And of course that is what actually happens in life. Girls go to something they wanted to go to, or they didn’t want to go to, it doesn’t matter which–and there is their Fate.
Of course, there were always girls who declared they were not going to marry, usually for some noble reason. Possibly they wished to become nuns or to nurse lepers, to do something grand and important, above all self-sacrificial. I think it was almost a necessary phase. An ardent wish to become a nun seems to be far more constant in Protestant than in Catholic girls. In Catholic girls it is, no doubt, more vocational–it is recognised as one of the ways of life–whereas for a Protestant it has some aroma of religious mystery that makes it very desirable. A hospital nurse was also considered a heroic way of life, with all the prestige of Miss Nightingale behind it. But marriage was the main theme; whom you were going to marry the big question in life.
By the time I was thirteen or fourteen I felt myself enormously advanced in age and experience. I no longer thought of myself as protected by another person. I had my own protective feelings. I felt responsible for my mother. I also began to try to know myself, the sort of person I was, what I could attempt successfully, and the things I was no good at and that I must not waste time over. I knew that I was not quick-witted; I must give myself time to look at a problem carefully before deciding how I would deal with it.
I began to appreciate time. There is nothing more wonderful to have in one’s life, than time. I don’t believe people get enough of it nowadays. I was excessively fortunate in my childhood and youth, just because I had so much time. You wake up in the morning, and even before you are properly awake you are saying to yourself: ‘Now, what shall I do with today?’ You have the choice, it is there, in front of you, and you can plan as you please. I don’t mean that there were not a lot of things (duties, we called them) I had to do–of course there were. There were jobs to be done in the house: days when you cleaned silver photograph frames, days when you darned your stockings, days when you learnt a chapter of Great Events in History, a day when you had to go down the town and pay all the tradesmen’s bills. Letters and notes to write, scales and exercises, embroidery–but they were all things that lay in my choice, to arrange as I pleased. I could plan my day, I could say, ‘I think I’ll leave my stockings until this afternoon; I will go down town in the morning and I will come back by the other road and see whether that tree had come into blossom yet.’
Always when I woke up, I had the feeling which I am sure must be natural to all of us, a joy in being alive. I don’t say you feel it consciously–you don’t–but there you are, you are alive, and you open your eyes, and here is another day; another step, as it were, on your journey to an unknown place. That very exciting journey which is your life. Not that it is necessarily going to be exciting as a life, but it will be exciting to you because it is your life. That is one of the great secrets of existence, enjoying the gift of life that has been given to you.
Not every day is necessarily enjoyable. After the first delightful feeling of ‘Another day! How wonderful!’ you remember you have to go to the dentist at 10.30, and that is not nearly so good. But the first waking feeling has been there, and that acts as a useful booster. Naturally, a lot depends on temperament. You are a happy person, or you are of a melancholic disposition. I don’t know that you can do anything about that. I think it is the way one is made–you are either happy until something arises to make you unhappy or else you are melancholy until something distracts you from it. Naturally happy people can be unhappy and melancholic people enjoy themselves. But if I were taking a gift to a child at a christening that is what I would choose: a naturally happy frame of mind.
There seems to me to be an odd assumption that there is something meritorious about working. Why? In early times man went out to hunt animals in order to feed himself and keep alive. Later, he toiled over crops, and sowed and ploughed for the same reason. Nowadays, he rises early, catches the 8.15, and sits in an office all day–still for the same reason. He does it to feed himself and have a roof over his head–and, if skilled and lucky, to go a bit further and have comfort and entertainment as well.
It’s economic and necessary. But why is it meritorious? The old nursery adage used to be ‘Satan finds some mischief still for idle hands to do’. Presumably little Georgie Stephenson was enjoying idleness when he observed his mother’s tea-kettle lid rising and falling. Having nothing at the moment to do, he began to have ideas about it…
I don’t think necessity is the mother of invention–invention, in my opinion, arises directly from idleness, possibly also from laziness. To save oneself trouble. That is the big secret that has brought us down the ages hundreds of thousands of years, from chipping flints to switching on the washing up machine.
The position of women, over the years, has definitely changed for the worse. We women have behaved like mugs. We have clamoured to be allowed to work as men work. Men, not being fools, have taken kindly to the idea. Why support a wife? What’s wrong with a wife supporting herself? She wants to do it. By Golly, she can go on doing it!
It seems sad that having established ourselves so cleverly as the ‘weaker sex’, we should now be broadly on a par with the women of primitive tribes who toil in the fields all day, walk miles to gather camel-thorn for fuel, and on trek carry all the pots, pans and household equipment on their heads, whilst the gorgeous, ornamental male sweeps on ahead, unburdened save for one lethal weapon with which to defend his women.
