Book review: Austerity Baby

Entertaining wanderings from this memoir by Janet Wolff


In Austerity Baby (Manchester University Press, £20), a memoir by Janet Wolff, Professor Emeritus of English, American Studies and Creative Writing, at Manchester University, the author confesses to “the strong antipathy I have long had towards the chronological, coherent account of a life.”

So, instead of a well-travelled narrative highway, Austerity Baby offers a series of scenic narrative walking tours wandering gently back and forth, only now and then intersecting with Wolff’s actual life, which becomes hard to pin down.

For example, she reveals that she suffered from thyroid cancer and attributes it to the 1957 catastrophic failure of Britain’s “Windscale” nuclear reactor (now known as Sellafield). But, a few paragraphs later, we learn that the illness may in fact have been due to an extremely stressful period of time the author spent in California.

Wolff’s German-born father was able to escape to Britain prior to the war. Many of his — and therefore also her — extended family were not so lucky. A heartbreaking chapter named after Professor Wolff’s great-aunt Leonie includes the speculation that the author’s youngest sister may have been called Eleanor in memory of her.

If this was indeed the case, says Professor Wolff, “it was probably lucky for her that this was never said explicitly. There is an extensive literature now on the effects of children of Holocaust survivors of these transmitted traumas.” One group of such children, we are told, has been labelled “memorial candles” by a researcher, “children named after relatives who did not survive — in some cases even conceived and received as replacements for those lost”.

The variety of topics discussed in the book is, perhaps inadvertently, summed up by a story Wolff tells about her father’s time interned during the war on the Isle of Man. She quotes one internee: “Our pride was our marvellous collection of more than thirty university professors and lecturers, mainly from Oxford and Cambridge, some of them men of international reputation.

“I doubt if one could have found a greater variety of lecturers anywhere else — we had an embarras de richesse. What could one do if Professor William Cohn’s talk on the Chinese theatre coincided with Egon Wellesz’s introduction to Byzantine music? Or Professor Jacobsthal’s talk on Greek literature with Professor Goldman’s on the Etruscan language? Perhaps one felt more inclined to hear Zunz on the Odyssey or Friedenthal on the Shakespearean stage.”

But while Wolff offers a treatise on colour, studies of the American artist Kathleen McEnery Cunningham and British politician Eleanor Rathbone, it is a little frustrating that the actual “austerity baby” (her mother’s description of her), who has a wealth of stories to tell about others, has imposed “austerity” on herself.

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