DAISY GOODWIN: My mother's pursuit of love wrecked my innocence

My mother’s pursuit of love wrecked my innocence: Just like ‘The Bolter’ in the new Nancy Mitford TV drama, cookery author Jocasta Innes left her children for a lover. Now, her daughter DAISY GOODWIN describes the shattering impact

  • Daisy Godwin’s mother Jocasta Innes left her family when she was five years old
  • Jocasta went to pursue younger man who would later become Daisy’s stepfather
  • Here, Daisy describes the impact and how she now questions herself as a parent 

Daisy Goodwin, with mother Jocasta Innes who left the family home when Daisy was five similar to the Pursuit of Love’s ‘The Bolter’

There is a scene in Emily Mortimer’s wonderful adaptation of Nancy Mitford’s The Pursuit Of Love where the narrator, Fanny, goes to a party and comes face to face with ‘The Bolter’, the mother who had abandoned her in her own pursuit of love when she was a baby.

I recognised the mixture of longing and resentment that flickers across Fanny’s face only too well.

For the central fact of my childhood was that my own mother, Jocasta Innes, also ‘bolted’, leaving home to live with a younger man when I was five and my brother was three.

She didn’t say goodbye, I just woke up one morning and she wasn’t there. A couple of days later, I realised she might not be coming back when my brother and I were having a bath, and whoever was looking after us — not my mother — had let us play with a glass bottle.

The inevitable occurred and I remember looking at the blood flowering around my knee in the water and wondering when my mother would come.

She didn’t. She had left the house, in a beautiful Georgian square off London’s Old Kent Road, that she lived in with my father to share a bedsit in Islington with the man who would one day become my stepfather.

But none of this was explained to me at the time; I just knew I ended up in hospital with a doctor taking the pieces of broken glass out of my knee, and that my mother wasn’t there.

We were sent to live with my father’s mother in the New Forest for a couple of years while my parents fought a custody battle.

Those years were not unhappy, as my grandmother doted on my brother and I, but every so often my mother would come to see us. I can still remember both the joy of seeing her and the feeling of resentment that she was disrupting the ordered calm of our existence.

Once, we spent the day with her in the damp basement flat she was living in, and I refused to drink the cup of tea she made me because it didn’t have any sugar in it.

The Screen Bolter: Emily Mortimer as the Bolter (left) in the BBC series The Pursuit of Love

Today we would call it ‘acting out’ but I think at the time it felt easier not to enjoy myself so the pain of leaving would be less intense.

I still remember my brother clinging to my mother’s legs to try to stop her leaving my grandmother’s house after a visit, and her having to prise away his fingers one by one.

It made no sense to me at the time, but I came to accept it in the way children do, and gradually I forgot that I had ever lived in a house with my mother and my father.

My father won the custody battle. This was the Sixties, long before the idea of no-fault divorce, and the courts took a poor view of a woman who had left the marital home, abandoning her children.

Shortly afterwards he remarried, and my brother and I went to live with him and my stepmother. She could not have been more different from my mother.

Oblivious to fashion, she always wore the same polo shirt and blue cords, never wore make-up and didn’t drink, smoke, gossip or flirt.

I wasn’t the only child in my school whose parents were divorced, but I was the only one who didn’t live with her mother.

Bohemian goings-on: A scene from series The Pursuit of Love starring Andrew Scott (centre)

When people asked me about her, I would make up fantastical stories — that she was a Chinese spy (she had been born in China); that she had an affair with Fidel Castro (also untrue, although she did translate a book called Memoir Of A Runaway Cuban Slave).

My life at home with my father and stepmother was an ordered one; regular but boring meals, regular early bedtimes and no reading after lights out.

But every other weekend, and for a fortnight in the holidays, we would be dispatched to stay with my mother and stepfather in Swanage, where meals were delicious but unpredictable, bedtimes were never demarcated and the only rule was not to make a sound before 10am.

My mother and her friends would stay up until the small hours arguing about life and literature, intoxicated with their own cleverness and the copious amounts of home-made wine that my mother produced as she reinvented herself as a guru of thrifty self-sufficiency (her 1971 kitchen classic The Pauper’s Cookbook is still in print today).

On the occasions of those visits, I remember getting more and more nervous as the train drew closer to the station nearest to her Dorset home.

Would she remember we were coming? Would she be pleased to see us? Yet as the train pulled out of Wareham station on the way home, I could feel my stomach knitting with misery and loss.

