The TV world is abuzz with the launch of Patrick Melrose – Sky Atlantic’s new drama starring Benedict Cumberbatch. Adapted by David Nicholls, it’s based on five novels by writer Edward St Aubyn and boasts a cracking cast.
Patrick Melrose is the central character in five novels by English author Edward St Aubyn published between 1992 and 2011. He’s a man traumatised by childhood abuse at the hands of his father and his epic story also takes in his descent into drug addiction, his father’s death, his relationship with his mother and the fracturing of his life, his faltering friendships and broken marriage.
What books are there?
There are five in total. The first book Never Mind was published in 1992 and is set over the course of one day at a house party in Provence, and includes scenes of a five-year-old boy, Patrick Melrose, being raped by his father. The series charts his life at intermittent periods over the following 35 years – troubled young adulthood; marriage and children and his hugely difficult relationship with his mother.
Who is Edward St Aubyn?
Edward St Aubyn (pictured, below) was born in 1960 in a part of Cornwall where St Aubyns have lived since the Norman conquest. So you can probably tell that he is quite posh: upper-middle class, public school (Westminster), Oxford. He was a heroin addict when he started at Keble College in 1979. His father, Roger, was an Old Etonian, a lieutenant in the Hussars, a surgeon and frustrated musician. His mother, Lorna, was descended from a wealthy American family (their money came from a Cincinnati lard-oil business). He spent much of the 1980s living in New York squandering a large inheritance on drugs. A little bit like the hero of his books…
So, are the books based on real life?
In the words of St Aubyn himself, all the characters in the Melrose novels are “a conflation or an invention” but “some things are too good to mess about with”. St Aubyn has disclosed that he was raped by his father between the age of three and eight and that he was a heroin addict – crucial facts of his life which are mirrored in the story of the fictional Patrick Melrose. In the early 1990s, when he published his third novel Some Hope, he initially avoided interviews. But when he was asked in 1994 if Patrick’s experience of sexual abuse described his own, he said, “Yes. Why not say that?”.
There are real people in the books – Princess Margaret makes an unflattering appearance (St Aubyn really didn’t like her – he did like The Queen apparently, but she isn’t fictionalised). Eleanor Melrose, the fictional mother, has an American family which is modelled closely on Lorna St. Aubyn’s real-life relatives. In the story, an American friend of the family called Anne Moore (played by Indira Varma in the TV adaptation, below) is the one who had an awareness of what was happening to the young boy and is tormented by it. In reality, one of St Aubyn’s nannies, a French woman, later confided in him after reading Some Hope. She wrote: “I’ve felt guilty all my life, because I used to hear you down the corridor screaming and I knew it was much, much worse than an ordinary punishment, but I was only 19 and I was so frightened of your father…”
How did St Aubyn deal with his traumas?
St Aubyn had years of psychoanalysis but says that writing is one of the things to have helped him, alongside the kindness of friends. However, he wrote his first book wrapped only in a towel – the trauma of revisiting his experiences causing him to break out in huge sweats. He also vowed before he wrote it to either get a book published – or to kill himself. Fortunately the result was accepted by publishers, although there was resistance from some who were initially put off by the privileged, upper class milieu it chronicles.
What happened to St Aubyn’s father?
Roger St Aubyn (whose alter-ego is played by Hugo Weaving, below) did not live to read the Melrose saga. He died in 1986, six years before the publication of Never Mind.
And his mother?
St Aubyn’s mother, Lorna, claimed not to have known about the abuse at the time. After her son opened up about it just prior to the publication of his first book, she allegedly admitted that she too was raped by Roger. She is also said to have supported her son’s literary endeavours – and, he claims, was “proud” of him. In later life Lorna became an avid believer in New Age teachings and wrote a number of books about it (titles include Today is a Good Day to Die and The New Age in a Nutshell). In Mother’s Milk, the fourth book in the sequence, Patrick’s mother is drawn to New Age philosophy and falls under the spell of a New Age charlatan, signing over her house in France to his Transpersonal Foundation. In later years, Lorna St Aubyn turned the family home in France into a New Age centre, named Le Plan.
And what happened to Edward St Aubyn?
He still lives in London and has published other books, including Dunbar, a prose retelling of Shakespeare’s King Lear. He has also written Lost for Words, a satire on the literary prize giving world. It is perhaps no coincidence that Mother’s Milk was shortlisted for the 2006 Man Booker Prize and lost out…