24 June 2018

The Rare and the Beautiful by Cressida Connolly

A few weeks ago, an adventure in sofa shopping coincided with a book sale at the Oakville Public Library.  A better way to prime the mind for looking at fabric swatches I can't imagine.  The books at the sale are sold for $1.50 per pound, which keeps you guessing as to how much the total will be once your stack hits the scale bit it's usually less than expected.  On this visit, I came away with only five books, but one that will be a favourite of the year.

Raised in a passionately religious family near Birminham, the Garmans had an unusually laid-back approach towards discipline for the turn of the nineteenth century.  Walter Garman was the local doctor as well as being involved in the church.  Their mother, Marjorie, loved Beethoven, reading and the natural world.  All of the Garman's nine children were strikingly exotic looking, with a few of the girls being compared to Cleopatra, down to their prominent cheekbones and almond-shaped eyes.

Kathleen Garman

While young, the siblings grew up in idyllic circumstances with picnics, holidays at the shore, education and servants.   Their parents were lenient when it came to matters of childhood tomfoolery, but morality was a different matter.  When Mr Garman caught Mary and Kathleen reading Madame Bovary, he swiftly summoned the rest of the children to the nursery so they could watch as the book was thrown into the fire.

The outbreak of the First World War drew many of the young men away from the village.  When Walter Garman expressed his hope that the older girls would eventually marry into the clergy, Mary and Kathleen were having none of it.  Without very much thought as to how they would cope, the young women packed up what they could carry and ran away to London.

Without means, Kathleen worked as an artist's model and helped with the horses that pulled the Harrod's carriage.  Mary drove a delivery van for Lyons' Corner Houses.  A small allowance was soon granted by their father but the young women were admirably resourceful when it came to  getting by.  Once introduced into the society of Bohemian London,  and as regulars at Café Royal it wasn't long before they were in the company of Roger Fry, Wyndham Lewis, E M Forster and Lytton Strachey.  The sisters were eventually able to afford a small flat in Regent Square on the edge of Bloomsbury.  

The trajectory of the young women's lives makes for incredibly riveting reading.  At a time when women were considered to be prostitutes for being outside without a hat, the Garman sisters wore their hair long and flowing.  Their clothing was bohemian and full of colour; they favoured the look of dark kohl accentuating their eyes.  Shortly after becoming the muse of sculptor Jacob Epstein, Kathleen became his lover.  His wife seemed to accept his various affairs, even raising his daughter by another woman as her own, but she was intensely jealous of his latest muse.  Summoning Kathleen to her home on Guildford Street, Epstein's wife drew a pistol and shot her rival.  In an attempt to quash any scandal, Mrs Epstein then proceeded to invite Kathleen (once she had recovered) to join her in an open taxi through Hyde Park...which Kathleen accepted.

The biographies of Kathleen's siblings are equally fascinating and have gone a long way to pique my interest in this Bohemian circle of family and their counterparts.  I was also fascinated by the Garman's determination to live their lives as they pleased despite what anyone thought.  Which is not to say there weren't recriminations.  Lorna had her first child at seventeen, then, while still married, had a long-term relationship with Laurie Lee (he lived in a trailer near Lorna's home).  In fact, the lovers had a daughter, Yasmin, who was graciously raised by Lorna's husband as his own.  Lorna's much-revered blue-eyed gaze was eventually turned by the artist Lucien Freud, leading Laurie Lee to the brink of suicide.

Lorna Garman with Lucien Freud

There were times when I wondered where the money to survive was coming from, but perhaps such details were politely overlooked in letters and other communications.  Writing articles or producing art on lazy days in sunny gardens would scarcely pay the bills that came about through moving house, feeding and clothing children or setting off to join the Civil War in Spain.  But through their many adventures, the Garmans always seemed to scrape by.  Financial matters and household responsibilities lagged far behind artistic pursuits, reading, letter writing, or political conversation.  Mary, Kathleen and Lorna didn't seem to be weighed down by the portrayal of an ideal wife or mother during the 1920s or 30s. 

   'Like her mother, Kathleen serenely avoided housework.  She never took to blacking grates and Liquid Gumption, and is remembered as doing the washing-up with her coat on, as if to escape it as soon as she could.  'I never saw my mother in an apron,' says Kitty.  'She didn't even know what over gloves were for.'  

The Rare and the Beautiful
is a must read for anyone interested in the social history of women during the interwar period and beyond.  As much as I find the nuances in domestic fiction to be endearing and educational, I was enthralled with these young women who grabbed life with both hands.  The Garman sisters ventured forth despite risk, indulged their curious minds, toyed with convention, and apologies were rare.  Fabulous right to the very end....

'Lorna was a guest at the wedding, and all eyes followed her instead of the bride, as she had doubtless intended.  To the few who didn't come under her spell, she seemed cold, manipulative.  Her gift for intuition could be perceived as witch-like.'

As Cressida Connolly describes the end of each Garman's life, I couldn't help but think of all they had seen and done.  Weaving through the lives of well-known members of London's cultural, artistic and political landscape, I find it hard to believe their story is not more widely known. 

As I wrote earlier, this book will rate as one of my favourites of the year!

Kathleen Garman

12 comments:

  1. I read this book years ago and loved it.
    Kathleen Garman Epstein left a wonderful collection of art to her home town of Walsall which is now housed in a rather beautiful modern gallery there. Well worth a visit if you are ever in the Midlands

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    1. The gallery will definitely be on my itinerary if out that way, Lesley! I really do need to branch out from always booking a B&B in London. Mind you, a train journey from Euston Station is just over two hours so I could manage it in a day trip. In the meantime, the gallery's website will have to do.

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  2. Thank you so much for your kind words about the book - I'm delighted you enjoyed it!
    The Garmans are a little-known but fascinating chapter in the cultural history of the period. I loved finding out about them, and writing about their lives.
    All good wishes and thanks again,
    Cressida

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    1. Thank you so much for stopping by, Cressida...you've made my day! I love a non-fiction book that reads like a page-turner and you certainly hit the mark perfectly here. You have a new fan!

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  3. I hadn't heard of this family and like to read biographies; these women were unusually beautiful andvery daring to find their own paths.

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    1. A fascinating family during an equally fascinating era...a riveting read awaits, Terra!

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  4. Thanks for sharing your discovery - just finished reading it thanks to your recommendation. It was fascinating and a great way to pass the hours over this weekend heat wave!

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    1. Oh that's wonderful, Susan! I'm glad you were able to track down a copy.
      My husband hung festive Canada Day bunting around the pergola but it's been so hot outside we're looking at it from an air-conditioned family room. Our dog is not best pleased either. Lovely to hear from you!

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  5. This sounds fascinating, exactly the sort of book I would like! I would never have heard of it if you hadn't posted it. Must track down a copy ASAP. Thank you so much for reviewing it!

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  6. Oh you are in for a treat, Karen....this is right up your street, I promise you. Glad you stopped by!

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  7. Thank you - a copy ordered from Abe Books, so that is next weekend's reading sorted.

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    1. I hope you'll find it every bit as unputdownable as I did...and a red underline tells me that apparently, unputdownable isn't a word! Enjoy, Toffeeapple!

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