Review: ‘Searching for Grace’
by Lynne Hatwell

Selections  from LYNNE HATWELL’s review of ' Searching For Grace'

Lynne writing from Devon:
Searching for Grace is a book currently not readily available in the UK, (though if you're in New Zealand you're in luck) but one that definitely should be for the light it shines on a period of time that's much in our national consciousness right now, with Downton Abbey conversation everywhere and a second series to come. It offers further fascinating insights into the lives of the privileged, is an extremely well written memoir and I couldn't put it down.

Have you ever wondered about the fate of those children born out of wedlock to the Edwardian aristocracy who were then silently whisked away into obscurity so that the season could continue, the presentations at court needn't be interrupted, the lovers could still be bedded and the summers could still be spent languishing on the Riviera? I'll admit I hadn't given it much thought at all until Carol's book arrived and I settled down to read the poignant story of her mother Heather Tovey's life.

The family memoir predominantly written by Heather (nee Campbell) who was born in London on... well when was Heather born? She thought it was March 3rd 1911 but had no birth certificate to prove it. When Heather came to apply for a new passport in New Zealand in 1975, the country where she had lived for nigh on forty years, that lack became the focal point of her story as she proceeded to trace her life back to those earliest memories of growing up in Edwardian London in the care of three sisters, one of whom she knew as 'Mummy' and who had indeed been loving, but in a strangely remote way.

What became apparent as I read was just how important known parentage and identity can be and how unsettled and rootless it is possible to feel without those constants in your life. Heather had grown up with secrets, a child's awareness that all is not quite right, the brick wall when the questions are asked and this coupled with the knowledge that Heather unearths, that she was indeed a child of the aristocracy, all had me deeply engrossed in this very readable book.

The book is full of deeply poignant reading as Heather imagines and describes some of these key moments in her young life. Then there are the ongoing uncertainties and insecurities that Heather has taken into her adult life, lying about her age and secretly marrying the New Zealand artist Gordon Tovey before emigrating to Plimmerton, north of Wellington in NewZealand, to start a new life with him at the age of eighteen. The letters to Heather in New Zealand from Mummy urge her to put it all behind her but, as the written words traversing thousands of miles become the vehicles of confession and admission of so many of the secrets surrounding Heather's origins, she is most certainly unable to do that.

The veneer covering Heather's insecurities is often painfully thin and easily scratched to reveal the rawness of what lies beneath, as when she gives birth to her own daughter Carol, the co-author of this book who inherits her mother's cause and researches it further after her death. Or when Gordon sinks into alcoholism and takes a mistress to which Heather displays a limitless degree of tolerance and capacity in coping with his infidelity, perhaps deeply rooted in the infidelities of those who have treated her so badly in her own past.

Knowing and finding her family becomes an obsession that will haunt Heather for the rest of her life, and when she does find a sister, Priscilla once married to Viscount Curzon, and is initially welcomed but subsequently rejected, the pain makes for very sad reading.

Heather's mother, a wealthy serial adulteress with a string of country seats (now luxury hotels Petwood in Woodhall Spa in Lincolnshire, Engelmere in Asco) and plenty of lovers to meet there, reminded me slightly of Idina Sackville of The Bolter fame. When I read that at eighteen months Heather had almost been whisked back into the aristocratic fold but for Mummy's protestations, I could only but think what a fortunate escape that had been for her. Whether Heather was ever able to see it in that light seems uncertain, and indeed it is Carol who takes up the burden of the past after Heather's death and finally achieves that search for a different kind of grace, along with some sense of closure for the family and in honour of her mother's memory.

So forget all the fictional accounts, here is a true story, wonderfully written and a brave and honest indictment of a time when class was everything, when reputations and social standing for those classes in society took precedence over all else, when an unwanted child's life could be spirited away out of sight, when money could buy silence and secrecy and when lives could be cruelly manipulated beyond the grave. A powerful and really excellent read about Heather Tovey (nee Campbell) a woman of indomitable spirit, and my sincere thanks to her daughter Carol for sending me a copy.

Lynne Hatwell
11 January 2011

Please refer to the above excellent website for Lynne’s full review, plus new photographs of people and places that feature in the book. Your comments on Lynne’s review and/or the book are welcomed on website.