norma clarke

All About Mee

To Oxford, to talk about memoir writing. It’s the week after the publication of Spare and all the newspapers and social media have been full of it. I am resolved not to mention Prince Harry, that the words ‘Prince Harry’ will not pass my lips. I’m interested in ordinary folk and struggling writers. My 45-minute lecture, which I deliver from a lectern in the polished-wood auditorium at Wolfson College, a banner advertising the Oxford Centre for Life-Writing to my right and a massive screen on which is projected ‘e Possibilities and Pitfalls of Writing about Living People’behind me, begins with William Godwin, whose Memoirs of the Author of the Vindication of the Rights of Woman appeared in 1798.

It’s a keen audience. Many are at work on memoirs, worrying about secrecy and truth and the egotism associated with the genre,asking themselves: What’s so special about my story? Who owns the family story? Will I be sued? Will I be hated? Can you trust memory and can you guess what will upset people? (No and no.) In 1798 a distraught Godwin wanted to put on record how much he had loved Mary Wollstonecraft, what a soulmate he’d found, how they both loved truth as much as each other, and so he wrote as simply and frankly as he could – about her former lover, her illegitimate child and her suicide attempts. His memoir shocked just about everybody.It was the fact that he was her husband, making public that she’d had a lover before him, a terrible admission to put in print. Godwin upset the sensitivities of people who had no connection whatsoever with the dramatis personae and no reason to fear any personal comeback.e public’s sense of being tarnished was so strong that Wollstonecraft’s reputation was destroyed.

Godwin inadvertently broke cultural codes that didn’t bother him, and in doing so discovered how much they bothered his readers. Likewise, Prince Harry. It turns out it is impossible not to mention him. Memoir can be explosive. For any royal to write a memoir is to crash through multiple levels of taboo. For the ‘spare’ to do it is to reject the nullity imposed on him at birth, take control of the story and demand to be heard as an individual, beyond the role defined by his place in the family hierarchy. Harry’s resort to memoir was the most precise form of retaliation, I think, and in uttering this thought I break the first rule of smooth lecturing.It’s okay to make asides and go briefly o-script; having opinions, and thinking them aloud, can be ill-advised.

Royalty and aristocracy care about lineage. It’s tradition. Aristocratic families occupy themselves with legacies and monuments, wills and heraldry; important objects are treasured and handed on across generations.ings carry meaning; they’re the embodiment of memory, be they precious jewels or the family’s dog bowl. I have a date in Westbourne Park with Professor Judith Clark, a fashion exhibition maker with a special interest in the arts of memory. We are old friends and our interests have unexpectedly converged on Lady Anne Cliord (1590–1676),

memoirist extraordinaire.Judith has been to Cumbria Archives to view Cliord’s Great Books of Record and she has photographs on her phone to show me. Many years ago, I visited Abbot Hall in Kendal and was captivated by a massive canvas called e Great Picture, which depicts significant moments in Anne Cliord’s life. I thought I’d write about her and never did. I hope I will now.

Anne Cliord was the sole heir to her father’s vast estates. He died when she was fifteen. An entail dating back to the time of Edward II stated that Cliord lands should descend lineally to the eldest heir, whether male or female. Her father ignored this, his two sons having died, and willed everything to his brother, Francis. Anne and her mother challenged the will and in 1607 a court found in their favour. Francis refused to give up his gains. England’s leading families up to and including the royals became heartily bored with the Cliord saga. Why couldn’t the women stop? ey wouldn’t stop. In 1643, after almost four decades of insisting, Lady Anne Cliord took possession of her estates, and that was when she commissioned e Great Picture.

e Great Picture is a triptych presenting through images Cliord’s right to her inheritance. e central panel shows her father and her mother pregnant with her, with ancestral coats of arms running up either side: she is seeded into the family. e left-hand panel shows her as a child, surrounded by objects that symbolise her accomplishments: books, musical instruments, embroideries.e right-hand panel shows her in adulthood sitting beside a table, surrounded by documents proving her inheritance.

Judith Clark’s work involves architectural model-making. e studio is a work in progress itself, with mannequins and scale models of past exhibitions. She is pondering what she calls ‘hypothetical exhibition-making’(a concept I admit I don’t fully understand), bringing e Great Picture ‘into the room’, with an emphasis on how word and image work together. We look at pages and pages of the handwritten Great Books of Record, admiring the beautifully drawn branches that literalise the family tree. Inside perfect circles scribes entered details of ancestors’ lives. Here and there are seals, drawn to imitate legal documents, sometimes painted in gold. It’s fun to access the Great Books of Record in this way, though there is also a complete scholarly edition, published in 2015, which includes Cliord’s wonderfully titled autobiography,‘A Summary of the Records and True Memorial of the Life of Mee, the Lady Anne Cliord’.

ere was no doubt in Anne Cliord’s mind that the ‘Life of Mee’was worth recording,but not because ‘mee’mattered.What mattered was family. Memoir writing is now more popular than ever.Companies exist to give mentoring support and advice; there are even Tuscan and Greek-island retreats.e courses on memoir writing that now proliferate seem to be attracting those who have family records, documents, diaries and letters that ‘deserve’ to be kept. e old adage that everybody has a story in them, a ‘Life of Mee’, was once despised – by professional writers.Today it has gained respectability.