‘The ghosts all just come springing up’: Eleanor Anstruther on turning her family history into a novel

By Rosemary Collins, 19 March 2019 - 11:10am

In 1939, Eleanor Anstruther's grandmother 'sold' her son. We talked to Eleanor about turning her family history into her new novel, A Perfect Explanation

Eleanor Anstruther A Perfect Explanation
Eleanor Anstruther's novel A Perfect Explanation tells the story of her grandmother's life

As family historians, we sometimes uncover stories that are painful to read.

Broken marriages, abandoned children, and ancestors who fall victim to poverty, illness and war are common.

One such family story forms the basis for author Eleanor Anstruther’s debut novel, A Perfect Explanation.

Eleanor’s grandmother Enid Campbell, the granddaughter of the 8th Duke of Argyll, married Douglas Anstruther in 1914.

The marriage soon became unhappy, especially after the couple’s eldest child Fagus lost his sight in an accident. In 1924, following the birth of her son Ian (Eleanor’s father), Enid left her family.

This led to a prolonged legal custody battle involving not just Douglas but Enid’s sister, Joan Campbell, the heir to the family’s estate. Finally, in 1939, Enid agreed to ‘sell’ Ian to Joan for £500.

As Eleanor explains, the process of writing the novel allowed her to understand the lives of her family, and the causes of this traumatic experience.

 

What inspired you to write the book?

We always knew that my father had been sold. It was one of those things we grew up knowing and never really questioning at all. And then I became a mother and it just occurred to me to ask him about her.

For about six months, with his blessing, I read the entire family archive – medical papers, legal papers, many, many letters. Then I travelled around the country. Any of the big events that happened in the book, I went there.

 

What was it like writing about such a painful experience?

I think anyone who writes a family story will find that it’s a bit like getting out rugs and shaking them and the dust fills the air. The ghosts all just come springing up. Writers always say they feel they’ve laid the ghost to rest and I feel that’s what I’ve done. Because these emotional traumas were unresolved, they were still very much alive. It felt like every single character in the book was in my head shouting for ten years. Many, many times I walked away and said ‘I can’t bear it’, and then something extraordinary would happen. I remember reaching a point of thinking ‘I can’t bear it’, and I happened to go off to the hairdresser’s and I opened a copy of Vogue magazine and there was a photograph of Joan on an article about women in the war. Those things happen all the time with writers. You try and leave your story and your story comes and finds you and forces you back to your desk again.

 

Do you think if she was alive today, Enid would have been understood as being mentally ill?

We can’t diagnose her in hindsight, but I would hazard a guess that at the very least there was postnatal depression, possibly postpartum psychosis. It’s possible that she had the kind of pathology whereby she really didn’t fit in. She didn’t want to be a mother, right from the get-go. It’s a very tough job, and to have to do it when you don’t even want to do it in the first place and then without the support of your family and in an unhappy marriage, it doesn’t matter how much money you’ve got, it’s miserable.

Enid Campbell A Perfect Explanation
Enid Campbell (Credit: Eleanor Anstruther)

Did the book change your perspective on Enid?

When I began as a daughter my initial agenda was to find a way for my father to love her, because it felt very visceral to me that he had lacked love from her and so hadn’t had the opportunity to give love to her and in my very naïve early stages of writing the book I think I wanted to find a way to vindicate her and that hit a dead end very quickly . The way I was trying to do it, you can’t justify her actions at all.

Then I tried to vilify her, I tried to jump on that bandwagon and just paint her as utterly despicable and that didn’t work either, it didn’t add up quite somehow because it takes more than one person to create a tragedy and a disaster.

And so ultimately I thought ‘I’m just going to tell the story’ and what I found for me was that I’d began to see her as a human being. All the people I wrote about were all flawed like you and I and everyone who’ll read the magazine – the whole lot of us are flawed to a degree.

I think the starting point of viewing their humanity was opening to compassion. I set out to tell a story with fairness and I think the net result of that is that the humanity of each player is brought to the fore.

 

 

A Perfect Explanation by Eleanor Anstruther is on sale now from Salt Publishing
 

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