Victorian Hangover

Chapter 8

Grandmother Emma Evans

The last years of my grandmother’s life were spent at Kew, and though I was only five when she died, I well remember being taken over to see her when we lived at Ealing. I was always rather in awe of the beautiful old lady but, young as I was, I fell completely under the spell of the family charm of personality with which she was so richly endowed. She was a wonderful artist, and I have never seen any water colour sketches or pencil drawings to equal hers. The walls of our house were lined with her water colours, and many years later a whole gallery in one of the houses in Kew Gardens was given over to a collection of sketches she made there. She was a great friend of W.H. Hudson, and was largely instrumental in obtaining for him the Civil list pension. She also did the pencil sketches for some of his books. Like all her family she was a friend and admirer of Professor T. H. Huxley, and of all the scientific “nobs” as great uncle John described them. Her brilliant mind could not bow to the narrow and restricted Church doctrines in which her generation had been brought up, and this was the basis of much of the thinly veiled disapproval with which Mother regarded them. With the exception of Father almost all his family were “atheists”, a word which for many years struck a note of hushed horror to my young heart. I grew up with the feeling that there was something slightly “wicked” about Father’s people, which I regret to confess, merely had the effect of making them even more intoxicating and desirable than ever. Father’s people have always exercised a fascination over me; as a child I longed to know more of them, and the moment the opportunity offered I threw in my lot with them, despite all Mother’s disapproval. I found every member that I was privileged to know, fully as fascinating and inspiring as I had always expected them to be. They all, with scarcely an exception, had that strange stimulating glamour, and somehow unearthly quality which set them apart from the common herd.

My grandmother was born at Market Bosworth soon after her father, the Rev. Arthur Benoni Evans, had been appointed to the Head Mastership of the Grammar school there. Some twenty five years later a new young doctor came to take over the practice in the district, and. the following story has been told to me.

The first Christmas that the new doctor [JOHN WADDINGTON HUBBARD] was in the village, my great-grandparents felt it would be a pretty gesture to invite him to dinner. He then, for the first time, met Emma, an exceptionally beautiful and talented girl, for whom her parents had very high aspirations in the matrimonial direction. At dinner the two young people pulled the merry-thought according to tradition. The authentic superstition in connection with this ceremony is that if pulled by two unmarried persons, the one who gets the knob at the end of the bone will be the first to be married. On this occasion the incredible happened. The knob at the end split neatly up the centre, leaving an equal piece on the end of each of the two prongs. This is an extremely rare occurrence, and according to the superstition obviously means that the two people pulling the merry-thought are destined to be married simultaneously. As, in this case, the two people concerned were of opposite sex, what more natural than that the oracle should portend their marrying each other? However, this was their first meeting, and Emma’s parents had far higher ambitions for her than a village doctor, however delightful and well-bred, so the family placed no importance on a mere merry-thought. But, superstition or no superstition, that merry-thought had told the truth, for eventually, and despite strong family opposition, Emma married the doctor, and their married life, though tragically brief, was one of ideal happiness.