The way we were: family reunions

Extracts from memoirs and diaries
December 11, 2014

On 26th December 1945, Evelyn Waugh writes in his diary about his first postwar family Christmas: 

“Maria Teresa and Bron [his daughter and son, Auberon] have arrived; he ingratiating, she covered with little medals and badges, neurotically voluble with the vocabulary of the lower-middle class—“serviette,” “spare room.” Only on points of theology does she become rational. On Christmas Eve we went to midnight Mass at Nympsfield. I was moved to remit the sums owing by the nuns for the losses and damages of their six years’ tenancy of this house. We managed to collect a number of trashy and costly toys for the stockings. We had a goose for luncheon and a tasteless plum pudding made for us by Mrs Harper, a bottle of champagne. By keeping the children in bed for long periods we managed to have a tolerable day. My only present, a very welcome one, a box of cigars from Auberon. I have seats for both Bath and Bristol pantomimes. The children leave for Pixton on the 10th. Meanwhile I have my meals in the library.

“Home for a cold New Year’s Day. My children weary me. I can only see them as defective adults: feckless, destructive, frivolous, sensual, humourless.”

On 8th February 1952, Deborah Mitford, the Duchess of Devonshire, writes to her sister Diana Mosley about her visit to their sister Jessica, communist and journalist, in California: 

“I got off the aeroplane after all night and was walking to where you go out and a figure appeared who somehow was Decca [as Jessica was known] and yet completely different. Oh dear it was frightening and in a way so terribly sad, I couldn’t believe that this complete American could ever have been her. I was so overcome I simply stared at her and I must say so did she so perhaps she was equally amazed at changes in me.

“So we went into the restaurant and there was Bob [Treuhaft, Jessica’s husband] and the youngest child. Oh Honks [Diana’s nickname], Decca has lost all colour even her eyes look different but I suppose people do change between twenty and thirty-four, and also this dreadful airless climate must be bad for people. The accent is what struck me most, I still can’t believe it...

“I may think quite differently about it all tomorrow, but somehow it is awfully frightening seeing someone like that after so long, and I feel that her blasted cause has become so much a part of her that she can never forget for a minute. She said ‘Of course I stopped writing to Nancy the minute I heard she was living with a Gaullist.’”

Kenneth Tynan, the theatre critic and writer, observes in his diary on 3rd November 1975:

“A golden autumn weekend with K [his wife, Kathleen] and children at a Cotswold hotel in the village of Upper Slaughter. Matthew’s vocabulary grows apace and he now qualifies as a person with whom conversation is possible. Roxana long since passed that test. Both are simply breath-bereaving in their prettiness. Watching Matthew eating paté (for which, at four, he has developed a connoisseur’s fondness) and being asked by Roxana to explain the meaning of democracy, I caught K’s eye across the lunch-table (roast beef and Burgundy) and felt for almost the first time that we were a family—ie, that each had tough and durable wires of sympathy connecting him/her with the other three that he/she would never feel for any other person.”

Film critic Antonia Quirke goes to stay with her boyfriend’s family in the 1990s:

“Marcus’s family were aristocratic and deeply eccentric. His maternal grandfather had been a hereditary baronet (‘rare as rocking horse shit these days’) and the whole lot of them (mother, father, three sisters and Marcus) went around on motorbikes. When Marcus had been younger, they used to go on nudist holidays together on their motorbikes, the kids in sidecars.

“Aubrey [his father] was posh, but his dreamy wife Janie was incredibly posh. She was a twin and fiercely proud of it, as if it were a personal achievement. She and her twin sister... once volunteered to have tests done on them at the Great Ormond Street Hospital and arrived there expecting to be feted and shown through to a buffet, only to find literally hundred of other twins in the corridors. Already somewhat put out, they were poked and prodded and urine-sampled and thoroughly out of temper when Marcus and I went to pick them up: 

‘Goodness. What a day!’

‘What did they do to you?’

‘’It would be much easier to tell you what they didn’t do.’

‘What didn’t they do?’

‘Well they didn’t fuck us.’

And they were like this all the time, each one of them...

“[I] went for a wander around the house, the rooms upon rooms, a colossal ballroom with just a single bed in the corner and a bowl out to catch leaks from the ceiling. A nursery in the attic entirely filled with an ancient train-set... In one of the corridors I ran into Aubrey: ‘Oh hello! I’ve been walking around the house and do you know everybody is in bed with their lover. It’s marvellous.’”