Stepchildren

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.

Accompanied by baby Joan, who was screaming ‘like the servantless children of the poor’, Elsa returned from Egypt and moved the boys with her from one comfortless house to another. She made initial attempts to be friendly but soon lost interest. She was expecting another child, who was to be a dashing war hero and heartbreaker called George. Economies must be practised, with an eye to George’s future. Stephen and Andrew no longer had cake for tea, Elsa lashed herself into furies over spilled jam. Depressing Scotticisms flew from her tongue: ‘Mony a mickle maks a muckle.’ George was born and died, a malformed female. Elsa was told she could not have another child. She knew that she was alone in her grief, that Oswald, although sorry for her (‘Beastly, rotten luck’), did not care about George.

The safest place in Andrew’s world was the dark red morning-room of a great-aunt – visited only on his way to and from boarding-school – where his solitary pleasures were the store catalogues, Army Lists and Peerages, and the company of an Aberdeen terrier. At the Blankenham’s Scottish seat an aunt was kind, but unsafe. ‘She was, after all, family.’ Here, in the pleasingly named Kilbogle (athwart Strathgonachan), Elsa exulted in the ‘deep frowning glories’ of the landscape while the boys yearned for England’s ‘tame and domestic’ charms. Her scorn for their dislike of sport and other masculine activities was aggravated to sadism by the presence of Major Ashworth, who bullied them through unwanted riding lessons. ‘ “If you were my boys, I’d thrash you,” he said. There was a gleam in Elsa’s eye.’ Later that summer, Andrew and Stephen spent happy weeks with their mother’s sisters in their house, which smelled of mint and lavender, in a seaside haven thronged with eccentric and entrancing old ladies. Oswald came and spoiled things by giving them cricket lessons, a pointless torment, albeit half-hearted.

Now, seven years after their mother’s death, the boys, returning from boarding school, at last found that the settled home had materialised. Somewhere to put their possessions, to collect books, to leave things in their places and find them still there next holidays. Their hopes were high despite a newly acquired certainty of immutable dislike for Elsa. She furnished her house with severed heads, the tusks, teeth, feet and tails of slaughtered beasts, and implements of war. She expelled the children’s old nanny and told them nothing until their homecoming. ‘She was getting old.’ The absence of Nandy was one of the cruellest shocks of their lives and again revealed to them the ‘yawning chasm of faithlessness between themselves and their parents’. Elsa provided them with a dreary back-room, known to her as the ‘spare room’. When they next returned from school, they found all their belongings had been packed away, including their mother’s photograph. Instead, an unknown and whiskery great-uncle glared from the frame on the dressing-table. The house was full of bustle without animation, an atmosphere of unrest. They were constantly moved on; they could only sit and read, or play with their Meccano in the thoroughfare of the hall. Their father, retired at last, spent much of his time out, in libraries or museums; he was scarcely aware that his wife saw the boys as recurring nuisances, unwanted visitors. Andrew and Stephen were well aware of this and with sad stoicism saw that here was no abiding home. The occasional week with their aunts on the coast became their only time of happiness. Elsa, little as she wanted the boys with her, did her utmost to thwart these visits and belittle their pleasure in them.

At this point, the tragedy gains momentum, and is played out against a backdrop of hideous meals. Elsa speaks gutturally through mouthfuls of ‘warm and tired roast lamb’ or pours them watery tea because they like strong tea. Their failures to be keen sportsmen, to be following their father into the Army, to be real boys like their wholesome cousin Frank, are constant topics. At times Elsa lashes herself into frenzies of spite; at times, stalled by Oswald, or by the boys’ refusal to answer rudeness with rudeness, she mutters to herself, swearing and shaking her head about. At times she collects herself into false geniality. ‘Have you stoked enough?’ she inquires in her special Boy’s Own idiom. One hundred and ten minutes later another ghastly meal will begin. So much for a home. ‘We did better without one,’ says Andrew.

