I fell in love with Edith Olivier’s first novel, The Love Child, when I read it last year. And so I was thrilled when I found this volume of autobiograpy tucked away on a high library shelf. But I was also a little worried.
The Love Child was, like many first novels, partly autographical and behind its enchantment there is a certain sadness. And who was Mr Walkley. Did his absence define Edith Oliviers’s life?
I am pleased to say that I need not have worried.
Mr Walkley was a drama teacher. The young Edith briefly harboured ideas of studying with him and becoming an actress, but those ideas soon slipped away. Edith was happy with her home, her family, the world she was born into.
That place was Wilton in Wiltshire. She was born in its rectory, the youngest of ten children of the rector and, except for four terms at St Hugh’s College in Oxford, she would spend her whole life in its environs.
She was an officer in the Women’s Land Army in the first war and three times mayor of Wilton in the second.
Her circle included David Cecil, Siegfried Sassoon, Stephen Tennant and Osber Sitwell. All are recalled with great warmth – as is Charles Dosgson (Lewis Carroll), who Edith met at university – but they are not the stars of this book.
Neither is her writing. She began writing relatively late in life, after the death of the sister she shared a close bond with, and refers to her books only briefly at the end of the book.
And neither is Edith herself. She is ever-present, but attention is focused on the places where she spent her life and the people who lived there.
First we visit the rectory. It was clearly a wonderful place to grow up and it is quite wonderfully evoked.
And then there is the Wiltshire countryside and the people who lived in it. Those people – not the great and the good, but ordinary country folk – are recalled with such warmth and love so that you cannot help but take them to your heart.
Edith write so beautfully of the events and patterns of ordinary lives – making calls, visits to church, gathering the harvest, births marriages and deaths – that you feel you are there too, part of her community.
So many wonderful stories fill the pages of this book, and it shines through that Edith Olivier was a woman who found her place in the world and was happy with it. Who could ask for more than that?