"Liza Campbell was the last child to be born at the impressive and renowned Cawdor Castle, the family seat of the Campbells, as featured in Shakespeare's Macbeth. Liza's father Hugh, the twenty-fifth Thane, inherited dashing good looks, brains, immense wealth, an ancient and revered title, three stately homes, and 100,000 acres of land. A Charmed Life tells the story of Liza's idyllic childhood with her four siblings in Wales in the 1960s, until Hugh inherited Cawdor Castle and moved his family up to the Scottish Highlands. It was at the historical ancestral home that the fairytale began to resemble a nightmare."
As a child, Liza Campbell was surprised to discover that for most people a family tree was merely a figure of speech. For the Campbells of Cawdor, the tree was quite literal — an ancient holly inside their castle in Scotland, a pagan defense against witches. But by the time Campbell’s father became the 25th thane of Cawdor, its potency seems to have waned. In her memoir, “A Charmed Life,” a witch takes up residence at Cawdor Castle, doubling as an evil stepmother. By that time, Campbell’s father has transformed himself into the sort of charming monster Shakespeare might have relished. Unlike Macbeth, he wasn’t responsible for a murder — unless you count the destruction of a priceless ancestral legacy. Hugh John Vaughan Cawdor gave his children a fairy-tale upbringing, but as his daughter remarks, “fairy tales can be dark.”
While Campbell’s grandfather was alive, her father presided over the family’s other vast estate, in Wales. It was the swinging ’60s, and while his children played in a Gypsy caravan in a rural setting straight out of Beatrix Potter, Hugh “treated his sex life as if he were James Bond,” pursuing love affairs as far afield as Africa when not busy crashing sports cars (he went through six Jaguars before switching to Ferraris). He and his wife sat down to a formal dinner every evening, whether they were alone or entertaining strangers Hugh had raced with on the road from London. Even the more conventional guests could be strange: Uncle Bill, with “a child’s mind in a burly adult body,” fond of marching up and down in his bedroom to brass-band music; Tia Honsai, a martial arts expert with a “greasy quiff,” in reality a Welshman named Ronald Thatcher. The household servants also had their quirks, but most of the nannies weren’t around long enough to make an impression: the Campbells went through almost 30 of them, and not, Liza observes, “because we children were waking them up in the dead of night.”
Despite his nanny-stalking, much could be forgiven a glamorous father who paid surprise visits to his daughters’ boarding school via helicopter (even if they happened to be away at the time). And his domestic dictates, while puzzling, weren’t deeply problematic: corgis, cats, chewing gum and custard were frowned upon, as well as “most ornamental conifers, any talk of money and the color mauve.” At this point, Hugh was mainly an amusing spendthrift who “had fallen for the great myth — that a destructive streak was romantic.” But with the power that arrived at his father’s death, the romance soured.
Like many memoirs, Campbell’s is most vivid when it deals with her earliest years, and the lively momentum of her childhood stories continues through the initial adventure of settling into a castle that, although built 300 years after King Duncan’s death, has always been associated with one of Shakespeare’s bloodiest plays. But as she grows up and her father grows more bloody-minded, Campbell seems less sure of how to approach him, both in the flesh and on the page. No longer merely impulsive, he turned vigorously profligate — selling off the Welsh estate, investing in a string of failing businesses, buying apartments for friends in Paris. And his personal eccentricities, fed by alcoholism (and, Campbell later reveals, cocaine addiction), became both nasty and dangerous. When Hugh went after his wife with a samurai sword, she sought comfort with another man. Hugh exploded — and so did the marriage.
Turning dissolution into a full-time occupation, Hugh worked his way through a string of lovers he couldn’t bother to distinguish: they were all introduced as Olga Nethersole, a name plucked from a Thurber short story. Until one day another name stuck: Angelika Lazansky, a social-climbing Czech with hennaed hair and “formica-white skin,” trailing a pack of Jack Russell terriers. Installed as the chatelaine of Cawdor Castle, she redecorated it like a Bavarian hotel and expected thank-you notes when Hugh’s offspring were permitted to visit. A predictable estrangement followed, but there was worse to come, revealed when Hugh died suddenly of blood poisoning. Campbell’s stepmother had been written into his will as emphatically as his eldest son and presumptive heir — indeed all his children — had been written out. Noting that his daughters had nothing to remember him by, Angelika offered them each a keepsake: their choice of the pens on Hugh’s desk.
Campbell struggles to understand, if not forgive, her father, but she never gets beyond psychological banalities: he was shy, he was obsessive, he was abused by his nanny. And because (perhaps to protect them) she has removed her mother and her brothers and sisters from so much of this account of the family battles, the effect is to leave her father in possession of the field. Instead of probing his complexities and contradictions, Campbell recites the litany of his sins. Lest you begin to feel sorry for the old reprobate, she suggests that he might have tried to commit incest with her, if he hadn’t passed out before revealing just what he had in mind.
In her prologue, Campbell mentions some advice she was given by a writer friend — to see if she could distill her book into a single sentence. What she comes up with is “Papa was odd, but I got even.” She’s pretty convincing on the first count, not at all on the second.
Procure A Charmed Life here.