Queen Victoria died in 1901, but her eponymous era lingered on. Then, according to responsible witnesses, in 1922 or thereabouts—Boom!—it was all over—except in isolated time capsules like my great-grandmother’s house. There, her daughters, my grandmother and aunt, both born in the 1880s, kept a version of Victorianism going well into the 1970s. And what do I mean by Victorianism? Well, the Australian philosopher D. C. Stove, speaking from his own experience, said that a young person in the Victorian era lived in a sensation of darkness, stillness, enclosure, and, above all, of weight or pressure. Young people felt as if they were about to suffocate. All they could think was, “For God’s sake let in the air and let me out!”

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Bessie and Frank's wedding portrait

Hannah and her Prince had three daughters. One of them was my grandmother. Here she is with her trolley conductor husband on their wedding day, 1902.


Chapter Six—A Version of the Queen

I’m not sure how old Hannah was when she left Aspatria or when she found George, but she was 25 when they married in 1882. That was fairly old for a bride in those days, but George had led her on quite a chase. He was not unhappy to be caught, however. He and Hannah shared an Englishness that made them different from the Americans surrounding them. And possibly even more important, she was shorter than he was. Not many American women were. But Hannah’s great adventure had used her up. Her first question after the ceremony was when were they going home. George tried to explain. He had a business and some budding investments. She would have none of it. There was a certain fixed amount of money in the world, and he, who by rights was no better than most and hardly up to a junior clerk or a policeman, had somehow managed to get hold of some of it—probably irregularly. (She knew how slippery he was.) But be that as it may, he had it. So the best thing for them to do was to get while the gettin’ was good.

Kansas City was a boom town after the Civil War—a cow town, a wide-open, honky-tonking, merchandising mecca. Bawling cattle from Texas filled the pens of its stockyards. Skinny, bitter refugees from the South filled its streets. The city’s largest newspaper called itself, “The Voice of the Lost Cause.” Jesse James, his brother, Frank, and dozens of other Confederate bushwhackers who had refused to surrender, were roaming the countryside, robbing banks and trains. Freed slaves were arriving from the south. Mexicans were riding in from the west. And immigrants from Europe were stumbling off trains from Chicago.

In the 1880s, the chief sources of immigration to the United States shifted to Southern and Eastern Europe. The conventional assumption is that the English were already here. But George and Hannah weren’t, and their stories, too, belong to the epic of late nineteenth-century immigration. George loved America. He bought books of American history to learn about his adopted country. He responded to the openness of American society, to the creativeness of American capitalism, and to the kindness of his neighbors.

The story I was told is that he approached one of Kansas City’s grandees, August Meyer. Meyer liked the little English tailor and agreed to back him. The result was the “Chicago Steam and Dye Works.” It boasted a sewing room, an office where George did his accounts, a shed in back where the hand laundry was done, and a pit filled with gasoline where the clothes to be dry-cleaned were dipped.

In those days ladies took their white gloves back to the department store where they bought them to have them cleaned. George had all the glove business from Emery, Bird, Thayer, a department store that occupied a full block on Petticoat Lane, the city’s main retail thoroughfare. He’d stop by there every morning for the soiled gloves.

He got to know other up-and-coming young fellows: the jeweler, Walter Jaccard, and the brewer, George Muehlbach, among others. He took flyers with some of them. One of his friends wanted him to invest in a silver mine in Mexico. He went to look at it but decided to pass. He opened a real estate office instead and put most of his money in second mortgages.

But the free and easy ways of George’s new American friends discombobulated Hannah. She told him that while she might not have his schoolin’, she’d worked at Brayton Hall. So she knew quality when she saw it, and those loud, swaggerin’ friends of his weren’t it. She was particularly unnerved by American women—the way they went striding about, taking up space, and carryin’ their own packages! None of them knew how “to act proper.”

She was convinced that all George’s friends knew that she had been a scullery maid. She thought he must have let it slip. He went about in a daze half the time, that one. Having been condescended to back in England, she was not going to be condescended to now that, thanks to George, she’d come up in the world. So she gave as good as she got. She sneered right back at those she was convinced were sneering at her. Tailors, clerks, dirty engineers, and Jews—Nobodies! “That was the lot! America? Ha!”

Hannah was not a good mixer. George set her up on a small farm at the far end of Ninth Street. There she kept a cow and some chickens and dyed her Easter eggs the proper way, by wrapping them in the skins of red onions and then boiling them.

Like the Catholic immigrants from Ireland and Eastern or Southern Europe, Hannah found it difficult to adjust to American life. But their solution could not be hers. They stuck together in their own neighborhoods where they could speak their own languages and leave it to their children and grandchildren to become Americans. Hannah couldn’t do this because her problem was one of class, not ethnicity. People like herself (the “under-servants”) were the very people she wanted to avoid, so she had no one like herself to turn to for comfort or assurance. And to complicate matters further, what she wanted to become was not an American but “a lady”—like the ones back at Brayton Hall.

