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Only not a wreck

by
27 January 2017

Pat Ashworth on a life heading home to port

 

In peril on the sea: a 17th-century votive painting from a church at Ortisei in Italy, one of many fine illustrations in John Withington’s Storm: Nature and culture (Reaktion, £14.95 (£13.45); 978-1-78023-661-2), in a series, Earth, tracing the historical significance and cultural history of natural phenomena

In peril on the sea: a 17th-century votive painting from a church at Ortisei in Italy, one of many fine illustrations in John Withington’s Storm: Nature and culture (Reaktion, £14.95 (£13.45); 978-1-78023-661-2), in a series, Earth, tracing the historical significance and cultural history of natural phenomena

A Voyage Around My Mother: Surviving shelling, shipwrecks and family storms
Eleanor Stewart
Lion £8.99
(978-0-7459-6883-4)
Church Times Bookshop £8.10

 

PORING over papers after a death often opens a first window into unrevealed areas of a parent’s life. By then it is too late to get the answers that might have led to better understanding while the person was still living.

Eleanor Stewart had a rare chance to do that during eight years of caring for her difficult mother, and was able to explore with her an extraordinary life revealed in a series of tape recordings. A survivor in 1941 of the shelling and sinking of the Calcutta-bound SS. Britannia, her mother had spent four terrible days adrift in a lifeboat until rescued by the Navy.

Stewart found herself “looking at this tiny birdlike woman” and trying to imagine the thoughts and feelings that had kept her silent for 50 years before the outpouring on to tape. Months of voyaging and stopovers in exotic places had followed before she could reach her destination, and these are recalled vividly and in detail, evoking the age in which she lived.

But Stewart was able to confront as well as admire her mother. A shipboard romance found her “in freefall . . . with all the normal rules suspended . . . curiously detached from my status as a married woman”; and yet she had preached to her teenage daughter about not becoming the “shop-soiled goods” no man would want to marry. She discovered the reason for her parents’ broken marriage: her father’s shameful abandonment of his mentally ill wife.

The tapes put her mother in a wholly new light. A new understanding emerges, Stewart’s own guilt is laid to rest, and bridges are built: “I still thought her difficult and self-obsessed but her undoubted courage and resourcefulness added another dimension. . . She must have felt in later life that her world had become very unsafe,” she concludes in this fluently written and insightful book.

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