I have long been enthusiastic about Mark Girouard – his ‘Life in the English Country House’ was probably the best read of my degree so it’s a pleasure to get to know the man behind the books a little better. After reading ‘Enthusiasms’ I googled Girouard, surprisingly because he’s well respected and connected, I didn’t find much about him beyond his age (80).
This is an odd little book, easy to read, hard to write about (I’ve been trying for 3 days). The first half chronicle various projects and thoughts – mostly about writers, the second half is a series of potted family biographies. Girouard has some fascinating ancestors (his would be the best ‘Who do you think you are?’ ever). Overall (and this is why I think his age was important enough to mention, although I feel slightly bad mannered for doing so) it feels like a collection of things he wants to share before the moment has gone but also a throwing down of the gauntlet. This isn’t just about sharing memories or holding forth on a pet theory it’s an invitation, explicitly made in many instances, to pick up the baton.
I’m strongly reminded of two other books; ‘The Hare with Amber Eyes’ for the family stories – Girouard also has his collection of objects (they are variously books, portraits, medals, letters and diaries. There have been more but over the years they have been lost – a collection of crystals which he thinks the cleaning lady had, or been given away - pen used to sign an important treaty went to a fellow historian) and a Jewish ancestry. The difference is that he doesn’t fetishise his things in the same way – or at least not openly and that he chooses to concentrate on the very remarkable achievements of the Solomon clan who turn out to be well worth celebrating especially Saul Solomon who was a dwarf but also a moving force in South Africa in the middle of the nineteenth century. He fought all legislation which sought to bring distinctions against class, colour, or creed, was the parliamentary kingmaker and altogether a serious proposition – it’s a very inspiring story.
The other book that came to mind was Susan Hill’s ‘Howards End is on the Landing’. The similarity is in the format and the sharing of enthusiasms and prejudices (as well as some pretty impressive name dropping) but I prefer Girouard. I feel he has more of a metaphorical twinkle in his eye and never more so than when talking about Walter the Victorian Casanova/pornographer and Lionel Sackville-West (a reference to his delicious tart made my mother think this was a cookbook, she soon realise her mistake.) I had half forgotten the historian’s predilection for throwing in the odd risqué anecdote - I assume as a test to see if the student is listening – it’s an effective method. I had never heard of Walter but am intrigued by him now, the important thing about him being that nobody has ever cracked his identity. Girouard was distracted by an attempt to do so for a while but everything leads to dead ends and he finally gives up – which makes the process no less fascinating.
The academic process is better applied to an early Jane Austen fragment where there is a convincing argument to have it re-dated (I’m no expert on this but the theory is persuasive) and Oscar Wilde gets a drubbing when his down and out in Paris income is added up. There is also a dowager Duchess of Devonshire in the mix (not the present one) and a really good debunking of a Tennyson myth. It’s an odd little book in its mix of topics but it’s thought full and thought provoking – definitely worth picking up.