Is this the story of a woman’s emancipation or of a woman’s deeper sense of obligation? And if obligation it was, to whom was she obliged? It is also I suppose the story of a house that was in the family for more than a couple of hundred years, a house which I recalled as a child, but to which I gained entry to recently and some years after it no longer belonged to my family. Let me explain, my great grandmother was always seen as a woman who left her husband and children: someone who was ahead of her time perhaps but beneath contempt. It was always said that my poor great grandfather was left with two children in their early teens; that even the gambling habit which compulsively dictated his behaviour during the children’s early years went when he was left to look after his two offspring. One wit in the family even suggested that his character was made by the lack of love of a bad woman: my great grandmother’s disappearance cured him of his desire to put bridge before his wife and kids; after she left he couldn’t care for the game at all, and I can say that I might be one of the few people who know, and cared to know, what actually happened.
It would have been more than a hundred years ago when she left, and more than forty years ago when I found my great grandfather’s diaries. They were in amongst the books that he left in a library amounting to a thousand volumes. I would have been eighteen, the keen reader in the family, and my grandfather asked if I wanted the collection: nobody else seemed interested. I agreed to take it. The library included volumes by Hume, Locke and Berkeley, and novels not only by Dickens, Austen and Elliot, but also by Dostoevsky, Tolstoy and Gogol, as well as plays by Strindberg, Ibsen and Chekhov. But also amongst a fine book collection were six volumes of his diaries. Up until near the age of thirty five when his wife left him only one volume had been completed; all the rest were from his years alone.
The official story, the family story, of my great grandmother leaving was simple. She became bored with married life and took off to the continent, perhaps going off with another man, perhaps not. It didn’t really matter people would say, whether she went off with someone else; look at what she left behind? It is as if they offered the comments to indicate they had more than enough to go on to show indignation: they didn’t need another man as well.
As a teenager I always felt close to this woman I of course had never met, and fascinated by her decision which always seemed to me more complicated than the family wished to claim. Whether it was my mother or father, my grandfather and grandmother, my aunts and uncles, most I felt settled for the simplest of solutions to a problem: they rarely asked questions and whenever a prejudice was expressed it was promptly confirmed, sometimes with hearsay adding to the claim.
I don’t think my great grandfather was impervious to this approach, yet when I looked at the diaries I saw a man of great doubt and possessed of numerous questions. Even in the first volume I could see someone driven half-mad by a gambling habit he thought he couldn’t control, and in one long entry he explained that he thought he must stop because the angels were on his side. He had owed a large sum of money to a wealthy landowner in the town in the north of England where the family lived, and then received a note saying that he needn’t worry, a kind-hearted soul had covered the debt. He asked all around and could find no one who had paid the debt off for him. In another entry he discusses whether gambling was the ultimate way for him to feel alive or the closest he knew to wishing for death. In the moment of the game it was as though these two dichotomies didn’t quite exist. He was neither alive nor dead; he had achieved a paradoxically brief immortality, or perhaps a variation of Schroedinger’s cat.
This first volume hardly mentioned his wife and children, and one could see reading it that there was no other aspect of his life that really mattered to him other than the gaming table. On one page there is an entry saying that he was a father again, but in an entry a day before and one the day after, half a page of each are given over to talking about Bridge games he played. Yet around halfway through the second volume shortly before and after his wife leaves him, numerous pages are given over to his wife and her motives. He can’t quite understand why, and explains in some detail the nature of her leaving. He had been gambling heavily in the preceding months, though assumed he always had enough money to cover his debts when his wife announced that he had never worked out that the angel who kindly saved him years earlier had been her. Instead of being grateful, the diary entry details how he could never trust his wife again. That there she was with a private income she had never discussed with him before, and she had used much of it to pay off what he owed. When she leaves a couple of months later he assumes that she has done so because she feels umbrage at his anger instead of feeling grateful of her deed.
