Virginia Barton

29 August 2014: The Ancestor At Large


29 August 2014


The First World War was particularly difficult for The Ancestor and her siblings. Their mother, though born in England, was German. Consequently their brother was forced to join an Irish regiment; he was gassed but survived with impaired health. By 1918 and the end of the war, great swathes of the male population were dead or wounded. Being born in 1902 meant most of your probable dancing partners, or future husbands, lay in a foreign field.

That generation was to be appalled once again by the Second World War; but at least The Ancestor felt able to do her bit with her work in the Admiralty.


salvador-dali2 (828x1024) (2)In the ‘twenties she went to Art School in London and her beloved Paris. She was a hard-working competent artist; work such as greetings cards, cinema posters, and book jackets came her way. She was never satisfied with her own work and always observed that her sister was more talented than she.

Can it be true that The Ancestor heard Dali give a lecture in full diving kit with a Martini (plus olive) stuck to the helmet? Of course not a word could be heard but a sort of submarine grumble – she swore it was true and I have no reason to doubt her.


She was determinedly independent and preferred to live alone. There must have been amatory adventures but she never spoke of them, which is surprising; pretty women like to boast of their conquests, n’est-ce pas? She travelled all over Europe, with her father, and after his death, with her sister or on her own.

Like all her family she spoke foreign languages with the most frightful English accent – this, I now realise, was because not one of them had a good “ear”. Couldn’t sing a note. France and Spain she loved, Austria and Germany she tolerated, but Italy she dismissed as too Catholic…


If manners maketh the man, perhaps it is clothes that maketh the woman. The Ancestor took enormous care of her clothes and appearance. Dressing took hours. Her corsetry was pre-war; and there were cami or directoire knickers, and lace camisoles and petticoats of every hue.

All her nighties, elaborate affairs cut on the cross with cascades of lace, were black, white or ecru. Not only that: everything was of silk or satin, and made by hand, her own hand! Teeny weeny stitches made with such small needles the eyes defied threading – to my clumsy hands anyway.

bismarck-2-sizedIf she DID buy anything she would take it to pieces almost as soon as she got it home.

“You must have noticed my ugly German wrists dear,” she’d say, as an excuse for cutting off the cuffs in order to lengthen the sleeve with a cunning insertion, thus hiding the wrist. Always dresses, always long-sleeved, never separates and certainly NEVER trousers. Not when I knew her anyway.

She regretted her “short waist” as well as her German wrists. Well, her mother WAS German, half Prussian and distantly related to Bismarck, and half Bavarian. I, of course, found all this fascinating and pretty romantic: the marriage had been a mesalliance as far as the Prussian side of the family was concerned, and being “cut off without a schilling” was mentioned. The Ancestor was frank about this, not so her mother who cultivated all things English to the end of her life.


She was also very particular about her address. Having a good one, even if you had to starve to achieve this, was wildly important. So she lived in some of the handsomest streets in London to the despair of a brother who urged restraint. The Punnet in St John’s Wood, The Attic in Hyde Park and finally a beautiful flat rented from the Church Commissioners in Lancaster Gate.

It was the same thing with presents; always more than she could afford and always beautiful. (Once she sent me £10, quite a lordly sum in the ’60’s. When I told her I’d redeemed all the dry-cleaning with it she was furious and didn’t speak to me for weeks. I was supposed to have bought myself some delicious trifle, like a bracelet.)

The Ancestor entertained nearly every evening; one, or at the most two at a time, invited for drinks, and itty bitty canapes. Afterwards she would stay up listening to the BBC World Service, sewing, till about 4 in the morning. (She never rose before eleven.)


I never met any of her friends until she was ill, although I heard about them from time to time. We were all kept in compartments. Tête-à-tête was best. Always interested in One, her company never bored or faltered.

After all, what more interesting topic of conversation is there than Oneself?





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