It is precarious to have a writer in the family. Renowned Chinese writer Eileen Chang was said to have based many characters in her novels on her relatives. “She had nothing else to write about, so she wrote about her own family and its ugliness,” a Shanghai magazine quoted a distant relative of hers almost 10 years after her death.
Another Chinese novelist, Yan Lianke, said his county’s Party propaganda head once called him “the most unpopular person in the county” because many of Yan’s fellow villagers believed he was writing about them in his books (and making them look bad).
In the case of British biographer Michael Holroyd, when he tried to publish his novel based in part on his family some 50 years ago, his father protested angrily and threatened to take legal action. “Had you written down the name and address of the family you could hardly have done more to ensure that they were identified,” Holroyd’s father stated.
As a compromise, Holroyd got the novel — his “limping attempts to become a writer” in his early 20s — published across the Atlantic Ocean in the United States instead of in his home country.
But a decade after his parents passed away and when he had become an established biographer with volumes on Bernard Shaw and Lytton Strachey, he produced a family biography. “Basil Street Blues” told the story of the decline of the Holroyd family and its fortunes in the span of a century.
Through his grandfather and his father’s misadventures in business, as well as his grandfather’s expensive extramarital affair, the wealth of the family — “a fabulous Indian tea fortune” inherited by his grandfather — trickled down in the two generations preceding him into nothing.
The book was part detective story, part genealogy and part comedy. The veteran biographer that he is, Holroyd dug up newspaper articles, marriage registrations, wills and a number of other records to reveal a suicide, affairs, secret love letters and financial details of the family. In the process he strung together a series of lively characters and stories that formed what we today would probably call a dysfunctional family:
Aunt Yolande’s furious long walks, his parents’ silent exchanges through letters he wrote on their behalf, his grandmother’s “empty plotting” and the whole family shouting over one another under one roof. He did not even leave out non-Holroyd characters such as his grandfather’s mistress, Agnes May — a serial bride who constantly changed her name and family story on her marriage certificates, using each husband to climb up the social ladder a bit more. In fact, he especially didn’t leave her out, going through years of phone books and doggedly knocking door by door just to track down a photograph of her, as described in his subsequent book, “Mosaic: A Family Memoir Revisited.” It’s amazing none of these characters stood up from their graves to complain.
Holroyd wrote in “Mosaic” that perhaps his dogged hunt for information on people like Agnes May was revenge, against someone who wounded his grandfather. But I think there are other reasons: When we are young and forming our identity, we go through the phase of wanting to erase any family imprint on us. But as we get older, some of us enter a phase of wanting to know everything about the family history — relevant or otherwise — especially when we start to have fewer and fewer family members to seek answers from. Ironically, the discovery of our family history when we think we know who we are in a way further forms our identity.
As someone who grew up in urban China and continues to live here today, I picked up “Basil Street Blues” because a) it was free, b) I love good tales. But I didn’t expect to feel much of a connection with the book, with the English life. Sure, bits and pieces just flew over my head. Crickets? It doesn’t matter whether the author or his Uncle Kenneth was playing, all I could do was stare at the page blankly. The names of those who were at his great-grandfather’s funeral? Skipped unless I belonged to the British upper-middle class in the early 1900s.
But I found the shakeup of the British society through the two world wars interesting. The determination of some to move up, if by creating imaginary versions of their own past; the loss of fortune and comfort of others and their struggles following the war; all of this told through the stories of one family’s defeat, change and love.
The book throughout conveys such sadness — the family decline, Holroyd’s father’s struggle with employment after World War II and his desperate effort to direct the son into a path that avoids such failure, Holroyd’s mother’s having to work for the first time in her life well into her 50s when none of her previous years prepared her for this and his aunt’s lost love and being trapped in the family for life. But Holroyd told all of the stories through such humor and gentleness that it is hard not to notice the love he never said out loud to this family.
He wrote in “Mosaic” that he wishes his words would “call up spirits from the deep” because “if they could reappear between the covers of my book and somehow touch other people’s lives, then death itself perhaps might be less final.”
I think he did it.