Monday 27 August 2012

Kathleen Scott Part Three by Louisa Young

The third and last extract from Louisa Young's book about her grandmother Kathleen Scott, whose first husband was Captain Scott of the Antarctic. A Great Task of Happiness

Painting by Charles Shannon

In many ways the Bruce children's life in Edinburgh is reminiscent of E. Nesbit's Five Children and It, only there were more of them. William Skene was an amiable though strictly Episcopalian academic with no children of his own. Elma and Zoe, the first twins; Irene, Douglas, Lloyd and Gwen, the second twins; Rosslyn, Wilfrid, Hilda (known as Presh), Podge and Kathleen 'generally struck out an original line of our own, and none of us were ever at a loss to know what to do with ourselves,' Podge wrote. 'We were very independent and hated to be interfered with.' One governess suffered for weeks after being so ill-mannered as to wonder whether Kathleen had brushed her hair properly. (Brushing hair was a subject fraught with pitfalls. One of the worst accusations you could make to an Edinburgh child of the time was that she 'brushed her hair underneath'—presumably to do with vanity, or laziness, or both. Kathleen's hair was so long and thick that she was called 'lanky locks, chatterbox' even though she was rather a quiet child.)

Ostensibly well brought up, in navy blue jerseys with white lace collars, a neat ribbon at the neck and always a hat, they were in fact a bunch of little monkeys — Elma, Zoe and Irene excluded. The eldest brother Douglas is remembered with his feet up on the nursery mantelpiece, eating sweets; Presh christened their black straw Sunday hats the Flyaway Hats and would do her best to ensure that hers did; even Wilfrid, the kind and gentle one, had such a terrible fight with a nursemaid over the washing of his neck that blood was drawn. Rosslyn was first expelled from school at six for lifting the lady teachers' skirts: 'I only wanted to see if they had legs,' he explained. Later he made a habit of getting expelled, largely because he insisted on keeping his animals with him at all times. This habit stayed with him all his life: as a full-grown clergyman he would preach with a lemur peeping out of his pocket, produce a grass-snake in Sunday School to illustrate the story of Adam and Eve (prompting one small pupil to tell his mother that Rev. Bruce kept the devil in his pocket) and unloose a white dove during a sermon on the Holy Spirit. His middle name was Francis, and his nickname d'Assisi.

The young Bruces delighted in tormenting their great-uncle and their governesses. One, a Miss Sandeman, arrived the same day as Rosslyn's new incubator. (Rosslyn bred mice; in later life his ambition was to breed green ones. It took him fifty generations, he claimed, and was reported in the Daily Sketch. He also bred a terrier for Queen Victoria, when he was six.) The children decided to interchange their names, and the height of their success was when their great-uncle came into the schoolroom and said 'Good morning, Miss Incubator.' They used to hide from her and tease her: 'She, poor soul, suffered much, and was powerless,' admitted Podge. Another was a Presbyterian but agreed to take them to their (Episcopalian) church: 'We knew she would know nothing of the service so we made up our minds to astonish her with every form of ritual we could imagine, finally arranging that at the second last prayer (St. Chrysostom) we should kneel with our backs to the altar . . .' Kathleen had a black velvet dress (they spent a lot of time in mourning, for their mother, their father, their grandfather, their uncle the Archbishop of York) which was very stiff and would stand up on its own; Podge would sit it up on the bed with shoes and stockings dangling and invite Bertha the maid to come and have hysterics at the sight of Kathleen's headless body.

The highest mark they could get for schoolwork was 3; if they got enough 3s they would have a treat. Feeling that the 3s were not coming fast enough, Podge and Kathleen stole their mark books and took them to the Botanical Gardens with a pencil and an India rubber, where Podge practiced and practiced to form a 3 like Miss Incubator's, and then awarded 3s wherever the children felt they were deserved. The ruse was not discovered, and Podge claimed that she wrote her 3s like Miss Incubator's till the end of her days.

When they started school Podge used to play truant regularly; she would lurk in the 'Botans' and when spotted (one of her brothers told on her) she claimed she had gone in there to do up her petticoat. In the end she and Kathleen both were hauled up before the curator of the Botans for consistently breaking rules—they had a running feud with the head gardener there, Foxy—but managed to get off because Great-Uncle William was a friend of the curator. They used to fiddle the accounts for their schoolbook buying in order to have more money for sweets, and at one school at least children were warned against 'those awful Bruce girls'.

