The Sunlight on the Garden

Published by Granta on 3rd April 2006

In 1880 Ada Curtis bore Gerald Howard the first of several illegitimate children. Ada was a housemaid, the daughter of a Lincolnshire butcher. Gerald was her employer and the son of a once-grand family now obsessed with its own threadbare nobility. They thereby sent their descendants tumbling chaotically into the twentieth century.

More than a century later, inspired by the stories, reinventions and half-truths in her family’s past, Elizabeth Speller – Gerald and Ada’s great-grand-daughter – set out to trace the criss-crossing lines of their history. As she herself recovered from a mental breakdown, she began to wonder if that history offered any explanation of what had happened in her own life; ‘What made my grandmother mad? What made us mad?’

The answers she discovers may not be categorical, but the search brings vividly to life the passions and hopes of four generations, amid tales of wealth inherited and lost, eccentricity, sexual indiscretion and madness.

Ultimately this book is a moving and often amusing account of one family’s attempts to withstand the buffets of a turbulent century, and will remain in the memory as a beautifully realized sequence of portraits of mothers and daughters.