You’ve got to hand it to Victorian women; they got their menfolk where they wanted them. They established their fraility, delicacy, sensibility–their constant need of being protected and cherished. Did they lead miserable, servile lives, downtrodden and oppressed? Such is not my recollection of them. All my grandmothers’ friends seem to me in retrospect singularly resilient and almost invariably successful in getting their own way. They were tough, self-willed, and remarkably well-read and well-informed.
Mind you, they admired their men enormously. They genuinely thought men were splendid fellows–dashing, inclined to be wicked, easily led astray. In daily life a woman got her own way whilst paying due lip service to male superiority, so that her husband should not lose face.
‘Your father knows best, dear,’ was the public formula. The real approach came privately. ‘I’m sure you are quite right in what you said, John, but I wonder if you have considered…’
In one respect man was paramount. He was the Head of the House. A woman, when she married, accepted as her destiny his place in the world and his way of life. That seems to me sound sense and the foundation of happiness. If you can’t face your man’s way of life, don’t take that job–in other words, don’t marry that man. Here, say, is a wholesale draper; he is a Roman Catholic; he prefers to live in a suburb; he plays golf and he likes to go for holidays to the sea side. That is what you are marrying. Make up your mind to it and like it. It won’t be so difficult.
It is astonishing how much you can enjoy almost everything. There are few things more desirable than to be an acceptor and an enjoyer. You can like and enjoy almost any kind of food or way of life. You can enjoy country life, dogs, muddy walks; towns, noise, people, clatter. In the one there is repose, ease for nerves, time for reading, knitting, embroidery, and the pleasure of growing things. In the other theatres, art galleries, good concerts, and seeing friends you would otherwise seldom see. I am happy to say that I can enjoy almost everything.
Once when I was travelling by train to Syria, I was much entertained by a fellow traveller’s dissertation on the stomach.
‘My dear,’ she said, ‘never give in to your stomach. If a certain thing doesn’t agree with you, say to yourself “Who’s going to be master, me or my stomach?”’
‘But what do you actually do about it?’ I asked with curiosity.
‘Any stomach can be trained. Very small doses at first. It doesn’t matter what it is. Eggs, now, used to make me sick, and toasted cheese gave me the most terrible pains. But just a spoonful or two of boiled egg two or three times a week, and then a little more scrambled egg and so on. And now I can eat any amount of eggs. It’s been just the same with toasted cheese. Remember this, your stomach’s a good servant, but a bad master.’
I was much impressed and promised to follow her advice, and I have done so–though it has not presented much difficulty, my stomach being definitely a servile one.
When my mother had gone abroad with Madge to the South of France after my father’s death, I remained at Ashfield under the tranquil eye of Jane for three weeks by myself. It was then that I discovered a new sport and new friends.
Roller-skating on the pier was a pastime much in vogue. The surface of the pier was extremely rough, and you fell down a good deal, but it was great fun. There was a kind of concert-room at the end of the pier, not used in winter of course, and this was opened as a kind of indoor rink. It was also possible to skate at what was grandly called the Assembly Rooms, or the Bath Saloons, where the big dances took place. This was much more high-class, but most of us preferred the pier. You had your own skates and you paid twopence for admission, and once on the pier you skated! The Huxleys could not join me in this sport because they were engaged with their governess during the morning, and the same held for Audrey. The people I used to meet there were the Lucys. Although grown up, they had been very kind to me, knowing that I was alone at Ashfield because the doctor had ordered my mother abroad for change and rest.
Although I felt rather grand on my own, one could get weary of that feeling. I enjoyed ordering the meals–or thinking I was ordering the meals. Actually we always had for lunch exactly what Jane had made up her mind we were going to have beforehand, but she certainly put up a good show of considering my wildest suggestions. ‘Could we have roast duck and meringues?’ I would ask and Jane would say yes, but she was not sure about the ordering of the duck, and that perhaps meringues–there were no whites of egg at the moment, perhaps we had better wait until some day when we had used the yolks for something else; so that in the end we had what was already sitting in the larder. But dear Jane was very tactful. She always called me Miss Agatha and allowed me to feel that I was in an important position.
It was then that the Lucys suggested that I should come down and skate with them on the pier. They more or less taught me to stand up on my skates, and I loved it. They were, I think, one of the nicest families I have ever known. They came from Warwickshire, and the family’s beautiful house, Charlecote, had belonged to Berkeley Lucy’s uncle. He always thought that it ought to have come to him but instead of that it had gone to his uncle’s daughter, her husband taking the name of Fairfax-Lucy. I think the whole family felt very sad that Charlecote was not theirs, though they never said anything about it, except amongst themselves. The oldest daughter, Blanche, was an extraordinarily handsome girl–she was a little older than my sister and had been married before her. The eldest son, Reggie, was in the army but the second son was at home–about my brother’s age–and the next two daughters, Marguerite and Muriel, known to all as Margie and Noonie, were also grown-up. They had rather slurred lazy voices that I found very attractive. Time as such meant nothing to them.
