Time and Place: Refugees from
Chelsea - Joanna Trollope
13 February 2005 The Sunday Times Home
My parents had been living in Chelsea, but when my mother became pregnant it was thought she’d be safer returning to her family in Minchinhampton for the duration of the war. She spent her formative years there so it was a second-generation house. Dad, having begotten me, went out to India. He was a Royal Engineer and he didn’t come back till I was almost four, which is not a sob story, it’s just what happened to war babies. When I first saw him I said in a disapproving voice, “Who is this man?” The Rectory was an enormous grey Victorian house at the bottom of the hill as the street widens into the market square. It was bleak and austere, redeemed by a fantastic three-acre garden. There was a vast hall with a dining room, a huge sitting room, my grandfather’s study, a kitchen and breakfast room. There were seven bedrooms but only one cavernous chilly bathroom. You went down several steps into it and the bath lurked at the far end, but the glory of this bathroom was a trapeze; if you stood on the steps and held it you could swing into the bath.
The house was near the Holy Trinity church where my grandfather, Rex Hodson, was rector for more than 30 years. He was an old-fashioned upright Anglican priest. He had been a bush brother in Queensland, Australia, where he rode around in his dog collar preaching to men in the mining district and on sheep stations. He was a glamorous figure and a member of the Beaufort Hunt, who went around the parish on horseback in an Australian bushwhacker’s hat. My grandmother, Molly, had terrible trouble with the parish groupies who couldn’t work out whether they were in love with him or Jesus.
Grandma was creative and capable. The social expectations of a country priest’s wife were rigid; she was expected to be submissive, kind and respectable - and that didn’t suit her at all. When she was first married she had a lady’s maid, but during the second world war she learnt to cook and turned out to be brilliant. The kitchen was primitive. There was a vast Aga that had to be fed with hods of coal two or three times a day. We ate meals in a sunny breakfast room.
The only thing we dreaded was the jelly made out of black coffee, a terrible translucent rubber thing. In those days, you weren’t allowed to reject food.
We were far more obedient to our elders then. You were given breakfast and sent out till lunch. Afterwards, you were told to go and lie on your bed and read for a while and then go for a walk. You went to bed at 6pm. At night, the women often sewed.
There wasn’t a television so you read under the bedclothes with a torch. We read at the age of four or five; I was probably writing from five or six. There were books everywhere. I was surrounded by stories. My grandmother and mother could probably quote most Jane Austen novels by heart. They were scornful of Enid Blyton because of the banality of her vocabulary. I don’t think the subject matter of The Rector’s Wife would have occurred to me unless it had been in my subconscious for all those decades.
Wartime had a powerful effect on people’s emotional lives. There was a shifting population of young people in a state of personal and public crisis. One uncle was always in the throes of a complicated love affair.
After my dad came back we lived in York, the Midlands and then Surrey, but we returned to Minchinhampton during the holidays. I’m the oldest of three - I have a brother, Andrew, and sister, Victoria. We loved playing in the attic, where there was the most amazing dressing-up box. There was an incredible mandarin’s robe that one of my grandmothers had brought back from China and a pair of Turkish slippers that another ancestor found on a trip to Constantinople. I have visions of us parading as soldiers, fairies, queens and jesters.
In the early Fifties, The Rectory was divided in two and my grandparents had half and the other half was sold as a private house. When my grandfather retired in my late teens, they went to live in a cottage in a nearby hamlet and their half became another private house. I now live about 15 miles away on the Oxford-Gloucestershire border. I’m rather grateful to my relatives for providing such energy and colour. I look back on it as a very rich period and place.
Brother & Sister by Joanna Trollope, Black Swan, £6.99.