Saturday, 7 April 2007

Miss Frances Fanshawe (Or: Theodora, seen from a different perspective)

We had such a nice little visitor yesterday, Bill and I. I answered a ring at the doorbell at ten o’clock, and there she was; a small lady wearing a camel coat, and followed in grave procession by an elderly man in a flat cap, who carried a large basket. I call her a nice little visitor because there’s really no other way of describing her. She’s so very small and slight, for a start. As far, Bill says, from being a dowager as it’s possible to be (dowagers requiring a certain bulk, it seems, in order to qualify for the status: they must weigh at least thirteen stone, and come accompanied with a husband, living, or at least of distant memory). This lady has not, nor ever has had, a husband. Her name is Miss Frances Fanshawe (Bill thinks it’s almost certainly spelt Featherstonehaugh), and I haven't yet found it possible to think of her without the preliminary ‘Miss’, for she is in every respect what I would call the perfect embodiment of the English maiden lady.

She was actually Bill’s visitor, not mine. To Bill must go the credit of having collected her, since she is one of his new dog-walking friends. She’s the one he always refers to by her dog’s name rather than her own – he calls her ‘Luca’s lady’, on account of the the way her big hybrid dog has, of sending her careering off across the common clinging desperately to his leash. Her dog is called Luca, after the town of that name (with the double c), in Tuscany. She found him sitting deslolate on the wall there, and brought him home. He has only very recently been released from quarantine confinement, apparently, and is not yet house-trained enough to be let free from his leash. Bill has been required to step in to give her ballast on several occasions, during one of Luca’s more headlong plunges across the common; and it has been all in the course of these little rescue missions of his , that their friendship has developed.

There she was on our doorstep yesterday, anyway, and it wasn’t more than five minutes flat, before I’d learnt most of what there is to know about her. She lives in the big Queen Anne house at the village end of high street; it’s called the manor house, and has the appearance of being somewhat down on its heels these days, for all its natural grandeur. Miss Fanshawe owns it outright, having inherited it from her late father; and lives alone there, save for an elderly housekeeper who is usually more than halfway tipsy, Bill says, at eleven o’clock in the morning (Bill has been to the house already, apparently; which was another little shock for me); and the still more elderly Mr Jessop, who accompanied her yesterday, and whom she introduced to us as the very good friend who looks after everything at the manor house for her.

Our own first duty as their hosts seemed to be to find somewhere for Mr Jessop to put down his basket - which contained, as Miss Fanshawe took some moments to explain to us, some “nice little fresh things” from the manor house garden. We invited them into my sitting room, and cleared some table space, then watched in wonder while the old man removed layers of coloured tissue paper to reveal lettuces, and hot-house strawberries; pale young rhubarb, and fine, fat, un-English-looking tomatoes. Miss Fanshawe's conduct towards Mr Jessop is of the utmost gentle courtesy – it seemed a nice quality in her, like all her others. She inherited him from her father too, apparently, almost as a sacred trust – so that it has become one of the more solemn pre-occupations of her life these days, to continue finding meaningful things for him to do…

All this information, and much more in a similar vein, tumbled from Miss Fanshawe’s lips in the first five minutes. She seems to have the gift, not uncommon in English maiden ladies, of perfect recall; she also has a command of the stream-of-consciouness narrative that Virginia Woolf might not have been ashamed to call her own. She saw Mr Jessop safely away with his empty basket, and then she consented to stay and have a cup of coffee with us. She had always wanted to see the interior of one of the gatehouses, she said. As a little girl, playing alone in the manor house garden, the walls of which actually abut those of the Macauley house at a certain point….. she had thought the little gatehouses quite the perfect manifestation of what Hansel and Gretel’s gingerbread cottage ought to be. Though of course they had passed out of Macauley hands years ago, Sir Jack having thought it prudent to sell them off… and it had somehow never been possible for her to become acquainted with any of the newer inhabitants who had come and gone.

She professed herself charmed with all that we have done here, which was just the way she might have done it herself, she said. She especially likes our attic, which is in process of being set up as a common sitting room, with one end partitioned off as a study for Bill. “So original” she said; “to be just across the footpath from one another.” “And so companionable too, to be connected at the roof like that.” She had never supposed there could have been a room up there, all those years ago when she had been cycling along the footpath as a girl. And then of course the great thing was, that we each had our particular private ‘side’ to retreat to, whenever we wished to be alone for a while…..

In such a manner as this did she chatter on for an hour, almost without pause for breath. It’s for just that quality of hers Bill likes her, he later told me. For the fact that when you’re with her you haven’t the smallest need to interject, or even to concentrate very much. You just go let it all wash over you, swimming gently with the current, until finally it drifts to its natural end, to evaporate in the upper air. It’s curiously restful, Bill says.

