My mother’s stepmother is a shadowy figure to me. I don’t even know her name. It is a sad story for all concerned.
My grandfather needed someone to look after his little girl. He had been shattered by the early death of his wife, and glad to have his mother and father-in-law to take in Jane and care for her. He adored his mother. When she died, he could not bear to have her hands stripped of the jewels she always wore and instructed that she should be buried with her rings on her fingers.
He always told Jane that he had remarried to make sure she was looked after. That is, if not for her he would not have saddled himself with a wife whom he did not love and who cared neither for him or Jane.
I suppose it seemed a sensible arrangement. She would have security and the status of marriage, and a pretty little daughter as ready-made family. He had a housekeeper and someone to care for him and his little girl. But it didn’t work out. For one thing, Jane was unhappy and difficult. They did not make a good start, by dragging her away from her beloved grandparents, and she was not a sweet, biddable little thing. She was clever, independent and stubborn and she preferred books to dolls.
But it was not too bad for a time. Then, the stepmother, out of the blue, was left a large sum of money in a relation’s will. The effect was to make her mean, resentful and positively unkind to Jane. I presume that this was because she was very angry at the realisation that she had married too soon, for security. If she had known and waited, she would have had plenty of money and not needed to marry at all – or could have married for love instead. Sadly, she took it out on Jane as well as her husband.
Mummy was always slightly claustrophobic. She said it was because her stepmother’s favourite punishment was to shut her in a dark cupboard. She had to cycle to school every morning, whatever the weather, and remembered carrying her bike over snowdrifts – this was not unusual, in those days schools did not close for rough weather as they do now. But Jane had to bike home for lunch too, as her stepmother would not pay for a school meal, although ample housekeeping money was provided for her. A typical lunch was a small bowl of cornflakes and half a banana.
She used to lie in bed and hear them quarrelling. She used to analyse it. “Now, if he hadn’t said anything when she said that, or if she had then said something neutral instead of shouting, the quarrel would never have happened.” When I was grown up, I pointed out to her that the reason they quarrelled was that they wanted to, they were looking for an opening to pick a fight. She was surprised, she still saw it all with a child’s eyes and had not realised that, but agreed I was right.
My grandfather was still away from home a good deal and Jane just had to put up with it. I suspect that she did so by despising her stepmother. By preferring intellectual pursuits and showing that she was cleverer and more sophisticated. It was the only way she could fight back.
She could only remember one occasion when they had laughed together. They had decided to make a lardy cake, a traditional Wiltshire delicacy made of bread dough enriched with lard, sugar and dried fruit. They spent a great deal of time and care on it, put it in the oven to cook and eagerly took it out and put it on a plate. Stepmother tried to cut it. She tried to chop it. She managed to saw it. It was rock hard and impossible to eat. They looked at each other and burst out laughing.
Stepmother’s sister Elsie was a different person altogether, affectionate and welcoming. She lived on a farm in Devon and Jane went to visit during the summer holidays. She was fed on lots of good rich, if simple, food, and used to help with the dairy deliveries. Each customer had cream at the weekend and sent in her own jug with a muslin cover, weighed down with a decorative border of coloured glass beads. They knew which customer owned which jug and delivered it, full, with the milk which was ladled from a churn. The surplus cream was made into clotted cream, made by heating cream on a very low heat until it thickened, and sold in little pots.
Mummy, not surprisingly, idealised ‘real’ mothers. She felt, keenly, her unlucky status as the only child she knew without one. She was shocked when any of her friends misbehaved at home – how could they upset the person who loved them best? She didn’t dare misbehave and mischief wasn’t an option. Her father and she had a good relationship and they went walking and cycling together and had a shared love of music. She played the piano (self-taught, her parents would not pay for lessons) and he could play any wood-wind instrument. However, home life was not bearable for anyone and, after seven years of marriage, her father and she left to make a new home for themselves in Weymouth.