The Sunlight on the Garden: A Family in Love, War and Madness by Elizabeth Speller

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The Sunlight on the Garden: A Family in Love, War and Madness by Elizabeth Speller

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Buy The Sunlight on the Garden: A Family in Love, War and Madness by Elizabeth Speller at Amazon.co.uk or Amazon.com

Category: Autobiography
Rating: 5/5
Reviewer: Sue Magee
Reviewed by Sue Magee
Summary: After a mental breakdown Elizabeth Speller looked at the history of the women in her family over four generations to see how their history might have affected her mental health. It's a beautifally crafted and very readable history of their hopes, eccentricities and sexual misdemeanours which sheds more light on mental illness than many a dry text book. It's highly recommended by Bookbag.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 256 Date: April 2007
Publisher: Granta Books
ISBN: 978-1862079250

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When Elizabeth Speller had a mental breakdown she wondered if her family history might have played a part in her illness. As part of her recovery she looked at her family's past and in particular at four generations of women, at their hopes and half-truths, sexual indiscretions, eccentricities and the way in which they themselves had rewritten family history to suit their own purposes.

I have a personal interest in mental illness. My mother's mental instability ranged through manic depression and personality disorder and I've fought depression all my adult life. I've often wondered how much of my own depression stemmed from my upbringing - when you live with mental illness all your life it seems quite normal - and how much was down to heredity. Elizabeth Speller's book was a breath of fresh air. For perhaps the first time I was able to look at my mother's mental state with a little more understanding (if not forgiveness - some things are beyond that) and to see some sunlight on my own personal garden.

No family is ordinary, but Elizabeth's family was more extraordinary than most. Two double pages of family trees give the wonderful details and provide a useful reference point when you're reading about some of the tangled relationships in the book. On one side of the family are the Howards (motto - Volo Non Valeo: I am willing but unable) and the Cavendishes (Cavendo Tutus: Safe by being cautious) with their stately homes, influence in government and the self-assurance of the aristocracy.

On the other side was the Curtis family. They had no heraldic shield or motto, leaving the sign above their butcher's shop to tell all that needed to be known. Back in the second half of the nineteenth century Ada Curtis, daughter of the shop, began an affair with Gerald Richard Howard, the only child of Frederick Howard, MP and his wife, Lady Fanny Cavendish. It was only after the birth of two illegitimate children that pressure was put on Gerald to regularise the situation. Nothing could remove the stigma of illegitimacy from the two children, the law in those days being harsher than it is now, and Ada was never going to fit into her husband's family. The shadow of the butcher's shop would have been hard to overcome, but it didn't stop other members of the family from trying to profit from the relationship.

Elizabeth Speller tells the family story in episodes. I thought the lack of chronological progression might be a problem but the moving back and forth through place - Switzerland, Paris, Brittany, London, Gloucestershire, Berlin and Bulawayo - and time - works much as memory does when it gently lights another corner of the mind. I haven't even hinted at all the wonderful people who live in this book, from Emma Drew, the queen of the gypsies though to Rupert, who died at the Somme. It's written with the help of the family records supplemented by meticulous research and whilst some parts have obviously been fleshed out, it's basically factual.

The account of Elizabeth's mental illness is told frankly and without self-pity or self-justification. There were times when I felt like crying and times when I laughed out loud but most of all I just felt for her. I've read professionally-written books about mental illness, but this was the first time that I felt that I understood how the patient must feel. I find it hard to avoid the thought that a lot of treatment for mental illness is for the benefit of those around the patient, who often seems to be left out of the equation. It was Elizabeth Speller, wit and poet, whose beautifully-crafted story brought home to me the other side of the story.

My thanks to the publishers, Granta, for sending me this wonderful book.

The book is well-worth reading just as a story, but if you are looking for personal accounts of mental illness then you might also enjoy A Secret Madness, Elaine Bass' account of living with a husband who suffered from Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. If you'd like to read about a man who worked his way through his mental problems by taking on an allotment then you might enjoy Robin Shelton's Allotted Time: Two Blokes, One Shed, No Idea.

Buy The Sunlight on the Garden: A Family in Love, War and Madness by Elizabeth Speller at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy The Sunlight on the Garden: A Family in Love, War and Madness by Elizabeth Speller at Amazon.co.uk


Buy The Sunlight on the Garden: A Family in Love, War and Madness by Elizabeth Speller at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy The Sunlight on the Garden: A Family in Love, War and Madness by Elizabeth Speller at Amazon.com.

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