Here is chapter three of my novel Christobel, wherein the titular heroine (and she really is – a heroine, I mean) makes her first appearance, through her diary, which is being read by her great-great-grandson and namesake Chris and his girlfriend Frieda. Christobel’s story is told in counterpoint to and in parallel with Chris’s present-day one.
Two more minor characters appear: Mrs Eliza Staunton and her daughter Juniper, who had bigger roles in my novel Forebears.
Chris and Frieda find Christobel’s voice from the past fascinating. Feel free to peek over their shoulders. If you’d like to begin reading from the beginning of the book, please go the post Angels in the family.
Chapter 3: the Journal
24th July, 1895
The day before yesterday I decided to begin keeping a journal. So yesterday I went to Benningfield’s the Stationers and bought a nice notebook with a beautiful marble-paper cover, and a new pen and some brown ink, and here goes! I think I might illuminate it with watercolours, to brighten it up, because I do like to do my painting too. Mrs Ackeroyd at school opined that I had quite a talent for it, which was encouraging. I would rather like to make a career as an artist, but it’s a very difficult thing for a woman (yes, I’m nearly a woman!) to gain employment doing so. I’m expected to “marry well”, to a respectable gentleman like a doctor or lawyer or some such, and keep a good home and provide lots of children, and not have aspirations to earn a living, like a man. But I somehow don’t see that as my destiny. I suppose it’s the influence of Mother’s radical ‘Suffragist” campaigning.
Mother thinks it an excellent idea that I keep a diary. It will be something to hand down to my children and descendants, she says; the words of Christobel Farley preserved for posterity! Well, perhaps, but I’m probably destined for a very dull, unremarkable life. I don’t have Mother’s political zeal. Yes, I share her religious faith and want to work for the common good, for humanity, but doing what? Unless I find something really notable to do, I can’t see the people coming after me, my grandchildren, or their grandchildren, being really very interested in my trivial, plodding life.
But I’ll keep the journal, all the same. It will be an enjoyable thing to do, at least. I perhaps won’t write every day; won’t make it a relentless, day-by-day record of the minutia of daily living here in sleepy, rather dull Sleaford. I don’t think that would be endlessly fascinating for the reader! So I’ll write just as and when events occur which I deem worthy of note, or of expressing an opinion about.
So here goes!
Well, that’s the end of my school days. I am no longer a scholar! I finished at Ackworth Quaker School last Friday when the term ended, and Father, because he still doesn’t think I’m grown-up enough at the grand old age of 16 to travel alone, brought me back from Yorkshire on the train. One can travel all the way from Ackworth to Sleaford now that the railway connects the two places, although you do have to change at Doncaster and then again at Newark. But things are so modern nowadays. You can travel from anywhere to almost anywhere else in England (and a lot of places in Scotland and Wales too, they say) on the railway now.
Father thinks that in the future, the railway will probably go out of fashion because many people will have the new “horseless carriages” which are being developed. I don’t know about that, really. I believe they are very much slower than locomotives, for one thing, because they have to be preceded by a man waving a red warning flag, so Father says. It would take a very long time to get anywhere, I think!
‘No, you’re wrong there, Great-Great-Gran,’ Chris said to the faded, sepia-tinted pages lying in his lap. ‘Your story will be fascinating, I’m sure.’
‘Yes, it will’, Frieda agreed. ‘Because it is from so long ago, now. Over one hundred years. And it is also interesting for me because it is a foreign person speaking, which adds an extra dimension.’
‘Yeah, and also it’s interesting because it’s from the time before that dreadful first war when, I suppose, Britain and Germany were completely at peace.’
‘Mm; it certainly puts a different aspect on things when you consider that, doesn’t it? In fact, the German and British royal families were related, of course. Queen Victoria had a German mother, Princess Victoria of Saxe-Coburg-Saalfeld. And then she married Prince Albert of, er, Saxe-Coburg and Gotha, I think it was. So yes, there was relative peace in Europe because most of their children married into European families, several of them German.’
‘Well it didn’t last, did it? You know a lot more about royalty and history than me, Frie. Why did it all go so badly wrong?
‘I don’t know. Well, the war started as a result of Archduke Franz Ferdinand being assassinated in Sarajevo of course, but why our countries had signed alliances against each other, in spite of those ties of royalty . . . it seems so stupid.’
