Saturday, 29 May 2010

My mother's letters #2 - Edith's story

A while ago I wrote here about my mother's thirty-year correspondence with members of our family in Australia. I'm still working my way through the file, which holds copies of all the letters, papers and mementoes she's kept in that time. Today, tucked into one of many plastic wallets, I found a transcript of some notes taken by a man called Maurice Hugh Pointing during a visit to see his cousin Edith Frances Payne in 1951. On one side of paper, he had summed up a period of life spanning more than half a century, encompassing alcoholism, war, death, fortune and misfortune, with the odd passing reference to unsuitable marriage and behaviour. I'm not sure I've understood all the links between different incidents and people, but it does seem to me that there’s a whole book in just that one sheet of A4.
Edith’s story
Edith Frances Payne was born in 1880, the second of Joseph and Popsy Payne’s four children.
Joseph Payne was a Commercial Traveller for a soap firm. It wasn't a successful enterprise. When the firm went bust, the family placed themselves at the mercy of Grandma Pointing (Popsy’s mother) and her sister Elizabeth, and went to live with them at their home ‘Capuchin Lodge’ in Winchelsea.
When Aunt Elizabeth died in 1903, she left £200 each to Grandma, Popsy and Joseph.  Joseph drank Popsy’s share (presumably in addition to his own). Shortly afterwards, when the family moved to a new house in Rye, he was admitted to a home for inebriates.
Edith’s brother Harold was killed in the First World War. The insurance money paid out on his death was enough to buy ‘Rosslyn’ the house they had previously been renting in Rye.
Edith’s sister Alice died just before Christmas in 1949. Alice had been a Governess, working with a number of families, before taking in pupils at Rosslyn. Alongside the money earned by Alice as a governess, and whatever Edith generated through needlework, the family income was supplemented to the sum of about £220 a year from an inheritance bequeathed to them by an old lady they had ‘been kind to’.
Their brother Herbert had been a piano-tuner. He was still alive in 1951, but living in a 'home for Aged Folk'. He was separated from his wife Gertrude, whom Edith deemed ‘not suitable’. Herbert and Gertrude had four children, and although Edith thought they too were ‘not very suitable’, the three surviving children were destined to be the beneficiaries of her will.
In 1951 when Edith, aged 71, talked about her memories to her cousin Maurice High Pointing, she was still living at Rosslyn in Rye, but she had weak knees and couldn’t walk without help.
I haven’t worked through enough of Mum's letters to understand what relation any of these people are to me.  I know that my Grandfather, Mum’s Dad, was called Roy Payne, so this must somehow be a link to his family. But what strikes me most is how a family history can be summed up in a few bald lines. By reading a couple of totally dispassionate paragraphs, I've discovered that my ancestry includes a failed salesman who turned to drink, a young man who went to war and never returned, and various 'not suitable' family members. There's no hint there of the heartache that Joseph must have caused his family, or the difficulties those women must have encountered and overcome to move away, build a new life and keep going. Though I'm a little disappointed that I haven't yet found any statesmen or poet laureates among my forebears, I'd like to think I can at least recognise a familiar female trait of resistant persistence.

8 comments:

Elisabeth said...

You're so fortunate, Sharon to have these letters, and to be able to get a glimpse into the lives of your forebears with such clarity.

This is the stuff of a writer's dreams.

Talli Roland said...

I agree with Elisabeth - how amazing to have all that material at your finger-tips!

Charlie said...

A goldmine, that's what it is, a treasure buried within its pages. How wonderful to know where your roots extend.

Perhaps a computer program such as "Family Tree" would help you sort out the relationships. It is time-consuming, but not unlike putting a pleasant picture puzzle together.

Eryl Shields said...

This is brilliant stuff, as Elizabeth says: 'the stuff of a writer's dreams.' I guess the more you read the more you'll make connections. I want to be called Popsy Payne.

Sharon Longworth said...

Elisabeth, Talli, Charlie, Eryl, I know you're all absolutely right - they are a treasure. I just wish I didn't feel so daunted by them. It's a strange feeling - wanting to do right by both Mum and my long-dead former family members; not knowing how, or even if it's ok, to blend the facts with an element of fiction. I guess that's the dilemma that biographers deal with all the time. Perhaps this is how I'll learn to be a writer.

Friko said...

During my visit here I have scrolled back to previous posts, I really like your writing style.

When i first started blogging I wanted to get some family memories and my own history on to the page; I did that and I am still at it but in between other bits get posted too. I see that your blog is very similar.

I shall be back regularly.

Madame DeFarge said...

I do wish that I had something like this to look back on, bu tragically not. I hope you get to the bottom of it all and then you can tell us all about it.

Philip said...

I think you have a genuine treasure and that you are very lucky that it has fallen to you. I also think you have what it takes to do it justice. So. Do. It.
Love and no pressure at all,
P.