“There is no place like London”: Elizabeth Girling to Elizabeth Aytoun, July 1939

1939.7.17 - from Elizabeth Girling snr to Elizabeth - 1

This very crumpled letter, typed in red ink, is from the original Elizabeth Girling, Frank’s mother, to her future daughter-in-law, then still Elizabeth Aytoun. It was with a number of other letters to Elizabeth from 1938, but I think it is actually from July 1939 – partly because in July 1938 Frank and Elizabeth had only just come back from Spain, and so it is unlikely that the two Elizabeths would have been on such familiar terms at that point, and partly because the letter refers to Frank’s application for a teaching post, which another summer 1939 letter (not on here yet) mentions.

It’s lovely to have this insight into Elizabeth Girling (my great-grandmother)’s life – as I think I have mentioned before, many more of Elizabeth (Aytoun)’s papers survived than did of Frank’s, and so I have a much clearer sense of Elizabeth (Aytoun) and her family’s life at this time than of Frank and the Girlings. I think this might actually be the first of Elizabeth Girling’s letters I have seen; certainly, I don’t think I have ever had such a strong sense of her personality before.

I always knew that she was left-wing, and very interested in (and involved with) politics – my great-aunt (Frank’s sister) told me a few years ago that, as a young woman, her mother had been a suffragette (and had met her future husband while protesting at a polling station), and I recently found a flyer for her 1945 campaign to be elected as a Labour councillor for Newcastle. But for some reason I always thought of her with her eyes very firmly fixed on Newcastle, so it is surprising to hear her describing it as “dull” (and that she and her husband “live for” weekends away in the countryside), and describing their recent trip to London (and various Australian friends) with such zeal. “There is no place like London” is a sentiment that I often express myself – although I don’t have any fascinating Australian friends there, living on Warwick Avenue, in a flat furnished with “amazing bargains”.

These Australians – Vivian and Basil – are perhaps the most intriguing thing about this letter. Basil: a retired Australian bank manager, about to head to Russia; Vivian: a journalist for the Australian and New Zealand press, “very amusing” and “quite good at monologues”; both of them fresh from 9 months overland from Australia, and “keen to spend the rest of their lives working for the working-class movement”. Who were they?

[UPDATE: I have had a few suggestions about the identity of the amazing “Vivian”. Fraser Raeburn suggested that she might be Vivian Pynor who, earlier in the 1930s, had written a series of articles about life in Russia. She and her husband had both travelled extensively, including in India and Russia, and were “on the left”; she sounds absolutely fascinating, and I wish it was her – but as far as I can tell, her husband was called Henry, and worked as an architect (not a banker). They had both lived and worked in Moscow in the early 1930s – whereas Vivian’s husband was about to go there, alone by the sounds of things, in 1939. It seems more likely that Vivian and Basil were in fact Vivienne and Basil Newson, as suggested by Sarah Tullis. Basil Newson worked for a bank, while Vivienne Newson (née Dobney) was a journalist and editor, who declared in 1938, “‘I have always been a feminist”. She was involved in the United Associations of Women, Open Door International, the Council for Women in War Work, International Women’s Day, International Peace Campaign and Spanish Relief. From 1938-1941 she and Basil “made a world tour” – and “family letters reveal that she enjoyed life in London” (I would love to see these, and wonder if they mention the Girlings at all…).]

Transcript (divided into paragraphs for readability) and better images below.

Continue reading “There is no place like London”: Elizabeth Girling to Elizabeth Aytoun, July 1939

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Aunt Teedee’s gift of a “living wage”

I have been reading and thinking a lot about Virginia Woolf lately, and so reading this letter this afternoon brought to mind the various ways in which Woolf describes women helping other women – help without which any individual female achievement would be impossible. The help Woolf describes ranges from the practical (the £500/year left her by her aunt) to the intellectual; she imagines the great feminist, suffragette and composer, Ethel Smyth, as a “pioneer”, clearing the way for woman after her:

She is among the ice-breakers, the window-smashers, the indomitable and irresistible armoured tanks who climbed the rough ground; went first; drew the enemy’s fire; and left a pathway for those who came after her. I never knew whether to be angry that such heroic pertinacity was called for, or glad that it had the chance of showing itself.

1937.6.14 - from Aunt Teeddee - living wage- League of Nations - 1

1937.6.14 - from Aunt Teeddee - living wage- League of Nations - 2

The help offered to Elizabeth by her “Aunt Teedee” (her father’s sister, I think) in June 1937, falls firmly into the practical category, however it is no less touching for that. Having left Oxford the previous summer, Elizabeth still had no set career – although clearly she wanted one – and had no immediate plans (or desire?) to marry. She had been active in politics at Oxford, and when she moved to London at the end of her degree she seems to have become involved with the N.U.W.M. (National Unemployed Workers’ Movement – I will post something about this soon). By June 1937 (when she received this letter), it seems that she was working for the League of Nations Union – an internationalist organisation, committed to the principles of the League of Nations (ie international co-operation with the aim of avoiding another world war) – in what must have been an unpaid capacity (I seem to remember my grandmother telling me that she had worked for the League of Nations itself, so it may have been this, rather than the Union that she was working for – hopefully future letters will bring clarity!).  Presumably, like many recent graduates, she didn’t know quite what to do with herself – especially, as someone who cared so much about politics, in the context of fast-moving domestic and international events. Or perhaps she knew exactly what she wanted to do, and was going about it the best way she could.

This was almost a year after the beginning of the Spanish Civil War, but it seems like going there wasn’t yet on Elizabeth’s horizon at this point – however, it would nevertheless have  been becoming increasingly clear that (nationalist) fascism and (internationalist) socialism were competing for the future of Europe. Meanwhile, Britain was blighted by high levels of unemployment – and by the consequences of this in a pre-welfare state – and so the work Elizabeth did, both to agitate for the cause of the unemployed (with the N.U.W.M.), and to support an internationalist organisation like the League of Nations, reflects some of the decade’s key issues.

However, the family narrative (from Elizabeth’s side of the family) was always that she was headstrong and a bit flighty, and that her politics were driven primarily by a desire to spite her mother. It is wonderful, therefore, to come across this letter – to realise that she had (female!) relatives who took her seriously,  and who, furthermore, supported her in concrete terms – such as with this birthday present of two weeks’ wages to continue her work at the League of Nations (/Union). It isn’t quite in quite the same league as the legacy left to Woolf by her aunt (which allowed her “a room of her own”) – but for Aunt Teedee, a middle-aged, middle-class, single woman, with only a small income of her own, it is a hugely generous gesture, and one that speaks of belief in Elizabeth’s capacity to do great, useful things (“a future strenuous life”), as well as tacit solidarity with her ambitions. Thank you Aunt Teedee!

Continue reading Aunt Teedee’s gift of a “living wage”