Magazine article The Spectator

'Elisabeth's Lists: A Family Story', by Lulah Ellender - Review

Magazine article The Spectator

'Elisabeth's Lists: A Family Story', by Lulah Ellender - Review

Article excerpt

The arrival at a new foreign posting for a junior diplomat's wife in the first half of the last century was no glamorous picnic, as she grappled with a ceremonial sword in a golf bag, three months supply of toothpaste, a crate of hot water bottles and enough safety pins for every emergency. Born in 1915, and having lived in Brussels, Paris, Latvia, Persia and China as a diplomat's daughter, Elisabeth Knatchbull-Hugessen, aged 24, married Gerry Young, a man from her father's profession. With marriage she continued the familiar routine of packing and unpacking, and arriving at, and departing from, different countries. As the unpaid 'two-for-the-price-of-one', she accompanied Gerry on postings to 1940s Spain during the aftershock of the Civil War; to Beirut in 1944, riddled with Anglo-French tensions; to exotic but politically riven Rio in 1947; and finally to the glamour of Paris in 1956.

Each country involved adventure, unpredictability, hurdles imposed by new languages, danger and the tedium of official sociability. One month in Beirut she attended 13 tea parties, 60 cocktail parties and 63 lunches or dinners and was served 'stuffed intestines, yards of them' as well as 'rats turned inside out'. At times she encountered heat, cold and bedbugs and a sense of shifting identities, of not knowing where she truly belonged. Throughout this two-decade-long peripatetic existence Elisabeth made lists in 'a small red-brown, marbled hard-back journal', fulfilling 'the human impulse to seek order and clarity through the act of writing things down'.

These lists in Elisabeth's neat hand-writing, reproduced throughout the book in facsimile, form the spine of Lulah Ellender's biography of her grandmother, a story of vulnerability, resilience and love, quietly and beautifully told. Each list represents a significant marker of a moment, of shifting priorities, of the ebb and flow of the private and the public life of a grandmother who died 15 years before Ellender was born.

Lists, as Ellender points out, have always ranged from the practicality of grocery shopping to profundity, as when we 'lasso our grief, madness and dreams with neat lines'. Elisabeth makes lists of wedding presents; of 'things' that once belonged to a much-loved but tragic, complex brother; lists of clothes to pack for new, tiny children; lists of close friends to contact in times of great need; Christmas presents lists; lists of eggs laid by ambassadorial chickens; a list of recipes headed 'simple cooking'; and a list written after the birth of a baby when she was suffering from severe, undiagnosed postnatal stress headed 'Things that worry me'. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

Oops!

An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.