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The Sunlight on the Garden: A Family in Love, War and Madness Hardcover – 3 Apr 2006

4.1 out of 5 stars 14 customer reviews

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Product details

  • Hardcover: 256 pages
  • Publisher: Granta Books; First Edition edition (3 April 2006)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1862078297
  • ISBN-13: 978-1862078291
  • Product Dimensions: 14 x 2.5 x 21.6 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 4.1 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (14 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 1,481,504 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Product Description


‘Beautifully written’ -- Glamour

‘Extraordinary book… Crisply and brilliantly depicted… Acutely rational and illuminating’ -- Evening Standard

‘Speller’s dry wit is a pleasure… A book that explores the social quagmire of the early 20th century’ -- The Independent

‘Speller’s writing style is mesmerising- by turns poetic, myth-shattering, funny and tragic’ -- Easy Living

About the Author

Elizabeth Speller is a poet and journalist, and has written for the Observer, Big Issue, Independent on Sunday and Woman's Journal, and appeared on Radio 4. Her previous books include Athens: A New Guide, Granta City Guides Rome, published by Granta. She lives in Gloucestershire, and is currently a Visiting Scholar at Lucy Cavendish College, Cambridge.

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Customer Reviews

4.1 out of 5 stars
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Top Customer Reviews

Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
Lizzie Speller's memoir of her ancestry and own life is a sparkling and varied tapestry. She describes her larger-than-life ancestors with vivacity and humour, but also illuminates the poignancy of some of their lives with great tenderness. The author's descendancy from aristocracy on the distaff side of her family is handled with a light touch, almost an aside. She invites the reader into the lives of her relatives and allows us an insight into some of the deep suffering they bore through depressive illness, a condition prevalent in several generations of the women in her family. She does not shy from writing about discord and divorces, mistresses and lovers all of which prevail amongst her relatives, and the effects on them of two world wars, but brings a respectful humour to the darker sides of their lives. She tells ruefully how old-fashioned prejudices affected the lives of her grandparents' generation and dips backwards and forward through the decades illustrating how little personal relationships changed. Do not expect a neat chronological account from this book; it is the time travel that enhances the charm and vitality of this memoir.
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Format: Hardcover
Memoir - particularly the memoir of family and madness - seems to be the new mini-genre to replace the increasingly dreary "survivor lit" genre, and, if this book is anything to go by, we should welcome it. It's a moving, revelatory book about a fascinating family - the author's own - in fascinating times. It moves from the Edwardian sunlight through the darkness of two world wars, to emerge, with a sort of wonderful redemption, at the present day.

The author is a poet and historian, and you can see both at work here: a wonderful eye for the telling detail, and a use of language which is uncannily supple and sensuous. But her own story, which lies at the book's heart, speaks to any of us who have known more than ordinary sadness. She writes both movingly and, amazingly, wittily about her descent into psychotic depression; lays to rest innumerable ignorant ghosts about madness; and surfaces triumphantly to start a new life, of which this book is just one of the fruits.

Nowhere does Speller seem to be telling the story either to big herself up ("Whose sufferings are greater than mine?") or to elicit our sympathy. What she's doing seems to be looking for the truth among the lies all families tell each other -- weaving her own story in with that of her family and that, in turn, with the times in which they lived. The result is not only the unravelling of a fascinating emotional puzzle, but a view of the last century of history from the standpoint of a single family.

A pretty crackpot family, it must be said, lousy at intimacy and the expression of love, promiscuous, minatory, snobbish, self-inventing, shot through with occasional acts of heroism or great emotional generosity.
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Format: Paperback
I bought this because of the "Independent" selection of 50 best all-time holiday reads, slightly against my instincts, given that the "survivor memoir" genre has become very popular of late. (It can't be long before we see a heart-rending account of some semi-celebrity's struggle with ingrowing toenails.)

My better instincts were wrong and the "Independent" was dead right. One of the many joys of this book is that it is, quite simply, very funny -- in the sense of being witty about serious things. Elizabeth Speller won't play the game that says there are some subjects -- family dysfunction, war, madness (especially profound depression), divorce etc -- which need a special sombre, solemn tone of voice, like a bad ac-tor reading poetry. Her own tangled family background, her personal struggle with depressive psychosis, the collapse of the British class system, all those people (especially her mother) ripped from their homes by WW2: all these are handled with a wry but deeply humane wit which had me smiling and reaching for my handkerchief at the same time.

"The Sunlight on the Garden" is neither mawkish nor mock-heroic. I don't think it's intended to be inspiring, which is fine because I, for one, seriously hate the sort of sentimental stuff which is meant to "inspire" me. Speller instead presents an England on the cusp of great change, told in perfect miniature through her own and her family's life. It's as good a proof as any I can think of that REAL history happens on an intimate scale behind closed doors, and the great military and political events of our or any other time are insignificance before their human causes and consequences. To do that and at the same time be genuinely funny is quite an achievement.
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By Jill Meyer TOP 500 REVIEWER on 26 Jun. 2011
Format: Paperback
Elizabeth Speller, author of a new WW1 novel, "The Return of Captain John Emmett", is also known for her non-fiction. In a book published in 2008, Speller writes about her family. Specifically, her mother's family and the last four generations. What has distinguished this family in the last 120 years or so are both the murkiness of connections in society and the mental problems of many of the family members. Speller's great-grandmother - from a poor family - became first the mistress and then the wife of a member of the Howard/Cavendish family. She gave birth to three children before the marriage - who were not acknowledged as family members - and then five or six after the marriage. Speller's grandmother was one of the younger - and luckier - children. Born in 1899, Joan Howard, educated in Switzerland prior to WW1, married the son of a wealthy department store owner, in 1922, and had three children. One of the three was Elizabeth Speller's mother.

Joan's marriage and family life was marred by severe mental problems. She was burned in an accident and spent time recovering. She was always conscience of her scars. During WW2, Joan and Eric sent Elizabeth's mother and aunt to live in South Africa. The parents separated and divorced and Joan became did war-duty with the Polish army-in-exile stationed in England. She fell in love with a Polish soldier who went back to Poland at war's end. Joan spent much of her life searching for...happiness, I suppose. She was put in a sanitarium and subjected to ECT, and, eventually, a partial lobotomy. Elizabeth, her granddaughter, born in 1951 as the oldest of three children, lived an eccentric life in 50's and 60's England. Schooled and unschooled, Elizabeth made choices that seemed not to bring her a great deal of stability.
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