My ‘wild child’ cousin, the surrealist painter Leonora Carrington

In most families the ghosts are dead but in my family, somewhere out there, our ghost was still alive. Her name was Prim, and she had left us on an autumn day in 1937, when she was only 20. Prim was the empty chair at Sunday lunch. She was the unseen aunt at the christenings of her nephews and niece. She was the cousin who hadn’t turned up, yet again, at the latest family funeral. And, just occasionally, she was the misty-eyed, faraway look on the face of Great-Aunt Maurie, who was her mother.

Throughout my childhood, I never heard a good word said about Prim. As far as our relatives were concerned, she was deficient, disloyal and dangerous. She was an impossible creature, a wild child, an unfathomable puzzle of a girl; a young woman who refused to be tamed and who eventually, when she had wreaked more havoc than any family could reasonably be expected to bear, simply flounced off into the sunset. These were the snatches, picked up from Maurie and from my grandmother Miriam (who was Prim’s aunt), and from Prim’s brother Gerard (who was my father’s best friend as well as his cousin, and a regular visitor to our house when I was growing up). Prim, the family narrative went, had simply refused to fit in: she had been expelled from various schools, had failed to net a husband during her season as a debutante, and then she had been caught up in some scandal so shocking that my great-aunt and my grandmother still seemed to be reeling from it decades later. If you asked anyone in the family, the story was that everyone else had behaved entirely reasonably throughout. “It certainly wasn’t us,” one of my cousins told me, years later. “It was Prim; she was the reason everything went wrong.”

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