Magazine article The Spectator

The Thin End of the Wedge

Magazine article The Spectator

The Thin End of the Wedge

Article excerpt

The Crocodile by the Door: The Story of a House, a Farm and a Family by Selina Guinness Penguin, £16.99, pp. 256 ISBN 9781844881574 Aunts, generally of an antic or highly unconventional kind, are a literary staple.

Anyone wanting to find the best of them would do well to turn to Rupert Christiansen's excellent companion study of the breed, The Complete Book of Aunts. Literary uncles are rarer, but no less enjoyable to meet. Nancy Mitford's Uncle Matthew is one of the great comic creations, while Laura Shaine Cunningham's Sleeping Arrangements is moving and funny by turns. A memoir of the two very peculiar bachelor uncles who brought her up after the early death of her mother, it is one of those yardstick books: you couldn't really like anyone who didn't like it.

Now Selina Guinness has written a memoir, The Crocodile by the Door, which introduces a memorable new uncle. On the surface, he seems rather ordinary: a retired schoolmaster living alone in a mouldering Irish house, Uncle Charles is benign, reticent and kind. All the best stories have other, untold stories concealed in their fabric and this is no exception. Charles is adorable yet mysterious. What is certain is that he has provided a haven, both literal and otherwise, to his niece.

Hidden behind their lifelong closeness is another story, again only glimpsed here, concerning her own childhood. While she is never gung-ho, Guinness doesn't go in for self-pity or analysis; she just gets on with things, quietly and patiently and with great sympathy and tact. …

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