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My mother's name was not "Valérie"
Reflections on identity
One of the odd things about being me has always been watching events I was present for and people I know being misreported in slightly curious, skewed portraits in the newspapers. It took me quite a long time to understand that my childhood was not just a bit different from most other people’s, but really a lot different, often in ways that are orthogonal and oblique, and which combine in good chaotic fashion to produce outcomes that are at far greater variance than the original arithmetic might suggest.
My mother’s name was Valerie Jane Cornwell. She was born Valerie Jane Eustace, and she died - by her own reckoning, and therefore by mine - a straight-backed woman. That is to say that she took orders and instruction from no one, made her own choices and declined to be bowed down by them even when they were hard. This was an aspiration she had all her life, in the image of her mother’s mother, and one she felt she had unequivocally fulfilled.
No one called her Valerie, which she regarded as a flowery name chosen for her before anyone knew who she was. We called her Jane (her brothers and her parents got away with “Viji” for “VJ,” but it was on sufferance) and she was practical, kind and strong. Her family on both sides were from Essex and her maternal grandfather was a local newsman. Her father was an army dentist who played the ukulele. She was as unequivocally English as they come. Which is why it always startles me to see her awarded that French accent in her unused first name: Valérie.
How does it get there? Why? Is it because my father’s made-up pseudonym (with a very un-French lower case “l” for “le Carré”) suggests a continental refinement which must perforce apply to both of them? But surely everyone knows that his British Gentleman mode was a beautifully-executed performance? If they don’t, there’s now a whole film dedicated to who he really was - and (I’m obviously biased) it’s a very good one.
The accent thing always catches me off-guard because it partway implies another life for my mother, and one she’d have laughed at: Swiss finishing school, parties in Monte Carlo, all that jazz. In the UK, that French pronunciation mark is at least potentially a marker of class, specifically of aristocracy. Once upon a time, French was the language of the conqueror, and after centuries of back and forth between here and there, one thing is baked into the popular awareness almost deeper than anything else: to be French is to be fancy. French cakes, French clothes, French underwear, French nobility, French food, French cheese, the French language itself… Deny it how we might, everything French is potentially cooler, shinier, swankier… the most stylish, most apposite word for it is: “chic”.
The woman Valérie, in my mind, sports long cream gloves and a fascinator. She wears heels and insists on champagne. She belongs in some kind of 70s rendering of Agatha Christie’s Poirot. If you were to look, you’d surely find her posing in pictures with movie stars.
Jane loathed having her picture taken. She was painstakingly invisible, yet still omnipresent and foundational. She liked a decent Scotch whisky, a respectable red wine, but nothing more glamorous - and if she wore gloves it was because the weather was cold and she had lousy circulation. As for posing with movie stars… there are a very few photos where she is dragged protesting into frame and stares like a startled cat into the lens, and then she’s gone again, stage left. The image I used at the top of this post is one I took in a dark corner of a local restaurant on someone’s birthday - hers, my father’s, I don’t remember - and I had to be quick on the draw. A moment later she had her hands up and lunged away to her right, leaving me twisting to follow her and ending up with a few shots of my own reflection in the dark window glass.
One of the things she did - in which she simultaneously succeeded remarkably and failed dramatically - was try to make my experience of life as ordinary as it could be. She wanted me to touch grass, to understand the real. It’s perplexing to me that she gets this odd little layer of digital gilt from time to time, and that it finds its way into newspaper articles; that people might think she was Valérie.
For what it’s worth, I count four other errors in just that paragraph of the Wikipedia entry, none of them huge, but as I say: multiply one by another and another and pretty soon the map doesn’t fit the territory at all.
What is said, what is written, and what actually happened fade in different directions over time. That’s normal. But let it be said:
Her name was Jane.
Winter makes me introspective.