I make a pause at this point; being mindful, always, of the over-long blog, the too-discursive narrative. I haven’t even got as far as Theodora yet, however; which was after all the promised purpose of this page. So I’ll make a short break, and return almost at once, on a fresh page…

Tuesday, 3 April 2007

Theodora's Story, Part One

3 April 2007

I remember it as a story that unfolded in my childhood, so that’s the way I’ll tell it. I shall probably be embarrassed by its lyricism , tomorrow. I’m embarrassed by it in advance indeed: I’m almost certain to go over the top in a Barbara Cartland sort of way to some extent. But then you see, it was a Barbara Cartland sort of world we lived in then, we children of the Forties and Fifties. It was also a rather grey and unromantic world in many ways; the war had just ended, and the great romance of the century had involved a king who gave up his throne for a woman whom nobody very much liked. Looking back on it now, I can see that the course of history might have been very different, had Mrs Simpson been prettier. The great British public has a forgiving heart, and Wallis might have lived to become queen after all, if only she’d looked just a little bit more like Theodora……

That is to jump the gun though, before I’ve even started. To begin at the beginning: it was 1948, and I was nine years old and in love with princesses. But I lived in New Zealand then, and since we had no princesses of our own, I was obliged to look for them in story books; or in the picture magazines that came from England – or sometimes on the newsreels at the little local cinema, which we called the picture theatre, and which was the only living visual record we had, in those long ago pre-television days.

There weren’t many princesses around just then, I seem to recall. Princess Elizabeth had married the year before, it’s true; bringing a splash of colour and romance into those drab, immediate post-war days. But the real princesses were not to come until several years later; when I was seventeen, and under the spell, successively, of Soraya of Persia, Grace Kelly of Monaco and Jimmy Goldsmith’s Isabella Patino. Isabella wasn’t a princess at all, of course, any more than Theodora had been, six years earlier… But it must have seemed to me that in both their stories were more of the elements of fairy tale to be found, than in those of many a real princess who came later.

What was it about Theodora, I wonder, that made her shimmer so, for me, on the cinema screens of my ninth year? ( I have to remind myself, here, that the girl whom I knew as Theodora then, is still alive today, in the person of the old lady at the end of the footpath about whom my window cleaner was so very disparaging the other day. Whichever way one looks at it, there’s a transition that will have to be made,here, and it’s not going to be a simple, or a comfortable one. I’m going to have to make it any day now, for all that: the word among the shop-keepers and the dog-walkers being, that Lady Macauley and her daughter always return from Italy some time in early April…)

To return to 1948 though, and the way I remember it - how into the gloom of those early post-war years, banishing the spectre of Mrs Simpson, and eclipsing even the romance of the married Princess Elizabeth, came the Lady Theodora Thane, who seemed to combine in her one young person, all the luminous blonde beauty of Grace Kelly, with the high romance of Soraya of Persia and the enchantment of Jimmy Goldsmith’s forbidden Isabella. Theodora’s was a forbidden love too, and at first I must have been rather puzzled by it. There she was, young, beautiful, an earl’s daughter; she seemed to have had all the good fairy's best gifts bestowed upon her – she danced, and sparkled for an hour; and then she took it into her head one day, to throw it all away and marry Jack Macauley; a Yorkshireman twice her age, who had made his fortune from the manufacture of boots, and shoes, and saucepans, and of whom her family passionately disapproved.

Remembering it now, I wonder how it was I didn’t find something vaguely disappointing about Theodora’s choice of lover. Jack Macauley was taller than Prince Rainier, it’s true, and more rugged-looking than the Shah – but in all other respects he must have seemed a curious choice, for a young girl who might have married anyone. He was already married, besides. He had been married young, to his childhood sweetheart in the north; he was the father of several adolescent children, and was obliged to go through all the public spectacle of an acrimonious divorce, before he could marry Theodora. None of these things seemed to count against him in the press and public estimation of the day, however. And nor, it would seem, in mine. In my recollected nine-year-old self, I can find nothing to suggest that I found him wanting in any way. I daresay his wealth had much to do with it. People will forgive almost anything in a man, it seems, if only he has millions enough; and Jack Macauley’s millions were almost legendary in scale by then….

I think it’s probably best if I break off at this point, though. A thousand words is more than enough for any blog, and there’s so much more to tell. I’d like to be able to tell it all, if I can, before the old lady returns who, astonishingly, is still Theodora. Bill has just come in from his vegetable garden, besides. He’s digging a plot in which to grow cabbages, out there in his tiny back garden. I see it as an excellent development on the whole. He must have had too much time on his hands, before; else why would he have preoccupied himself so, with the condition of my blog? But he’ll want his coffee now (I’m trying to encourage him to go to Starbucks for it). So I’ll put this aside for today, and come back again tomorrow, or just as soon as I have marshalled the rest of the remembered facts ….