27 September 2015
The women born either side of the 20th century had a particular stamp; my Aunt certainly did, as did my mother’s friends. In London my mother knew a great many women of the arty, intellectual type. They were clever, amusing, and frighteningly well-informed. Rather like my mother herself, who was largely self-educated (by reading widely and voraciously, she told us) and with a solid core of common sense. She had little time for the fey or affected, and her sense of the ridiculous meant that gales of laughter were never far off.
Her friends in the country were women of what was known as “good family”, without professions but who nonetheless were never idle. Invariably involved in multiple good works, they too were just as clever as their city-dwelling cousins but perhaps not as well-educated – by governesses of varying ability. These friends were often extremely eccentric, almost verging on the dotty. This includes my father’s side of the family – generations of country people.
We were exposed to these redoubtable ladies from our earliest years and found them more or less terrifying. Take Deborah. She belonged in both town and country.
Deborah was a tall, heavily built woman, with raven black hair and one of those dead white absorbent blotting-paper skins. She had a commanding presence and a voice that she threw to the furthest corners of any room she happened to be in. Dark purple, ultramarine, and browns were the colours she chose for the selection of drapes she wore, with floaty scarves and big jewellery. (My mother invariably wore ancient tweeds.) By golly she talked! Even when eating she managed to cram a sentence or two between mouthfuls.
Of course Deborah should have been an actress; she would have made a powerful Lady Macbeth or Cordelia. She loved to perform and lost no opportunity to read aloud, recite, or declaim. I dare say she revived the earlier passion for “Attitudes”, those poses beloved by Lady Hamilton and Becky Sharp: Penelope searching the horizon for Ulysses, or Cleo applying the asp, perhaps. We were invariably roped in to pad out the audience, which was fine if you were allowed to sit out of range of her sweeping and penetrating gaze. Sometimes she would pause mid-recitation, with her eye fixed on one of us till our faces were as red as beets. Agonising.
It was even worse when she volunteered to read to us at bedtime, a time we always looked forward to sharing with our mother.
“Here am I, gels, riding a moonbeam to read poetry until you drift away to Slumberland!”
We squirmed even further down the bed, hoping she didn’t notice our looks of alarm. Of course she didn’t. People like that are in full flow and notice nothing but the thrilling sound of their own voices.
“Ruthless Rhymes for Heartless Homes! Cheery verses for beddie byes!”
Cringe-making. Worse were Matilda with the matches and the string-chewing Henry, though neither of these were as bad as Struwwelpeter, the stuff of nightmares.
Deborah managed to stir us up to a pitch of terror – what duffers we were! We should have thrown our pillows at her – or laughed!
Deborah had a diminutive husband known as Shonky, rust-coloured and moustached. Almost silent, he and my father sheltered, you might say, behind clouds of pipe smoke. They occasionally exchanged a surreptitious wink during a Recitation. Tennyson’s Mariana in the Moated Grange (pictured above) was Deborah’s signature performance. I leave you to imagine the suppressed hilarity whenever she came to the lines:
“… She said, I am aweary, aweary, I would that I were dead…”
Sherry would be fetched at the double, while my mother loyally led the applause.