youth – energy, ambition, determination, freshness of vision; but we lose out infinitely if we don’t balance that approach with the finer qualities of old age – a powerful gratitude, healthy indifference to all that thrusting and competing, the wisdom of knowing one self and others well, the experience of exploring relationships to their final point in death, a judicious reckoning with values and principles. We let our perspectives get knocked all out of balance if we don’t have access to that wise, genuinely playful, older voice.
The Rain Tree is not a chronological memoir, rather a series of evocative explorations of the critical passages in Mirabel Osler’s life. The experience of cultivating and writing about gardens, her early childhood, time spent living abroad, the death of her beloved husband and the extraordinary writing career that sprang up by chance late in her life (she published her first book after becoming a widow). She writes powerfully and evocatively about a world that no longer exists, be it London between the wars, Thailand in the sixties or rural Greece. The book opens with her figuring out which environmentally-friendly shroud she wants to have, and continues as extended love letters to children, grand-children and great-grand-children yet to be, so that they might know where they come from, the family history and the history that surrounded their family in times gone passed.
Her mother sounds like an amazing and exasperating person. A woman who lived at full-throttle, spirited, lively, charming, she left home to train as an actress (itself unusual) but as was so often the case in those times, she ended up obliged to have all her great dramas in the domestic arena, falling back on her career as a desperate Romantic. Her first husband, Mirabel’s father, died young of tuberculosis, but before his death she had fallen for a friend of a friend, an Oxford professor of economics. In those days uncomfortable choices had to be made. Phyllis left her two young daughters behind with their sick father to marry him, and was then barred from seeing her children until her first husband died. The second marriage didn’t last, either, although 160 passionate love letters still exist and informed Osler’s account of it. Some stability was provided the young Mirabel by her mother’s closest friend, the painter Stella Bowen, who was herself sucked into a difficult long-term love affair with Ford Maddox Ford.
Mirabel escaped into a happy marriage, but one driven by wanderlust. She and her husband, Michael, left behind a farm in England to teach in Thailand, a country that the author clearly adored. Her writing, always rich and lush, moves into a fifth gear to describe it:
‘From the hotel we took a boat to the floating market where vendors on sampans, loaded with produce, touted their wares along watery alleys between small, open-fronted houses. The women squatted in the sterns of their boats on platforms worn smooth by generations of feet, shaded by paper umbrellas as they cooked on clay stoves the food they sold to travellers passing up and down the river. Men fished, comatose in small skiffs; boys grinned and gobbed as they pulled up armfuls of lotus flowers in bud; and girls washed their hair, rising from the tea-coloured water with their black tresses, sleek as cats’ tails, hanging down their backs. On balconies over the river – to the discord of a badly-tuned wireless and among pots of greenery and hanging baskets of orchids – people gossiped, told fortunes or massaged geriatric limbs. Card players squatted motionless for hours; schoolgirls did their homework; grandfathers used abacuses; and a grandmother – pulling on a rope – rocked her grandchild to sleep in a bamboo cradle.’
Not only did Mirabel live here, enthralled by the sights and sounds, for many years, she and her husband managed the daunting task of adopting a Thai orphan. The bizarre bureaucracy involved in doing this (if you were Thai you could simply walk out the orphanage with a child in your arms who would grow up a slave in the family) is baldly recounted. Little Sureen was, as in all good fairy tales – an illegitimate child of royal descent, and the Oslers had to track down her father in a distant town and accost him, asking his permission to adopt the child. It’s quite a story, but at least it has a happy outcome. This was not the end of the family’s travels, either, as their lengthy stay in Thailand was followed by many years in Corfu, very much the land of Gerald Durrell’s My Family and Other Animals.
The memoir ends on an extremely touching chapter set in the present as the author contemplates her life now, the loss of her husband, the acquisition of new friends, new grandchildren, all the pains and pleasures of old age. Finding that one of her grandchildren has downloaded parts of the memoir from her computer on a visit gives her quite a kick; the thought that her story is wanted, that her young relatives might even be interested in it, is a source of deeply pleasing validation. But if I had a grandmother like this, I’d certainly want to know what she’d got up to in her younger days. Instead I feel I’ve been a privileged passenger on a trip across another world, a kind of Narnia of living memory, all the better and more vivid for once having been a reality. And I can only hope that if I’m lucky enough to reach 85, I’ll still have the sprightly, intoxicating voice of a Mirabel Osler.