Sunday, January 12, 2020

My Grandmothers and I - Diana Holman Hunt

It vaguely occurred to me as a student that I ought to try and do some research into my great grandfather who had been a minor Victorian painter. I very quickly hit a dead end and kind of forgot about it until a couple of years ago when after a casual conversation it started to seem like a good idea again.

I think there’s probably a good story somewhere in the mix, but the 25 years procrastination has not helped me and the dead ends are multiplying. Diana Holman Hunt turned out to be one of them, but at least I found her books so though she turned out to be a dead end she’s most definitely not a dead loss.

Serendipitously a distant cousin got in touch, she was also doing a bit of research into Francis Swithin Anderton, and sent me an interview the family had done with my great aunt Rosamund when she was 90. In it she mentions playing with the Holman-Hunt children - I’m not sure about this, she would have been much younger than William Holman-Hunt’s children, and considerably older than Diana Holman-Hunt who as far as I can tell was the only grandchild (for such a famous artist there’s very little information to be had about his children).

‘My Grandmothers and I’ is an odd little book. It was a surprise best seller for Holman-Hunt who is giving a highly edited view of her childhood and some of the more colourful parts of it. Her father is working abroad (India?) her mother is never mentioned, it seems likely that she’s dead but we don’t know and the internet had failed to clear this point up for me. Diana is living with her maternal grandparents, the Freeman’s, in a smoothly run luxurious household. If this grandmother comes across as cold, her grandfather seems warmer, and the staff are fond of her.

Her other grandmother ‘Grand’ is the widow of William Holman-Hunt, a much more eccentric proposition living in a decaying house that acts as a museum to the great man. Stays with Grand sound horrendous, she is something of a miser, and obsessed with preserving past glories and memories. Of the two grandmothers she comes across in much the worst light.

Grand was a Waugh (it was a considerable scandal at the time that Holman-Hunt married first one sister, and then after she died, another one, which wasn’t entirely legal in the UK at the time) but I didn’t make the connection to Evelyn Waugh until I started ‘My Grandfather, His Wives and Loves’. It’s the same family which is interesting because there’s definitely some early Waugh waspishness about this book which I now assume is deliberate.

The reason I called it an odd little book is because it’s clearly written (first published in 1960) to poke at the Victorian/Edwardian manners of her grandmother’s, but also I think to settle some old scores. Life with the Freeman’s might be short on obvious affection but it also sounds like a fairly typical upper class childhood, and not particularly unhappy.

Life with Grand is much worse. Chaotic to the point of neglect and abuse, when Diana’s father finally turns up he turns out to be weak, selfish, and in every way deficient as a parent. Still, it’s Grand who comes out in the worst possible light and the ways in which Diana chooses to expose her are a very deliberate decision.

It’s an undeniably amusing and interesting memoir though, made by Diana’s ability to paint herself in a less than flattering light too. Her voice is her own, but Nancy Mitford fans should find plenty to love in this, as will Waugh fans. It’s well worth tracking down.


  1. I read this book some years ago and was rather shocked at the cavalier attitude toward children. I hadn't reaslised the Waugh connetion. And there you are - related, possibly.

  2. I have done a considerable amount of family history research for my own family, and I find that in the 19th C. "marriage with deceased wife's sister" was quite common. It also seems quite sensible. The first wife dies, the widowed husband marries one of her sisters, the children get a new Mother that they presumably know - and as far as I can tell at this distance in time, it all seems to work OK.

    1. As far as I understand it, it was strictly prohibited in Britain between 1835 and 1907, before 1835 it was less strictly prohibited. I assume this has a lot to do with Henry VIII and his divorce from Catherine of Aragon. It was legel to marry elsewhere so the Holman Hunt's went to Switzerland but it was something of a scandal at the time. I agree with you that it must have been a good solution for plenty of families though.

  3. If you are a Flambards fan, you know it was relevant in that series which starts out with orphaned (but heiress) Christina being taken in by her harsh uncle because he wants her to marry his elder son.

  4. This is the most beautiful book I ever read. I was so touched by it that I wrote to her son. Never realising what a brilliant man he was. He was kind enough to reply. What a lovely man who iam sad to say died years ago now. I too am very old now. Dear Diana was a brilliant writer. I was lucky enough to find her first book in a little country second hand bookshop. It was brilliant and broke my heart. Her dear son was generous to share some special, private facts about her. He was a truly brilliant man. How lucky I was to go into that little bookshop at the bottom of the world..