My mother was forty when I was born, and she was an “after thought" at the tail
end of a long Victorian family, the eldest member of which was twenty—two years
older than she was. My mother being born in 1859 means that the eldest sister
was born in 1837, so my grandparents most have been married in 1835 or 1836.
My mother belonged to a very old Cotswold family, the Vizards of Dursley, and her mother was a Foley, a cousin of Lord Foley whose name is perpetuated in the hotel of The Foley Arms at Malvern. The Vizards had belonged to the Cotswolds for hundreds of years, and one wall of Dursley Church is plastered almost to roof level with family memorials. The old Almshouses at Dursley were built and endowed by a Vizard, and the family mansion of Ferney Hill still stands, though it has passed out of the family. Legend has it that we can count John of Gaunt, time honoured Lancaster, among our Vizard forbears, though on which side of the blanket it is perhaps wiser not to inquire. The unusual name of Vizard originated with the vizard, or visor, which was worn over the face during the times when armour was the usual masculine attire.
Aunt Frances makes digressions down other avenues...but then starts again....
Mother was a most strange character. I have never understood her, nor have I ever been able to give an adequate description of her to anyone who did not know her. She and I loved each other with an intensity that was almost frantic, and yet, once I began my emancipation from her entire domination, which began when I was sent to boarding school at the age of thirteen, we could never really like each other. Our house was never big enough to hold us both for more than short periods at a stretch, and our desperate love for each other was matched by the really frightening power we had of hurting each other.
The word “Intense” describes Mother’s nature better than any other. I believe she was naturally of a quick and impulsive temperament, intensely emotional, and with a hot and violent temper.
All her natural impulsiveness was crushed and battened down by her overwhelming
sense of duty, which had its roots in a stern and rigidly Puritanical
Christianity. Not once did she ever give way to her temper in dealing with us as
children, and the restraint that she put upon herself was communicated
unconsciously to us, producing such paralysing terror of her displeasure, or
even of her disapproval, that I, at least, would a thousand times rather have
had a quick shake or even a spank, than endure the terrible, annihilating
atmosphere, which froze my cowering little soul.
Mother was small and slight, gentle in her speech, and quite devoid of any conscious self-assertion, but such was the strength of her personality and willpower, that she was the dominating force before whom the rest of the family were as reeds in the wind, She saw every aspect of life in clear-cut black and. white, there were no half tones with her; either a thing was right or it was wrong, and once she had brought that shattering sense of duty to bear upon anything, no amount of argument or persuasion could move her. Heaven and earth might crumble around her, but once she had decided upon what she considered to be right, not one iota would she budge. My father and brothers never dreamed of opposing her, yet nothing made her more angry than for any relation or friend to remark that she “wore the trousers”. Had I been of a more gentle and amenable disposition I should have become nothing more than her echo and shadow, as indeed I was for the first thirteen years of my life. But I had inherited her own inflexible will, together with the independence of spirit characteristic of Father’s family. Hinc illae lacriinae. Hence these tears.
Mother’s was the spirit of the early martyrs who went joyfully to torture and death for that which they felt to be right. I have often thought that Mother would have positively enjoyed martyrdom for her principles. She had very little patience with any weakness moral or physical, and she has told me that when, as a child, she had cut or grazed herself, she would rub salt and vinegar into the wound just to see how much she could make herself bear. When each of us was born she would never have any anaesthetic whatever, even in the case of one of my brothers who had to be helped into the world with the aid of forceps. Her attitude was that it was God’s Will that a woman should pay the price of suffering in childbirth and that it was morally wrong to alleviate it in anyway.
And yet, so strangely contradictory was her nature, she was kindness and
gentleness personified if anyone were ill or in need of help. She was a nurse by
training and, what counts for even more, by instinct, and during my frequent
illnesses both during my youth and right up to the present day, my one almost
unendurable longing has always been for Mother to look after me. She knew
exactly how the patient felt without needing to ask, and had an absolute genius
for giving the right attention at the right moment.
Mother had no fear of anything visible or invisible. I have often seen her slight little figure walking unconcernedly through a herd of cows in a narrow lane, pushing aside the blundering heads that towered around her as calmly as she would brush aside a fly, while I,mea culpa, cowered in terror behind the nearest gate.