‘Yes, it really does. It took another dreadful war and then the EU, perhaps, to finally bring peace.’
‘Mm. Well shall we read some more of the journal, or shall we go to sleep?’
‘Let’s read a bit more, shall we?’
29th July, 1895
We had a visit today from Mother’s friend, Mrs. Eliza Staunton. She came accompanied by her daughter Juniper, who is five years old and a sweet little child. Of course, the conversation quickly moved to the subject of politics, because both Mother and Mrs. Staunton are “Suffragists” as well as Quakers. They got to know each other at the Meeting House, and Mrs. Staunton converted Mother to the “Suffragist” cause.
They really do believe, and I think they are right, that there should be universal suffrage (that means the right to vote) for both men and women. It seems difficult to imagine such a thing though, as even men, if they don’t own property, have not got the right to vote. So I think it will be a very long time indeed before all people, including women, can vote too.
But Mother and Mrs. Staunton are resolute in their belief that it will happen, one day. Well, perhaps when the century turns in five years’ time, radical changes will slowly begin. Perhaps it will take the start of a new century to provide a catalyst. Mrs. Staunton says that the problem is, the movement is still too diverse, consisting as it does of relatively weak local groups with little power of persuasion, in spite of The National Society for Women’s Suffrage, which hasn’t been a very unifying force. She thinks there needs to be a much stronger umbrella organisation, and there will have to be action more strenuous than simply lobbying M.P.s to try to get Private Members’ Bills passed, which rarely happens.
Then they talked about Juniper’s education. Unfortunately, Mr. and Mrs. Staunton are not financially able to send her to boarding school, as Mother and Father did me (Mr Staunton is only a booking office clerk with the railway company, not a businessman like Father). So Juniper will be attending Sleaford Board School, but she will be a very bright scholar; at least, so Mrs. Staunton insists. Juniper already reads quite proficiently, she says. She has been giving her home tuition since she was three! But then Mrs. Staunton sounds as though she’s quite an educated lady, in spite of her relatively low station in life compared with Mother and Father, so Juniper is getting a lot of encouragement. I wish I’d had the same encouragement in that way from my parents, but then I really shouldn’t complain. After all, Father did send me to the Quaker school.
Then Mrs. Staunton turned to me and asked, “And what do you want to do as an occupation now you’ve left school, Christobel?” Being progressive and radical in her outlook, like Mother, I don’t think it occurs to her that I’d want to settle for simply being a married woman, a wife and mother.
I had no ready answer. “I don’t really know what I want to do” I replied, “although I’ve toyed vaguely with the idea of becoming a governess, and passing the benefits of my expensive education on. And being a governess is certainly a very respectable occupation for a woman. It’s far better than working in a factory, and probably better than shop work too. It would be more stimulating for my brain, I should imagine. But I really don’t know.”
Mrs. Staunton said, “Yes, it would be better than either of those things, and you certainly do have the intelligence for it. Although most people do have to do those things of course; they are essential jobs. But there should certainly be better conditions, and better pay, and shorter working hours. But you are fortunate, Christobel. You can aim for better things.”
“Well,” Mother put in, “you should take your time and give the matter a lot of careful thought.”
Mrs. Staunton nodded agreement. I’m sure they are right.
‘Yes,’ Frieda murmured, ‘she probably was very lucky to have had a good education. Not everyone would have back then, in either of our countries.’
‘Mm; you’re right. But she didn’t become a governess, according to Gran. So what happened there?’
‘Well, we will have to read some more to find out.’
‘Right. One more entry then?’
‘Yes. This is fascinating!’
7th August, 1895
Another visitor arrived today, from London. Well, a member of the family actually, so not really a visitor. It’s elder sister Mabel, who is home on holiday for a week. She’s a nurse at St. Thomas’s Hospital, having been there nearly a twelvemonth now. So she had lots to tell us and Mother and I were “all ears”.
As a matter of fact, I have thought briefly about nursing too, but I think I’m put off by the thought of all that dealing with sick people, many of whom die, all day long. It must be quite depressing and sometimes upsetting when they do, especially young people and children, I should imagine. But then the poor people do have to be looked after. It’s our Christian duty to do so.
