The Eccentric Life Of Joe Carstairs Is An Homage To Individuality.
By Stephan Faris
The Queen of Whale Cay, by Kate Summerscale (Viking). Cloth, $21.95.
OBITUARIES are, by nature, dry and declarative. They are the summation of a life, a listing of important dates and events, offering little room for an author's bias or the interpretation of the subject's inner life. Working at the obituary desk of London's Daily Telegraph, Kate Summerscale was eulogizing England's war generation--stout-hearted, sober folk, forged solid by their wartime experience. Her subjects were often comically eccentric and intriguing beyond the format imposed by the obituary column, but Summerscale was ordinarily not able to probe beyond the confines of the death notice.
One day, Summerscale was called upon to write about a person she found too intriguing to leave alone. A reader had suggested that her godmother, Marion Barbara Carstairs, might be an appropriate subject for an obituary. Summerscale dug into the previously forgotten life. Carstairs, who adopted the nickname "Joe," was a figure of wondrous eccentricity: a woman who wore men's clothing back in 1920s England, in one picture even sporting a mustache. She raced motorboats and once, when she crashed, cracking three ribs, went out dancing that evening. She hobnobbed with the rich and famous of Europe and America. Eventually retiring from society, she bought an island in the Bahamas and became a self-made queen: "The Boss," as the islanders referred to her.
Carstairs' story begged further exploration. To make sense of it, Summerscale needed to escape the limitations of the obituary column; hence she began The Queen of Whale Cay, a biography of Joe Carstairs.
If Summerscale felt the need to understand Carstairs, her work was made especially difficult by the fact that she was not the first to try to put her own interpretation on Carstairs' life. Carstairs had already spun fact and fiction to reinvent herself. The few accounts that she would give about her young life and the relationship she had with her parents were riddled with inconsistencies. In a story she told about her father, she had him discouraging theories on her mother's murder years before her mother actually died. Carstairs held tight control over all that was told about her. In tapes she made in preparation for a ghost-written autobiography, she refused to give motives or explanations for her actions.
Carstairs' process of self-invention began early. Even at age 5, recovering from a blow to the head, she declared that she had a new name: "Tuffy." She was determinedly self-reliant. When somebody rejected her and pulled away, she quickly changed the story so that she was the one leaving. For example, at age 11, her mother sent her to America for boarding school. In Carstairs' account, it was she who left. Her separation was so complete that, having named a series of boats Estelle, after her mother, she was amused to discover, years later, that her mother's real name was Evelyn.
Over the years, she became increasingly masculine, dressing in men's clothing, wearing her hair cut like a man's, smoking cigarettes "with manly gestures," and finally, one drunken night, coming home tattooed. She happily recounted being mistaken often for a young boy.
In 1925, a girlfriend gave her a doll of a little man. With his eternal, apple-cheeked smile accented by bright, bead eyes with boyishly surprised eyebrows, the foot-tall doll quickly became a favorite. Carstairs named him Lord Tod Wadley, and transferred a large part of her ego into him. Throughout her life, she saw that he was well cared for, buying him clothes and worrying for his health and safety. She invented a life for him that inversely paralleled her own. When she was young and living wild, "Lord Tod" stayed home, portraying innocence and asexuality. As they grew old together, her hair graying and the leather of his face hardening and cracking, by her account he gained in world experience, becoming the rake, leaving broken hearts in his path.
What makes Carstairs so interesting is not her eventful and eccentric life, but rather the controlled effort to be the master of it and the way it was perceived. Even though Summerscale tries hard to impose her own interpretation, Carstairs' version of the events fights its way to the surface and often seems more real. Summerscale acknowledges that Carstairs' telling competes with her own. One chapter, in which Summerscale draws analogies between Carstairs and Peter Pan, is especially unconvincing.
It's as if Summerscale has uncovered a new archetype in Carstairs, and the format she chooses to describe her seems inadequate. Carstairs is, in her own words, "an enigma," a subject too deeply textured to be fully rendered in the format of an obituary or even a biography. Summerscale has written a compelling biography of a colorful character, but she nonetheless fails to probe beneath the show-off surface and reveal her subject's psyche. Even in death, Joe Carstairs remains steadfastly independent.
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