A Very Fiennes Story

by Penelope Dening


Jennifer Lash, the mother of six exceptionally gifted children including actor Ralph Fiennes, wrote dark novels to exorcise a miserable childhood and, later, advancing cancer. Three of her children come to Dublin next week to read from her work.

Next Wednesday evening Waterstones in Dawson Street, Dublin, will probably be under siege as the twice Oscar-nominated, limelight-shunning actor Ralph Fiennes appears for a reading. Not from Herodatus - though thanks to its key role in The English Patient, the Penguin cut-down version is rapidly climbing the bestseller list - but from Blood Ties by Jennifer Lash. Beside him will be his sister Sophie and brother Joseph, youngest of the six Fiennes children, all born within eight years of each other. Jennifer Lash, who died three years ago of breast cancer, was their mother.

Six children had been a goal since Jini - as she was always known - was 12, explains Joseph Fiennes, also an actor, who has just finished playing the lead in Troilus And Cressida with the Royal Shakespeare Company. Like many children who believe themselves to be unloved, Jini felt the answer was to build her own personal reservoir. She had a miserable childhood, abused physically by her ex-lndian army officer father, and generally ignored and dismissed as difficult by her remnant-of-the-Raj mother: this imaginative, damaged and precocious girl didn't fit into the hobbled world of 1950s Surrey.

She left home at 16 and, via a series of low-level clerical jobs, finally found sanctuary, after a suicide attempt, with an old family friend called Iris Birtwhistle, who recognised her potential and nurtured it. Her first novel, The Burial, was the result of her encouragement. Dodie Smith, author of 101 Dalmations, called her "almost too interesting to be true".

Like much of the work that would follow, it was a dark metaphor for her own life. Blood Ties, her last novel and one which the family believes to be a fitting epitaph, is equally dark: a story of loneliness, rejection and pain redeemed by the power of myth and the power of love. Although the themes, characters and events of Blood Ties are clearly rooted in her own history, the book is not a mirror, but rather the shadow of a luminous life.

Blood Ties was hard to write. Jennifer Lash knew she had cancer. When the book was rejected by publishers she was devastated, recalls Sophie, who is currently developing a film project in Ireland. "My mother wasn't a viable option for publishers. They want young, sexy novelists. A middle-class, middle-aged, white woman living in Dulwich - there was no publicity angle that a publisher could work on. That's my reading of it. Her reading was 'I'm a terrible writer, I'm a failure, what I do is shit, no one wants it.' It was a sense of complete and utter failure and we were all very aware of how she felt and we were always keen to try and get it published.

The publicity angle that any publisher would die for came in the shape of Jennifer Lash's first born. When Ralph Fiennes was filming The English Patient in the desert in Tunisia, he met Liz Calder who had published Michael Ondaatje's The English Patient. According to Sophie, her brother seized the moment "and brilliantly did the pitch" for the book all the children consider to be their mother's best work.

Blood Ties is set largely in the south-west of Ireland. Jennifer Lash always thought of herself as Irish, explains Sophie, it was where she felt most at home. Her mother had been born here, but it wasn't until 1971 that she came to West Cork on a photographic assignment with her husband, Mark Fiennes, whom she had met aged 23. Mark had been a tenant farmer, but after eight years of marriage the farm had ceased to be viable and he had turned to photography.

"They fell in love with it," remembers Sophie. "She just decided that she didn't want to bring up her children in England but there, on the south-westcoast. I can remember her saying: "I knew that then you would understand when you read the Brothers Grimm; you would understand the archetypes that occur in painting and writing, because those, are still alive and kicking there.

They bought a plot of land and designed and built a house on Dunmanus Bay, near the village of Kilcrohane, one down from Bantry Bay, which Sophie describes as "ridiculously beautiful".

Joseph was only four when they arrived. "I was very impressionable. It was all about adventures, about the wild wind and the sea and jellyfish. My father actually built the house with his own hands. It was a wonderful dream, an adventure."

But as Joseph puts it: "There was a real struggle between the dream and the reality." The hand-to-mouth existence selling photographs of vanishing Irish life in rural Cork couldn't feed six hungry children and the family returned to England and survived by doing up dilapidated houses and selling them on.

The Fiennes's peripatetic lifestyle was a disaster in terms of schooling. Yet in other ways it was to prove a spur. To succeed as an actor "you have to be a tough soul," explains Joe and changing schools over and over again was to prove good preparation. "It was very tricky, but it was also great fun. If I didn't want to be the Joe Fiennes I was at one school, I could be another Joe Fiennes at the next. It may be that that's the root of the acting."

Through their mother's determination in nurturing their individual talents and giving them the confidence to build up their self-belief, her brood have allblossomed in the fields they chose to make their own. Sophie is a filmmaker, Magnus a composer, Martha a film director, Jacob a gamekeeper, Ralph and Joseph actors. All as valuable as each other.

In spite of Ralph's extraordinary early success (happily Jennifer Lash lived to see Schindler's List), jealousy has never been an emotion the Fiennes children understood. "I've never been aware of it," says Joe. "From the earliest crayon drawings, our mother recognised each of our merits and encouraged our particular aspirations. It was never a thing of 'hasn't this other person been great or wonderful'. We always knew that over and above being family, kith and kin and all that stuff, we were her friends; and she gave equal time to everyone. Every individual member of the family feels hugely happy about their life, and where they're going, whether in the eyes of other people, or if someone isn't as prominent as someone else, isn't an issue."

"My mother saw children as a wonderful source of creative inspiration and intelligence. She had had a certain amount of pain in her own life and she was determined to break the cycle.

But it came at a cost. For 15 years she elected to give up writing to devote herself to her children - although she did paint. "A lot of people find them disturbing and odd," said Joe, "I find them wonderfully liberating. They deal with great mythological dynamics...

"She was the warmest and most generous person and would constantly give, give, give, until she was ut-terly drained. She was extraordinary, a real giver of life."

And not only to the children she bore. When already a mother of two, she had answered an advertisement in the local Suffolk paper to foster a boy of 11 from a difficult background.

"By the time I was born," says Joseph, "Mick was just there and as far as I knew he was blood. When she saw the ad, her motherly instincts just couldn't resist. Of course her friends said she was mad. He became just one of the family." Michael Emery is now an archaeologist.

Blood Ties is the story of just such a boy, dumped on his unwilling grandparents in Ireland, aged three. "They were destined to seek out each other's frailties rather than strengths," she wrote, describing his pain as being "solid, lumpen, a constant moan of dread, so solid within him it felt as if was his heart". Joseph recognises that much of the narrative is heart-breakingly bleak. "But I wonder whether we all carry pain behind the exterior. And the darkness is necessary because through the darkness comes the redemption. It's a great cyclical journey."


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