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Aide-mémoire: how shoes helped author step back in time

A few modest objects – including a pair of brogues – form the basis of Marina Warner’s family story

20 May, 2021 — By Jane Clinton

Marina Warner. Photo: Dan Welldon

A SIMPLE pair of shoes. Dark chestnut brown, functional and perfect for English country walks.

But they were so much more.

For they marked the transition of Emilia “Ilia” Terzulli, a penniless young woman from southern Italy to life in a new country as the wife of an English colonel.

Compared to the flimsy pumps she wore in Bari, these were sturdy, handmade brogues made by the famed English shoemaker, Peal & Co.

The shoes feature as one chapter in the enchanting, Inventory of a Life Mislaid: An Unreliable Memoir, by Marina Warner, a daughter of Ilia and Esmond and the celebrated writer of fiction, criticism, history as well as studies of art, myths, symbols and fairy tales.

Throughout the book, Warner, who lives in Kentish Town and is also a Professor of English and Creative Writing at Birkbeck College, takes a selection of objects from her family’s life to examine their history as well as her own.

Alongside the brogues, Warner includes among others a record collection, a hat box and a powder compact.

These objects unlock moments in time.

But they also anchor Warner’s narrative, which is full of rich detours, asides and ponderings.

Marina’s mother Ilia

There are extracts from family letters as well as photographs scattered throughout that also bring an immediacy.

Inventory of a Life Mislaid is a meditation on what it is to remember: how our memory can serve us up mirages as well as pin-sharp accurate scenes from the past.

Ilia met Esmond Warner in 1944 when he was on leave in Bari and she was a 21-year-old typist. They were soon engaged and married.

When Ilia arrived in London in 1945 Esmond was initially away in the war in the East.

She was thrust into eccentric English life with her in-laws in South Kensington.

And so she began to learn how to become an Englishwoman living with a family very much rooted in the establishment.

Her father-in-law was the test cricketer and journalist, Sir Pelham “Plum” Warner. Her mother-in-law was Agnes affectionately known as “Mother Rat”, whose father Henry Blyth had been a partner in Gilbey’s & Son, the wine importers, merchants and gin distillers.

Throughout, Warner is clear-eyed about her mother’s experience: uprooted from her life and her culture and supplanted into a foreign land with a new language.

We follow Ilia and Esmond’s life in England and then their move to Cairo in 1947, where Esmond set up a bookshop, a branch of WH Smith, when Marina was just a baby.

The brogues

But over time and now with two children and a husband who is consumed with his work, Ilia cut a solitary figure.

There were some distractions with the numerous smart parties and social functions the couple attended.

And Ilia, an able seamstress, created a wardrobe of beautiful dresses. We read of these wonderful creations (many of which Warner still has and treasures). One can almost hear the rustling of tulle and taffeta, which take on a sensuous and almost mystical quality.

In these dresses, Ilia, a great beauty, attracted attention. That she may have had dalliances are only vaguely hinted at – Warner maintains a daughterly discretion.

The family’s time in Cairo ended with the 1952 uprising when much of downtown Cairo, including the bookshop, burned.

They returned to England in June 1952 then later moved to Belgium.

In 1959 they were back in England and Cambridge where Esmond continued with bookshops. Ilia taught Italian.

Esmond died in 1982.

And the true extent of Ilia’s feelings only became apparent to Warner after her mother’s death in 2008.

But Warner demurs.

“The scenes aren’t to be repeated here: her ghost would shudder at the memory of those times of deep unhappiness,” she writes.

As well as her mother’s notebooks, there were letters and journals read only after Ilia’s death.

The memoir Warner had been writing would now need to change. And so after some time away from it she began to rewrite.

Although Inventory of a Life Mislaid describes itself as a memoir, the story really reads as an homage to Ilia.

“Yes, I suppose it is,” says Warner, who was made a dame in 2015. “It became very much about her life and experience.”

As for the brogues, Warner still has them. She sends me a photograph of the shoes.

They are dainty by today’s standards and you can see the imprint of a life lived.

  • Inventory of a Life Mislaid: An Unreliable Memoir. By Marina Warner, William Collins, £16.99.

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