In praise of the maiden aunt

By Allix Denham 

One of the reasons I believe I’m so comfortable with my non-parent status is that, growing up, I was surrounded by childfree relatives. My father had three maiden aunts, all of whom were born in the late 1800s. Two lived together in eccentric poverty on their wealthy brother’s estate, another with her widowed sister. As a young child I never questioned these women and their lack of families, I just accepted them as they were.

Cecelia, or Cissie, as we knew her, was particularly terrifying. She wore her hair in a short bob and was more interested in her yappy canine companions than in any of us, serving us dog-licked biscuits with our tea, while barking out orders to her gentler and frailer sister Josie. In her youth, my father assured me, she was an extremely beautiful woman who turned down several marriage proposals.

She, Josie and two of their sisters, including my grandmother, worked as governesses in the Russian court of the Tsar, having to flee during the revolution. Their lives struck me as glamorous and dramatic, a world away from my prosaic 1970s rural upbringing.

I especially admired Cissie, this strong-willed young woman who felt no need to conform. She went on to become a masseuse, regularly visiting Kensington Palace. Grander than the royals, she once took my father along, letting him wait in an outer chamber and instructing him to bow should anyone enter.

I have no idea who her client was, but during this time the residents included Helena, Duchess of Albany, her daughter Princess Alice and the widow Victoria, Marchioness of Milford Haven, who was Prince Philip’s grandmother. This collection of women inspired Edward VIII to refer to the palace as ‘the aunt heap’.

The First World War, of course, created a generation of widows and spinsters, who became known in the popular press as The Surplus Two Million, for whom marriage and motherhood were no longer an option. Statistically, by the end of the war, a girl of school-leaving age had only a one-in-ten chance of getting married. What were they to do?

Some flourished, developing careers they might otherwise never have dreamt of, even rising to a position in the cabinet or member of the privy council. They became the first women solicitors, barristers, judges and mayors, as well as stockbrokers, dentists, research chemists and shop keepers. During this time, London Zoo got its first woman curator.

Some women turned to each other for love and physical relationships, to the extent that a 1921 bill to outlaw lesbianism failed because MPs decided the issue was best swept under the carpet. In fashionable London nightclubs, bolder women danced cheek-to-cheek, while some chose to dress in a masculine manner.

Others lived quietly and respectably together, with no-one thinking anything of it. These women had no choice but to remain childless, and were neither judged, criticised, nor blamed for their situation.

Today we’re lucky to be able to live as we like, choosing to have careers, families or both. We have our maiden aunts, or The Surplus Two Million, to thank for that.

Allix Denham is a writer currently based in France. She and her partner have no children, but entertain the neighbours’ cat on a regular basis.

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