Marion’s story is engrossing – because of both its universality and its uniqueness. She grows up in the East End, the seventh of 13 children. At 17, she joins the Women’s Land Army, and, after the Great War, turns to nursing, becoming a live-in probationer at a mental hospital. Her induction into each institution included “morals” lectures. She would have been well aware of the dangers surrounding young women.
Eventually, Marion goes to work as matron at the alternative school of Major Theodore Faithfull, a man his granddaughter Marianne will later describe as “the most horrible dirty old man you could imagine”. And Farrell sketches in the intriguing alternative education scene, whose players included such celebrities as A S Neill and Bertrand Russell. A few weeks after Marion, new teacher Morris Horovitch arrives. He is 25, attractive and humorous.
A year later, Marion takes a similar live-in position at another alternative school, Red Hill, and soon becomes a much-loved figure there. And again, Morris Horovitch is taken on as a teacher at the same school.
Evidence of their affair – beside, that is, their “illegitimate” offspring – remains in poems written by Marion, and quoted here – amateurish but touching. When she finds she is pregnant, the principal offers to keep her on, giving her a bigger room for herself and the baby. Horovitch goes away, and Marion and her mother cook up the story of Farrell’s father, which will in time be fed to him. Red Hill will be young Peter’s home for many years.
This is a deeply humane account. At the same time as it’s a loving, respectful portrait of his mother (to whom it is dedicated), it refuses to condemn his father. What drives Farrell is the longing to connect. He astutely avoids sentimentality and judgement.
Jane Westaway NZ Books December 2013