Autobiography Early Years

Money and Marriage

Alas. My poor parents. The more they wanted from marriage the worse it got. Both had unconventional childhoods of very different kinds. My mother was nothing like her siblings. She missed a lot of schooling because of the many illnesses that she suffered. Yet when she was full of energy and cheerfulness, she always got what she wanted. Her mother was exceptionally intelligent. She (her mother) had some family contacts in Argentina and learned Spanish during a period of more than a year. I think I am much more like her than Mother was. When she got to ninety she still remembered much of her Spanish. My grandfather worked for a Scottish newspaper. He went to London to write reports in the House of Commons. He lost his job and his earnings dropped. Thus the family was always hard up. My mother was often sent to recuperate with her mother’s cousins: gentry living in Lincolnshire. Every Friday a group of ladies met in the drawing-room to Make Things for the Poor. They were served afternoon tea with wafer-thin cucumber sandwiches and delicious cakes on silver cake-stands. Mother was taught to behave like a lady if she walked into the village. She was told to tell anyone she met that she lived at the Manor House and must be called “Miss Dorothy”.

Mother’s beliefs and standards were formed by these visits. She often said that she had married beneath her. With hindsight I think it was the other way round. She missed a lot of schooling, especially arithmetic. She often sent me to the shops to buy food when I was seven years old. She always complained that I should have more change even though I always made sure that it was right.

Mother had no idea how to manage money. The only jobs she managed to get before she married were as companions for wealthy ladies who passed on to her their expensive clothes. She had no trouble finding such positions because everybody liked her lively spirit. When she got married her employer gave her a wedding-dress, covered with glittering beads and made in Paris. It was put away into the wardrobe after her marriage. My sister and I used it to dress up in when we were playing.

As I was the first child, Father paid for a private nursing home for the birth. He brought a present for Mother. It was a bottle of Guiness. She indignantly threw it back to him. She expected flowers and chocolates.

Whenever my parents had arguments it was always about money. Father, according to Mother was a “Mean Old Devil”. The term “I’ll swing for you!” often flew from one to the other. I couldn’t see why they would want to swing for each other. This was something I much enjoyed, but it was obviously meant as an insult.

My first experience of Mother’s money problems came to life before I went to school. In the summer she often took us three children to Finsbury Park. Years later I told her how much I enjoyed that time. All my life, whenever I smelt the scent of privet bushes, I was taken back to that summery paradise. “When did you manage to do the housework?” I asked. “Oh I did it in the evening. I had to stay out in the daytime in case those men came to collect money from me.” I don’t know how she got away with it. She made sure that Father would not find out.