Rosie: Scenes from a Vanished Life – Rose Tremain

Rose Tremain has been in print for more than 40 years. Her novels and short stories have earned her the Orange Prize, the Dylan Thomas Award, the Whitbread Novel of the Year award and the James Tait Black Memorial Prize, amongst others. It’s always hugely exciting when talented writers turn their pens on themselves, so I was looking forward to this one.

Rosie covers the period of Tremain’s life from birth (in 1943) to the early 1960s. She grew up in post-war London where, according to the inside cover blurb, ‘food and affection were fiercely rationed’. With a distant father, frustrated playwright Keith Thomson, and a mother, Jane, seemingly incapable of love, Tremain lived for the family’s trips to Hampshire, where they spent summers at her grandparents farm deep in the countryside. However, aged 10, everything changed when Keith left them to start a new family with a much younger woman he’d fallen in love with while working on a play in York.

Not long after Keith’s departure, Jane began an affair with his cousin, Ivo Thomson, who she eventually married. Tremain and her older sister Jo found themselves dispatched to boarding school in Hertfordshire, where Rosie had to start over, searching for the friendship and love that she had never been able to take for granted.

Although I’ve read a number of her books, I didn’t know anything at all about Tremain’s personal life – it came as a surprise to find she’d had a more unusual upbringing than most. The most shocking thing is the lack of love she experiences. Her mother makes it disarmingly plain that she doesn’t love her daughters, but it’s not expressed as indifference. There are occasions when it seems more like maliciousness or jealousy. Tremain explores the idea of Jane’s jealous feelings towards her daughters; the idea that she sees them as unbearably privileged compared to her own experience as the surviving, unloved daughter of parents in perpetual mourning for the beloved sons they lost (one aged 16 to a burst appendix, and the other killed at Furstenau in 1945 in the last month of the war). We can only imagine Jane’s lonely, guilt-ridden childhood. Tremain attempts a degree of balance in the way she acknowledges it, but it can’t quite disguise the fact that she still feels a lot of hurt about the way she was treated – little barbs litter the text.

There are interesting meditations on the idea of love as a learned behaviour. Jane didn’t receive love so she was singularly incapable of bestowing it. Tremain considers her true role model to be her live-in nanny, Vera, with her from birth to the time she was sent away to boarding school. Even after that Vera was a feature in her life – it was to Vera’s home she was sent when illness forced her home from school for a few weeks. She regarded Vera as her angel, the one who saved her by loving her.

Tremain’s memoir is, of course, also about the origins of a writer. I loved the occasional footnote tying Rosie’s real-life experiences to incidents in her later novels. She also describes in detail an event, aged 13 or 14, when she had an epiphany on a beautiful summer evening while walking home across a hayfield. Simultaneously struck by the beauty of the moment and a sense of utter desolation at its fleeting nature, she casts around for a way to preserve it, so it can be ‘captured and locked way, not just in capricious, gradually fading memory, but in some more concrete form’. And so the adolescent Tremain decides that writing is her calling. She wouldn’t just write about her memories, so much ‘sentimental nostalgia’; instead her experiences would be ‘transfigured by becoming fiction… experienced afresh.’ She would ‘assert her divinity over it’. Writing is definitely one of those professions that seems more calling than ‘job’ and you always imagine a moment like this when you romanticise the unleashing of the writer within. It was particularly satisfying to read about Tremain’s ‘lightbulb’.

Throughout the rest of her journey to adulthood we see that resolve tested, particularly when she’s taken out of boarding school, having finally established herself there, and sent to finishing school in Switzerland, where the emphasis is all on how many words per minute you can type and how to marry well.

Interestingly Tremain seems furthest of all from her writing dreams at the end of the book, on the cusp of leaving ‘Mon Fertile’ (yes, really truly), her finishing school. I wonder if she’s planning to write more, covering the long period between school and the moment when she became a published author. It feels like a cliffhanger, but then it also feels like Tremain wrote this book in part to exorcise ‘Rosie’ (she definitely separates herself into Rosie – powerless child – and Rose) and partly to work through her complex feelings towards her mother.

Whatever her reasons for writing, I found it a fascinating insight and will continue to lap up books in which writers write about being writers.