“Do you love me? Do you love me?” Rose Tremain’s mother kept asking her daughter at the end of her life. “And I’d say: ‘Yes, of course I do.’ But I never have and I never will because you didn’t show me love when I needed it,” the novelist says now, as if her mother, Jane, were in the room with us.
After more than 40 years of not drawing on her own life in her fiction, Tremain has written a memoir. This slim, elegant – sometimes shocking – study of maternal failure is also a love letter to her nanny, “the kindest person I’ve ever known”, the author’s “saviour” and “angel”. Her childhood, she writes in Rosie: Scenes from a Vanished Life, was defined by one heartbreaking wish: “I didn’t want Jane to be my mother; I wanted Nan to be my mother.” The scenes of the title are moments of “particular emotional intensity”, Tremain explains, usually episodes of “dereliction or cruelty” on the part of her parents – in particular, her mother. “She really didn’t like us, either me or my sister. And I don’t quite know why.”
Materially, their postwar, upper-middle-class upbringing “was quite privileged and easy”, she says. “And in an emotional way really hard.” This was a world in which the pre-lunch gin and tonics flowed more freely than affection, and children were expected to be seldom seen, at least not by their parents. In her memory, their house in Chelsea, “a pleasant but ordinary little London borough then”, is divided between the “frozen world” of her parents on the lower floors, and at the top of the house “this very warm, loving heart with Nan,” with whom she shared a bedroom for her first 10 years. Her father, Keith Thomson, unerringly referred to as a “failed playwright” (“He wasn’t very good”, she says) wrote in an office on a little landing: “Shhh, daddy’s working …” they were told every time they went up the stairs.
When she was 10, he walked out on the family for a younger woman, rupturing her childhood into a before and after “the great casting away”. Her mother had a breakdown and promptly married one of their circle (“the grown ups were playing musical beds”); Rosie and Jo were sent to boarding school (an exile of chilblains and constant hunger); and worst of all – Nan was sent away.
A natural storyteller, Tremain talks in eloquent anecdotes with the precise intonation of a distinguished actor – and flashes of gossipy humour. Rare is the interview that doesn’t mention her Georgian house on the outskirts of Norwich. And yes, early spring sunshine fills the lovely sitting room, where tall windows give a view on to sloping lawns and wide Norfolk skies. “When I first saw this house,” she recalls, “I’d come out of a very unhappy divorce, all very frantic. I remember walking into this room and the elderly couple who were here were eating cucumber sandwiches and watching the Test match. I thought – this is something else, I think I have to buy this.”
That was in 1985, and for the last couple of decades she has shared it with the biographer Richard Holmes. “Richard is sort of a perfect partner for me. We have such a wonderful ongoing conversation. It’s very rare that you meet a soulmate, isn’t it? But we are,” she says matter-of-factly. As her first two marriages were “turbulent”, it was not until her mid-40s, she says, that her life became “sensible and stable”: one of the reasons why Rosie ends on the brink of adulthood. “I don’t want to write the sort of memoir that slags people off and takes vengeance,” she says firmly. “I don’t admire writers who do that. It’s cheap, angry. I’m not, I hope, cheap or angry.”
She had hoped the book might help her both understand and forgive her parents – it didn’t. A sorry incident (borrowed in her 2010 novel, Trespass) when her mother got stuck in a lime-green bathing costume on her 13th birthday has ruined the day ever since, “hard on the people who have to share it with me now”. But by sheer “force of mind” she long ago resolved to stop being persecuted by feelings of loss about her absent father. “It’s over. Finished,” she decided. She couldn’t have written the memoir had her parents, especially her mother, still been alive: “It would have been too hurtful to her.”
The book arose out of a conversation with her daughter, Eleanor, a psychotherapist, during one of their weekly lunches. “She said to me: ‘Come on Mum, I want to know about Nan,’ ” Tremain recalls. “It was an absolutely overwhelming experience. And of course, being a therapist, Eleanor could facilitate the conversation very well. I don’t know what they thought in the restaurant, me sort of weeping.”
It was Nan’s affection that saved her sanity and stopped her passing on the mistakes of her mother, “who had no schooling in love”, to Eleanor and ultimately to her two young grandchildren. (Although she is the least autobiographical of authors, Tremain’s emotionally inadequate mothers – in, for example, The Gustav Sonata, and Sacred Country – now seem striking.) After the lunch, Tremain came home and started looking through old photograph albums. “I thought, I do have very strong feelings about all this. I’ll probably die quite soon and it will be lost.” So she started writing.
