Robin Dalton is a renown literary agent (four of her authors won Booker prizes) and movie producer (Oscar and Lucinda). She was born in 1920 in Sydney and moved to London in 1946. This short book that she wrote about her eccentric family was first published in 1965 and again recently with an introduction by Clive James.
It opens with this irresistible bit:
My great-aunt Juliet was knocked over and killed by a bus when she was eighty-five. The bus was traveling very slowly in the right direction and could hardly have been missed by anyone except Aunt Juliet, who must have been traveling fairly fast in the wrong direction.
And so begins the stories of the family, with eight daughters who lived in a beautiful house in King's Cross called Maramanah (the images are worth a look). The older four, including Robin's mother, married and brought their husbands into the house; she says, "Their husbands were all, in bearing and repute, substantial characters but, stationed as they were in innumerable family photographs amid the lace flounces of their joint spouses and sisters-in-law, they resembled so many currents on a richly iced cake."
The younger four did not marry and remained for many years in Maramanah after the married daughters moved out. Though she never met them, they loomed large in Robin's life in stories. Their names were Lilla, Mina, Netta, and Anys; her father called them Litter, Titter, Fritter and Anus.
Robin's parents moved to a house not far from there with her grandparents where they all lived for thirty-five years. After the first year, Robin's father never spoke to her grandmother (his mother-in-law). Among Robin's store of tales includes, predictably because he's everywhere, a reference to Ned Kelly's gang. Her father's father was reputed to have fought and vanquished two members of the gang.
Another feature of Australian life as I understand it is the gambling, particularly on horses. Saturday was racing day in her family's household and she was allowed to pick a winner as well. "I once dreamt correctly a 20 to 1 winner: for three subsequent Friday nights I was sent to bed early with a glass of hot milk and a copy of the Form Guide under my pillow–but it was an isolated occasion…." Her mother regularly placed bets with her bookie and often borrowed her Aunt Juliet's jewels to make good on her bets until she had a good week.
My mother's attitude to money was delightful, but impractical. She had been brought up by my grandmother in the same way I was, and by having repeated to her frequently the words of my great-grandfather who was reputed to have dinned into the ears of his twelve children, 'Never worry about money. It's only an attitude of mind, and the next best thing to being very rich is to think you're very rich."
This was very fun to read. I enjoyed dipping into a different era and place via tales told with a slant toward the wild and crazy relatives.
Robin Dalton, Aunts Up the Cross, Text Classics, 2015, 142 pages (I read the kindle version). Available from Amazon.