Susan Chitty: eccentric writer and biographer

Lady Susan Chitty, who died aged 91, was born into trouble and has kept a nodding knowledge at other times in her life. A fine writer and perceptive researcher, she was always stylish even when money was tight, as was usually the case. Trotting daily on horseback through his village, his first impression of aristocratic height was belied by his languid accents, as always about to tell a good joke. Her domestic life was spent in a spacious but dilapidated cottage, difficult to maintain.

The illegitimate daughter of mentally fragile writer Antonia White, only remembered from her classic novel Frost in May, Chitty was thrilled from birth to her grandparents in the countryside. Time was then spent in a residential nursery before she returned home, aged 18 months after her mother’s wedding. It was up to Tom Hopkinson, who would later become editor-in-chief of Photo post.

Soon joined by his stepsister Lyndall, the daughters suffered from neglect while their chronically strapped mother continued determinedly with her writing. Comforting herself with her obsession with horses (once believing she could be one herself), Chitty’s first public speech at age four, to her sister, was on “Constipation in horses: its cause and its remedy ”.

More years of unforgettable (or forgiven) motherly conflict followed before Chitty, now financially supported by her beloved stepfather Hopkinson, went to Somerville College, Oxford, to read modern history. There she met her future husband, the equally poor Sir Thomas Chitty – better known as novelist Thomas Hinde – who was also on the run from his family. Surviving depression and a suicide attempt at the age of 21 and getting married a year later, Susan worked for Vogue as a fashion writer, while also becoming something of a TV personality.

Moving to West Sussex, Susan had four children, Andrew, Cordelia, Miranda and Jessica. Somehow finding time to write, she produced The woman who wrote black beauty in 1971, a sympathetic look at author Anna Sewell. This was followed three years later by The Beast and the Monk: A life of Charles Kingsley. Comprising reproductions of her previously inaccessible erotic drawings and snippets of her sultry and hectic correspondence with her fiancé, the biography was a turning point for any future discussion of the novelist.

In 1977, she and Thomas released The great donkey walk – From Spain to Greece by pilgrimage routes and mule tracks. It was a description of their 18-month trip with two children aged seven and three, as well as the family dog. Eight years later he provoked a furious reaction in the Literary journal of Germaine Greer, with whom the family had spent the night at their home in Tuscany. Opposing a pretty sweet joke at his expense, Greer attacked not only the book but also what she claimed to be Chitty’s inaccuracies and distortions as editor of her mother’s journals.

A biography of Gwen John followed, but the fur flew again after the publication of Now to my mother: a very personal memoir from Antonia White in 1985. Opening with “Lyndall and I Hated Our Mother,” this passionately angry tale proved too provocative for her younger sister. At a meeting at PEN International in 1985, the two strongly contested each other’s memories.

Lyndall went on to write his own version of their childhood together, Nothing to forgive. Equally critical, his tone was ultimately more lenient towards a parent with so many demons. Later, the sisters argued over who should edit their mother’s bulky diaries. Chitty won the rights, the first opus being released in 1991, the second a year later. The well-received biography of Edward Lear by Chitty before that was followed by an account by Sir Henry Newbolt a few years later.

At home, the couple continued to hold an open house to many friends, eating newspapers when there were no tablecloths and occasionally feasting on squirrel pie after Thomas was on set. A summer party was a regular feature, once with a belly dancing demonstration, although student Chitty did not participate in the demonstration herself.

Always open and generous, she lived on her own after Thomas’ death in 2014 before moving, ironically, to the same local Catholic nursing home that her distant mother had frequented before her death. Fun and entertaining until the end, Chitty’s final year was spent living with her daughter Miranda while still keeping close and loving contact with her three other children and eight grandchildren.

Lady Susan Elspeth Chitty, writer, born August 18, 1929, died July 13, 2021

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