Rosie: Scenes from a Vanished Life by Rose Tremain review – fascinating and frustrating

Rose Tremain’s account of her unhappy upper-class childhood, from postwar London to Swiss finishing school, is more intriguing than revealing

Memoir is a peculiar thing: better than a second martini when it’s good – like that cocktail, it can make you feel at once slightly jittery and all-seeing, all-knowing – and absolutely rotten when it’s bad; as synthetic as a can of Red Bull, as pointless as a pint of cheap lager. Writers, though, seem more and more to be unable to resist it – a side-effect, perhaps, of our culture’s increasingly stubborn conflation of thought and feeling. Some devote themselves to it right from the beginning of their careers, to the exclusion of every other form (you wonder at the size of the trunk in which they lug about all these memories). Others, valuing wisdom and perspective over simple sensation, leave it until much later.

Rose Tremain, who was born in 1943 and is the acclaimed author of 13 novels and five collections of short stories, falls into the latter camp. However, readers coming to Rosie: Scenes from a Vanished Life in expectation of a fat wedge of social history and stealthy revelation along the lines, say, of that published by the biographer Claire Tomalin last year might want to adjust their expectations. Tremain, it turns out, has delivered a mere sliver of a book, one that takes us only from her childhood in London and the home counties to a finishing school in Switzerland. Its subtitle is certainly precise: in the manner of a certain kind of photograph album, it captures rather beautifully a privileged postwar world of servants and pheasant shoots, boarding school dormitories and unspoken emotions: a realm largely lost to us now. But to what end? By showing us these surfaces, what is its author hoping to tell us? What is it that she wants to explain, to recover, perhaps even to excuse?

Her chief purpose has, I think, to do with familial misery: with how such unhappiness is passed on (Larkin’s ever-deepening coastal shelf), and with how the cycle might be broken.

As a small girl, Tremain’s grand passion and perfect haven was a huge house in Hampshire called Linkenholt Manor, the home of her maternal grandparents, Mabel and Roland Dudley – and it really was this acred property, rather than its inhabitants, that held her imagination and calmed her soul. For those inside it were barely functioning.

Mabel and Roland were poleaxed by grief, having lost two sons, one at 16 to a burst appendix, the other, at 28, in the last month of the war. Meanwhile, their daughter, Jane, Tremain’s mother, had to cope not only with the loss of her brothers, but with the knowledge that she was less loved than these dear, missed boys; that she was no kind of compensation. Tremain, in fact, believes that Jane had never been truly loved by them. Why else would they have dispatched her to boarding school at the age of six? How else to explain, in turn, Jane’s inability to love her own daughters, Rosie and Jo?

Tremain’s secret weapon in this battle against coldness and melancholy comes in the form of her adored nanny, Vera Sturt (AKA Nan), who radiates warmth and kindness, and with whom she happily shares her Chelsea bedroom. Eventually, Sturt will be cast out: when Tremain’s playwright father, Keith, runs off with a younger woman, Jane embarks on a love affair with his wealthy cousin, Ivo; once these two are married, it’s Rosie’s turn to be packed off to a (at first) much-hated boarding school. But though this is painful, Sturt’s work is already done: having imparted to her charge the sense that she is loved by her nanny if no one else, there is now hope for the future. Tremain notes more than once that her relationship with her daughter, Eleanor, could not be more different from Jane’s with her.

Tremain, far left, eats fondue with friends in the 1960s
Tremain, far left, eats fondue with friends in the 1960s. Photograph: Chatto & Windus

There are many strangenesses in Tremain’s narrative, facts that disarm either because they seem so unlikely or so odd, most of which are tossed out almost casually (her class, in this sense, has never left her; so many times I wanted to know more, only to feel vulgar and middle-class for doing so). At boarding school, the girls all stank “like polecats” in their three-day-old underwear (or worse: nothing was laundered more than once a week). Her piano teacher was Joyce Hatto, whose husband would later perpetrate a famous musical fraud, releasing copies of commercial recordings by other artists under her name. At finishing school, she was friends with a girl whose mother had been married to – and whipped by – the serial killer Neville Heath. More gravely, something terrible happened to Jane after her second marriage – I will not say what, here – but it is so little understood, and so little explained, it has the quality of a bad dream. I began to wonder if it had happened at all.

