Sunday 27 May 2012

Kathleen Scott, Part One by Louisa Young

It has been said that my ancestors are too interesting, and I have to accept the accusation. But what can I do about it? Hide them? I prefer to tell their interesting stories.

Kathleen Bruce was my father's mother. She was born in 1878 and died in 1947 so I never knew her, but statues she had made were all over the house and garden, and sometimes my father would point one out in a public place: Adam Lindsay Gordon in Westminster Abbey; Lloyd George in the Imperial War Museum, and The Man Who Wasn’t My Grandfather on Waterloo Place. I knew he wasn't my grandfather because my grandfather had only one arm and wasn't all bundled up. Gradually I realized who he was: Con, Captain Robert Falcon Scott, Kathleen's first husband; and that he was heroic and tragic and had died of cold and hunger in a tent in a blizzard in the Antarctic, having got to the South Pole too late. I knew this was unspeakably sad but I was worried too because if he (and Oates and Evans and Bowers and Wilson) had come back, Kathleen would never have married my grandfather, and my father and I and my five siblings would never have been born. I wondered if Uncle Pete, who was nine months old when he last saw his father, minded about us. I realized quite soon that he probably didn't, as he had named a family of swans after us.

Kathleen had written a short autobiography, largely for her own pleasure, in 1932; it was published along with a tiny selection from her thirty-six years' worth of diaries after her death. I read it when I was sixteen, and was delighted to find that a grandmother could have lived like a vagabond on a Greek island, could have had friends who got pregnant out of wedlock, could have been annoyed by the hounding of the press, could have worried about what to wear, could have fallen in love and ridden with cowboys, could have run away to Paris to be an artist, and to Macedonia to tend to refugees, could have been financially independent and brought up a son alone. Equally I was shocked to find that a grandmother — my grandmother — could have not supported female suffrage, could have visited South Africa and not exploded at the injustices there, could have moved happily in circles where people referred to 'little Jews'. I had to accept that I could not in justice expect one woman within her generation to be in every way ahead of that generation in matters of humanity and justice. Things unacceptable to me now were generally accepted then; some of them (not all) Kathleen accepted.

But then the humanity in her friendships, with passing strangers or with famous people — George Bernard Shaw, Isadora Duncan, Asquith, Sir James Barrie, Lawrence of Arabia, Max Beerbohm, Austen Chamberlain, Rodin, Colonel House—delighted me. The details of how a woman was, and how women could be, in those days, were fascinating. She was funny and adventurous and innocent and proud. She travelled all over the world. I was pleased to be descended from her.

I was thirty before I realized that I could read all her diaries, written almost every day for thirty six years. She started them for Con when he went south; they were to be a record for him of their son and of her day-to-day activities. After she learnt that Con was not coming back she kept them up. No one knew she did. Her handwriting races along (illegible unless you really practice reading it) recording adventures, anecdotes and observations, interspersed with photographs and little sketches, from 1910 to 1946. She covers politics and exploration, art and sex, literature and travel, Mexican trains and plastic surgery, love and death, folly and creativity, child birth and flying, iguanas and vicars and eating chicken sandwiches out of her coronet at the coronation of George VI. They notably lack self absorption, self pity and self indulgence. I realised that the story sitting in her papers — she kept many letters too— at the University Library in Cambridge was begging to be searched out.

My father wanted me to do it, and if I mentioned her, people would say, 'Oh, I know about her, wasn't she the one who . . . I remember in so-and-so's biography she. . . Oh yes, she was extraordinary, wasn’t she?' But the reason I finally got round to it was more wordly: I heard Beryl Bainbridge on the radio one morning saying that someone really should write Kathleen Scott's biography, and I was seized with fear that someone else might. So I did. It was not a discourse on feminism and the Empire, or another contribution to the well-documented and much-discussed arguments over the comparative merits of dogs/ponies/skis/motor sledges in pre-First World War Antarctica, or what really happened to the oil supply at the Southern Barrier depot. It was the story of a woman's life. There was no special reason why it should be extraordinary, but it is.

