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Cat woman in love. By Merlin Holland

Blog | Apr 25, 2024

Like all small children, I used to be fascinated by the semi-forbidden contents of adults’ chests of drawers.

One particular discovery, which I remember most vividly, was that of a heavy silk shawl intricately embroidered with small flowers and wrapped in tissue paper. It was never taken out and used or even mentioned. So, as a child, I had the impression that I was the only person to be aware of its existence.

After my father, Vyvyan Holland, Oscar Wilde’s son, died in 1967, I asked my mother about the shawl and she said rather vaguely that it had belonged to some girlfriend of his long before the war.

I left it at that and the shawl remained more than ever a forgotten reminiscence in its crumpled tissue, a sort of memory mothballed for eternity.

Twenty-five years went by. I was checking my father’s diaries to verify the date of some event in the early 1940s, when I came across the following entry. It was around the time his old friend Edward Heron-Allen had died, and his wife, Nour, had been going through her late husband’s possessions:

‘I heard from Nour yesterday that she still had the lovely Spanish shawl which I gave to Armorel [her daughter] for her 21st birthday and was prepared to let me have it back.

‘I have told so many lies about that shawl that I have almost forgotten its true history. At various times, I have said that it belonged to my mother, to an imaginary sister who died, to my former wife, and to a lady to whom I was engaged but who died in tragic circumstances shortly before the nuptials were due to take place.

‘Whereas the real truth is that I bought it in the Rastro in Madrid for about £12 for Kathleen Hale, with whom I was travelling in sin some 17 years ago, just at this time of year.’

Could my childhood discovery, I wondered, be the very same shawl? The only way to find out was to ask Kathleen, whom I had known off and on for many years.

She used to come to my father’s flat in London to inscribe her Orlando books to me in the early 1950s, just about the time I had first found the shawl in its drawer.

My father must have kept in touch with her, because she sent him a little watercolour in 1967 on his return from New York where he had been to help promote Brian Reade’s Victoria & Albert Museum exhibition on Aubrey Beardsley.

Vyvyan, it turned out, had written to Kathleen saying that he had seen himself on colour television for the first time and ‘looked like an anaemic prawn’.

This prompted her to send him the watercolour of Orlando’s wife Grace sitting, chin on paws, in front of a TV with a mirror image from the screen – ‘Vyvyan Holland in Colour’ (pictured).

I, too, had kept in touch since 1983 when I had nearly started a children’s books imprint and wanted to reissue the Orlando series.

All in all, I felt I knew her well enough to call her and broach the subject, and I wrote out her reply as well as I could remember it immediately after I had put down the phone:

‘He bought that shawl for me in the market in Madrid; it was bright royal blue with flowers embroidered on it. It was very loud and I probably didn’t have very good taste. I gave it back to him when I got married in 1926.

‘My husband made me give it back. He then gave it to Viva King who phoned me up and asked if Vyvyan was “all right”. I didn’t know what she meant and she said, “Well – what was he like in bed?”

‘I suppose she was implying he might be queer because he hadn’t yet made love to her.’

By this time, the history of the shawl was beginning to take on all the elements of a Maupassant short story. Before long, it led me to a bundle of letters from Kathleen to Vyvyan spread over 40 years, from when they had made that trip through southern France and Spain in September 1925, up to his death in 1967.

In one of the last ones, it was clear that she wanted, briefly, to relive those days asking Vyvyan if she could reread her letters to him, and when she returned them she wrote:

‘My dear Vyvyan,

‘I am registering these letters because I promised their safe return.

‘On reading them, an overwhelming nostalgia crept through me, for the Vyvyan I knew, & the Provence and Spain that was his. I have never felt so nostalgic, & it is a measure of what that wonderful time really meant to me, despite the canker that was eating out my heart. [She was recovering from a broken love affair.]

‘You gave me something from the world of imagination & human warmth which is indestructible. But Nostalgia is a Siren & one must be wary of her; she can destroy the present & the future unless disarmed.

‘I shall offer up a sacrifice upon her altar, in culinary form & shall cook a Provençale Bouillabaisse and a Spanish Paella … their steamy fragrance will sinuously rise, incense-wise to salute the Past & placate the Present.

‘But pity the poor Siren: she must fight a losing battle against folk who have the solid & lovable rocks of family life to cling to. Love & smiles to you from the “Plain but amiable cat”. K.’

On the last occasion that I saw Kathleen before her death in 2000, aged 101, I took the shawl with me, a little apprehensive about what effect, if any, it might have.

I like to think that I saw her pause for a second or two as she picked it up, memory fanning the embers of a distant affair and a very old friendship. It had been my father’s friendship, but it had become mine too, and together they had made more than 70 years.

I still have the shawl, which lives (in more senses than one since I discovered its history) in that same drawer.

I know that it will always remind me of the remarkable, sometimes eccentric and very lovable creator of Orlando the Marmalade Cat.

Merlin Holland is author of The Wilde Album: Public and Private Images of Oscar Wilde