Have You Been Good? – Vanessa Nicholson

by rebeccaswirsky

Nicholson was born to two art historians, later to become one herself: the often absent, gay Ben Nicolson, editor of The Burlington Magazine, with whom she enjoyed a closeness before his early death, and the formidable, unreliably attentive Luisa Vertova, employed by Christie’s in Italy. Following her parents’ early separation, Nicolson lived in Florence for four years, holidays in England taken either at Sissinghurst Castle, or being shunted around “like a parcel”. Memorably, she vented her misery by killing a newborn kitten.

Boarding at a “Hippie’s Paradise” liberal English school, she navigated her mother’s capricious ill-will and enjoyed dope-smoking sessions with her father in his Holland Park flat. Abortions, depression and aimlessness ensued. Too posh and privileged for some situations, not enough for others, she spent 15 minutes mistaking a butler for someone’s husband, and recalled the anxiety of approaching Sissinghurst with a boyfriend, convinced he would feel out of place, Sissinghurst appearing as “an entire Elizabethan town in a film set”.

Like her daughter’s rose motif tattoo, now worn by husband Andrew and daughter Ellie, grief has taken root and flowered in Nicolson’s present-day family. Strangers’ kindnesses and cruelties are recorded, including the drunken comment of an unnamed Sissinghurst guest of Nicolson’s cousin: “You seem remarkably unaffected by grief!” In the immediate aftermath there were the surreal practicalities of discussing recycling her dead daughter’s eyes at the hospital. Now, there is the visceral taste of grief, “mud in my mouth”.

Meshing Nicolson’s childhood with her daughter’s death has provided a study of poverty embedded in cultural privilege, alternated with parental loss. The grief is searing. Yet while part of grief’s process is voicing its trauma, the memoir’s tone occasionally feels self-lacerating, an attempt to be heard. On her 30th birthday, Nicolson received a letter. “You are sharp and selfish and arrogant…” went her mother’s words. Of course, the letter was filed away.

Nicolson addresses the issue of recipiency in her acknowledgements. Initially, she believed she had written for Rosa, “who would never be able to hear my story”. Later, she realised it was for “another significant person who cannot hear”, allowing her to voice “the things she [Luisa] will not speak about”. At 94, Luisa is unaware of the memoir’s existence, a situation unlikely to change. Poignantly, Nicolson ends her acknowledgements with the words Ti voglio bene: I love you.

In recording her own roles as both daughter and mother, Nicolson has penned a double helix to motherhood. It accounts for the many shades of experience that shouldn’t be, but so frequently are, endured in families, irrelevant of privilege.

Have You Been Good? is published by Granta (£16.99). Click here to buy it for £12.74

This review was first published in The Observer