All this is fascinating, if frustrating. Elsewhere, though, impatience rushed over me. The footnotes in which Tremain links her fiction to her life are so self-regarding; it is as if she is Dickens or George Eliot, and we must all have spent years and years wondering about how she came up with this green bathing suit, that forest in the Alps. And how she hangs on to the ways in which her parents disappointed her. They do sound selfish, and rather mean. It must have been, for instance, quite horrible when her mother told her that she wouldn’t be listening in to her first radio play (she had to go to a lunch party). But part of me wanted to say: join the club. Divide a group – any group – of writers in two, and at least half will have families who care not a jot about what they do. This is life, for writers just as for solicitors, doctors and gas fitters. Best simply to make a joke of it, if you can.

Above all, though, I never felt, for all her writerly elegance and care, that Tremain had brought me close to her family, let alone to herself. I could see everyone’s outlines – their powdered cheeks, their twinsets and grimy school knickers – but not what made them get into such muddles, cause such domestic mayhem (though I’ve read of, and experienced, far worse on this score).

To return to where we started, then, Rosie is not at all like a second martini – though it would not be fair, either, to compare it to cheap lager. For me, what it resembled most was a glass of cold riesling. It’s perfectly delicious in its way, but part of you always wonders if you’re really drinking alcohol at all.

To order Rosie: Scenes from a Vanished Life by Rose Tremain for £11.99 go to or call 0330 333 6846. Free UK p&p over £10, online orders only. Phone orders min p&p of £1.99


Rachel Cooke

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
Islands of Mercy by Rose Tremain review – a rich, world-straddling saga
Set between Bath and Borneo, this 14th novel skilfully explores familiar themes of desire, frustration and the quest for meaning

Stephanie Merritt

21, Sep, 2020 @8:00 AM

Article image
The Gustav Sonata by Rose Tremain review – a masterful tale of envy and love
A powerful, nuanced story of the complicated friendship between two boys in wartime Switzerland

Hannah Beckerman

29, Jan, 2017 @7:00 AM

Article image
And Finally: Matters of Life and Death review – humility lessons from Henry Marsh
The ever candid neurosurgeon reflects on his own mortality, as well as the failings of his profession, in this enthralling third volume of memoirs

Colin Grant

29, Aug, 2022 @6:00 AM

Article image
Dear Life by Rachel Clarke review – somewhere towards the end
A palliative care specialist offers a tender meditation on how people confront their final days

Nicci Gerrard

21, Jan, 2020 @7:00 AM

Article image
Don’t You Leave Me Here: My Life by Wilko Johnson – review
The wild-eyed Dr Feelgood musician reveals how it felt to live under a death sentence in this moving, rambling memoir

Jude Rogers

07, Jun, 2016 @6:00 AM

Article image
Admissions: A Life in Brain Surgery by Henry Marsh – review
The acclaimed neurosurgeon exudes humility in this fine second memoir, which sees his retirement after 40 years in medicine

Tim Adams

08, May, 2017 @6:30 AM

Article image
Taste: My Life Through Food by Stanley Tucci review – eat, drink, swoon
With a side order of charm and anecdotes, the actor and gourmand makes our reviewer crave a plate of his zeppole

Rachel Cooke

11, Oct, 2021 @6:00 AM

Article image
My Life, Our Times by Gordon Brown review – formidable but destructively flawed
Brown’s memoir is great on his years in the Treasury but suffers from his fixation with the leadership

Andrew Rawnsley

12, Nov, 2017 @7:00 AM

Article image
Wear and Tear: The Threads of My Life by Tracy Tynan – review
Kenneth Tynan’s daughter, now a successful costume designer, paints a vivid portrait of her hellraising parents

Kate Kellaway

07, Mar, 2017 @7:30 AM

Article image
Real Estate by Deborah Levy review – a dialogue between art and life
The third of Levy’s memoirs, which sees her leaving home for a fellowship in Paris, is a drily funny contemplation of what it means to be a female writer

Stephanie Merritt

03, May, 2021 @6:00 AM