Hail falls on the family of a modern Thane of Cawdor
A Charmed Life: Growing Up in Macbeth’s Castle. By Liza Campbell. St. Martin’s/Thomas Dunne, 323 pp., $24.95.
By Janice Harayda
A Charmed Life is a high-class version of that deathless series in the Star, “Stars Without Make-up.” Instead of mascara-free actresses, this memoir gives us sobriety-free Scottish aristocrats.
At the age of 30, Hugh Campbell inherited the title of Thane of Cawdor and vast wealth that included two stately homes, four ruined castles and a hundred thousand acres of land. He promptly moved his wife and children from their estate in Wales to the family seat, Cawdor Castle, in the Scottish Highlands. The new home became his Dunsinane, or so it appears from A Charmed Life.
Hugh Campbell seems to have had a self-destructive romantic streak long before the move to Cawdor threw it into ionospheric relief. As the idea of free love had spread in the 1960s, he went “haywire with the frontrunners,” his daughter Liza writes:
“He dressed like a Restoration buck, wearing scarlet velvet jackets with black frogging, floppy cuffs and outsize buckles on his belts and shoes, the heels of which were covered in red patent leather to match the jacket.”
At Cawdor, the new thane devolved into an alcoholic, cocaine-addicted, serial adulterer who drove away his sainted first wife and deprived his son his birthright, his daughter says. He also smashed up a fleet of Jaguars and, insisting that the cause of his accidents lay in their faulty design, took to driving a lime-green Ferrari. His widow, his second wife, has disputed some of this in the British media. And Campbell sinks into pop-psychological goop when she tries to explain her father’s pathology: She says that when her paternal grandfather broke his wife’s toe, “he showed his son that physical abuse was an option” – as though there weren’t men who have seen such force without resorting to it or who resort to it without having seen it.
But Campbell is better reporter than analyst of her family’s woes, and she describes an offbeat cast of friends and relatives with a flair that occasionally resembles Nancy Mitford’s in Love in a Cold Climate. A friend of her grandfather’s preferred ferns to toilet paper and, when he traveled south from his Scottish palace, “took along a suitcase packed with bracken fronds, since London hotels were unable to cater for this particular requirement.” An aunt met her husband at Oxford “where he would wander through the quads in a top hat with a pet mouse that ran round the brim.”
Such vivid glimpses of a vanishing world help to make this book more than another memoir of an imploding family. So do Campbell’s wit, sharp observations on life and refusal to tack on the artificially upbeat ending of so many American memoirs of family turbulence. Her chilling comment on a hunting accident that left a farmer’s teenage son with terrible groin injuries sums up a theme of this book:
“It was my first realization that something profound and permanent can happen in an instant and, worse, never be undone. It took a while to realize that life doesn’t deliver a single such instance, but an endless series of them.”
Best line: “Of all the things drummed into us, the only ones with any application to the modern world were the importance of being polite to strangers, and a sketchy knowledge of trees.”
Worst line: “Something that is seldom acknowledged is how incredibly common addiction is – maybe as high as one in three.” Don’t they get Oprah in the U.K.?
Published: October 2007 www.thomasdunnebooks.com
Read an excerpt at www.oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com/2008/03/23/.
© 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.