In a religious Victorian family all this naughtiness was rather mere serious than it might be considered today, but there really was nobody to keep track of all of them. Elma, who had become what Kathleen described as 'rather unwholesomely religious', perhaps on account of her responsibilities, certainly tried, but she could not always succeed. She took her small siblings on religious retreats, which simply made them naughtier. She would listen to them read their collects every Sunday, and ask them questions. 'Who was David?' she asked Kathleen. 'A ma..a..a..n,' replied Kathleen, irritatingly if accurately. 'Well, did you think I thought he was a pig?' Elma snapped. She also tried to make Kathleen eat mutton fat; Kathleen just developed a technique of hiding it in her pocket. 'Kathleen has got quite sensible about her food now,' Elma would say. 'These things, of course, only need a strong hand.' Kathleen, meanwhile, was slyly dropping little packets of mutton fat in the gutters of the streets of Edinburgh.

Great-Uncle William had poor sight: he didn't notice when they used a red-hot poker to brand numbers on the backs of a set of polished mahogany chairs (the chairs were being pupils in the children's school, and they needed to be able to tell them apart, so they knew which one had taken its turn at reading, and which one was due to spell). There was an ancient chest, a family heirloom through the Skenes, which had belonged to Bonnie Prince Charlie; the little girls labeled each drawer of it with the names of their dolls, and on one occasion cut a piece of cloth off the old kilt that lived in the secret drawer to make a plaid for their doll Gerald. The kilt too had belonged to Prince Charlie, he'd worn it on his escape to the Isles, and so it was said. Uncle William never noticed any of these things. He didn't even always notice whether or not the plates were in place when he dished out the stewed prunes, much to the children's delight. He was not a fool about the children, though. When they waylaid the serving staff, hijacked their uniforms and served up dinner to the grown ups Uncle William would never quite let on whether or not he had noticed.

On one occasion while Elma was away Podge devised a way of missing church. Uncle William asked her if she would like to be punished now or wait for Elma to return; Podge was scared enough to prefer to wait for Elma. In fact Uncle William was not strict. There was a tawse in the house, but it was more often used on him in play than it was on the children. Podge had merely been infected with something of Kathleen's fear of men.

Although later in life Kathleen would say that she had only ever been interested in male creatures, this was not true. She recalled herself having had girl dolls, but having 'put all kindly but firmly to bed with measles. So, through life, let all females be kindly and comfortably disposed of, so that my complete preoccupation with the male of the moment be unhampered!' Her boy doll (Gerald—he of the plaid), 'a sailor boy with blue eyes and brown curls', went 'everywhere with me', and was 'my idol, my baby, my love', so Kathleen recalled. Podge, on the other hand, clearly recalls a small Kathleen trailing her beloved girl doll Rosie around. Certainly Kathleen, however she may have seen herself, was not one to dispose of women. Far from it: she spent a great deal of her adult time delivering babies, caring for their mothers and looking after her female friends in trouble. At this stage she did not like men at all.

When she was quite small she had a frightening experience on the way home from school—a 'drunken ruffian' grabbed her on the street and tried to make off with her. Presh ran after to try and kick him, but by then Kathleen had bitten him hard on the hand and made her escape. Podge was more horrified by the idea of biting someone so dirty; but for Kathleen it was the root of a fear of men, which lasted into her teens, and of a lifelong distaste for alcohol and its effects. 'Should someone lurch, or the slightest bias appear in his gait, my blood ran cold with terror,' she said. Her later line was more sophisticated: 'A man is disreputable who can deliberately risk losing his self-control in public.'

In Edinburgh at that time it was very difficult to avoid drunks, and perhaps Kathleen imagined that all men were likely to behave in a frightening and drunken fashion. When she was seven and their uncle took them all aside to tell them that he had bad news for them, she and Podge both assumed that he was going to tell them he was going to prison. Kathleen quite expected that any man might have to go to prison at any time, being as they were the embodiment of evil. In fact the bad news on that occasion was the death of their father.

The Canon had tried hard to put things in order for his children before he died, but, as he wrote to William three months before his death, knowing that he had not long to go: 'I have no notion what my young ones are to do by and by, unless the Mrs. (who is in Sheffield and very poorly) takes them under her protection more or less. . . Before she went abroad she very positively declared she would have nothing to say to any of them. . .' He was buried beside Janie at Carlton, and Rosslyn had a ferret in his pocket for the funeral. Mrs. Parker continued to have nothing to say to them, but she made good some years later when she paid for Roslyn to go to Oxford (where, legend claims, he kept a baby elephant, because the rule of Worcester College was 'no dogs').