Pictured: Some of the cast from the Pursuit of Love including stars Dominic West as Uncle Matthew (far right), Lily James as Linda (left of centre) and Emily Beecham as Fanny (centre)

As I grew into my teens, I felt her absence even more. Plump and spotty, I fantasised about turning one day into an alluring siren like my mother. Confident, clever and chic, rocking leather trousers into her 70s, Jocasta was the template for all I wanted to be but wasn’t.

Even though most of her clothes were from Oxfam, she was always the most stylish woman wherever she went.

As soon as I could fit into her clothes, I started to borrow them. I remember the printed flamenco-shaped skirt with a ruffle she had made that I stole from her wardrobe, wearing it proudly to school in the hope some of my mother’s glamour would rub off on me.

When I was 12, my mother, who could not be depended upon to remember birthdays, decided to take me shopping, buying me my first pair of heels. They were red leather slingbacks, with a stacked heel of all of two inches.

To me they were infinitely precious, not just the forbidden heel (my stepmother only bought me flat shoes) but the fact that they had been given to me by my mercurial, unknowable mother.

I used to leave the house wearing the Start-rite sandals my stepmother approved of, and change into my heels the moment I was round the corner.

I was eventually rumbled when my stepmother came to pick me up from school and saw me sashaying down the street in my scarlet shoes.

Aged 17, I had just started going out with my first boyfriend and was excited to tell my mother all about it.

But before I could begin, my 40-year-old mother announced that she was in love — not with my stepfather, but with a young man who had come to work on one of her books (she later bolted with him).

I remember feeling scared, impressed and just a bit upstaged. It was clear that my life would always be a bit tame compared with hers.

It wasn’t till I had a child of my own in my late 20s that I began to feel angry with her. I would look at my perfect little daughter and just couldn’t imagine ever leaving her.

I stopped wanting to be like my mother, a glamorous free spirit, and started to blame her for making choices that put her happiness before her children’s.

Emily Mortimer as The Bolter

It’s not that my childhood was miserable (it wasn’t) but her departure robbed me of my innocence. I learnt too early that nothing, not even a mother’s love, could be taken for granted.

I once asked her how she could have left her two small children. She looked confused that I would even ask such a question, answering: ‘I had no choice, darling.’

At the time I thought the answer was a cop-out. Of course she had a choice. I knew that nothing, not even George Clooney on bended knee, would make me leave my children.

I was never going to let my kids down. But now I am older, my mother has been dead for eight years and my children are grown up, I am beginning to understand why she bolted.

She, after all, grew up during the War and was separated from her own mother for two years. Later, she went to boarding school.

She went to university, married and had a baby, then realised she was unhappy. Plus she had grown up in a generation where motherhood was not the religion it is now — in well-to-do families, children were raised by nannies and sent to boarding school when they were seven.

Unthinkable as it would seem now, a whole generation of children were sent away from their mothers as evacuees during World War II.

So when it came to her own pursuit of love, my mother didn’t think about her children. She put her own happiness first.

It’s a choice, after all, that men make all the time. But somehow fathers who leave their children aren’t called Bolters. And if they do leave for a younger model, they can always start a new family to replace the one they abandoned.

Like The Bolter in The Pursuit Of Love, my mother was slightly uneasy about having a grown-up daughter. I had my first child when she could still easily pass for 45, and it took her a long time to reconcile herself to being a granny.

But later my kids thought their grandmother, who lived in a converted brewer’s house in Brick Lane and plied them with red wine and roll-ups, was pretty cool. And, in many ways, they were right.

From this distance I can admire my mother’s courage — it takes guts to start again not once but twice, and she did it all without taking any money from a man.

I also have to admire her refusal to be bogged down by guilt. Never apologise, never explain was her motto, and there is a lot to be said for that.

My mother didn’t waste time baking cakes for the school fair, she didn’t agonise about spending too much time at work, she just got on with it.

And I envy her for that insouciance; I have done my best to be the mother I never had for my children. I have never missed a parents’ evening, I know the names of all my children’s friends and I have never forgotten their birthdays.

But am I really a better mother? I wonder. It’s quite possible that one day my children will be as resentful of my brand of Waitrose parenting (I have been known to send food deliveries to my daughter at university) as I have been of my mother’s absence.

Being too attentive to your children, always being there to catch them when they fall, not allowing them to make their own mistakes, can be just as damaging as not being there at all.

Yes, I grew up with the insecurity of knowing that nothing was certain, but it also gave me a resilience and determination that I value.

By wrapping my children in a cocoon of protection, I wonder if I have really done them any favours — in the end I suspect that children, like house plants, benefit from benign neglect.

And when it comes down to it, even if my mother was a Bolter, when I think of comfort, I think of sitting in her kitchen, eating her food and listening to her talk. I still miss her every day. She always left me wanting more.

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