The house near Dean Forest to which we moved in 1910, and which was our home till Father’s death in 1935, was a great rambling old place with enormous dark attics, approached by a winding staircase in the thickness of the wall, and huge underground kitchens and cellars and long flagged passages. When we first went there, straight from a pleasant modern house in Ealing, with electric light and all the usual amenities, there was no lighting except by candles and paraffin lamps. It was a creepy old place, which always scared me into a state of nervous panic, and yet for a number of years during and after the 1914 war, Mother lived there entirely alone, day and night. Every night before going to bed, she would perambulate the whole house from attics to cellars, with only a candle in her hand, in order to perform her duty in seeing that all was well.
During the war Father, who had retired and given up his practise in 1910, spent several years in doing locums for younger men who were called to the Services, he himself being over age. I was at school, and my brothers in the Army and later at College, but Mother was quite determined to do her duty in keeping the home open for any one of us who should be temporarily free. Whether or no she even felt fear or nervousness I never knew. Perhaps she did, but forced herself to conquer it, as she forced herself to conquer every normal human weakness. Father and the rest of us hated her being there all alone, but she considered it her duty to hold the fort, and no amount of persuasions or appeals had the smallest effect.
I hope I have not drawn this portrait of Mother hitherto in lines of excessive sternness. During my childhood, before the great chasm opened between us, I was her constant companion and always happy in her company. She taught me almost exclusively until I was thirteen, and my timetable was as carefully arranged and adhered to as in the strictest school. She had been taught as a child by Aunt Wese, and. had used the books from which all her elder sisters had learnt, which dated from at least the year 1837 or thereabouts. Mother had the slightest intention of moving with the times, so I also was taught from those same books. They were almost all in the form of question and answer, and to this day I believe I could, if asked any question from those old books, immediately reel off the appropriate answer, word perfect. Everything had to be learnt by heart, but as I had a sponge-like capacity for soaking up information, and a most adhesive memory, lessons were never any trouble to me. I have been told that I could read simple words while I was still so young that I could not even speak them correctly. I believe one of my cousins, ten or twelve years my senior, actually taught me the alphabet, and incredible as it may seem, I have been told. that I knew it before I was eighteen months old. Certainly I never remember the time that I could not read, though my memory goes back to an astonishingly early age.
My younger brother, Ben, was born about six weeks after my second birthday. I
distinctly remember the indignation in my little mind when I had to give up my
accustomed seat at the hood end of the pram to him, and be moved to sit at the
handle end. It must have been in the previous summer, when I was about eighteen
months old, that we paid our final visit to Woodbine Cottage, Rustington. This
delightful old cottage is still standing, and I have frequently been past it in
later years, but I remember it quite clearly from my early visits. I remember
being put out in the pram under the trees for my midday sleep, and the story of
God walking in the garden with Adam and Eve always brings an immediate picture
of that garden to my mind.
Another very early memory, partly reinforced by Mother’s accounts in later years, is connected with her mother’s death, it was the occasion for a grand reunion of the entire family. At the time Mother and Father and we children were sharing a house in Chiswick with my grandmother and Aunt Wese, and I must have been about two.
I just have a faint recollection of the old lady in a big shawl and lace cap. After the funeral was over all the men of the party gathered in the dining room for a smoke, while the ladies retired to the drawing room. As was usual when Mother had visitors, she sent for the nurse to bring me down. But where was I? Not a sign of little me to be found anywhere. Frantic searching all over the house were to no effect. Presently roars of masculine laughter were heard echoing from the dining room, and there was I, very small and pretty in my frilly frock, standing on the hearthrug with the utmost composure, entertaining the gentlemen. I do not recall the actual occasion, but I distinctly remember the forest of long black legs towering above my head, and the circle of kind masculine faces, many of them bearded, which seemed to touch the ceiling. I also remember one of my uncles lifting me between his hands and holding me high in the air over his head, and the giddyfying sensation of being swung down to the ground again remained with me as a recurrent nightmare for many years.