When Kathleen was about twelve another frightening man appeared in her life, her cousin Willie. He stayed at Inverleith Row for about a year, and he was old enough to have a latchkey, and wicked enough to stay out at night after the front door had been double-locked. Kathleen's bedroom was on the ground floor overlooking the garden, and Willie would tap at her window in the small hours, demanding entrance. She would have to creep in silence across the dark dining room and the cold marble-floored hall, and silently unlock the door for him. 'The rage of the young man was terrifying if the bolt, bar or chain made the slightest sound. More strange and terrifying was he when in the dark and silence he would be ingratiating and affectionate.' Kathleen feared, hated and adored him in equal proportions. He would do an alarming impersonation of a hunchback and tell her it was useful in avoiding the police. 'Neither then nor when I grew up did I have the faintest notion why he wanted to avoid the police. . . I thought it meant that he was some unthinkable evildoer.' What form his ingratiating affection in the dark hallway took is unknown, but whether out of fear or loyalty she never betrayed him.

Presh had rather more of a secret relationship with Willie. They became friends during the year he spent in Edinburgh, and after he went back to his own family (Janie's elder brother Felix Skene, a clerk in the House of Lords, was his father) in London they wrote to each other. In one of his letters, he wrote:

Hotel des Iles Britanniques


10 October 1893

Hello Prechie Here I blooming well are—beastly drunk and dead broke—so [sic] my pal. We've been here four days. We came with a thousand and forty pounds between us. He brought £1025 and I £15. I won £55 the first night lost £80 the second and now am dead drunk [crossed out) broak. So's my pal. Don't tell your brothers where 1 am my people don't know. I've not paid a bloody soul for my hotel bill. It's come to 30 frcs a day. Writing to a pal to send me thirty, Don't suppose he'll. Applying for a situation as a waiter at the hotel here. Lovely women here Russian princesses by the score. One very smart one to whom I was sufficiently attentive when I first came down lent me forty Louis—plunged on rouge and lost then she wanted to save me hotel expenses by—well you know—sort of marrying me but I heard she was already married and well it wasn't my fault and I was drunk at the time the wine's so beastly cheap and good here and we get it for nothing as we don't pai. Like a sweet Prechie write me a long cheering wholesome letter to do me good and I promise not to be drunk when I write again . . . ever . . . Willie.

Willie was always a reprobate, and Kathleen was not so sporting about that as Presh, who wrote back to Willie sending him five pound notes she could ill afford and, on one occasion, repeating a 'pretty thick' story about 'Oscar' and 'the pit'. 'Where did you get hold of it?' wrote Willie. 'Your character's done for.' Later he told her of 'a rumour about in Scotland that Oscar Wilde has been released and all the Highlanders have fled to the hills. I wonder why.' Oscar Wilde fascinated them all—they couldn't work out what he'd done. Kathleen assumed he'd had an illegitimate child. Willie probably knew what it was—he was doing it himself not so many years later. For the time being, though, he satisfied himself with girls, and reported it to Presh: 'I disgrace myself at dances,' he wrote, 'sometimes successfully'; and 'She kissed me as the French kiss, and must face the consequences.'

No wonder such an evildoer was a shock to Kathleen, accustomed as she was to their childish naughtiness and Great-Uncle William's proper household. She remembers life there with less jollity than Podge: 'Here the blinds were kept down of a Sunday until dinnertime,' she wrote in 1932 of Inverleith Row. 'Here no book save the bible night be read an the holy day. Here at meals no child might speak till she had finished her meat course. Here surface order and decorum were of the strictest.' Podge did recall that although Kathleen was pretty 'for some years it was obliterated by a perpetual frown'. (Irene referred to her as 'an ugly little maid'.) 'I think you can't have been at all well,' Podge surmised:

From this age onwards you had no one to mother you or shew you any affection of any kind and more and more you shut yourself up and became reserved and chary of shewing any feeling whatsoever, partly due to our somewhat Spartan bringing up but more I think from fear of being laughed at. Once however you began to cry and nothing and nobody could stop you, you sobbed and sobbed, no one knew why and no one could console you, you lay on the bed inconsolable. At last Elma came in and Hilda told her. I shall never forget seeing the determination in her quick walk as she went to your room and came down like a thunderbolt. 'Get up AT ONCE , wash your face and stop this minute.' Implicit obedience and not another sound!

