My grandmother then decided she was in need of a housekeeping companion and that her daughter-in-law could fill this position. There would be no pay as such, but food for the young widow and her children would be provided, sparingly as it turned out, and even more sparingly, clothes.
Children's garments could be made from oddments, sewn, knitted and handed down. As for my mother, now that she was a widow and would wear black for the rest of her life as Queen Victoria had done, she could inherit the old lady's cast-offs, suitably trimmed to size and shape.
This was how my family came to live in a large, cold Victorian house in a small township on the north Somersetshire coast. My mother brought with her all that she possessed in the world. A few items of bedroom furniture. A dressing table and a little jewellery, a few books and a Colt revolver with six rounds of ammunition. What desperate resolve prompted her to bring these last two items I do not know, nor did I ever inquire.
The year after our arrival, 1914, the Great War broke out. Perhaps the atmosphere of emergency and the heavy emotional demands made upon most of the young women of her generation helped my mother resign herself, at least temporarily, to living the routine of her elderly mother-in-law.
As children we were happy enough, fitting ourselves, as children do, into the circumstances that surrounded us, but mother had to suppress much of her natural jollity, acting as a buffer between her often noisy children at the top of the house and the solemn, easily disturbed downstairs of our grandmother.
Grandmother did not believe in the classless society. Indeed, so convinced was she of her own social superiority that there was not one single person in that Somersetshire township who could justifiably be invited to take tea with her. Ranged behind her in defence of her position were several dukes and other aristocrats, closely followed by admirals, generals and the like, some of whom gazed down at us from the walls of the stairways and downstairs rooms. This meant that there was very little social life to enliven the dull days for mother.
A room at the top of the house was set aside to be used as a school, and armed with a selection of rather aged textbooks, the young widow began the education of her children, my eldest brother being already over four years old. The knowledge contained in these textbooks was rigorously drummed into our heads, for mother was aware of the necessity of obtaining an education of a higher standard than that offered by the free schools, if one was to prosper, and the only way to do this would be by gaining scholarships or similar awards.
One day a visitor called who had heard about a well-known boarding school that had been established with the sole aim of educating suitable children whose parents did not have the available funds. A great number of good people contributed money to the school, and if their contribution was sufficiently large, they were allowed to place an approved child there. I think mother must have written to every single benefactor in order to gain places for her children, and she eventually succeeded in obtaining one for each of us, three boys at the boys' school and our sister at the girls' establishment.
The schooling provided was sound, practical and aimed at producing adaptable adults, able to use such common sense as they possessed. Aware of the undoubted benefits of such an education, I would like to be able to record that this was a happy period of my life. Alas, this was not so. From the very start, the school was like some sort of prison. On my second day I quite unwittingly broke some obscure rule, for which the housemaster, no doubt a brilliant mathematician, but lacking in any noticeably human attributes, accorded me a public beating. A suitably sour start to a relationship which was to lack warmth for the next seven years.
Copyright © 1995-2004 by Edward Beauclerk Maurice. Reprinted by permission of Houghton Mifflin Company.
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No Man's Land
by Simon Tolkien
Inspired by the experiences of his grandfather, J. R. R. Tolkien, during World War I.
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