Most of the next two volumes are devoted to commenting on his children growing up and the literature he was reading. There is no mention of gambling at all, and increasing remarks about investments. It seemed that my great grandfather when he was in debt never quite felt he was going to bankrupt himself: it was more a case of not having available capital to pay off the immediate sum of money. During those gambling years he relied on an annual income that came from the land the family owned on their estate. After giving it up he sold some of this land to the government for council housing, and used another large chunk of it to build houses in conjunction with a construction firm and which greatly increased his income.
I knew that for all their disgust at my great grandmother’s disappearance, an absence they closely linked to what they saw as neglect, my family never felt obliged to acknowledge that the children were hardly in her company for more than three months of the year anyway. They had been in boarding school from the age of five. They perhaps felt closer to certain teachers than to their own parents. This is hinted at in the fourth notebook where over three pages my great grandfather recalled some of the conversations he would have with his wife about the children. She was not happy that her son and daughter had been sent off to school at an age when she still wanted to hug them and they seemed in need of her affection. My great grandfather acknowledges the arguments they would have about the children, but everyone in the family agreed that this need for love if it continued would lead to a weakening of their fibre, and a school full of strangers would strengthen it. My great grandfather seemed to be writing this with a sense of irony, feeling that it was one of those decisions that left him even more abandoned than his children. While reading this I thought of his kids, my grandfather and my great aunt, both of whom I knew as drinkers and my grandfather as a gambler whose habit, according to my father, lost them the family home. Of course their dissipation was usually credited to my great grandmother’s disappearance, but I wonder if it wasn’t their disappearance from her; and that their leaving at the age of five (they were twins) contributed to her later decision to leave her husband.
In the final volume my great grandfather, now in his fifties, talks about receiving a letter from a man in Germany who stated that my great grandmother had passed away and that the funeral would be in five days’ time if he wished to attend. A page is given over to whether or not he should go, as various reactions commingle. Perhaps he would find out why she left; perhaps he should at least honour her death even if she didn’t honour their marriage.
So to Germany he went, feeling under no obligation to tell anyone where he was going. His parents were dead; his children living and working in London. This was in the late nineteen twenties and as he passed through the streets of Berlin looking for a cab he could see all around poverty that reminded him of when he was a young boy passing through the streets of the English capital. There were many beggars, numerous people selling fruit, cigarettes, newspapers. Yet these were not street vendors; more people who had enough money to buy one packet of cigarettes and then sell each one individually, with the slim profit made, it would seem, their total income. Many people he saw looked haggard with hunger and worry, and he hurried through these streets as his father had hurried him through London fifty years earlier.
He arrived at the address he had been given, and pressing the bell a servant answered the door and asked him in English to come in. The house was on three floors with a staircase winding its way to the upper levels and it was on the first floor in a reception room that he found a man sitting on a couch who looked like he had been awaiting his presence for some time. The man was around the same age as my great grandfather, and they were of similar height and build: men of average height who stood tall; men of modest chest size who knew how to give a sense of mass to bodies that were not especially strong. Was this the man who had stolen his wife?
Over the course of a two hour conversation the other man, whose name was Robert, explained he wasn’t quite the person Charlotte, or Mrs Elliott as he called her, had left my father for. My great grandfather seemed to half recognize this man and as the person continued, he allowed recollection to mingle with this figure’s narrative. He had been one of those men twenty years earlier with whom my great grandfather had played bridge. During the week the man was there my great grandfather had lost a lot of money, and there were those who, ostensibly protecting him from his debts, Robert said, were slowly determined to remove my great grandfather from his property.
Their apparent generosity towards what he owed, was only a ruse: soon they would be in possession of his land. Robert heard about this and arranged to meet Mrs Elliot, and said that he would pay off the money he owed if she could find a way of removing him permanently from the game. She said to Robert she had paid off a huge debt before: most of her savings had been used up. She was forever in her husband’s debt by paying off the money he owed with her own. Only very recently had she mentioned this to him as she could see that he was again accumulating debts and admitted that she helped him last time but could not help him now.
