Christian Miller's A Childhood in Scotland is an absolute gem of a book. It had been hidden in plain sight on my bookshelves for at least a decade. I'm sure this was one of my "Common Reader" purchases. The Common Reader, if you're unfamiliar with it, was a mail order catalog that specialized in books for the Anglophile. Lamentably they went out of business years ago, but I still have a few of their old catalogs tucked away, which I enjoy perusing now and again (and wishing they still existed). It was always a feast for the eyes to get one in the mail and I wonder how many of their books line my bookshelves.
Looking for a good nonfiction book to read I couldn't have chosen better. From the opening line, "When I was a little girl, the ghosts were more real to me than the people", I found myself immersed in Miller's memories of growing up in the 1920s in a Scottish castle. Think Downton Abbey but set in the far reaches of northern Scotland, except this is the real thing. If you want authenticity, go no further, as you'll find it here in the pages of Miller's reminiscences. This is a charming book and I would call her childhood almost idyllic were it not her the stories of deprivation and loneliness that resulted from the stern upbringing she and her siblings received. But it wasn't all gloom as mixed in are many happier moments, too. Still, she manages to write with great warmth and sensitivity about her childhood and family despite some of the bleaker moments.
Christian was the youngest daughter of six (ebullient she tells us) children, or as they were known--the Girls, the Boys, and the Children. Her elder siblings had already been sent off to school leaving herself and a slightly older sister at home with their parents, governess, and an assortment of servants--both indoor and out--who cared for the vast estate where she spent the first decade of her life. Her father was particularly strict and extremely practical not caring for vanity in his children or time not spent industriously. Perhaps his outlook can be explained by his own harsh and loveless upbringing. He was never very good at showing affection towards his children. Christian calls him proud and fierce but for all that he was never self-important. Her mother was English and while more sympathetic towards the plight of the children could never be seen as going against the wishes of her husband. She was a caring woman but perhaps the care was often misplaced. In any case it was up to others, the governesses in particular (there were a string of them), for the care and well-being of the children.
Navigating childhood in the circumstances Christian was raised was fairly tricky. She was never quite sure by which set of rules she needed to play, as it was hard to tell who was in charge sometimes. She feared all the adults in her life with the exception of her mother (and one nanny she was especially close with), but even she was overruled by her father.
"The question of manners was especially confusing, for governesses often had different rules from parents. At breakfast, a governess might deprive me of brown sugar on my porridge--sugar being a luxury, for salt, put in during the cooking, was the more normal flavoring--because, while waiting to be served, I had not placed my hands neatly on the table, one on each side of my plate; at luncheon, my father would send mt out of the room precisely because I had put my hands on the table--he thought they should be clasped in my lap."
The castle and estate where Christian grew up was vast and extensive and her family tree was quite illustrious (on her father's side she was descended from King Duncan--the victim of Macbeth, and Napoleon had surrendered to her great-great-grandfather on her mother's side). Dating back to the 13th century it was in many ways ideal, though there was no electricity and it must have been absolutely frigid in winter. It only lacked a seashore but otherwise it "contained virtually every type of land and sport to be found in Scotland."
"In spring and summer, it was one of the prettiest places on earth, and when autumn came, baring the trees and covering mountain, forest and field with snow, its prettiness did not fade but was transformed to beauty."
She recounts growing up in an atmosphere of privilege, but privilege that brought with it mostly duties and few rights. The household was managed frugally and the children had many tasks that might not normally be associated with a wealthy family--like gathering branches in winter for fires or stone gathering in summer. And there was always an ever-present fear amongst the children of not getting enough to eat. Although their parents always had the welfare of the children at heart, they had the idea that it was sinful to pay too much attention to worldly things such as food.
"As the first dish was handed to my mother, six anxious eyes would assess the quantity of food that it held. Nine small rissoles of leftover meat. well, at least that was fair--one each (our governess ate lunch with us). Then came the potatoes--misery, there were only sixteen. Which of us would get two, and which only one? My mother took a single potato--oh, good. But then my father took four, and gloom descended on those children who were waiting to be served after him. Even the quantity of green peas was avidly estimated, and though we were would never have dared to complain while actually at table, the post mortems that took place after the meals were acrimonious."
"You took two teaspoonfuls of peas--I saw you!"
"Well, perhaps I did have a very small second teaspoonful, but some of my first teaspoonful were maggoty."
"And everyone would fall on the floor, fighting."
It seems as though Victorian ideals on household management and childcare were still in favor despite the reign of Victoria being long over. The children had hand me downs and very few treats. Being the youngest Christian fared the worst in some ways, such as having to wear mismatched clothing from both older sisters and brothers. But there were hunting parties and tennis parties and visits to the tenant families. And Christian's mother did her best to import activities and new traditions to the estate. Many other young women in the area were stuck alone at home with few social opportunities so she began hosting hockey parties, and when she discovered that Christmas was just another workday she began many of her own traditions.
The world Christian Miller writes about is long gone, and perhaps that's not entirely a bad thing. A Childhood in Scotland is absolutely fascinating reading, and I only wish the book had been twice as long (my copy has a mere 97 pages). As well, I wouldn't have minded if she had written more intimately about her siblings or her later life and experiences, though she ends the book at a natural cut off. She writes, however, in such an engaging manner you feel like you've walked the vast estate and been inside the rooms of the castle with her and met the people who reside there (ghosts included). As far as I can discover she wrote only one novel, The Champagne Sandwich, which I am trying to get my hands on now. This is a book I will definitely revisit again sometime--it is definitely a 'why did I wait so long to read this' sort of book. And now I must go and see what other gems are hidden on my bookshelves.