Bolter's Grand-daughter by Angela Culme-Seymour
published by Bird Island
Press, 23 Oakthorpe Road, Oxford, OX2 7BD
In the House of Muhammad Ali: A Family Album 1805-1952 by Hassan Hassan
published by The American University in Cairo Press, ISBN 977-424-554-7
The spiritual teacher, Muhammad Ali Raouf Bulent, provides a human link
between these two books of memoirs. For Bulent was first married to Faiza,
an Egyptian Princess who was one of Prince Hassan Hassan's most adored
cousins, and later, at the end of his life, to Angela Culme-Seymour. It is
typical of the man that he alone could linktwo otherwise totally
disconnected worlds, though in character Hassan Hassan and Angela
Culme-Seymour have some notable similarities. They are painters, insiders
in an outwardy glamorous High Society world who also experienced
contrasting periods of privation.
However in mood the books are near total opposites. Hassan's is rooted
with a strong sense of place, a fierce loyalty to his royal family, to the
memory of palaces and parks, the burden of the past and the weight of
possessions. Angela's text exists in an almost continuous present, a place
of strong desires.
Prince Hassan's In the House of Muhammad Ali is a partial memoir
intermingled with a history of his family, the rulers of Egypt from
1805-1952. He even halts his own life story with the fall of the dynasty
while his splendid selection of over 80 black and white photographs offers
us the gossamer glow of official portraiture. It is impossible not to see
the book as an apology, an attempt to correct the demonization of his family
by the Socialist Republic that replaced them. He opens no cupboard doors,
reveals just one skeleton (partial evidence of a medical assassination) and
steadfastly ignores the tales of sexual intrigue that usually surround any
narrative of the royal family.
Hassan is at his best when he describes the palace interiors of his youth
with an exact and loving eye. He seems to literally walk through the
stifling formality of his great-aunt, Princess Nimet's, garden palace at
al-Marg, with its lines of servants bowing lowand night-watchmen obiedently
coughing on the hour. You take an audience with the young Hassan being
presented for the first time to King Faud I in Alexandria. You share his
delight in the bewitching interior of his Aunt Emina's residence, an old
hunting lodge of Ibrahim Pasa's, the hunting-trophy-filled interior of
Prince Youssouf Kemal's palace at Matariya and Prince Muhammad Ali Tewfik's
residence on the Nile island of Manial-Roda with its gilded Turkish baroque
Regency Hall, its library tower and ornate villas scattered within a
garden-compound is another clear favourite.
Hassan is informative about the seismic change in royal architecture begun
by the abolition of slavery in 1869. The slave-concubinage of the past is
speedily replaced by marriage between royal cousins. The vast barrack
palaces, with their ornate facades divided rigorously into separate selamlik
and harem quarters, are replaced by a taste for smaller Śmarital' villas set
within orchard parks. At the same time the rapprochement between the
ancient House of Osman and the young House of Muhammad Ali had been effected
by Khedive Ismail's visit to the Bosphorous. This was cemented by a
bizarre coincidence, for it turns out that the concubine mothers of the
Sultan (the Valide Sultan Petner Niyal) and the Khedive (Hoshiar) were
sisters! Inter-marriage between the Egyptian royal family and cadet
branches of the Ottomans quickly became an established tradition. Very few
of the young lords chosen to marry Egyptian princesses were military men
with a possible taste for power. It was the Ottoman scholars, the mystics
and poets who were the preferred candidates, generation after generation.
You feel the claustrophobia of this royal cousinage, the dignity formed from
emotional deprivation, where great wealth leads to a sense of utter
powerlessness. Prince Hassan, for all his loyal disgression, can not
disguise his own bizarre education, separated from his mother by royal
decree and whisked in and out of schools without cause or reason, other than
that of arbitrary royal whim which had also put paid to the promising
careers of both his father and brother. If one can share his regret at the
obliteration of the royal parks, the felling of orchards and the relentless
destruction of a great heritage of palaces and royal villas, one can also
appreciate how the mechanics of court life sap all initiative.
The book will be treasured for its photographs, and its sense of mood. It
is too partial to survive as an historical document. Who but Hassan could
chronicle that "when Princess Faiza, Farouk's sister, went to live nearby,
an old apricot tree, which had survived inactive from Ismail's days,
suddenly burst into bloom." It is also a pity that Hassan's own story, of
how a Prince survives a revolution, of how an artist from the old regime
paints in a Socialist republic, is not told.
Angela Culme-Seymour's Bolter's Grand-daughter is like following the
flight of an amorous swallow. It is an astonishingly candid memoir by a
great beauty who had an hypnotic effect on men throughout her life. There
is no false modesty, "people say that being beautiful must make life very
hard; perhaps I was not that beautiful, for I found it wonderful, the only
difficult part is getting used to its fading."
Much pursued and adored, she floats in her own moral universe, between
feeling pity and then revulsion for her lovers. One can occasionally share
some of her feelings when a young Jack demands of her, "I don't know how
anybody who loves as much as I love you, can't be loved in return." Angela
does love, but she loves on her own terms. There is a woodcutter full of
the spirit of the hills, Ralph Ślooking like pictures of Jesus Christ
without the beard', a moody obsessive French count called Rene, the quiet
dignity of ŚBrasco, the Major' returning from some heroic wartime raid, the
careful sympathy of Patrick Balfour to an unhappy woman and the artist
Johnny Churchill "with bright blue eyes ... a puckish chin and a sweet
smile... To my surprise it was sweeter than anything I had ever known."
There was however something so alluring in each new love that Angela was
prepared to sacrifice the old. She hears the recriminations of the
abandoned, "You've never been afraid of losing anyone have you, Angela?" but
early on she had learnt Śto enjoy the happiness of the moment and to put my
thoughts into a sort of container, and to look ahead no further than a day
or even an hour."
Bolter's Grand-daughter reveals a life packed full of movement, people,
energy, flowers, scents and landscapes. Buildings and possessions even
emerald rings given by lovers and golden wedding bands are shed with a
nonchalence denied the rest of us. It is also a book of travel: simple
rooms are taken, views are relished, as is the quiet chatter of the local
village women or the company of grandmothers. She is prepared to sleep
anywhere and adversity is taken without a flicker of complaint, indeed at
times she seems most contented when exhausted by the demands of work: in
the war-rooms of the Blitz, munition factories or surviving by her skill as
a painter. She turns her hand to portraits, plaster casts, landscapes,
waste-paper baskets - whatever the current situation demands or allows.
A new tone enters her life on Friday, November 29th 1968 when her son-in law
introduces her to Mehmet Ali Bulent Rauf. A new form of male beauty sweeps
though her life , for unlike all her previous lovers, Ali's relationship is
with her mind not her flesh. Angela recalls how an old dervish friend of
Ali's had blessed her in the middle of a losing streak of backgammon games,
"I think its time our daughter won a game." She got all the dice she
needed. She also faithfully records another conversation.
Ali, "Oh, you're a wicked woman"
Angela " I know"
Ali "Its not that you're immoral, you're just amoral. You haven't got any
Angela, "How can you love me then"
Ali, "God knows"
It was to be a white marriage. For like a proud young husband on the first
night of marriage Ali was the first to have been allowed to touch her soul.
Angela Culme-Seymour's Bolter's Grand-daughter is a book of love and lovers,
written with an unearthly amoral wisdom.
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by Barnaby Rogerson