A Great Task of Happiness

It was my first book, and time has passed. It is now a hundred years since Con was at the South Pole; sixteen years since the book was first published. Kathleen's son Wayland, my father, has been dead for three years, and Kathleen herself has reappeared in fiction, casting the face of the wounded hero in my most recent novel, My Dear I Wanted to Tell You. For 2012 I corrected and updated the book, and included various of the interesting things that people had told me about Kathleen since the first edition came out. Here’s how it starts:

Kathleen with Captain Scott
KATHLEEN BRUCE wanted written on her gravestone: 'No happier woman ever lived'. The first thing to happen to her, however, was that her brother — her favourite brother — slapped her face, complaining that her eyes were too red. Then her mother went blind and died. Then her father died, then the great uncle who had been looking after her. Then she was packed off to school, and then she ran away to Paris to study with Rodin, then to Macedonia to sit in freezing mud and give blankets to the dying. She nearly died there in an epidemic of typhoid fever, and again later during surgery. She helped to deliver Isadora Duncan’s illegitimate child. At twenty-nine she found love with a man named Robert Falcon Scott, married him and had a son. A year later her husband died, frozen and starving on his journey back from the South Pole. By the time she found out, he had been dead a year. After that things looked up a bit.

Kathleen was descended from the brother of the fourteenth-century king of Scotland, Robert the Bruce, of cave and spider fame. On her grandmother’s side she was descended from Nicolae Soutzo, who was in turn Grand Drogman of the Sublime Porte, Grand Logothete, Grand Postlenik of Wallachia and Grand Cepoukehaya, and decapitated in 1769. This side of the family was Phanariot: Greek from Constantinople. The glorious titles denoted positions in the Turkish imperial rule of central Europe. An early ancestor was Michael Rangabe, Michael I, who was Emperor of Constantinople for a very short time in the year 800. His son married an illegitimate daughter of the rather more successful Emperor Charlemagne, who brought as part of her dowry a little fishing village now known as Venice.

One thousand and thirty-two years later their descendant Rhalou Rizo-Rangabe, aged sixteen, was frightened by a mastiff in a street in Athens: so frightened, she said, that she rushed into a nearby house and jumped on the table. The dog’s master, a twenty-one-year-old soldier from Edinburgh named James Henry Skene, over from Malta to shoot duck, followed her in, lifted her off the table and fell in love. They were Kathleen's grandparents. Rhalou was the daughter of Jacovaki Rizo Rangabe, the last Grand Postlenik of Wallachia, and Princess Zoe Lapidi; James was the son of Sir Walter Scott's best friend, James Skene of Rubislaw, a brilliant watercolourist whom Scott described (in the preface to Ivanhoe) as 'the best draughtsman in Scotland', and who is the only non-Greek to have a room devoted to his work in the National Gallery in Athens. James junior's mother was Jane Forbes, whose great uncle, Lord Pitsligo of Monymusk, had dashingly served the Young Pretender, disguised as a beggar, at the age of seventy.

James and Rhalou were married in 1833. Later James's sister Carrie married Rhalou's brother Alexander Rangabe. James sold his commission in the King's 73rd (later the 2nd Black Watch) to become a writer and diplomat, and they moved in with his parents, who, following their children's example, had moved to Athens. James and Rhalou had seven children, including a daughter named Janie after James's mother: she was to be Kathleen's mother. The children's aunt, Fifi Skene, would take them on walks to the Acropolis and tell them how the caryatids wept each night for their sister, kidnapped by wicked Lord Elgin (who was another cousin) and imprisoned in the British Museum; and their Greek nurses told them tales of Turkish cruelty. The family travelled a great deal: James Skene lived 'as a sheik' in Syria, and Fifi took the children to Paris, introduced them to a pasha's wife in Bulgaria and, when the opportunity arose, showed them slaves being sold in the market and the head of a decapitated bandit.