Instead of showing gratitude her husband saw subterfuge, seeing in Charlotte a secretive woman rather than a loyal one. She asked Robert why he would be willing to help her husband; she had after all been Philip’s wife; he had known Philip no more than a week. He said that his father had been similarly robbed, and he had spent the last ten years building a fortune equal to the one his father had lost. He supposed it was a certain type of revenge: he couldn’t do anything about the men who had robbed his father, but he could do something about people who were about to rob someone else.
Yet Robert also admitted then to Philip that his motives were possibly not so pure. He had arranged to meet Mrs Elliott with no clear intention. He had wanted to warn her, certainly; wanted to tell her that there were men building up her husband’s debts so they could take all he owned. But when he met her he knew that he wanted to help her much more than he wished to help Philip, thought that within twenty minutes of their conversation that he would pay off the money owed, and said as much when they met again a couple of days’ later. Charlotte was blunt, asking whether he saw this as a transaction; that in turn for paying off her husband’s liabilities, Robert would subsequently have access to his wife. If she was asking if he was falling in love with her then he would have to admit he was. He couldn’t easily control his feelings, but that didn’t mean he insisted on controlling someone else on the basis of them.
Over the next week the debtors were paid off and she saw Robert several times. By the end of that period she knew was no longer in love with Philip even if that wasn’t quite the same thing as saying she had fallen in love with Robert. She said to the latter that she would be leaving her husband, leaving her children, but that didn’t mean she wanted to be with another man. Robert said he would wait for as long as necessary before her feelings for him grew. And if they didn’t manage to do so she asked. Then we will be friends for life he said.
And that was how it was Robert told Philip. She moved to Germany, moved to Berlin, lived in an apartment not that far from where Robert stayed, buying a place with the little savings she had left after the rest had gone on Robert’s earlier debts, and survived mainly through teaching privately. Philip asked if she relied on Robert’s money. He helped her now and again but not really: she managed to be self-sufficient. In the diary Philip wondered whether Robert had told him the truth. She was now dead. Who could contradict the story? But he knew also that disbelieving it would have said more about his cynicism than theirs, and admitted in the diary that he cried at the funeral and intermittently for several days afterwards. What he didn’t do was tell anyone about what he was doing in Germany: not even his children knew she had passed away.
My life had always been rather less turbulent than my great grandfather’s. Like everyone else in the family I attended a private school, but unlike the others I moved into both public housing and the public sector. I got a job working as a secondary school English teacher in a comprehensive in Sheffield, and got a two bedroom council house in the village where my family had owned much land. The very house I was living in was built on part of my great grandfather’s estate: on part of the land he had sold off in the years after his wife left. I moved into the house a couple of years after I had started teaching, and about seven years after my great grandfather’s death. For some in the family I, in my own way, had shown like my great grandmother how low the family would occasionally fall, but I like to think that we were the two people in the entire brood who managed to make decisions for ourselves. I felt that the values I was living by were properly democratic, not elitist, and if most of the family had benefited from a class system that had been in place for hundreds of years, I was the beneficiary of a post-war egalitarianism which allowed many people to live as I have. I have never married and never had children. Why? That would be for another story, but the best way to conclude this one is to say a little about what I suppose set this tale in motion.
A few weeks ago my great niece was invited to a wedding. She was the favourite of my six great nieces and nephews and the one who was most inclined to accept my lifestyle, perhaps who will even, in the future, emulate it. Sarah had been at a nearby private school with the children whose parents had bought the very house my great grandfather had lived in his entire life. It was sold about five years after his death in 1963, not long after his hundredth birthday, with my grandfather, for various reasons, and gambling being the most obvious one, forced to sell it. They hadn’t been the first owners, but had bought it over twenty years ago, and the son who was getting married had lived there since being a young child. Would I accompany her to the wedding she asked. Couldn’t she find a man closer to her own age I replied. Perhaps, she answered, but maybe no one closer to her own mind.
