I was to learn that Aunt Christina and Annie were lesbians but back then it was not discussed around the dinner table or encouraged. You had to be very careful who you chose to discuss it with. It was illegal for men to be in a relationship together and for women it was looked down upon in a very big way. They never showed affection in front of my sister and I until we were adults and that was always in closed surroundings.
Aunt Christina and Annie were always fun to be around and interesting people always came to visit their home. Their house was always full of reformers, Pankhursts, endless pamphlets, books, writers and artists. Inspired by her parent’s example and their inspiring friends all of whom were well educated people, she knew she had to set her sights on work that would make a difference in the world. Yet, she too bore secrets of her own that she would ultimately have to face, coming of age in a world where women and gay people had no choice but to fight for their dreams. Over time Aunt Christina met those obstacles, both personally and professionally. My grandparents on my mother’s side became missionaries later on in their life and spent most of their time in Africa which meant that we didn’t see much of them in our childhood and then they died when we were around six.
My Aunt met Annie at an art exhibition on her holiday in France and they have been with each other ever since. Alot of their friends were also friends of my parents too. Thanks to Annie, they knew artists, like Vanessa Bell, sister of Virginia Woolf, Henri Matisse as my aunt met him and Picasso in France in Gertrude Stein’s informal salon at her home in 1905 exhibiting his drawings and paintings. Picasso gave my Aunt a small painting which she cherished all her life and was worth a lot of money in her later years. She never sold it. This was during Picasso’s Rose period of 1904-1906. They remained friends for the rest of their lives.
My mother told me, “that when Vanessa Bell walked into my Auntie’s home, shortly before my sister and I were born, she was beyond excited for she was a post-impressionist painter, known for her colourful portraits and still-life paintings and later worked most steadily on dust-jacket designs for Virginia and Leonard Woolf’s Hogarth Press which was founded in 1917, for which she established the house design style. Vanessa designed all of her sister’s book covers. She was also a central figure of the Bloomsbury Group which had English writers, intellectuals, philosophers and artists, the best known members of which included Virginia Woolf, John Maynard Keynes, E. M. Forster, Lytton Strachey, Clive Bell (Vanessa’s first husband), Roger Fry and Vita Sackville-West”. After meeting Vanessa, she invited my mother, Christina and Annie to her house at Charleston many times. Vanessa and her husband Grant decorated their whole house themselves and it wasn’t conservative like many houses of the day were. They painted the furniture, doors and original frescoes on the walls, hung their own paintings and drawings throughout the house, and decorated further with Omega textiles, pottery and an abundance of plants. Their was a lot of colour and design all around the house and my Aunt and mother tried to emulate that in their own homes too. Their house became a hub of artistic and literary activity for the Bloomsbury circle and my mother was truly elated everytime she went there as she found the surroundings so relaxing and stimulating, especially the conversation. My family attended Vanessa’s first solo exhibition in 1922 at London’s Independent Gallery which was a great success and meant that she had further art exhibitions in the coming years regularly at galleries throughout the city.
Other visitors to my auntie’s home were writers, like Gertrude Stein, Alice Toklas, although apparently, they only went once as they predominantly lived in Paris and other writers like Elizabeth Bowen, Iris Murdoch, Aldous Huxley, Julian and his wife Juliette Huxley. Because my mother and aunt were stout feminists and suffragettes, they also knew Stella Browne, Emmeline Pankhurst and her daughters Christabel and Estelle and celebrated with them when Nancy Astor became the first female Member of Parliament in 1919. Mother told me that, “No one ever knew what she was going to say next, and that she had a bright spark about her, a gift for public speaking and could get on terms with people no matter what class”. It has to be said, that in the 1920s thanks to Nancy Astor, she made effective speeches in Parliament, and gained support for her Intoxicating Liquor (Sale to Persons under 18) Bill (nicknamed “Lady Astor’s Bill”), raising the legal age for consuming alcohol in a public house from fourteen to eighteen. She also worked towards education reform, to recruit women into the civil service, the police force, and the House of Lords. The work of new MPs, such as Nancy Astor, led to a Departmental Committee on Sexual Offences Against Young People, which reported in 1925 which was so well overdue and a great achievement to all concerned.
Nancy Astor served in Parliament as a representative of the Conservative Party for Plymouth Sutton until 1945, when she was persuaded to step down and retire by her party and husband.
During these times, remarkable women called ‘suffragettes’ participated in many rallies and my mother, aunt and Annie were lucky not to be caught and sent to gaol which is what happened to many of them. Some suffragettes were beaten by police and lost their families and dignity because of it. It was heartbreaking and inspirational.
Mother said, “It was our fight for dignity and the right to vote”.
I remember my mother telling me in a conversation when I was about twelve that in 1913 when we were only one year old, Emily Wilding Davison who was a militant suffragette was fatally injured at the Epsom racecourse and got caught under the hoove of the King’s horse. She has been saluted by some as a brave martyr and attacked by others as an irresponsible anarchist. It was a huge political protest which simply sums up the desperation of women in this country who wanted the vote and who all suffered the lack of rights and freedom.
My mother told me that she believes, “it was an accident and that she was trying to attach a flag to King George V’s horse and that she also had a return train ticket on herself which leads you to believe that she had no intention of killing herself”.
Friends of my Aunties and parents were colourful and extraordinary people and many were in professions as botanists, scientists, entomologists, ornithologists, architects and a longtime journalist friend of the family, Tom, who often gave vital information and stories to Aunt Christina and Annie especially during the War years and post war depression era. He would be at Aunt Christina’s home most evenings with a cigarette in one hand and a drink in the other and never leaving alone. So in the evenings my aunts and parents’ houses were always a buzz with someone coming to visit just like our own home and conversations were always very stimulating and exciting.