Steele Roberts, $30.00,
Catherine Styles’s grandmother, Kate, was the illegitimate daughter of Benjamin Disraeli. Under his instructions, she was married off and banished to the colonies in order to avoid any stain on his character, which was already blotted by rumours of a previous illegitimate child (one may be regarded as misfortune, two … ).
At least, she may have been Disraeli’s illegitimate daughter. Styles has found no proof, but enough evidence to balance that conclusion on the knife edge of reasonable doubt. Styles believes it, as does historian Stanley Weintraub, whose Disraeli: A Biography devoted a whole chapter to the two illegitimate children, a chapter that critics, according to Weintraub, “scorned” for its lack of “smoking gun” evidence. (His introduction to this book does have a hint of “Take that, critic crabs!” à la Amanda McKittrick Ros about it.)
Whether readers choose to believe will be up to them. Personally, I felt there had been an implied promise that the goods would be delivered, that the vital piece of proof would be sprinted into the courtroom just as the judge was raising the gavel to conclude the trial. The title, the back-cover blurb and the thread of Kate’s story throughout the book all seemed to be leading to a big reveal. But, in the end, all Styles can give us is: “The strongest likelihood … that the old sphinx of Europe had sired a daughter sphinx, equally enigmatic, equally given to clever quips and long reflective silences.”
The journey to that point is enjoyable, if a little disjointed. Styles’s writing is fluid and attractive, and she does a fine job of using small details to illuminate the past. But at times it can feel rather as though she has rummaged through a box of interesting buttons, pulled them out in no particular order and likewise strung them together. These two paragraphs from chapter one have been only slightly shortened:
My grandmother nodded towards the sheep grazing on the grassy patches of the mountain and laughed her rippling laugh, the laugh of fin de siècle London which she told me had actually been taught to young ladies. Her name was Catherine but she was always called Kate …. In those days the milkman made his rounds with a horse and cart, ladling the milk into a billy at the front gate. The knife-grinder still sometimes trundled by …. Once or twice in the village I had glimpsed a tall figure in a dark hat and long black overcoat. Karl Wolfskehl, the Jewish poet, had escaped from Nazi Germany and was living here in Mount Eden.
The book as a whole is a grab-bag of author memoir, multiple biographies and historical social commentary. None of it is uninteresting but again it feels a bit lacking in cohesion, of chucking everything in the pot. The memoir chapters that describe the author’s life as a writer, wife and mother, while full of enviable stuff (living an artist’s life in England and France, drinking with Serge Gainsbourg on a train, meeting Virginia Woolf’s niece and Baron Philippe de Rothschild), contain only a thin thread of the story of whether or not Kate was Disraeli’s daughter.
Given the book’s back-cover promise – “the truth remained concealed until … an elderly woman … began to disclose her memories” – that thread is possibly too thin throughout. At times, Kate’s story feels padded out with facts about Disraeli himself. Styles creates an entertaining portrait of the man in general, but only a rough sketch of the man in specific relation to either his adulterous affairs or the unwanted children they allegedly produced. To be fair, that information does not exist in anything but anecdotal form, so it’s hardly Styles’s fault. She does her best to fill in the gaps but her methods range from reasonable deduction to pure guesswork. At times, she fabricates outright, as in chapter six, which has several passages written from Disraeli’s point of view, including one describing a meeting with five-year-old Kate: “The girl had toyed, not nervously but with perfect aplomb, with a pen bearing the Beaconsfield crest. She should have that, too. It was little enough. Maybe one day she’d remember something of this meeting. Better that she forget.” This leads straight back to chapter one: “There was also an agate and silver pen. The end of it was crudely broken. ‘I snapped the crest off,’ she said without explanation.”
Styles is certainly not claiming any authenticity, and only an inattentive reader might think she was. Such passages are more of Styles’s pretty and intriguing buttons, and her readers can decide whether they object to them being strung among the facts, and whether there are enough buttons to make a complete necklace, or one that falls slightly short of satisfying.
Catherine Robertson’s latest novel, The Misplaced Affections of Charlotte Fforbes, has recently appeared.