When Janie was seven the Skene grandparents returned to Britain, and Janie and her sister Zoe, aged eight, went too. They lived a while in Oxford, where the sisters took lessons with dons and attended lectures. At seventeen Zoe married Dr William Thompson, a cleric who was promoted every time Zoe had a child: when he became Archbishop of York, Bishop Wilberforce commented that Mrs. Thompson had better be careful, because 'there are only Canterbury and Heaven before him'. (Their son Basil became prime minister of Tonga.) Janie was twenty-seven when she found a priest of her own, the Rev. Lloyd Bruce, whom Zoe described as 'dull, shabbily dressed and too old' (he was thirty-four). Janie felt otherwise: 'Oh, dear Zoe,' she wrote, 'I wish you could see him a little more with my eyes!' In 1863 they were married at St Michael's, Oxford.

Janie was energetic and charming and something of a beauty: Rossetti asked her to pose for him. However, her health was intermittently bad. Having six children (including two sets of twins) in three-and-a-half years did not improve it, though she said it was the raising not the bearing that wore her out. In 1868 she had a complete collapse and had to be fed at half-hourly intervals:

9am Beef tea
9.30 Champagne
10 Chicken broth
10.30 Arrowroot with milk
11 Turtle soup or beef tea
11.30 Medicine
11.45 Champagne
12 Custard pudding
12.30 Beef tea
1pm A sandwich of chicken or mutton with a little brandy and water
2 Medicine
2.30 Chicken broth
3 Champagne
3.30 A cup of milk
4 Brandy and water
5 A cup of cocoa
5.30 Turtle soup
6 A cup of tea with two teaspoonfuls of brandy with a little heated butter
7 Medicine
7.30 Beef tea
8 Cocoa with a rusk
9 Chicken broth followed by champagne
10 Arrowroot with milk
11 Cup of tea with brandy
12 Chicken broth and champagne
1 Cocoa
2 Cup of tea. Brandy
3 Beef tea and a glass of champagne
4 Arrowroot and medicine
5 Cocoa
6 Beef tea and champagne
7 Tea and toast
8 Arrowroot with brandy and medicine

Janie largely recovered from this illness (hysteria, said a London specialist, and who could blame her on that diet?) and on the advice of her doctor had more babies. Between times she took to illustrating photo albums with beautiful pictures of flowers, to raise extra money for the family (the pre-Raphaelite William Riviere had taught her to draw in Oxford). Zoe would sell them for three guineas each. The Bruces were not as well off as Zoe's constantly elevated family, and Zoe continually (and in the face of Janie's well-bred protests and deeply felt gratitude) plied them with petticoats and soldier outfits and whatever was needed. 'You really are a witch to find out our wants as you do,' Janie wrote.In 1878 the Bruces were living in the Jacobean rectory at Carlton-in-Lindrick, near Worksop. It was a grand place, which stables and a lake, a millpond, pillars in the drawing room and Italian mosaic floors upstairs, and a garden large enough to hold the village fete. Archbishop Thompson was to thank for putting this suitable living the way of his impoverished but fecund brother-in-law. Here Janie gave birth to her eleventh child, which made it another five in seven years. This last, born on 27 March 1878, was Kathleen.

We are happy to welcome Louisa back with this first of three extracts from her book about one of her fascinating ancestors.


Essie Fox said...

So interesting! A wonderful Sunday morning read. Thank you.

Essie Fox said...

So interesting! A wonderful Sunday morning read. Thank you.

Katherine Langrish said...

I shall HAVE to read the book! Thankyou, Louisa!

Sue Purkiss said...

How lucky you are to have had ancestors who led such extraordinary lives! How many people can lay claim to a Grand Postlenik of Wallachia or two? Fascinating!

Imogen said...

I shall certainly read the book. I'd love to know more about Kathleen's time in Paris...

Jean Bull said...

Thank you for this really interesting blog. I've only read about Kathleen Scott so far in Death on the Ice by Robert Ryan which of course is a fictional account. I would love to find out more about your grandmother, so I will be certainly be reading your book!

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Daffodil Blue said...

I became interested in Kathleen Scott through the wonderful poem Ice House by Anne Michaels. I do recommend it.

Anonymous said...

Louisa's book is wonderful. I would really love to read Kathleen's autobiography. Not sure of the chances of this though!

Anonymous said...

Hooray. I tracked down a copy of Self Portrait of an Artist. It was easy once I googled Lady Kennet instead of Kathleen Scott. I await it's arrival :o)