A rare photograph of sisters Bessie (right) and Laura (left) Anstice. Bessie would become Mrs Edward Winnington-Ingram and Laura, Mrs Frederick Lawson, probably taken for the 21st birthday of one of them.
Bewdley is not far from Ribbesford House, once my family’s 'stately' home, felt by the time of this chapter to be such a money-pit white elephant that it was let rather than lived in by the family. Ribbesford was the home of Jane Onslow when she created the 1810 Cookbook (which I self-published as a non-fiction work in 2011 - the book is now out of print).
Jane and her numerous descendants had expensive tastes. The financial penury of the house's upkeep combined with expensive school fees drained the family's considerable resources almost entirely which may explain Edward's penny-pinching nature.
For some reason Bessie’s five children refuse to recede quietly into the past where they belong. I was too little to remember Arthur and Teddy who died young, but grew up calling Maud and Etty my aunts, as did my mother. I recall puzzling over my first attempt at a family tree, aged about seven, before realising that they must be my grandma’s sisters and therefore in reality my great-aunts. My godmother Ann, Teddy's daughter, also felt compelled to write about these five siblings as though she were one of them. They only ever seem to be just beyond my shoulder, out of sight, and I know I look very similar to Maud.
In this chapter I visualise Evie bravely trying to soldier on while her world crumbles about her, and she reminds me greatly of my younger daughter Adelaide in this regard.
Etty really did hold that her mother Bessie had died of neglect and I believe she was not far off the mark.
One of the saddest letters in our archive is from Bessie to Laura (Lawson, Mary’s mother) telling her that she had decided to accept Edward’s hand in marriage. ‘I think it is not all parish,’ she writes, hopefully. She was horribly wrong. Clueless Edward took her on honeymoon and marched her around German churches until her feet blistered so badly they bled and from then onwards her life was a hard one, not least the production of a child more or less every year (the hint at her miscarriages is however my own conviction).
There is an autistic gene carried within the male line of our family and I have written the character of Edward as though he may have been affected by this and not, I hope, entirely unsympathetically.
Fact and Fiction
I wrote this scene initially at Ribbesford itself but then found the family had already moved out to the rectory in Bewdley so reworked it. Where I could, I have respected documented dates.
This scene is very real to me, and I still have the pack of hand-painted ‘happy family’ cards which Evie tucks into her pocket.