Elspeth Barker

  • Stepsons by Robert Liddell
    Peter Owen, 228 pp, £14.95, February 1992, ISBN 0 7206 0853 8
  • Farewell Sidonia by Erich Hackl
    Cape, 135 pp, £5.99, February 1992, ISBN 0 224 02901 0

The end-papers of Stepsons show that classic of nostalgia, a family long ago at tea in a summer garden. A laughing aunt clutches a terrier; ranged round the table are a baleful grandmother, an alert little girl, a father scarcely visible and two boys whose faces rend the heart. Gentle, vulnerable, unbearably tense, they are poised for flight. Opposite, as far off as possible, sits their enemy, the Scottish Gerwoman, the stepmother of this tragic autobiographical novel.

Elsa Blankenham (née von Blankenheim) was the dim middle child of a clever family, Germans who had settled in Scotland in the 1860s. Passionately anti-German, she nonetheless, unlike her siblings, retained the Teutonic accent and speech patterns of her parents and thus found herself ostracised in 1914. In her mid-thirties, a foreigner both to Germans and to British, she dreamed with diminishing hope of marriage and children, a late consolation prize for a life lived by Prussian principles, polish and punctuality. As a trainee nurse in a children’s hospital, she forced her patients to swallow the skin on their hot milk. To distant friends, for she had no close ones, she wrote vigorous letters, and especially to Oswald Faringdon, widowed father of two small boys, far off in Egypt. ‘I wonder how you would care for life out here?’ he wrote, intending speculation but absent-mindedly posing a question instead. Elsa believed that she was being offered a new life. ‘Yes,’ she replied. And so by a quirk of punctuation a tragedy was unleashed.

The marriage took place despite the potent opposition of Oswald’s sisters-in-law, who were caring for Andrew and Stephen. Elsa insisted on being called ‘mummy’. ‘Never call that German woman what you called your own mother,’ an aunt had insisted. Guilt and treachery thus informed the children’s first dealings with their stepmother, complicated by bewilderment at their new ancestors. Said ‘Grandfather’ Blankenham, presenting diaries: ‘Write you in them every day. Zum Beispiel: “Monday, played for Engand cricket; Tuesday, played for Engand football.” ’ Another aunt allied herself with Elsa; the children were to be used as pawns in family feuding. Elsa, naturally, wanted children of her own and she did not care for her stepsons, who seemed ‘mouselike and wary; not real boys’.

Accompanied by their beloved nanny, Andrew and Stephen alternated between the households of their warring aunts while their father and his bride returned to Egypt. There Elsa gave birth to a daughter, not the son for whom she longed, and there was talk of a ‘settled home’ in England for all the family. She wrote bracing, sporty letters to her stepsons about jolly times playing cricket and climbing trees. Unloved and wretched in the house of indifferent, calculating Aunt Emma, whose children bullied and spied on them, the boys brooded on the prospect of a settled home with Elsa. All in all, they felt, ‘certainly it would be better to die young.’ Their sole comfort was their love for each other, something which they had learned to keep well-hidden.

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