Janet Hitchman had a phenomenal memory. As someone who remembers very little of their own childhood, I was astounded by the detail with which she could recall events and people. In The King of the Barbareens she recounts her formative years from early childhood to young adulthood. An orphan of the First World War, who never knew her parents, she was initially cared for by an elderly couple she called Gran and Granfer. She then suffered a series of grim, Dickensian sounding hospitals and institutions, and stark foster homes, before ending up in a Barnardo’s childrens home.
I found the early years of her life the most interesting and vividly described. I always wanted to be a doctor, so I took a morbid interest in the childhood ailments she suffered and the cruel treatment she received within the various sanatoriums and hospitals she attended.
Janet Hickman was evidently an extremely intelligent child and had she been given more opportunities and suffered less, she may have prospered academically. At any rate, she wrote very well and eventually managed to earn a living from it. Books were always an escape and a solace to her; she retreated into poetry and had a remarkable ability to recite verse.
“My beside locker was always stuffed full of of notebooks and sheets of paper. I had such an appetite for writing paper that Miss Lawrence, generous though she was with it, could not keep up with me, and I resorted to toilet paper and tearing out the end papers of books in the library.”
There’s a very interesting section about her writing, in which she says that her passion for writing left her when tidiness had to take precedence, due to the regime of the childrens home. I can relate to this myself and have reached the the conclusion that I would rather live in chaos and write, than live in a tidy house and not, as creativity requires a certain amount of freedom to be messy.
The King of the Barbareens was less interesting than the jacket blurb promised, and the title made me think there would be more of an element of fantasy, but I’m still glad that I read it. Hitchman delivered some interesting insights into the legacy of growing up unloved and unwanted, even though she was writing before any great strides had been made in Psychology, as to the effects of child abuse and neglect. Before Bowlby’s Attachment Theory, there was no recognition of the necessity of love and affection in the raising of children, and this meant that childrens homes were spartan and cold-hearted places.
I could identify with many of her struggles. “All my life I have had to fight the barbarians within me and without…” Hitchman says, and while she expresses very little self-pity, she has obviously absorbed other people’s negative views of her character into her own psyche. She also, like myself, displays the classic attachment difficulties which are invariably the result of a loveless upbringing. I knew my mother, but apparently my first sentence ever spoken was, “Lady, NOT my mummy” in reference to her. Though whether this is actually true, I have no idea; where Hitchman’s memoir is all sharp detail, mine would mostly be fog and blank spaces.