Year succeeds year, with Elsa’s cruelties becoming more ingenious and more blatant; what the boys have is taken from them; what they have not they will never be given. The Church, bedside lamps, clean sheets, the classics, are trampled indiscriminately beneath her Prussian boots. Her descent into lunacy is charted with a delicacy which shocks by its contrast with the violence it depicts. For the reader as for the boys the pain would be unbearable, were it not for the occasional respite with the aunts, who might have strayed from the pages of Barbara Pym; their gentle, feline malice is a balm to the spirit. It is not surprising that Liddell should be the author of a critical study of Miss Pym, and of a memoir of Elizabeth Taylor and Ivy Compton Burnett.

When Elsa, ‘now every inch a stepmother’, finally destroys herself on a stage metaphorically littered with corpses, the boys survive. They have recognised her as one of Greek tragedy’s monstrous, deranged women, bringing ruin on the mild and unambitious who only happen to be there. Andrew and Stephen will be onlookers in life, and family life is something they have watched enough.

Despite its content, this is an extremely funny book. There are echoes of Ivy Compton Burnett and of Henry James, but Liddell’s voice is oddly affectionate. In the beginning it is clear that Elsa, like the other characters, was driven by good intentions. Married to someone else, she might have done no harm. There is nothing cheap here, no sniping at easy targets, only a painful sense of justice. The writing is spare and elegant, and on almost every page there is some melancholy comment on the hazards of upper-middle-class life, made entirely without self-pity. Indeed, forged in that cruel fire, the stepsons emerge with a remarkable sense of purpose and humanity. It would be presumptuous to ask whether the price was too great.

Farewell Sidonia also recounts a child’s life, that of a Gypsy child found abandoned in the porch of a hospital in the Austrian town of Steyr. In 1933 Steyr is a town of wretched poverty with legalised begging once a week; the municipal authorities cannot afford to maintain the infant and offer her for fostering. Josepha, proud, tall wife of Hans, who is employed in the Steyr Works, longs for a second child and takes Sidonia. The Welfare Office gives them a pittance for her keep and she has rickety legs which will never be fully cured. Hans and Josepha love her as their own. Hans is sentenced to 18 months in jail for involvement in the Workers’ Movement, Josepha is beaten by the police. Horrors unfold, public executions are conducted by amateurs, informers abound. Josepha supports the children with increasing difficulty: Hans and Josepha are coerced into having a church wedding in prison as an indication that he has repented his ‘radical communism’. Josepha adopts another daughter, Hilda. Hans, on his release from prison returns to the Steyr Works. Sidonia meanwhile is determined that she is Hans and Josepha’s legitimate daughter and ignores all contrary information. Her dusky skin and black hair she attributes to her outdoor habits. Because of her Gypsy origin, the police hold a file on her; they have formed a centre to combat ‘the Gypsy plague’. Hans and Josepha live in gathering fear. Suddenly all the Gypsies are gone. Sidonia at school is tormented for her colouring and tries to wash her skin white. Refugee children from Berlin spit at her. She is taken to be confirmed by a neighbour. And now the letter they have dreaded comes.

Sidonia’s real mother has been found; she must be sent to her at once. Josepha is in utter despair; she pleads with her social worker, to no avail. Hans begs a farmer to hide Sidonia, to no avail. ‘You must be sensible, for the sake of the rest of your family,’ they say. ‘She’s only a Gypsy after all.’ More red tape, more pleading with Welfare Officers, more indifference and more anxiety to recoup the small amount of money which the foster parents had received. ‘A child belongs with its mother’ and ‘a Gypsy will always be a Gypsy.’ So nothing can be done and nine-year-old Sidonia is taken to meet a mother who does not know her, by the woman she has always known as mother. Screaming and weeping, she and Josepha are pushed apart. The social worker delivers the child to a segregated barracks where the Gypsies are confined. Her putative mother looks at her in dismay. ‘What am I supposed to do with the child?’ She did not need to do anything. The next day Sidonia and the other Gypsies are sent to Auschwitz. Hans and Josepha never recover from her death. The social workers and government officials maintain that they were only doing what they thought best. The author of this elegy for love and simple goodness in the face of bureaucracy and expedience, offers an alternative ending, a woman called Margit who survived because ‘at the right moment people thought of her’. Unhappily this cannot affect Sidonia.