A highly sympathetic review of A Humour of Love, published recently by Quartet Books, appeared in The Tablet on 13th December – which I hope will trigger off a litany of appraisals to make up for the slow recognition that this remarkable book has achieved.
Here is the review in question. It will hopefully remind the public that Robert’s courage in baring his soul is worth a serious consideration. Buy the book and be the judge.
Having spent much of his adult life turning the grim raw material of his childhood into fiction, Robert Montagu was recently persuaded by the publisher Naim Attallah to tell his story straight. The result, written in just a few months, is as gripping as a thriller. But unlike most thrillers, it is both believable and shocking.
Robert Montagu is the youngest of six children (and second son) of the Tory MP, Victor Montagu (1906-95), who disclaimed an earldom to continue his political career. To his friends, ‘Hinch’, as he was known, may have been charming, charismatic and a perfect host, but in his son’s memoir he appears arrogant, overbearing, sentimental and weak. Having inherited a title, a fortune and royal blood, he felt at liberty to do as he liked, justifying bad experiences, at last when they happened to others, as ‘character building’. That was his excuse, anyway.
When we first meet Robert’s parents their marriage has been over for two years. His apparently generous, loyal and fun-loving mother, heir to a famous picture collection, has decamped to Kensington with a woman, while seven-year-old Robert remains at the family pile in Dorset. Here, evidently as a surrogate for his absent mother, he is sexually abused by his father. Astonishingly, it is five years before anyone notices anything, and only then because his sister finds him sharing a bath with his father. His mother affects shock and astonishment; his sister feels terrible guilt for not having been more observant. His older brother, envious of the attention Robert was receiving if not the particular form it took, refuses to believe his brother’s account.
The doctor is summoned to a family conference after which, sadly but perhaps unsurprisingly, nothing is done. Nothing, that is, other than Robert being told by his mother not to share a bath with his father.
Robert follows his brother to Eton where, fearing his own experience may tempt him to exploit others, he takes on the role of counsellor to troubled boys. Finally, aged sixteen, after warning a pretty new boy in another house that he is about to be attacked by older boys, he is beaten by the famously sadistic headmaster, and walks out of the school. With no idea what top do with him, his family packs him off to Rome in the company of a Franciscan friar, whose clumsy passes Robert furiously spurns.
Montagu’s memoir ends with his solitary return to England, and an adult world for which he is unqualified and unprepared, determined – remarkably, perhaps, given the experience of his parents – to quickly find himself a wife. That Montagu went on to enjoy a happy family life and a successful professional career in psychotherapy lies outside this book, but it is reassuring all the same, for it suggests that with the right mix of sensitivity, intelligence, pig-headedness and rage, even the most traumatic experiences may be turned to good purpose.
Some say living well is the best revenge, but writing well, as Robert Montagu demonstrates in this moving memoir, may be even better.
Another review of this remarkable book, by Nicky Haslam, appears in the February issue of the Oldie magazine. It adds a different dimension to the harrowing story of a father who abuses his son relentlessly without a thought in his head as to the consequences of his actions.
That’s a double reason why the book should be read.