“Sorry to keep you waiting Mrs T. I didn’t mean to keep you hanging about in the attic with the spiders and the mice and the past.”
“Not to worry Mrs Wylie. I am sure its good load-bearing exercise, standing astride two rafters holding a flickering lightbulb for half an hour. It’s just I have an itchy nose from the dust an’ ma double directoires wi’ the reinforced gusset are jist about at ma knees. That elastic’s no’ whit it was.”
“Well to make amends, I have brought you a beaker of coffee and a piece of that coffee and walnut Mrs Macaulay brought for Books for Bolivia or somewhere. Or was it blankets? I forget. Not easy keeping up with the good works. It is a bit dry, she’s no baker. Hard to believe she’s Scottish sometimes, but of course I knew you wouldn’t mind.”
“I wouldnae have tae.”
“What’s that? It’s hard to hear down here.”
“I said a blind man would be glad to see it.”
“Not so sure about that, but it will keep us going until lunch. I took a couple of pieces out to Jasper and Mrs Dangerfield in the shed.
He is so pleased with her work. She is busy organising his stone balls that may have a ritual significance, you remember the ones the Hysterical found in Ravens’ Wood?”
“Who could forget! She’s certainly got her feet under the table.”
“Yes, nice shoes and such a good organiser and she’s a 120 a minute.”
“So I’ve heard.”
“I think I will come up and join you, here catch this Mackintosh Square.”
“Good thinking, sitting on these rafters gi’es you splinters in the bahookie. Now are yous sure yous can manage?”
“Aye, I mean yes. I have put on my ‘Slimma Slacks’ and tied a scarf around my head like Clementine Churchill in the last Unpleasantness. Here, take this torch it will give us more light.”
“Got it, grab my calloused hand; there you are.”
“I put off coming up here but we do need to check for infestations at this time of year especially moth. And Mummy’s old furs are in that wardrobe and I would hate to think of her beaver and muff under attack. They are old fashioned but full of memories.”
“I don’t doubt it! Ooh I think I have a walnut stuck in ma wallies.”
“Here let me look, with the torch.”
“Don’t make a fuss.”
“What was that?”
“Hair grip, got it, maybe a good idea to eat at the front.”
“I will look like a hamster.”
“Yes, but I don’t want you answering the door with a broken plate. The new minister is coming this afternoon to discuss how we can best run things.”
“I take it he has been in prison or a coma?”
“I rest my case.”
“Shall we explore over there? That old sideboard, looks interesting, I think it’s full of photographs. Oh no, it’s Grandmamma’s feathers and veil, she was presented to the old Queen, you know.”
“A bit like your Sebastian.”
“No, I don’t think so. She died in 1901.”
“Just a figure o’ speech. What about they old books?”
“Can you pass me one?”
“What is it?”
“The Lady’s Companion.”
“Mr T bought me one o’ those once, but you know me not the experimental kind. And when we were first married the electricity was a bit indifferent.”
“Well sometimes relationships take time to develop.”
“No, we hadnae paid the bill.”
“They are letters to my grandmother forwarded by the editor of The Lady’s Companion. It’s the correct address but they are addressed to ‘Dear Vera’. Well I never Mrs T! I think my grandmother must have been a secret contributor to early women’s magazines.”
“But I thought she couldnae even hear the word “leg” wi’oot faintin’.”
“Well that was certainly her public persona, it wasn’t the done thing for a lady to take an interest in anatomy, or come to think of it, much at all. Etiquette and accomplishments, like poring tea were all that was required. My grandfather would have been appalled to know that she was a secret journalist. He did not even approve of Ladies’ Reading Rooms in Circulating Libraries or come to think of it books.”
“Why don’t we take ʼem downstairs an’ have a look. We can look at the photographs another time and I need to put Mr W’s soup on a peep. He’ll be hungry after a morning with his balls.”
“Are you going to offer some to Mrs Dangerfield?”
“Certainly not! Anyway she’s one o’ they vegetable-terians.”
Well it seems my Grandmother was something of a dark horse and during the 1890s, had a secret life as a contributor to The Lady’s Companion – A Household Journal for Mothers, Wives and Daughters. This publication contained such things as practical advice and hints on ‘fancy work’, serial stories, poetry, health tips and also answered enquiries from correspondents. My grandmother seems to have written under a number of names, not only ‘Vera’ but also ‘Penelope’ and ‘Ninon’. Not only that she was also the ‘mysterious author’ of what are called ‘high class stories’ such as “In a moment of Madness,” and “Before the Dawn.”
