I find it very hard when handling my book stock not to get caught up with reading sometimes! On this occasion the book I couldn't put down was A Childhood in Scotland by Christian Miller. At just 98 pages the reading of it did not distract me for long but the autobiographical tale told has stayed in my mind since.
Christian Miller was born in 1920 into an aristocratic family in the highlands of Scotland. She grew up the youngest of six and lived the kind of semi-privileged, semi-deprived life that, for example, the Mitford sisters appear to have had. In her short memoir she takes us through the rooms of the castle, introducing the family and servants who lived there, shows us the estate, and lets us join her for the key days of the year and her more abiding memories. It is hauntingly written with an economy of emotion that makes it all the more moving. What the reader is left with is the feeling of a vast amount of space and time: of course between our lives and hers, but also stretching back in that echoing empty castle over hundreds of years of ancestors.
When I was a little girl, the ghosts were more real to me than the people. The people were despotic and changeable, governing my world with a confusing and alarming inconstancy. The ghosts, on the other hand, could be relied on to go about their haunting in a calm and orderly manner. Bearded or bewigged, clad in satin or velvet or nunlike drapery, they whispered their way along the dark corridors of the castle where I was born and spent the first ten years of my life, rarely interfering with or intruding on the lives of the living.
And the people in Miller's story seem as ghost-like as the ghosts she describes at the start of the book. Her parents were distant and, though her mother was kindly, her war-wound-pained father was angry and quick to beat the children. She seemed to belong to no-one with no single adult person to call her own, and this seems the saddest thing about her life. Nannies and governesses came and went, her mother concerned herself greatly with the lives of the servants but little with her children, other staff treated the children as nuisances who got in the way. She relates how severe scoldings could happen for the wrong behaviour but there was no common ground among the adults as to what this behaviour was to be. She recalled being deprived of pudding by one governess for not having her hands neatly on the table either side of her place setting and for being scolded by her father for not having her hands in her lap when at the table. On another occasion she was sent to get a refill of sugar for the nursery sugar bowl but Cook would not let her in the kitchen. She knew she could not return with the bowl empty however, so stayed in the passage and wept.
The castle in the book seems more real than the people. Her rather distant mother though was not unkind and one can't help warming to a woman whose priorities included books:
My mother loved the little rooms. She had one fitted out as a minature library, to house her treasured collection of books. Born and brought up in the more urbane county of Perthshire, some hundreds of miles to the south, she had accepted my father's proposal of marriage after a candle-lit courtship - not having seen him in daylight before agreeing to become his wife - and seemed never to have got over her surprise at finding herself chatelaine of so comparatively uncivilised a place as the castle. Perhaps it was a sense of isolation from the sheltered world of her girlhood that made her look on her library as a sort of refuge; the tiny room lit only by the vertical arrow-slit windows, smelled of leather bindings and of the lily of the valley scent she always wore. The almost tangible presence of the characters in the books gave the room an expectant sort of magic, like the atmosphere in an empty theatre that will soon be filled with all the bustle of a play.
That last sentence is one of my favourite in the book.
Despite her childhood's emotional privations she seems to have valued the space of the castle and its estate. Childhood pastimes are regaled with some pleasure and the otherworldliness of the way of living makes every page fascinating. It is not therefore a depressing read but I came away feeling very sorry for the little girl who lived in hand-me-down boys' school jumpers fashioned into a dress with round her waist the collars of deceased dogs "the brass lables of which proclaimed our names to be Rover or Thunder or Trust".
If you are fascinated by the various biographies and autobiographies of the Mitfords then this is a must read. However it is a quieter book and the isolation of the children's lives is here unleavened by Mitford humour. There is though an intensity to the narration that makes this, in its own way, just as compulsive a read.
I have enjoyed a chat on twitter with Cornflower about this book and you might like this link that she gave to me (scroll down) as well reading her review of A Childhood in Scotland too (I didn't read her review till I had written mine, deliberately, but it is amazing how we've focused on the same things). I have also unearthed this piece from the Times archive on Christian Miller, later Bowman (you don't need to be a subscriber to read it) which is another lovely insight into the author.