So there I was after the wedding attending a reception at the house I knew well in my early youth. We walked along the lengthy driveway shrouded on either side by trees that would overhang, creating a tunnel-like effect and half locking out the afternoon sunlight. The house was situated at the end of this driveaway, and nearby, about two hundred yards away on either side, were small cottages. In my great grandfather’s time one housed the servants; the other guests. I wondered who occupied them now. As we entered the house two servers handed us glasses of champagne and in the lounge to the left was a room I remembered as the one where the family would politely gather before dinner in a room equally grand to the right of the entrance. Now I saw people dancing to a contemporary pop song, with the couches pushed back and furniture against the wall. I noticed the music coming from four large speakers and saw a DJ in the corner. I sensed briefly the intimidation youth can sometimes make the elderly feel, and then saw a man coming out of the dining room, around fifty, who introduced himself as the father of the bridegroom. I introduced myself in turn, and Brian said he of course knew who I was, and he hoped that the house was being kept in a manner that I would find satisfactory.
At first I assumed he was being deferential; I was about to counter it with a serious remark about politics and my relief that times had very much changed, but then saw a smile on his face that seemed to say that such notions were absurd. It was of course his house not mine and had never at any stage been in my name except in the vaguest of familial terms. However, he seemed to understand how it might feel for someone whose family had lived in this house for a couple of hundred years, and said I should feel free to roam: he didn’t want to block access to my memories. It was an odd phrase, and again for a moment I thought he was saying something that should be taken a particular way, and then saw as he smiled again, this time very kindly, that he’d heard a few things about me; including that I taught at the local comprehensive. Perhaps he should have sent his kids there, he said, but the wife wouldn’t have approved. He added that she was the one from money; he had only made it.
I asked him where she was; he looked back at me and said with an expression of disdain and dismay that she had left him a couple of years earlier. I of course wanted to enquire further; but I suppose all I needed to know was that here was a rift extreme enough for her to absent herself from the son’s wedding. As we walked around the house and through the gardens, as he told me that he employed a couple who would work in the house and outside too, he believed he did so as much to keep a couple of people in employment and to have company around the house as much as anything else. He said I was old money and he was new money but what difference did it really make if people like him replaced people like my grandparents? He was a well-paid lawyer, but his dad had been down the mines and his mother down on her hands and knees cleaning other people’s toilets. He was certainly an example of progress, but had really much changed if it just meant that different people had the money?
As he talked he reminded me a little of my great grandfather in his diaries; the expressed doubts of a powerful man. As we sat down on a bench in the garden and watched a young couple cavorting in a bush, as we looked up at the sky while a cloud moved across it and created a brief gloom, he added that it was in people like me that democracy existed: in people who seem to balance well the need for principles with the modest need for material items. He had for years assumed it lay in what he was accumulating: that the further away he got from digging for coal and cleaning toilets, the more democratic the world would seem to be. It was the American dream in British form: we can all make it. But I seemed to have made it better than anyone else he said. He again smiled, and again I might have wondered what he was saying were it not for the wistfulness of a look indicating someone for whom what he had couldn’t quite compensate for what he might have lost. It didn’t seem only to be his wife; more that he had perhaps moved further away from his parents than he might have wished.
Maybe the thought came to me because at that moment I felt very close to my great grandmother, believed somehow that if any member of the family would be smiling benignly at the life I had chosen it would be her. As Brian and I were still chatting on the garden bench ten minutes later, Sarah came out of the house looking frantically from left to right before peering in the distance ahead of her and seeing me. She came over and asked us when the oldies were going to join the young ones. Weren’t there more than enough oldies in there already keeping the demographic straight, Brian offered, laughing. None as wonderfully old as my uncle Sarah insisted, grabbing my hand and pulling me off the bench. As Brian said he would wait a minute longer, Sarah and I moved towards the house holding hands, the oddest of couples containing within us a family history we couldn’t deny was in our bodies even if we might have escaped from it in our minds. As we entered the house I felt as if my great grandmother would have felt proud that somehow we had earned the right to enter it without at all owning it.