REMARKABLE RELATIONS: The Story of the Pearsall Smith Women by Barbara Strachey

REMARKABLE RELATIONS: The Story of the Pearsall Smith Women

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KIRKUS REVIEW

Drawing on an inherited trove of family papers, retired BBC-producer Strachey has written a crisp, dry, undramatic yet often-engaging history of her moody, vibrant ancestors and their equally moody, more famous in-laws. (The English subtitle referred to the ""Pearsall Smith Family""; the misleading alteration is presumably meant to attract a feminist audience.) Great-grandma was Hannah Whitall--a devout but rebellious Philadelphia Quaker who followed manic-depressive husband Robert Pearsall Smith into the world of revivalist ""Meetings""; but when Robert's transatlantic preaching became Beecher-esquely erotic, Hannah (despite her fascination with religious fanaticism) settled in london, meddling in the stormy lives of her two contrasting expatriate daughters. Mary--handsome, brilliant, a soulmate of Walt Whitman back in America--married an Anglo-Catholic politician, bore two daughters . . . but soon met a ""beautiful and mysterious youth"" called Bernard Berenson: years of open adultery ensued (till Mary was conveniently widowed); maternal feelings were made a lower priority (""Children, dear as they are, are appallingly sordidizing,"" wrote Mary); and, despite quarrels and infidelities and jealousies, Mary would devote her life to B.B.--encouraging him to write, making his Italian retreat an idyll, sharing his collecting schemes. (Strachey feels her grandmother's share in B.B.'s success has been underrated.) Meanwhile, Mary's nervous, beautiful sister Alys married the very young Bertie Russell (over protests by his lordly granny)--with miserable results: soon ""the fickle element in his nature was already beginning to stir in its Puritan strait-jacket""; for years Alys refused to give him up despite his abandonment of her; breakdowns and suicide attempts followed. And this family tendency toward instability is also seen in: writer-brother Logan Pearsall Smith, celibate and waspish; and Mary's younger daughter Karin, who (despite handicaps) married V. Woolf's odd brother Adrian and became a psychoanalyst before her 1953 suicide. (Karin's sister Ray--writer, suffragist, wife of Lytton Strachey's brother Oliver, the author's mother--seems by far the sanest of the lot.) True, Strachey makes little attempt to give this rambling chronicle a shape or focus. And it dims out, quite tersely, in her own generation. But the tone throughout seems just right--brisk, admiring, yet ironic or faintly amused--and, with the wide array of socio-cultural cross-references and the fresh documents on display, this is family-tree-climbing of the most elegant, rangy sort.

Pub Date: Nov. 5th, 1982
Publisher: Universe