Mother had much of Aunt Wese’s gift of extempore storytelling, and would also recount to me many of the spontaneous stories that Aunt Wese had told to her in her own youth, with added embellishments of her own. I also loved Mother’s stories of her own childhood and younger life. Two of her sisters, my Aunt Sophie and Aunt Jessie, the latter being Mother’s favourite sister and the nearest to her in age though eight years her senior, had gone out to South Africa in the late 70s or early ‘80s in response to an appeal for nurses to care for the many Englishmen then engaged In the development of the diamond mines. Aunt Sophie had died out there, and Aunt Jessie had married one of her patients. Before her first baby arrived they had sent for Mother, who had just completed her nursing training, to go and help Aunt Jessie. She joined them at Kimberley having made the whole journey entirely alone, including the final stretch by ox wagon, as the railway had not arrived within many miles of Kimberley. Soon after the baby’s birth the surroundings and general conditions proved so disastrous to it that it was decided that Aunt Jessie and Mother should take it down to Cape Town in order to save its life. Uncle William could not leave his work in Kimberley, so those two girls, both in their early twenties, made that long journey by ox wagon entirely alone with a sick baby, in the care, such as it was, of a half breed of the name of Klaas. I wish I could remember how many weeks it took. They both picked up a certain amount of Taal, or Afrikaans as it is now called, which stuck in Mother’s vocabulary to such an extent that it was many years before I realised that such words as verkekers, biltong, rimpey and vegweiser were not the normal names for field glasses, dried meat, leather straps and sign-posts. She invariably addressed Father as Baas, and had taught him to call her Umphasi. If my spelling of these words is incorrect, I can only plead that I have never seen them written, and am reproducing them purely from oral memory.
The baby died, but its brief life was the cause of experiences which afforded subject matter for endless stories which I was never tired of hearing.
As well as making me learn all my lessons by heart, Mother also taught my
brothers and me an enormous amount of religious instruction, all of it by heart.
I had a great deal more of this than they did, as they both went to school at a
much earlier age than I. I received the full impact of Mother’s energies in this
direction. Selected sections out of the Bible and later whole chapters and
Psalms, the Catechism, the Apostles’ Creed, the Nicene Creed, the Ten
Commandments, and endless hymns out of the A. and M. all of these I could reel
off word perfect, in response either to the appropriate question, or to the
first two or three words of the required selection.
I was spared learning the Athanasian Creed largely, I imagine, because of Father’s opinion of it, which he, in later years, expressed to me in the beautiful rolling words of Virgil, “Monstrum, horrendum, ingens, informe, cui lumen ademptum.” Despite this, there is a brutal beauty in the pounding, battering rhythm of the Creed, which has always exercised a tremendous fascination over me. Father was quite as good a Christian as Mother, but his was a far gayer and more light-weight temperament, and his impish sense of humour made it impossible for him to resist teasing her, particularly on matters which she regarded with her characteristically intense seriousness.
By the time I was about thirteen I had exhausted even Mother’s almost inexhaustible resources of learning matter, and shortly before I left home for boarding school she finally admitted that she was at her wit’s end for any further religious items for me to memorise. As a last resort she set me to learn the Thirty Nine Articles of Religion, but we both found these heavy going, and I had not conquered more than the first half dozen or so - which included all the books of the Old Testament in their correct order, also the non canonical books of the Apocrypha — before I went to school and relinquished them with sighs of relief.
I could memorise anything, poetry or prose, as long as there was a strong musical rhythm in the words. I can still patter off the the 12th chapter of Ecclesiastes and numberless excerpts from Isaiah without an effort, and seldom have to refer to my Prayer Book for any of the Psalms or Hymns A.and M. but selections from the New Testament particularly the 14th Chapter of St. John being deficient in rhythm, were rather more of a stumbling block. When I was given speeches from Shakespeare to learn at school, I always found them a bitter trial. They never seemed to have any rhythm that I could get hold of, and being told that they were poetry made them more of a hollow mockery than ever. I have always taken a dim view of Shakespeare. On the other hand, any poetry that appeals to me, such as Kipling’s verse and much of his prose, I can memorise after merely reading it once or twice, purely on account of the rhythm. During one of our school holidays my eldest brother and I set ourselves the task of learning by heart all the poems in Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass. We achieved our purpose, even to the extent of mastering the complexities of the uncorrelated pronouns in the verses commencing
They told me you had been to her
And mentioned me to him.
Even now we can usually recite most of them correctly, and the vision of my brother, now a middle aged clergyman of great erudition and serious mien, rattling off those nonsense rhymes with great speed and accuracy, is a delight and edification to his schoolboy sons