Non-fiction – paperback; Text Classics; 160 pages; 2015.
My great-aunt Juliet was knocked over and killed by a bus when she was eighty-five. The bus was travelling very slowly in the right direction and could hardly have been missed by anyone except Aunt Juliet, who must have been travelling fairly fast in the wrong direction.
So begins Robin Dalton’s Aunts Up the Cross, setting the scene for an often outrageously funny — and always delightful — memoir about her childhood in the 1920s and ’30s. The Cross of the title is Sydney’s Kings Cross, a rather dubious area known as the city’s red-light district, but with a distinct bohemian flavour.
Dalton, who became a leading literary agent in the UK in the 1960s (her clients have included, among others, Iris Murdoch, Edna O’Brien, Margaret Drabble and Tennessee Williams), grew up in an unconventional household: her grandparents on the ground floor, her parents on the top floor, and a succession of eccentric aunts, uncles and house guests filling up the spare rooms.
A pair of characters
Her father, a Northern Irish Presbyterian, was a doctor who ran his surgery from the house and seems like quite the character: he did not speak to his mother-in-law for the 35 years that they shared a house. When Dalton asked him about this much later on, this was his response:
“I found early in my married life,” he said, “that I could not take my trousers off without turning around and finding your grandmother watching me.”
Her mother, a Polish-Australian Jewess, caught between the warring factions of her handsome husband and her meddling mother, seems to have been quite a character too: she smoked 100 cigarettes a day, cooked lavish and extravagant meals, thought nothing of inviting strangers in to stay if they had nowhere else to go (“there was always a current ‘lame dog’ of my mother’s in the house”) and sometimes did not sleep in a bed “for weeks at a stretch” the house was so full. And then there was the time she killed the plumber:
One summer morning the servants were busy elsewhere, the house was for once empty, and my mother emerged naked from her dressing-room en route to take a bath. At that moment the plumber (he was a new one) came up the back stairs and met her on the landing. He promptly had a heart attack from which he never recovered. My mother always felt that the fact that death was not instantaneous detracted from the impact of her nudity and the dramatic possibilities of the story.
Warmth and wit
As you can probably tell from that quote, there are a lot of funny laugh-out-loud scenes in this book. In fact, I tittered my way through it, and when I wasn’t tittering I was reading out large extracts to my Other Half because he wanted to know what was making me laugh so much!
It is, indeed, a really lovely, happy, feel-good read, helped in part by the cast of peculiar characters in it (including Dalton herself, who is precocious and self-deprecating throughout), but largely by the gorgeously vivid prose style, which is littered with stop-you-in-your-tracks sentences about outrageous things Dalton’s relatives have done. It’s the marriage between farce and tragedy, nostalgia and social commentary that make it such a delightful — and insightful — read.
First published in 1965, this edition was republished by Text Classics in 2015 and includes a wonderful introduction by Clive James, which is worth the cover price alone (he thought Aunts Up the Cross sounded like “a feminist tract about capital punishment in ancient Rome”), and the author herself, who claims most of her aunts would hate this book and that she wrote it as a diary for her small children, following the untimely death of her 33-year-old husband, in case she should die young, too. (In fact, the story of how this memoir came to be published is almost as interesting — and as gently humorous — as the actual book.)
All in all, this is a highly recommended read — and will certainly feature in my top 10 of the year! Chances are you’ll feel the same way if you read it too.