- The Washington Times - Sunday, June 29, 2008

The rich are different. The English rich are especially different, burdened as they are with all that voluptuous reticence.

And, boy, can they exact revenge.

Witness Miranda Seymour’s gorgeous deconstruction of her family, the family manor and a fair slice of English snobbery besides. It could be said that her beautifully crafted parental takedown is “Mommie Dearest” with a pinkie finger curled. But that would deny its subtlety and its lethality.

In truth, “Thrumpton Hall: A Memoir of Life in My Father’s House” is more than a pleasure to read. Ms. Seymour, the author of acclaimed biographies of Mary Shelley, Henry James and French racing driver Helle Nice, fashions her family history with careful attention to the demands of class and culture. With its grand houses, their fading glory and the complex relationships within, it’s hard not to think of Evelyn Waugh’s “Brideshead Revisited.”

At the center of the book is, of course, Ms. Seymour’s father, George FitzRoy Seymour, presented here above all else as a victim of his own snobbery. Thriving on mentions in the London Times and shattered by perceived slights, his world revolved around his beloved Thrumpton Hall, the Nottinghamshire estate of which Ms. Seymour writes: “How old do you have to be to form a passion that will endure for a lifetime? The answer in my father’s case seems clear. Abandoned at the age of two, he had given his heart to Thrumpton. No human love would ever displace it.”

Ms. Seymour approaches her father’s life with a sometimes unsettling objectivity. She is a detective on a mission to find what made him the apparently unpleasant man he became. Although she extends little sympathy to him, she makes a valiant effort to be fair. In the book’s early pages, she speculates on the source of his profound and possibly life-defining loneliness.

The abandonment at two came when George’s parents were sent to a diplomatic posting in South America. Rather than taking their youngest child with them, he was left in the care of an uncle and aunt who schooled him in the art of recognizing his station. Spending most of his days in the early years in the attic of his uncle’s home, George took comfort from gazing at his family tree. Later, at the age of 21, he immersed himself in a biography, taking “proud note of the fact that the king’s long liaison with the Duchess of Cleveland made him into a direct ancestor. The connection was remote; nevertheless, this was the time at which George came to see himself as (almost) royal.”

Preternaturally pious as a young child, he seems to have had little in the way of the games and pastimes of other children his age. A shiny new bicycle brought him some pleasure, but even then it was at first because of the dazzle attached to the brand name. Later, he would become an avid bicycle-rider.

Reading this book, one understands that Ms. Seymour has snobbery and Thrumpton Hall in her bones. She acknowledges such, recognizing that her sleuthing - sometimes into the personal life of her parents - makes her mother uncomfortable. She visits her father’s school searching for clues, scours her fathers letters and diaries for information and approaches a white-haired celebrity from the Conservative party whom her father claims to have known only to be told by the luminary he does not remember her father at all.

It does not help to realize that Ms. Seymour seems to be writing the book with something far from affection. Here, what seems to prevail is score-settling, an impression supported by the author’s revelation that she “used to pray, deep into my pillow, that my father would die.” But in the earliest pages of the book it is hard to know why Ms. Seymour harbors such feelings toward a man who seems more dull and bumptious than dangerous.

But as one reads along one learns that this unhappy and frustrated man also clearly could be cruel. Recounting episodes in which he mocked his adolescent daughter about her appearance and required that she and her mother wear wigs, one wonders why she wants to immortalize this man in print, or more precisely consign him to an eternity’s worth of disregard.

George Seymour died in 1994 and in the intervening years his daughter has navigated the maintenance costs of the sprawling manor and now, with this book, has done an admirable job of gazing unflinchingly on the life her father led and that she was born into.

Along with ancestors who rubbed elbows with the likes of Rudyard Kipling and George Bernard Shaw are the harder truths about her father. Not strong enough to serve in war, not smart enough to go to Cambridge and in the end inclined to long bicycle rides with younger men, the only thing that rescues this book from being an exercise in pure character assassination and keeps the reader riveted is its honesty and Ms. Seymour‘s undeniably graceful and often brilliant writing.

Does that excuse this elegant patricide? Probably not.


By Miranda Seymour

HarperCollins, $24.95, 288 pages

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