I’ve been interested in biographies and autobiographies for as long as I can remember; the first one that I read, when I was aged about 12, was The Moon’s A Balloon, by David Niven. Here, I’m considering two very different but equally engaging accounts of unusual lives. The book on the left, Diana Cooper’s autobiography, is one that I bought after I’d read The Secret Rooms by Catherine Bailey, about her elder brother, the 9th Duke of Rutland. I read the book pictured on the right, The Glass Castle, at around the same time, as it was the selection of my book club. They describe lives that could not be more dissimilar.
The author of The Glass Castle, Jeannette Walls, was brought up by extraordinary parents, who chose to live a nomadic, poverty-stricken life even though this was not strictly necessary. Jeannette’s mother owned a house in Phoenix, land in Texas worth $1m and valuable antique jewellery. Her father was a hopeless alcoholic who never wanted – or managed – to hold down a job for more than a few months while her mother, who had a teaching qualification, preferred to paint rather than work or even cook meals for her children.
Time and time again, the family had to ‘do the skedaddle’ from one dusty desert town to another as either creditors or the authorities caught up with them. In the end, they wound up in a severely depressed mining town in West Virginia, living in a collapsing shack where the four children were social outcasts, learning to fend for themselves and look after each other as their parents failed to provide regular meals or warm, dry beds. And yet, both parents were highly intelligent, articulate people who passed on their intellectual gifts to their children which, coupled with the survival tactics that they had to learn, resulted in them growing up to have surprisingly successful lives.
Jeannette Walls became a journalist and was living on Park Avenue, interviewing stars like Nicole Kidman, even as her parents were squatting in an abandoned building and rooting through rubbish bins, refusing hand-outs from their children. The book opens with the author, aged three, suffering severe burns while cooking hot-dogs for herself over a gas stove in a trailer park and then being removed from hospital by her father before she was properly healed. In contrast, the opening paragraph of Diana Cooper’s memoir The Rainbow Comes and Goes begins: ‘The celestial light shone most brightly at Cockayne Hatley, a house in Bedfordshire that must always be remembered as the place where the clouds cast no shadows but were always fleecy white, where grass was greener and taller, strawberries bigger and more plentiful, and above all where garden and woods, the house and the family, the servants and villagers, would never change.’
In spite of many tragedies besetting her life, such as the death of her 11-year-old brother and then the loss of almost all of the young men in her ‘Coterie’ during the First World War, Lady Diana’s life was one of pampered privilege, of grand houses and parties, holidays on the Continent and fairly minimal education. And yet she, too, went on to have a successful life, marrying Duff Cooper (who later became Ambassador to Paris) and starring in some of Britain’s first silent movies.
In comparing the lives of these two women, the obvious old chestnut, ‘Nature or Nurture?’ rolls around. Certainly in the case of Jeannette Walls, it’s obvious that the struggle to overcome hardships in childhood gave her the drive to succeed in her adult life. The Glass Castle is compelling reading and makes us question every way of bringing up children, from the proverbial ‘helicopter’ parenting to the ‘free-range’ parents at the opposite end of the spectrum, condemned by society for their neglectful behaviour. Although the Walls children suffered in many ways, they always felt loved and had a very strong sense of family, whereas Diana Cooper was brought up as most children of the British aristocracy were in the late 19th and early 20th century. She saw little of her parents as a child and, when she grew older, had a strained relationship with her mother. Though she loved her father dearly, Diana later discovered that she was in fact the biological offspring of her mother and the Hon. Henry Cust, who owned a neighboring estate (and of whom, I’m glad to say, she was also fond!)
Jeannette Walls has also written Half-Broke Horses (2009), a novel about her grandmother’s life – which I have yet to read – and The Silver Star (2013), a novel that resonates with The Glass Castle in that it is a coming-of-age tale set in the 1970s, about two young girls who have essentially been abandoned by their mother. I found it a good read and it was well received by the New York Times Book Review. Walls has stated in an interview with http://www.realsimple.com that she was inspired by people, places and situations that she has known: “One of the inspirations for the story is the power of sibling love, how so often when a parent is irresponsible, one of the children rises to the occasion and becomes the adult so that the other siblings can be kids. That can make the child stronger and he or she goes on to become a CEO or a political leader, but if the pressure is too great, the child may crack under the pressure.”
The Glass Castle is slated to be made into a movie, with Jennifer Lawrence (The Hunger Games, American Hustle) playing Jeannette ⧠