But that’s not the case, it seems. Mabel (who’s 18, two years older than me) says she’s really enjoying it. She started as an Assistant Nurse Class II at the Fever Hospital in Grantham when she was 15, rising to Class I before applying to St. Thomas’s for the post of a qualified charge nurse. I asked her if the job was very arduous, because I remember her saying that it was at Grantham, that it was little more than skivvying: scrubbing floors, cleaning bedpans, laying fires and so on.
She smiled. “No, St. Thomas’s is quite different. For one thing, it’s much more modern and advanced than the provincial hospitals; Grantham, at least” (and here she sounded just a little snooty and condescending). “And it has the Florence Nightingale nurses’ training school, after all, so it produces nurses of the highest calibre. And for another, I am now fully trained, so obviously I have more responsibility. There’s much more medical care involved in the work now. There’s still a lot of bed making to do, and serving food (and sometimes actually feeding it if patients are very weak), and washing, bathing and attention to all the patient’s needs, no matter how intimate, but there’s also the administering of medicines and enemas and changing of dressings, poultices and such like. Even assisting at operations, if you want to do it and aren’t squeamish.
“And there’s the laying-out of patients who die; preparing them in dignity to meet their maker. But when they get better, those that do, and eventually leave hospital, it’s so rewarding, it really is.”
“And you don’t get upset when patients die?” I asked.
She became sober for a moment. “Well, yes, sometimes. Of course I do. You have to be professional and detached to some extent, otherwise you couldn’t do the job. But sometimes you become quite attached to them; you can’t help feeling sorry for the poor suffering souls. However, death is all part and parcel of nursing and God’s will; you just have to accept it.”
“Yes, it’s such a Christian thing to do,” Mother put in. “I’m so glad you chose to do it, Mabel. After all, nothing is more important than compassion, helping our fellow man in their hour of need.” And here she cast me glance pregnant with an unspoken question.
Mabel told us that her career prospects were good, with her salary climbing steadily towards a maximum of £24 per year for a charge nurse, but there was the opportunity of further advancement to the post of sister, or even matron in due course. The pressure definitely seems to be mounting for me to become a nurse too!
‘Yes,’ Chris said, ‘I can imagine that she would have been pressurised. There seems to be quite a lot of peer as well as parental pressure there.’
‘Mm,’ Frieda agreed. ‘Particularly, I suppose, as the family was so religious and, er – what’s the word? Meaning doing good?’
‘Is it? Yes. Thank you.’
‘Well, that wasn’t a factor in my case, with my crazy upbringing. There wasn’t a lot of religiousness floating around.’
‘Heathen!’ Frieda was beginning to grasp the banter of British humour.
Chris chuckled. ‘Yeah, you’re right. Shall we have just one more entry?’
‘All right. Just one more. I am becoming sleepy.’
13th August, 1895
Mabel has returned to London and her work. I quite envy her for her zeal. She does seem to have found her pathway in life. During her few days’ stay she regaled us many more times with enthusiastic and sometimes inspiring stories of medical and nursing care at the forefront of medical practise at a top London hospital. And there have been more not very subtle hints from her and Mother (and even Father, to my surprise) about my following in her footsteps.
Well I must admit that I’m giving it very serious thought now. I do want to do something with my life that benefits society and is humanitarian, rather than simply educating the pampered children of the well-off.
Events in our wider family seem to be conspiring to re-enforce my thoughts. Two days ago my cousin Edwin died in the Fever Hospital in Grantham. My cousin Josephine called yesterday to tell us the sad news It was consumption, she said (Mabel told us the correct name is tuberculosis). He was only 19, poor young man, which is a cruelly young age at which to die. It has brought heartbreak to Mother’s sister’s family.
Josephine said sadly that he received good care and great kindness at the hospital, as good as could be offered at least, given that the doctors and nurses there had to protect their own health. But unfortunately they could not save him and after a long, wretched illness, in spite of their best efforts, he died.
I think that has almost made my mind up. I would really like to become a doctor, but that’s probably just a silly girlish dream. Those roles are nearly all reserved for men although Mother says that if universal suffrage comes one day, things might change.
But becoming a nurse like Mabel is much more feasible. It’s something to seriously think about.