by Mark Girouard, Wilmington Square Books, 192pp, £16.99
In 2011 Mark Girouard, the eminent architectural historian, published Enthusiasms, a series of essays on subjects that had intrigued him. These included his search for the identity of “Walter”, the Victorian sex enthusiast; the finances of Oscar Wilde in exile (far less straitened than Wilde put about); and a sceptical enquiry into the procreative activities of the Spanish dancer Pepita, supposedly the grandmother of Vita Sackville-West.
Enthusiasms, fascinating at every turn, also contained some essays on the author’s own family, remarkable alike in achievement and lineage. The Girouards were prominent in the administration and politics of Quebec from the early 18th century. Then, at the end of the 19th century, Percy Girouard, Mark’s grandfather, proved himself a stunningly brilliant railway engineer in Africa. His work in the Sudan earned lavish praise from Winston Churchill. In particular, his speedy construction of a line across the Nubian Desert in 1897 made possible Kitchener’s victory at Omdurman the following year. Subsequently Girouard directed military railways during the Boer War.
No doubt he had inherited his exceptional capability from his mother’s family, the Solomons, who throughout the 19th century proved themselves relentlessly capable as traders, administrators and politicians in St Helena and South Africa.
On the maternal side, Mark Girouard’s family was merely aristocratic. His mother was at once the daughter of the 6th Marquess of Waterford, the grand-daughter of the 5th Marquess of Lansdowne and, through her aunt’s marriage, the niece of the 9th Duke of Devonshire’s Duchess.
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