After skating for some time, Noonie would look at her watch and say, ‘Well, did you ever, look at the time now. It’s half-past one already.’
‘Oh dear,’ I said. ‘It will take me twenty minutes at least to walk home.’
‘Oh you’d better not go home, Aggie. You come home with us and have lunch. We can ring up Ashfield.’
So I would go home with them, and we would arrive about half-past two to be greeted by Sam the dog–‘Body like a barrel, breath like a drainpipe,’ as Noonie used to describe him–and somewhere there would be some kind of meal being kept hot and we would have it. Then they would say it was a pity to go home yet, Aggie, and we would go into their school-room and play the piano and have a sing-song. Sometimes we went on expeditions to the Moor. We would agree to meet at Torre station and take a certain train. The Lucys were always late, and we always missed the train. They missed trains, they missed trams, they missed everything, but nothing rattled them. ‘Oh well,’ they would say, ‘what does it matter? There’ll be another one by and by. It’s never any good worrying, is it?’ It was a delightful atmosphere.
The high spots in my life were Madge’s visits. She came down every August. Jimmy came with her for a few days, then he had to get back to business, but Madge stayed on to about the end of September, and Jack with her.
Jack, of course, was a never-ending source of enjoyment to me. He was a rosy-cheeked golden-haired little boy, looking good enough to eat, and indeed we sometimes called him ‘le petit brioche’. He had a most uninhibited nature, and did not know what silence was. There was no question of bringing Jack out and making him talk–the difficulty was to hush him down. He had a fiery temper and used to do what we called ‘blow up’ he would first get very red in the face, then purple, then hold his breath, till you really thought he was going to burst, then the storm would happen!
He had a succession of Nannies, all with their own peculiarities. There was one particularly cross one, I remember. She was old, with a great deal of untidy grey hair. She had much experience, and was about the only person who could really daunt Jack when he was on the warpath. One day he had been very obstreperous, shouting out ‘You idiot, you idiot, you idiot’ for no reason whatever, rushing to each person in turn. Nannie finally reproved him, telling him that if he said it any more he would be punished. ‘I can tell you what I’m going to do,’ said Jack. ‘When I die I shall go to Heaven and I shall go straight up to God and I shall say “You idiot, you idiot, you idiot’.’ He paused, breathless, to see what this blasphemy would bring forth. Nannie put down her work, looked over her spectacles at him, and said without much interest: ‘And do you suppose that the Almighty is going to take any notice of what a naughty little boy like you says?’ Jack was completely deflated.
Nannie was succeeded by a young girl called Isabel. She for some reason was much addicted to throwing things out of the window. ‘Oh drat these scissors,’ she would suddenly murmur, and fling them out on to the grass. Jack, on occasions, attempted to help her. ‘Shall I throw it out of the window, Isabel?’ he would ask, with great interest. Like all children, he adored my mother. He would come into her bed early in the morning and I would hear them through the wall of my room. Sometimes they were discussing life, and sometimes my mother would be telling him a story–a kind of serial went on, all about mother’s thumbs. One of them was called Betsy Jane and the other Sary Anne. One of them was good, the other was naughty, and the things they did and said kept Jack in a gurgle of laughter the whole time. He always tried to join in conversation. One day when the Vicar came to lunch there was a momentary pause. Jack suddenly piped up. ‘I know a very funny story about a bishop,’ he said. He was hastily hushed by his relations, who never knew what Jack might come out with that he had overheard.
Christmas we used to spend in Cheshire, going up to the Watts’. Jimmy usually got his yearly holiday about then, and he and Madge used to go to St. Moritz for three weeks. He was a very good skater, and so it was the kind of holiday he liked most. Mother and I used to go up to Cheadle, and since their newly-built house, called Manor Lodge, was not ready yet, we spent Christmas at Abney Hall, with the old Wattses and their four children and Jack. It was a wonderful house to have Christmas in if you were a child. Not only was it enormous Victorian Gothic, with quantities of rooms, passages, unexpected steps, back staircases, front staircases, alcoves, niches–everything in the world that a child could want–but it also had three different pianos that you could play, as well as an organ. All it lacked was the light of day; it was remarkably dark, except for the big drawing-room with its green satin walls and its big windows.