Voyeurism always makes me feel a little cheap. You, too? And what makes it worse in the case of Thrumpton Hall is not merely my relish of contemplating the aristocratic English lifestyle. This Gosford Park/Downton Abbey business is bad enough, but Miranda Seymour’s memoir is also a dysfunctional family saga. Serious dysfunction, in which Seymour played her own part. And that raised some uncomfortable questions for me. Like, does she know how unhinged she sounds in spots? Doesn’t she mind making herself so unattractive? And above all, why go public in this way?
Actually I may understand the last impulse. Seymour has been a professional writer all her adult life. Maybe she got to a point when she could contemplate her difficult family life with some objectivity — and then, because this is what writers do, she felt she should publish the story. After all, it’s got to be the one she’s most keenly interested in.
Basically, this is the tale of her father, a sad, spoiled, insecure man and his obsessive love for a house, Thrumpton Hall. As Seymour tells it, the House came, very early, to stand in for everything secure and warm in George Seymour’s life. Separated from his parents as a very small child, he was brought up there by his aunt and uncle. He ultimately inherited it, but not without corrosive periods of suspense and emotional manipulation by various elder relatives. And when it became his, shortly after the Second World War, it was nearly empty of furniture and dreadfully run down.
All of this might just be a warped, sad version of Debo Devonshire’s life except that George Seymour got stranger and stranger as he got older. From being a crashing snob (cousin to a Duke and don’t you forget it), he became a crashing snob in motorcycle leathers. With young male friends. Oh, make that lovers. In fact the true love of his life turned out to be the illiterate and unemployed Robbie, who also liked motorbikes. Too bad George was was still married to Rosemary at the time. All that time, actually.
Miranda Seymour inherited Thrumpton Hall and at the writing of the book, lived there with her mother Rosemary. She frequently introduces her mother’s comments on her manuscript; protests, additions, corrections. In one painful exchange, her mother reminds her of some pleasant scenes from her childhood:
our annual winter visits to the pantomime and the circus; playing croquet in the garden; walking through fields thick with buttercups, down to the foaming weir… ‘You had a wonderful childhood. I can’t imagine anybody being better looked after.’ She’s plucking at the pockets of her purple velour suit. ‘And now, all you remember are the bad things…’
Seymour has to confess that it’s only the “bad things” that have “emotional freight.”
Do I trust her? She seems to toggle uncomfortably between self-pity and self-flagellation for much of the book, leaving me to wonder why I finished it. Was it that I wanted more inside information on George’s title relatives? Or more searing revelations of his nastiness? Doesn’t reflect well on me either way.