I read this in an e-book version, so I didn’t really have an opportunity to pour over the front and back covers. Without the little telltale identifier ‘biography’ ‘memoir’ or ‘non-fiction’ that some books have on the back cover, I found myself wondering exactly what I was reading here. Was it really a memoir written by a rather arch, conservative, class-conscious Englishman, or was this a masterful frame story for what was essentially fiction? Well, it seems that it is indeed non-fiction and a memoir, which places it back in the pack as being just another family-history-as-search type book, a genre of which I am not particularly fond.
Ferdinand Mount starts his memoir by recalling the various houses in which his Aunt Betty and Uncle Grieg lived. There are quite a few of them, in varying degrees of opulence, and the opening chapter starts, as the rest of the book continues, as a type of roll-call of the significant people to whom his aunt and uncle have tenuous links. It is Aunt Betty who suggests that instead of calling them such prosaic names as “Betty” and “Grieg”, her nephew and niece call them “Munca” and “Unca” after the two mice in Beatrix Potter’s The Tale of Two Bad Mice. At the time the author thinks that this is a childish suggestion to come from an adult, and inaccurate too, as there was actually only one mouse called Hunca (with an H) Munca. However, he acquiesced at the time, and continues to do so during the book, varying between “Munca” and “Betty”. The title of the book comes from a pre-war song with the lyrics:
I’m going to kiss myself goodbye
Oh goodbye, goodbye
I’m going to get on my wings and fly
Up high, Up High
This is more appropriate, because this is the story of the deception undertaken by several members of his family as they accelerate their climbing of the social ladder in Britain, breaking through the famed class system by the adoption of different names and shady dealings.This is not necessarily an unique story: Robyn Annear did it better with the Tichborne inheritance in The Man Who Lost Himself and Kirsten McKenzie adopted a more scholarly approach to false identity and deception in A Swindler’s Progress (my review here). However, while distance and the colonies provided good coverage for false identity, there is a certain brazenness about Aunt Betty’s story, slipping through names and marriages without moving out of England.
The book is structured around his family history search for the truth about his Aunt Betty, whom he always found evasive and mysterious. It is a search driven by documents and he is a particularly inept family historian, naive about sources, and unusually reliant on other people finding things for him. He uses his search for a particular member of his family as the rationale for a new chapter, which means that there is a certain amount of back-tracking and foreshadowing, and he weakens his book considerably by including updates on his searches at the end which diffuses, rather than tightens, his ending.
The book is not just about his Aunt Betty/Munca, but he infuses it with a lot of his own memoir as well. He is an undisciplined narrator, launching off into long descriptions of tangential information, and drawing links with minor royalty and celebrity figures. I don’t think that I would particularly like this man personally. He is certainly well-connected with the literary scene and Conservative Party politics: head of the Policy Unit during Thatcher’s time, the holder of a hereditary baronetcy through his uncle, contributor to the Sunday Times and the London Review of Books, former editor of the Times Literary Supplement for eleven years, and a fellow of the Royal Society of Literature. I can only assume that it is these latter connections that landed him Hilary Mantel’s saccharine and very prominent front-cover blurb that the book was “Grimly funny and superbly written, with a twist on every page”.
The book is well written, but there is a gaping vacuum at its heart where he fails to interrogate or even imagine the nature of Aunt Betty/Munca that led her to such contradictory and often callous actions. It is as if he has traced the steps but never stopped to ask “why”. This would, of course, require speculation but he has not resiled from speculation and guesswork elsewhere. Given the wreckage that she left behind her in terms of marriages and adoption, his tunnel vision suggests that perhaps there is more of Aunt Betty/Munca in him than he would like.
My rating: 6/10
Sourced from: purchased e-book; read for the Ivanhoe Reading Circle.