There are “sultry days,” there is “trembling breathing” and “situations charged with electricity.” There are “moaning seas” and husbands represented by “dark threatening clouds.” There is even “divesting of wet garments “in fishermen’s cottages” and “fiery liquids racing through veins”, not to mention “gasping for breath” and Methodism – all priced at One Penny!
In many ways I can see how I have become a favourite contributor to The Glasgow Herald and ‘The Glasgow Lady’. It is in my blood.
Writing as “Ninon” in December 1896, my apparently stiff grandmamma that I remember, is giving advice on “Health and the Toilet.” Thus, she says that while it is the duty of everywoman to make the best of herself, this should be done “without calling on the aid of cosmetics that are only fitting for use upon the stage.” I suspect that this was something of a ruse in case my grandfather found out what she was up to.
This is strange as he was himself very fond of actresses and, being charitably disposed, did all he could to help them advance their careers. He could often be found outside the stage doors of the Glasgow theatres after performances to see if he could be of any assistance.
“Ninon” too was a giving sort of person and knew that she could help so many young ladies especially those with “flushing skin” which could be an embarrassment to those going out in society. Equally, “What is more unsightly than red hands, or more repulsive than a view of discoloured teeth should the owners otherwise pretty face break into a smile?” Her main point to those inflicted in such a way was to stay at home and avoid embarrassment – such wise words. Grandmamma also offered advice on hair washes to redheads “who have much to endure in the shape of ridicule.” This clearly came from the heart as she was herself a red head (now of course so very fashionable).
In many ways my grandparents worked as a team improving the health of Glasgow although they did not know it. Grandfather would go out of his way to be of service to blushing actresses with red hair and even discoloured teeth. Presumably, this was why he always advised Delores and Doris from the Tip Tap Troopers to politely “keep your mouths shut.”
Practical tips to avoid “running to the doctor for every little ailment” was clearly important to Grandmamma in her guise as “Ninon”. On the question of “itching,” of which she had some experience if memory serves me correctly, she advised the use of “benzoated oxide of zinc ointment, with lanoline and carbolic acid”. A bath of warm water and sulphuric acid was reserved for the worst cases, by which point it was presumably too late to do much.
While my grandfather was a great believer in the raising of an eyebrow combined with raising his top hat outside the variety theatre. “Ninon” was not, believing that raising eyebrows was not such a good idea and led to wrinkled foreheads. When I look at my grandfather’s photograph it makes me smile and think that in his frockcoat, with his dark moustached visage, he could almost have been a pantomime villain, if he were not a church elder.
With regards to the treatment of wrinkles, “Ninon” shared a “secret recipe” (clearly secret no more) from the Still Room of Josephine, who was well known as The Empress of France and even better known as the wife of Napoleon. Josephine would pour boiling milk on to violets and when it had cooled washed her face with it.
She was also fond of Strawberry Water. To make this, bruise 4lbs of fruit in a gallon of water. Let it stand for 12 hours, then filter through fine muslin, adding half a pint of spirits keeps it from fermenting. A tablespoon of the lotion should be poured into a basin of water.
No wonder the bold Napoleon would often greet the Empress, (when she appeared in her best housecoat and fluffy mules) with the words, “Not tonight Josephine”. It must have been like sleeping in Malcom Campbell’s, the greengrocer and fruiterer of choice in the West End.
“Mrs Wylie, soup’s ready. It’s pea an’ ham wi’ well fired rolls. Mr Wylie’s jist washin’ his hands. Maybe he’s stabbed Mrs Dangerfield. No sorry wrong, she’s peelin’ a banana on the swing hammock. Pity.”
Really! I do not know what Mrs T has got against that woman. Anyway, I had better go, perhaps next time we can explore a little more of my grandmother’s world. It as after all a little glimpse into the Second City of the Empire in its heyday when Mrs Leech’s Obstetric Binder and Hypogastric Lifting Belt was under every bombazine dress.
“Coming Mrs T, don’t you think we should invite Mrs Dangerfield in? That looks like hail.”
“Aye, big as Bronze Age stone balls; she’ll be fine.”