Spinning the Memoir

I finally got my hands on Admiral Sir Guy Reginald Archer Gaunt’s autobiography this week (The Yield of the Years, a story of adventures afloat and ashore). I have now read the thing cover to cover, and while I still insist that it was worth every penny I paid for it, at least to me, it pains me to report a glaring omission.

Sir Guy never mentions his wives and children.

TuliaHe mentions a few women in passing. One is Tulia, the Samoan girl who followed him into battle with Gaunt’s Brigade to put down an insurrection (or take sides in a civil war) in Samoa in 1899. Another is an unnamed wealthy New York society woman and German sympathizer, whom I recognized as Mrs. Edmee Reisinger, the beer heiress. He talks about the pony he rode on Samoa. But if he mentions putting in at Hong Kong in 1904, he says nothing about how he married a widow there, Mrs. Margaret Elizabeth Worthington, daughter of Sir Thomas Wardle (This according to the Australian Dictionary of Biography), and how their marriage ended in divorce in 1927, after he ran away to Canada with the wife of the Royal Ophthalmologist.  Nor does he ever mention the 35-year-old widow he married in 1932 (when he was 63), Sybil Victoria Joseph, née Grant White, or the two daughters they had together.

SammyHe speaks affectionately of Sammy, the pony. Later he describes in loving detail the sailing ship he bought after he left the House of Commons in 1926 and went to Canada. But, women?

The thing is, Sir Guy didn’t write his memoirs for me to read, or any other romantic-minded woman. He wrote for his friends in the Navy, who would have thought him a complete bounder if he talked about his personal life. The stories he tells are all about his school days, his military career, and his yacht, and thumping good yarns they are, the kind of stories an old admiral would tell at a dinner of brother officers.

Franz Rintelen, German spy, wrote his memoirs too (The Dark Invader). Probably he was a bounder. His enemies said so. But included among the war stories (half of them bald-faced lies) is a touching account of how he came home to his wife after long imprisonment in Atlanta and found that his marriage was dead, whereupon he sorrowfully left. Not a word of reproach for his wife. He hadn’t been home in years and years. Reports of his death had come to her again and again. It was just too much for her.

It is interesting to note that of the two World War I spy memoirs, only Rintelen’s is still in print, while Sir Guy’s is so hard to find that one has to pay hundreds of dollars for a copy. Either that or sit in the Library of Congress and read it, a task of several days. Rintelen, I think, was writing for the money, while Sir Guy was writing because his friends told him he should. His memoir is more interesting in and of itself than Sir Guy’s, which has its charms but rambles a bit and has to be picked through for historical facts.

I ask myself: What are you allowed to leave out of a memoir? Anything you want to, I guess. It’s your story. If you don’t want to admit to ever having been married, why, go ahead and leave it out. Write it any way you want to. Lie your head off. Who do you want to be? Who do you want people to think you are? Go for it. The more unknown you are, the more free you are to make up the life you always wanted.

That’s what I plan to do, if I ever get down and write my memoirs. Maybe I’ll do that tomorrow. Let’s see. First I need a few heroic deeds. And maybe a pony.

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