One of the most memorable scenes records a “little epiphany” she experienced at school when she was around 13 or 14, the intensity felt as she describes it all these years later: “We had been playing tennis, it was summer, early evening, a very beautiful light. I remember standing in this hay meadow, it had just been cut, so there was that absolutely wonderful scent of new-mown hay, and thinking, this is going to go in about five minutes, how can I can capture this? This feeling of almost transcendence? The beauty of this place?” So she wrote a story about it, “locking it in ... for ever”. She can’t remember whether the story was any good. “I don’t suppose it was,” she says. But it confirmed in her the certainty that “writing was the only thing that I wanted to do”.
Nan died in 1964 when Tremain was at university, and it is one of her sadnesses that she never knew of her literary success, especially as she would have taken more pride in it than either of her parents.
Her early novels were critically well received, but it wasn’t until her fifth, Restoration – “a ludicrously flamboyant, noisy, wild, sort of orchestral thing”, she says now – that she really made her name. (It is the only one of her books her father, jealous of her success, admitted to enjoying.) Set in the court of Charles II, “a mirror” to the explosion of Thatcherite materialism at the time, it also earned her the label “historical novelist”, which, she says, has followed her around ever since.
In fact, several of her novels now seem prescient in their timeliness, tackling issues such as transsexuality in Sacred Country (1992), and immigration in The Road Home, which won the Orange prize in 2008 and which, post-Brexit, she’s updating for TV. Sacred Country was described as “groundbreaking” by Peter Tatchell in a new introduction for its reissue last year, but when it first came out, “People said: ‘What? This is such a marginalised subject. Why’s she writing about this?’” she says.
Long part of the literary establishment, Tremain was one of only six women on the inaugural 1983 Granta best young British novelists list that included Amis, Barnes, McEwan, Ishiguro et al. It’s hard to think of a contemporary novelist to rival her imaginative range: her fiction roams the world from 17th‑century Denmark to 21st-century London. But, although Restoration was shortlisted for the Booker in 1989 (losing out to Ishiguro’s The Remains of the Day), the prize has eluded her, perhaps, it has been suggested, due to a sniffiness about historical fiction. Then Hilary Mantel marched into the 16th century and made off with the trophy – twice. “Yes, it’s quite annoying isn’t it,” Tremain laughs.
Does the Booker still bother her? “Well, it does slightly,” she says with unwriterly candour. “I think, really? All those books which have had on the whole, such great acclaim, why has that never happened? But it annoys me that it bothers me. And now we’ve got the Americans in it, it’s gone, hasn’t it?” She has been a judge twice, in 1988 and 2000. Did she enjoy it? The first time, yes; the second, not so much.
Her office is lined with box-files of cuttings: she likes a Kipling image – “riddling the fire of your research” – to describe her writing process. Holmes works upstairs. They meet for lunch. Lots of coffee. And clock off around 6.30pm. “Sometimes a bit scratchy, sometimes a bit silent.” One of the great things about living with another writer, she says, is not having to explain “the mood of slight preoccupation. It’s a great relief. Because if you are doing creative work you are bound to have bad times with it, aren’t you?” Both she and Holmes are determined “to keep working until we fall over or our minds go completely, what he calls ‘the boots-on strategy’.”
She hit a crisis last April, after the death of her editor Penny Hoare, with whom she had worked since her first book, Sadler’s Birthday, in 1976. Penny would come to stay and they would go through each manuscript line by line. “She would sit there,” Tremain says pointing at a chair next to her – “very upright. She would only want roast chicken for dinner. We would talk for two days.” Her longest book, Music and Silence, “took us three days. I think we ran out of chicken.” Penny had Rosie by her bed when she died, Tremain says, her voice catching. “She would just unerringly put her hands on all the weak points of the book, quite uncanny to me.”
For the first time, Tremain doubted whether she would be able to carry on, but somehow her joy in writing still hasn’t wavered. She cites Amis’s observation that if he were not a writer life would be “thin”. But she’s not very hopeful about the world at large: “I can hardly watch the news,” she admits. “With war and climate change and Brexit and Trump – it’s never been worse in my 70-odd years of life. I think we live in really very terrifying times.”
Outside of her study, she finds solace in the cafe in Norwich’s John Lewis. “A cheese scone and a cup of coffee and I’m completely at peace,” she says. “Give me a tearoom anywhere. So many things that we do in our life you have to do. Pretty much must do, must do, must do. But you can just decide to be in your tearoom, or not. They are spaces outside time.”
And the novel she is working on now?
Well, it begins in a teashop – and ends in the jungle of Borneo.
“If I can keep on writing fiction, that’s a tiny contribution to people’s mental health,” she says. “You can pick up one of my books and think: ‘Oh well, for the next half an hour, I’m all right.’”
- Rosie: Scenes from a Vanished Life by Rose Tremain is published by Chatto and Windus on 12 April.