Sunday, April 06, 2014
Son and Daughter-in-Law came down yesterday and stayed till today. We all went with Daughter 1 and the grandchildren to the local playpark. It's particular fun in the playpark when your fit young uncle is prepared to go on the equipment with you.
I've just finished rereading a book I found in a second-hand bookshop a few years ago. It's called "Edinburgh's Child - some memories of ninety years" and it was published in 1961 when its author, Eleanor Sillar, was 92. She was born in 1869, not all that long before my grandparents (1880, 1885, 1893 and 1895). It's a series of essays about the Edinburgh of her childhood as the child of a Sheriff - a judge in the lower courts, as opposed to one who would deal with very serious crimes. I've just looked up the current salary of a Sheriff and it's about £130K. So her family was quite well-off. They had at least three live-in servants - mind you, there were six children and the mother died when the youngest was born, so they would certainly need help in the house.
Edinburgh as she describes it is clearly recognisable, though almost all of the shops have changed and the customs and attitudes are in some cases extremely different. As you get older, you realise how short a period of time a century is - if you remember 50 years back (and it doesn't seem such a long time ago) you are aware that 100 years is just twice not-very-long (and 1000 years just ten times that...). And yet she describes being a debutante - I never knew that Edinburgh people used that term - and going to balls at the Assembly Rooms. The Rooms are still there - I've been to a couple of dances there in my youth, but not with chaperones, candles and corsages as she describes them. And when she got home, at four in the morning, her nanny/maid was "awake and alert, ready to unlace me and to brush my hair, and eager to hear all about it. She pulls the flowers in my bouquet off their wires and puts them in water."
Eleanor writes very appreciatively of the three woman servants who were with the family for over fifty years. However, she writes that "they had been bred to think that to earn their living in this manner was their high calling". That doesn't feel too comfortable nowadays. She says that "our maids shared in all our holidays and outings" which sounds good, but adds "my memory pictures Christina weighed down with her enormous basket stuffed full of picnic fare and Ann wandering along, her arms laden with our discarded coats". Hmm.
Ann had joined the household when the writer's mother heard that she had had a baby by her betrothed, who had been killed in an accident before the wedding. The writer's mother, being a kind woman, immediately "sent for her, and kept her, earning thereby the selfless gratitude of a gentle being". But there's no mention at all of what became of Ann's child. This child had been born in Ann's mother's house so presumably remained there with its granny (no mention even of whether it was a girl or boy). When Eleanor Sillar married, Ann went with her to help with the next generation of children, not retiring till the age of seventy. I wonder how she really felt about all this?
But things were hard even in an affluent family. Two of the writer's brothers and her only sister died in infancy before Eleanor was born; her mother died in childbirth with Eleanor's younger brother; and her father died when she was thirteen. My grandfather too had several brothers and sisters who died before he was born; I remember asking him about them and he couldn't be sure even of their names.
In some ways it's not long ago. The buildings are much the same. I can Street View the addresses she mentions. And yet in other ways it seems a very long time ago. So interesting.