Great Britain

Susan Chitty: Eccentric writer and biographer

Lady Susan Chitty, who has died aged 91, was born into trouble and kept a nodding acquaintance with it at other intervals during her life. A fine writer and perceptive researcher, she was always elegantly turned out even when money was tight, as it usually was. Daily trotting round her village on horseback, her initial impression of aristocratic hauteur was belied by her languorous tones, as if always on the verge of telling a good joke. Her domestic life was spent in a capacious but run-down cottage challenging to maintain.

The illegitimate daughter of the mentally fragile writer Antonia White, now only remembered for her classic novel Frost in May, Chitty was packed away at birth to grandparents in the country. Time was then spent in a residential nursery before her return home aged 18 months after her mother married. This was to Tom Hopkinson, later to become editor of Picture Post.

Soon joined by her half-sister Lyndall, the girls suffered neglect while their mother, chronically short of funds, forged on single-mindedly with her writing. Taking comfort from her obsession with horses (once believing she might actually be one herself), Chitty’s first public address at the age of four, directed at her sister, was on “Constipation in horses: its cause and cure”.

More years of never-to-be-forgotten (or forgiven) maternal strife followed before Chitty, now financially supported by her beloved stepfather Hopkinson, went up to Somerville College, Oxford, to read modern history. There she met her future husband, the equally impoverished Sir Thomas Chitty – better known as the novelist Thomas Hinde – who was also in full flight from his family. Surviving a breakdown and suicide attempt when she was 21 and marrying one year later, Susan worked for Vogue as a fashion writer, while also becoming something of a television personality.

Moving to West Sussex, Susan bore four children, Andrew, Cordelia, Miranda and Jessica. Somehow finding time for writing, she produced The Woman Who Wrote Black Beauty in 1971, a sympathetic look at the author Anna Sewell. This was followed three years later by The Beast and the Monk: A Life of Charles Kingsley. Including reproductions of his previously inaccessible erotic drawings and extracts from his agitatedly sensual correspondence with his fiancé, the biography was a turning point for any future discussion on the novelist.

In 1977 she and Thomas came out with The Great Donkey Walk − From Spain to Greece by Pilgrim Ways and Mule Tracks. This was a description of their 18-month journey taken with two children, aged seven and three, plus the family dog. Eight years later it produced a furious reaction in the Literary Review from Germaine Greer, with whom the family had stayed overnight at her home in Tuscany. Objecting to a fairly mild joke at her expense, Greer attacked not just the book but also what she claimed were Chitty’s inaccuracies and distortions as editor of her mother’s diaries.

A biography of Gwen John followed, but fur once again flew after the publication of Now to My Mother: A Very Personal Memoir of Antonia White in 1985. Opening with “Lyndall and I hated our mother”, this passionately angry account proved too provoking for her younger sister. At a meeting at PEN International in 1985, both strongly disputed each other’s recollections.

Lyndall went on to write her own version of their shared childhood, Nothing to Forgive. Also critical, her tone was ultimately more forgiving of a parent with so many demons of her own. Later the sisters wrangled over who should edit their mother’s voluminous diaries. Chitty won the rights, with the first instalment published in 1991, the second a year later. Chitty’s well-received biography of Edward Lear before that was followed by an account of Sir Henry Newbolt some years later.

At home the couple continued to keep an open house to many friends, eating off newspapers when there were no tablecloths and sometimes feasting on squirrel pie after Thomas had been out shooting. A summer party was a regular feature, once with a display of belly dancing, although pupil Chitty did not take part in the demonstration herself.

Ever open and generous, she lived on her own after Thomas’s death in 2014 before moving in a final irony to the same local Catholic care home her estranged mother had attended before her death. Amused and amusing to the end, Chitty’s last year was spent living with her daughter Miranda while always keeping in close and loving contact with her other three children and eight grandchildren.

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

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