I remember seeing an interview on television with Lulah Ellender, the author of Elisabeth’s Lists: A Life Between the Lines. This biography of her grandmother, which she pieced together after being given a book of the varied lists which she had made during her lifetime, really piqued my interest, and I subsequently borrowed a copy from my local library. I thought that the book would be surrounded by quite a lot of buzz; rather, I was surprised to find that when I looked on the Goodreads page to mark it as ‘currently reading’, the book had just 30 ratings, and 8 reviews.
This Granta publication has been described by the Guardian as ‘a hauntingly beautiful meditation on life and death’, and by the London Review of Books as ‘a perceptive and original book… as much a meditation on the meaning of lists as it is a biography.’ The Spectator says that ‘Ellender researches, uncovers, interprets, comments and responds to the life of her grandmother with uninhibited insight.’
The inspiration for Elisabeth’s Lists came when Ellender’s mother gave her ‘a curious object – a book of handwritten lists’. From these, all of which were, on the surface, quite ordinary, she began to ‘weave together the extraordinary life of the grandmother she never knew, from Elisabeth’s early years as an ambassador’s daughter in 1930s China to her marriage to a British diplomat and postings in Franco’s Madrid, post-war Beirut, Rio de Janeiro and Paris.’ The lists in Elisabeth’s notebook were written between 1939 and 1957, the year in which she died. They encompass many things; from ‘an inventory of household linen to a record of the number of eggs her chickens laid over the course of a year, Elisabeth itemised her days, page after page…’.
Ellender, facing the impending death of her mother from cancer, finds solace in these lists. The ‘small red-brown marbled hardback journal’ was passed to her, she says, as her mother was ‘not sure what to do with it and thinks I might like it. But there is a spark in her eyes. She knows it is no ordinary book; she is giving it to me so that I can find things, dig down into my family’s past and show her the treasures I uncover. She is entrusting me with her mother’s story.’
Ellender goes on to note in her prologue the rules which she made for herself whilst writing Elisabeth’s Lists: ‘It is important to me that Elisabeth’s story is told as faithfully as possible, but I am also acutely aware that this is my reading of her, and that other people may have constructed a different version of this same person.’
I am a prolific list-maker myself, and read with interest the historic practices of list-making which Ellender covers, and which span as far back as writing itself. She writes of the power which making a simple list gives us: ‘We formulate endless lists of our top films, books or music, of things to do and places to see before we die, as though they might provide both proof of our existence and a legacy for future generations. We believe that a list can make us immortal.’
The chapters within Elisabeth’s Lists are split into geographical places in which Elisabeth either lived, or spent time. Born in 1915, Elisabeth’s ‘short life was characterised by movement and displacement. The book of lists mirrors this constant shifting, with numerous lists for various diplomatic postings and items to be put into storage.’ Many of these postings, and the subsequent instability of her life, were bound up with the mental illness which Elisabeth suffered from for a long time. When living in Peking (now Beijing) in her early twenties, for instance, Ellender writes: ‘Some days her world is blanketed in a crepuscular shroud, people and objects are dim and far away and she feels as if she is standing alone in a vast, empty expanse. Sometimes she just wants to go home.’
This concept of home, too, is an interesting one, which I feel deserved more space in the book. When the family move back to London from Peking, Elisabeth is initially excited, but negativity soon begins to creep in: ‘She knows that she “ought” to be feeling happy to be back but she is, in fact, lost and desperate… She also describes times of feeling unbearably restless, her mind in turmoil, of being violently antisocial and staying in bed for two days of depression.’ There is much historical content included in Elisabeth’s Lists, and for the most part this has been well handled. Ellender particularly excels at writing about wartime, and how her grandmother, stationed in Madrid, dealt with it.
When Elisabeth gets married, her book of lists ‘becomes a reference point from which she will run her household, and to which she will turn in times of anxiety and bustle and joy.’ She records inventories of wedding presents, of property; lists of guests for the many parties which she threw; menus for entertaining… Photocopies of some of Elisabeth’s lists have been included in the book; unfortunately, these are often blurred, faint, and not at all easy to read. This is a real shame, given that the entire biography was inspired by, and is based around, them.
I prefer reading biographies of ordinary people to famous ones; they tend to offer so much more with regard to the real world. Nothing about Elisabeth can really be considered ordinary; she travelled so much more than many people of her time, and lived with a lot of privilege. As Ellender notes, ‘Elisabeth’s was an extraordinary existence: a curious mixture of maintaining a British way of life, and discovering the authentic essence of a place. Looking back over the places she lived we see an existence built on impermanence and marked by contrasts.’
Elisabeth’s Lists is certainly readable, but I did feel as though some portions of it were quite overwritten. The prose feels a little too flowery, and too overdone at times. There is an imagined narrative from Elisabeth’s perspective, which uses the present tense; for instance: ‘It is morning. Elisabeth crouches on a patch of dusty soil, draping some clothes on a rock to dry. A canvas tent flaps behind her, and nearby, a kettle splutters over a fire.’ Similar sections have been placed randomly throughout the narrative, and seem like something of a creative writing exercise, really; they add very little to the main body of text. Throughout, Ellender asks a lot of questions which she never then proposes an answer to; this practice became annoying quite quickly. The assumptions which she makes, too, are unnecessary.
I liked the central idea behind this biography, but overall, it did not feel entirely satisfying. Elisabeth’s Lists really appealed to me as a reader, but some sections felt overworked. The assumptions and imagination of Ellender feel repetitive very quickly, and the tone is overwhelmingly simpering in places.