Sunday, 20 May 2012

Starting from the beginning...and leaping forwards

What makes anyone choose one direction as opposed to another? Why does one person follow the customs of their cultural group and another choose to not to? I've been fascinated with why and how Isabella ended up going against the flow: what made her decide that the traditional path of marriage and child-rearing was not enough for her and gave her the motivation to train as a doctor?

What do the documents reveal? Birth certificates, census returns....

Born in 1887, Isabella was the first of the family, her birth certificate shows that she was born in Rosslyn Crescent, Leith. And you can see it on Google maps even if you can't get to Edinburgh.

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I was so excited when I found this out, I instantly searched a bit further. Lo and behold, her father's grain merchant business was only a few blocks away in Springfield Street. Not much commuting for him.

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The 1891 census confirms the address, but by 1901, they had moved to John's Place, not far away.

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Isabella lived there with her parents and her three sisters as well as Rose Clyne, a cook, kitchen maid and domestic, and Georgina Burns a house maid and domestic. 

While the 2011 census was taking place, I heard a play about some Edinburgh women who decided that if they didn't exist for the purposes of electing a government, they wouldn't exist for the purposes of being counted in the 1911 census. They hid and held secret parties to avoid the count. So imagine my excitement when I found that in 1911, only William, Janet and one of the girls, Bethia, were at home in John's Place. Were Isabella, Janetta and Ena amongst these activist women?

Hoping they were, I searched further for the sake of integrity. I was quite disappointed when I eventually found them. Janetta was in another house in Leith. Good social life? Sleep-over just like nowadays? But where were Isabella and Ena.....At last I tracked them down. They were in Newtown, where William's brother had a farm. So nothing thrilling that proved secret suffrage leanings, but evidence instead of family ties. Life instead of romantic dreams. But here's a teaser for next time: in the 1901 census, all the girls are described as Scholars. Where, why, how common was that at that time......

Friday, 11 May 2012

The marriage is announced between....

I've just checked online, and even today, marriage announcements often follow a standard format:

Mr. and Mrs. Bride's Parents
are proud to announce the marriage of their daughter
Her Name
Mr. Groom's Name
on Saturday, June 4th, 2011

I found the marriage announcement for Ena, Isabella's sister, first. A fortnight after Isabella's wedding, this notice appeared in the Scotsman for Ena's marriage to Tom.

Mind you, I guess it is a bit different. First: Location, date, then the reverend conducting the ceremony, the groom, identified by his parentage, then the bride, also identified by her parents.

When I eventually found the announcement of Isabella's wedding, I was excited. Hers was different, and choosing to do something differently, to go against the flow of tradition gives a clue to your motivation and personality, doesn't it?

Yes, first there's the date, then the location: granite built St. Giles, quiet in the midst of central Edinburgh.

Imagine Isabella and Hubert coming down the aisle on that October day....

But back to the announcement; they've kept the details of the reverend conducting the ceremony and putting Hubert first, but he is identified by his army title and regiment rather than by his parentage.

And as I looked further down the list of announcements for that day, I saw that there were lots of men choosing to identify themselves by their military positions. After all, it was 1919, and the War was very fresh.

And then comes Isabella, and this is the big difference; she is identified by her status as a doctor rather than as the daughter of Mr. and Mrs. Stenhouse. Yay, I thought, I see a glimpse, an indication of her feminist leanings - she wants to be regarded on her own merits rather than simply as the child of her parents.

But then I found other distinctive announcements, and thought, "Oh, she's just following a different convention." But it did matter after all, these announcements were by male doctors, who placed their medical degree instead of their parentage. I think Isabella was saying, "I have done what they did, I am as good as they are, and I will tell the world about it." Not many women would have been able to tell the papers to put that little 'M.B., Ch.B (Edin)' in their marriage announcements that year. I can't find where the figure is but I think there were only about 1300 women doctors on  the Medical Register in 1919.

Saturday, 5 May 2012

Magic carpet

Somewhere in the flat where Isabella came to live, she stored her beads.  Who knows if she ever looked at them? But there was one reminder of those long ago days that she passed every day, for in her hall there was a rug. A boring rug patterned in shades of brown. It had short, scratchy fur and a photograph of her late husband gazed down at it.

If photographs could talk, what would he have said? Because he was credited with having damaged that rug by slicing it with his sword while he was cutting the wedding cake.

Well, why cut a cake with a sword? It obviously wasn't a good idea, since it had made such a mess of the rug. He'd left a great grey patch where the pile was so short the rug was almost bald. Did the fluff get into the cake? And where was the cake when the sword missed it so dramatically?

How about a magic carpet ride back in time to October 1919, when Isabella married Hubert? She was back in Scotland after her adventures, a truly romantic ending to a long journey.

Tuesday, 1 May 2012

Untold stories

Tonight there's a programme on television where celebrities are going to discover the histories of their military ancestors. They'll hear tales they never heard before.

"They didn't talk about it," seems to be what older people say of those they knew who had served in WW1.

I've started re-reading 'Forbidden Zone', a book by Mary Borden drawn from her experience of running hospitals near the Front Line in France. I found it in the Wellcome Library bookshop, sat down with a coffee to read it and didn't move till I'd finished. I guess the fact that it left me speechless reflects its indescribable content.

 "To those who find these impressions confused, I would say that they are fragments of a great confusion. Any attempt to reduce them to order would require artifice on my part and would falsify them. To those on the other hand who find them unbearably plain, I would say that I have blurred the bare horror of facts and softened the reality in spite of myself, not because I wished to do so, but because I was incapable of a nearer approach to the truth," she writes.

She dedicates the book to the poilus (wounded French soldiers) who "know not only everything that is contained in it, but all the rest that can never be written."

Like these others, Isabella doesn't seem to have spoken to anyone about her war service or her medical career. She stopped practising in the mid-30s. But 50 years later, when she died, her son and daughter had to write to the Medical Directory to inform them of Isabella's death. 'Doctors submit their contact details for inclusion in this publication in a voluntary basis,' states the website.

If that was me, it would represent a latent pride in my achievements, a longing for them not to be forgotten. Of course it may be more likely that she forgot to tell them to take her name off, but I'd far rather imagine her pride carrying on right to her frail old age.

Question: What dictates the things we keep silent about?