When Gillian invited me to post here as part of Women’s History Month, I immediately thought about the different ways in which men and women pass down their legacies to future generations. I touched on that in a scene from my novel Heart’s Blood. Here, secular scribe Caitrin, employed to sort and translate family documents, is taking time to look at some garments stored in an old chest.
The library held the ink and parchment records set down by men. But that was only half the story. Women talked to their daughters and granddaughters, weaving memories. If no living women remained, one might still learn something from what they had left behind: a garden planted in a certain pattern, a precious possession set away with careful hands, a gravestone for a beloved pet. And clothing. I did not know who had owned these gowns, these delicate undergarments, but perhaps they had something to tell me.
Of course, times have changed. In western society there is no longer such a dramatic divide between the way women and men live their lives. It might be salutary, though, to remember that only half a century ago, women’s expectations of how their lives would unfold were markedly different from those of today’s young women.
My mother, Dorothy, was born in 1911, the cossetted only daughter in a well-to-do family with five sons, four of whom were adults by the time she was born. She had the misfortune to get polio as a three-year-old, and walked with a marked limp all her life.
Despite her wealthy family, Dorothy never set much store in physical possessions, except her piano, sheet music and beloved books. She was a talented pianist, one of the early female graduates of Otago University in Dunedin. She worked for a while in the family printing business, then as a piano teacher. Her family was less than delighted when she married her childhood sweetheart, Bill, a working class man who had left school at 13 to support his widowed mother and handicapped brother. Dorothy found herself cold-shouldered by her brothers and reliant for support on a husband who, though kind and loving, was a heavy drinker whose frustration at his missed chances in life sometimes made him moody and unpredictable.
My sister and I were born after Word War II, when our parents were already in their thirties, late by the standards of the time. I think they were often unhappy, with money quite tight and neither very good at balancing the budget. Dorothy resumed teaching piano from home as soon as we were both at school. That was unusual in the 1950s, when a woman was generally expected to stop work for good once she married. She was also in demand as a judge for eisteddfods, and had a regular gig as concert reviewer for the local paper. Our father remained in steady work, despite his deteriorating health. Both of them took great pride in our academic achievements, and it was my father’s fondest wish that one of us would become a doctor – for him, the pinnacle of success. Neither of us took that path, and sadly, he didn’t live long enough to see his eldest granddaughter graduate from medical school.
Dorothy was a deeply reserved, self-effacing person. Nonetheless, she was a wonderful and much-loved teacher and a knowledgeable, fair judge of musical performances. She was also a talented artist; after her death we found a box of beautiful paintings, drawings and etchings, mostly of trees and flowers. None was framed and hung on the wall during our childhood; all were laid away.
My sister and I have only recently sorted out the very small number of possessions Dorothy left, mostly her treasured books. Sadly, she sold her piano, her cherished china doll and her working desk in a time of financial hardship. As for personal writings, they’re extremely scant. There is an extraordinary book in which she copied out by hand long passages from works of philosophy, her choices suggesting she thought deeply about the human condition. We found what seemed to be diaries, but after seizing on them with excitement, we discovered they revealed little. Two notebooks chronicle the purchase of a holiday cottage which she and Bill had for thirteen years in later life, and where he was especially happy. She records every expenditure from the princely sum of $1,100 for lifetime leasehold on the house to $1.65 for an ash-pan. She writes about planting a tree or painting a cupboard in the same matter-of-fact tone in which she records the birth of each grandchild in turn. Occasionally her true self shines through when she describes local birds, trees or seascapes – she had a deep appreciation of small blessings. It was not in her nature to spill out emotions, and I think that was common for most women of her generation. She was a wonderful listener, and took on board a great deal of my teenage angst without once showing shock or displeasure. Her own sorrows, she locked right away.
She left me a love of books and storytelling, a deep appreciation of music, an enjoyment of quiet and my own company, a love of the natural world. Her influence on me was enormous, and to a great extent I have stood on her shoulders when making my own life. Beneath her stands her mother, a feisty Scottish matron, and beneath her another woman, and beneath her yet another, all the way back to some Pictish crone spinning tales by the fireside. And of course, I have my own tribe standing on my shoulders – four fine adult children and five little girls who will in time learn their great-grandmother’s story.
Note from Gillian: I didn't chase Juliet for a bio, because I don't think she needs one. I'm always finding myself in the middle of conversations about who gets to claim Juliet's writing - Australia or New Zealand. The last conversation of this kind was with a Romanian fan! For those rare and unfortunate souls who have not read her fiction and do not recognise her name, however, check here: http://www.julietmarillier.com/