|Artist Cornelia Parker bulldozed the family silver|
I remember little of the rest of the house; in those days middle-class children lived in their nursery quarters unless sent for at teatime... I saw comparatively little of [my parents].
At her grandmother's, “food was always seriously plain. Boiled mutton and semolina 'shape' were usual, and she wouldn’t allow me to have both butter and marmalade on breakfast toast”. One of their cooks “produced grey meat, potatoes boiled until they had a battered, furry appearance, and cabbage until it was almost colourless”. The family considered food simply as good plain fuel... the less said about it the better... Talking about food was considered to be what Aunt Ruth called “unnecessary”. In one of the family’s houses there was a billiard room and “a fiendishly cold little room called the gun room where the only telephone was kept”.
There was no one to whom I could talk about things that touched me most nearly.
News was nothing like so ubiquitous then: we were, perhaps, unusual in that we didn’t possess a wireless. I’m sure my parents took a newspaper, but it was strictly for them. So news was confined to the occasional guarded remark made at the dinner table. (This was just before the war.)
Her mother told her “People of our sort never make any fuss or noise when they are having a baby.” (Her account of giving birth in a posh nursing home is gruelling. Her baby was taken away immediately and then looked after by nannies.)
Alison Light reviews A Notable Woman: the Romantic Journals of Jean Lucey Pratt in the London Review of Books. (She laments that the diaries have been severely cut, and their grammar “tidied up”. Jean was a young woman in the 20s.)
In her stuffy home, crying in public is seen as vulgar; affection is rarely expressed. Jean is both pampered and neglected... Jean’s home life between the wars initially seems to belong to someone in a Betjeman poem ... [she attends] Conservative Club dinners in “pale blue georgette”.
[Jean learns] a finely tuned language of discrimination. What matters are the differences between the middle classes... Fitzrovia, where she rents a flat, takes a dim view of Wembley ... “I am still stamped with the stamp of suburbia.”
In Home Counties parlance, [workmen] are always diminutive, as in “a little plumber came today”.
[She longs to be rich enough to be free of the] “petty irksome little details” of life. [Later she ponders that life is made up of] “washing up, typewriters and shoulder straps”.
At college, she dismisses sex as of “minor importance” but worries that she is “oversexed”. (Oddly, that view was popular in the liberated 70s and 80s.) Later, she opines that “promiscuity is morally dangerous”. (In the 80s, the line was “It won’t make you happy”.)
Later in life, she’s embarrassed by her early “facetious” style (I’m looking forward to that), goes to a psychotherapist who has been affected by Eastern philosophy and advises patients to accept their lot (I bet he was a big help), and transcribes quotes from Marcus Aurelius about “renouncing the ego”.
Living alone in the country, she takes in paying guests, and then opens a bookshop, although the “snob in me” shrieks “Oh you can’t! You couldn’t!”. She refuses to sell tobacco, sweets and stationery (“Oh God! I will not descend to that level!”), but gets by thanks to her expertise in cat books.
Her romances come to nothing, her novels aren’t accepted, she publishes one biography, and hopes to be known for her diary. I’ve got a feeling this is one dream that will come true.
Pratt's family are an echelon or two below what George Orwell called the “lower-upper-middle-class”, his family’s shabby-genteel world peopled by clerics, servicemen and Anglo-Indian officials who were reduced to living on “virtually working class incomes”. As he wrote: "Practically the whole family income goes in keeping up appearances."
My own parents tried gracious living on a too-small budget. They couldn’t afford to heat the house, which was too big anyway, so it was always freezing in the winter. Bedrooms were unheated, and the hard, lumpy pillows were never replaced. Why didn’t we heat one room, put the telly in it, and live there? We were always being hived off into separate rooms. They were still trying to follow the “put the children in a nursery with a nanny and hardly ever see them” model. We really did hardly ever see them, apart from meal-times.
We ate off Georgian silver (inherited) but they were stingy about butter, sugar, jam and gravy. We only got water to drink, not milk or lemonade (that was for birthday parties). Of course they had to pretend that it was common to eat lots of butter or put sugar in your tea or be warm enough! Why didn’t we sell the silver and buy butter? Or eat marge?
Every meal had to be served up with proper china and tablecloths and a lot of stuff that was never used but just put on the table and taken away again (like side plates and small knives). It was supposed to, one imagines, make us happy – but instead it made us miserable. It took up our time and was too much hard work. We were trying to live as if we had fleets of servants when we had a daily and an au pair. Did they fear that if they stopped serving little curls of butter with a silver knife we'd end up pouring milk out of the bottle, using newspaper as a tablecloth? Oh yes, milk was always decanted into a jug, and vegetables were served in their own dishes – more washing up. We even dimmed the lights and lit candles when we were eating in the kitchen.
We couldn’t have tea without carrying the entire equipment of teapot, hot water, milk, tea cups and saucers, food and plates, silver teaspoons, on one tray from the kitchen to the sitting room. (Which is what a servant would have done.) We also couldn’t have a picnic at the bottom of the garden without pushing a bent trolley all the way there (squeak, jingle) piled with the whole above caboodle.
It doesn’t take three hours to prepare dinner. And it doesn’t take two hours to eat it and clear it away, either. That was five hours of every day wasted. And there was nobody around to impress, it was just us. I tried to protest, but got the answer "You have to learn how to behave in formal situations".
As we became more prosperous, the nonsense faded somewhat. We got a set of melamine picnic plates and bought shop cakes and had a new kitchen with a formica table top, and “Nightstor” heating, except we weren’t allowed to turn it up, or on very often.
It was about maintaining our class position – but was it worth putting ourselves through such misery? When my parents retired, they put the Georgian silver salt cellars and mustard pots and butter knives into a safe, and never opened it again.
More here, and links to the rest.