As a young child Kathleen was bereft, seeking affection and attention, and getting not much. If anyone complained of a headache, Kathleen would have one too. Mother figures came and went; the continuous one, Elma, was clearly unsatisfactory. As she grew older, she learnt her worth and her independence. The imagination, which Podge once called ‘ridiculous’, became a source of fine games for both of them. She had an outwardly rebellious period, when she would go off to the sea without permission (and in the middle of the night, if she could); but she soon learnt the subtle art of doing exactly what you want without anyone noticing. She quietly avoided being confirmed for some years—she did the preparatory lessons, but avoided the ceremony. Her form mistress at St George’s School in Edinburgh reported her as having original ideas, but tending to keep them to herself. A contemporary, a Miss Baily, remembered her as: 'a sturdy, indomitable little figure . . . bright blue eyes, a mane of thick brown hair and a clear-cut classical profile and . . . a certain attractive exuberance of temperament. Sharing a desk with her in the Upper IIIrd Remove of 1891-2 was anything but dull. Merriment reigned in her neighbourhood.' At some point when she was quite young, Kathleen decided to be happy, no matter what.

In 1892 Great-Uncle William died. The house in Edinburgh was sold and the proceeds divided among his fifty-four nephews and nieces. Each of the Bruce children got an allowance: Kathleen's was £72 per annum, to pay for everything: education, clothes et al. Douglas, now twenty-five, took over as nominal head of the family, and Kathleen went to live with Elma and her husband Canon Keating (who wore pince-nez). Cousin Willie described their household after a visit in 1892:

Found them pretty gloomy . . . the gas was not turned on at the main so they borrowed a lamp from the Theological Hall, but like the Biblical virgins' it hadn't got no oil so 'they sat in solemn silence in a dull dark etc.', cussing inwardly at each other. It was too dark for either of them to reach the poker otherwise there might have been 'another 'orrible murder'. They're a rum couple . . .

After a year of this Kathleen went to boarding school. It is hard not to surmise that she was 'packed off'. Podge had already been (in her own words) 'sent away'. Kathleen's first boarding school was 'a cheap convent', as she called it, where she had to bathe in a chemise: 'I was carefully initiated into the tricky art of changing from a wet chemise into a dry nightgown without one dangerous moment of seeing my own person.' There was chapel three times a day and five times on Sunday, and the girls were given to having visions due to religious over-excitement. A popular one was for Christ the man to come down from the cross; for Kathleen, Christ the baby clambered from his mother's arms and lay in hers. She loved it, and was late for dinner. She and Podge had had baby friends in the Botans and at Pettycar, where they went on holiday. 'Babies were our chief amusement and interest,' wrote Podge, who went on to be one of the first Norland Nannies, and to run a children's home. There was Mary Ann Frew, for example, aged eight months, whom they shared between them in hourly shifts, and a two-year-old named Arthur to whom Kathleen had given a toy horse. He had a very grand nanny, and the next day the horse was sent back because Arthur was not allowed to accept presents from people his mother did not know. Religion was important to the Bruces—three of the four brothers took the cloth (Wilfrid alone didn't, he became a sailor); two of the sisters married churchmen and one, Gwennie, lived her whole life with her twin brother Lloyd as his housekeeper—but for Kathleen the miracle was not so much God as babies.

Though Douglas was now her guardian Kathleen had, in effect, no one to look after her. She was reunited with Podge at a second boarding school, St Michael's, at Bognor, when Podge was called to look at her little sister's vests. There were nine, and they were all in rags. 'Absolute rags,' wrote Podge, 'in fact no underclothes fit to be seen, and Mrs. Sparks had spread them all on the bed for inspection.' This doesn't seem to have made Kathleen sorry for herself—no one to look after her also meant no one to tell her what to do. Podge wrote to Presh about 'naughty little Kathleen'. She was 'always in hot water' at school, so Podge said, but she knew (because she'd been told, after Smith's Classical Dictionary and a book on Christian Science were found under her mattress) that she wouldn't be expelled, because she was an orphan. Her siblings were largely grown-up, and she was beginning to think that so was she. Douglas would send her patronizing letters about how he had arranged for an aunt to be so good as to take her for the holidays—this was how she saw it, at least. At sixteen she wrote back saying, in effect, no thank you, I shall go and stay with my friends, who want me. One such was Milly, who had been on holiday to Italy, where a musician had kissed her. She wasn't certain that she might not be going to have a baby; Kathleen rather hoped she would, but thought it unlikely.

But perhaps Kathleen had once again misjudged her relatives. One, a vicar's wife from Buxted, Surrey, wrote rather sweetly to Presh in March 1895: 'I hear from Kathleen this morning that prearrangements will prevent her coming to us for her Easter holidays. When she could not come at Christmas we looked upon it as a pleasure postponed . . . so perhaps she may be able to come to us for a bit in the summer.' But Kathleen had more exciting invitations than a vicar's wife in Sussex. She was going to London to stay with wicked Cousin Willie.

She'd been to London before, in passing; she and Podge had had to cross it on their own on their way to Bognor. Podge had cried out, 'We shall never get across London alone!'; to which Kathleen had replied, 'Shan't you? I shall.' Unlike their Skene ancestors, most of the Bruces did not care for travelling. Podge thought Kathleen tremendously brave and cavalier in her attitude to the city, and this view was confirmed throughout their lives.

It was arranged that she should stay a night or two with Willie's 'ramshackle, happy-go-lucky family' at their house in Addison Gardens, Kensington,

"and that we should dine together in a restaurant, and that he should take me to a play. Seventeen, but a pantomime was all I had ever seen, and never at all in all my life had I ever had a meal in a restaurant, not even at a station. First problem—what should I wear? Next—would I know how to behave as though it were not the first time? There were the agonies of cutting down the neck of my prettiest day blouse; and agonies again, lest it be too low. And the dark serge skirt, how clumsy it looked! Well, I must tie a ribbon in my jolly hair and hope no one would look below my nice clean face. Oh, heavens, one must wear a cloak! What could I do? Lucky if the odd two pounds were left over for clothes. A cloak, an evening cloak? Quick, quick! I had an idea. One yard of a coarse, unbleached stuff called workhouse sheeting, costing a few pennies a yard, a square of blue dye, and bottle of gold ink. Secretly I went about the business, dyed the stuff, cut it in a cunning circle, and then made a bold, mad design in gold over it. The result would doubtless not be durable, but it looked not unlike a Fortuny cloak, and it would serve. "

The evening was a success—Kathleen got the hors d'oeuvres all wrong but it didn't matter; Willie had chosen the play because 'the heroine is just like you, and it will do you good to know what you are like'. Kathleen didn't think she was like her at all, but rather hoped she was. Back at Addison Gardens there was an exotic brother, Hener, playing the piano 'with great vigour and grandeur'. He was younger, wilder, stranger and more beautiful than Willie, and Kathleen was delighted with him and his thick black hair and wild gypsy-black eyes (Willie's hair was red). She asked him to play Bach, the only composer she had ever heard of, but he played Liszt which she found quite delirious and intoxicating. (Their Great-Aunt Carrie had been taught to play the piano by Liszt in Paris: 'a wild-looking long-haired excitable man,' Great-Aunt Fifi had called him. He liked giving girls one or two lessons so they could say they had been taught by him.)

The next morning Kathleen saw Hener out of the window, swinging a live cat by the tail, hitting its head against the wall, and was less delighted. She poured water from her jug over him and threw up in her basin. Felix Skene did try to discipline his wayward sons. 'I have had the hell of a row with my guvnor,' Willie wrote to Presh. 'He told me to leave the bally hovel and I said I wouldn't and threatened to get him expelled from the Athenaeum.' Willie was always short of money to lose on the horses: at one point he considered blackmailing Aunt Zoe, the Archbishop's wife, by betrothing himself to a chorus girl.

It was Willie who sowed the seed of art as a living in Kathleen's brain. She wanted to make up to him for being so taken with his brother when after all it had been Willie who had taken her out, so the next day, after the cat incident, she showed him some 'very feeble but pretty' watercolours that she had done, as a gesture of friendliness. At this stage she was meant to be going to be a teacher, like Irene and Presh—it was respectable, and would keep her out of trouble. 'Why on earth go in for teaching?' said Willie. 'Why not go in for art?' He probably forgot all about the suggestion. In 1900, after his wicked life had resulted in him 'absquatulating' to Bombay (where he worked for a bank, lived with an Indian boy in a tent, shot vultures, shocked the memsahibs and wrote scandalous letters to Presh asking her to send him 'naughty French papers'), he wondered whether 'pretty little Kathleen' had become a duchess yet. But in 1895 he told his seventeen-year-old cousin to hell with mathematics and Latin, she was lovely and should have a lovely life. Nonsense, she replied, but she didn't think it was nonsense at all.
My Dear, I Wanted to Tell You
Richard & Judy Book Club Choice 2012
Winner, Galaxy Audiobook of the Year 2011
Shortlisted for the Wellcome Prize 2011
Shortlisted for the Costa Novel of the Year Award 2011

Shortlisted for the Galaxy Book of the Year 2011

Book at Bedtime, BBC Radio 4 January 2012

1 comment:

Miss Simmonds Says said...

This is great thank you. I'm just reading Kathleen's autobiography and selected diaries, really fascinating!