In spite of Hannah’s disdain for his friends, George continued to prosper. When the expanding city overtook his suburban farm, he sold it and bought a house at 16th and Brooklyn. Later he moved his growing family to a larger house at 30th and Woodland.

Hannah resisted every move. She asked if he thought he was made of money. She declared that there was no reason to move! His free and easy ways with money scared her.

The house on Brooklyn had indoor plumbing. Hannah didn’t think this was necessary. The house on Woodland had indoor plumbing and gas lights. She thought all this newfangled technology was foolishness. But once George got her into that house, she reveled in her new domain. She assumed her rocking chair throne and became her own version of Queen Victoria.

In 1901, her oldest daughter, Mary Ellen (named after Hannah’s sister back in England) asked for permission to marry Mr. Bryant—a very suitable man. Hannah graciously consented. They married on May 26, 1901. Then, her second daughter, Bessie, my grandmother, eloped with a trolley car conductor, a very unsuitable man! She was 19; he was 28. They married on January 26, 1902. Hannah was furious, and in high Victorian style, told Bessie never to darken her door again.

Hannah “had gone to the brink of the grave” three times to bring three daughters into this world. She had expected them to be her comforters and companions. Now one was married. One had run off. Only one was left. If she lost her, she would be all alone. (George didn’t count. He was off doing business all day.)

Her remaining daughter, Nettie (“Nemie”), was the youngest and prettiest of the three girls. She was also the good daughter. So in 1910, when Hannah told her to pack up and go to Albuquerque, she went, and she stayed there for six months.

For years I assumed Hannah sent her there for her health and that she stayed in a tuberculosis sanitarium. But I have found a postcard she sent home with a return address that reads, “521 Silver Avenue, Albuquerque, New Mexico.” Now, George was supposed to have gone to Mexico at one time to see if he wanted to invest in a silver mine. Did he actually go to New Mexico and stay at 521 Silver Avenue? Was the owner of that house a friend or business acquaintance of his? Is that why Nettie stayed there? I have photographs of Nettie picnicking in New Mexico with other young people. Who are they? How did she meet them? She was not the kind of person who made friends easily.

According to my mother, Hannah sent Nettie to New Mexico to keep her from getting married. In 1910, Nettie was 23. From then on her chances of becoming a wife would decline rapidly. So a girl of 23 might do something impulsive, like consenting to be married without first getting her mother’s permission. And there was one particular suitor that Hannah had her eye on. Upon learning that Nettie had suddenly left town, the young man asked Hannah for Nettie’s address. She informed him it wouldn’t be proper for her to give him her daughter’s address. But he wrote Nettie a letter anyway, and asked Hannah to forward it. She promised to do this, but burned it instead. And the next time the fellow showed up, she informed him that he’d been spurned—that Nettie had no wish to see him or to hear from him ever again.

How did my mother know all this? She was only six years old in 1910. Her mother, Bessie, may have told her. Bessie had reasons to resent and to gossip about her spoiled younger sister. But Bessie was not a confiding person. More likely my mother simply overheard enough gossip as she was growing up to piece a version of the story together.

Once the persistent suitor was out of the way, Hannah summoned Nettie home and convinced her that she (Nettie) had a weak heart. It was so weak she would never be able to meet—significant look—“the requirements of marriage.” She said no more, not wishing to embarrass the girl. But no more needed to be said. Nettie believed her. What kind of girl would doubt her very own mother? And Nettie never saw a doctor about her heart, because Hannah also told her that there was nothing a doctor could do about it.

A few years later, to console Nettie for her looming spinsterhood, George bought her an automobile, a four-door sedan. But Nettie’s main consolation was “her condition.” She loved being “delicate” and was perfectly content to be taken care of by her domineering mother and her indulgent “Dapie.”

A few years later, the delicate Nettie went jaunting off to California to see the Panama Canal Exposition, which ran from March of 1915 through 1916. I’m sure she didn’t go alone, but I don’t think she went with her sister. My mother would have been 11 or 12, too young to be left alone. Her father was too irresponsible to look after her, and Hannah would not have volunteered. So maybe Nettie went with one or two of her girlfriends.

Hannah, seated in her rocking chair throne, enjoyed Nettie’s subservience, received financial tribute from George, and negotiated with Bessie, who was petitioning to get back into her good graces. She was surrounded by her treasures, imperishable (and thus improved) versions of natural objects: painted cast-iron door stops in the shapes of cocker spaniels and of baskets of fruit; metal vines that spiraled up around floor lamps; chairs with ball and claw feet, and teacups painted with never-fading flowers. The teacups were kept in a breakfront cabinet along with other collectibles. And on the mantle, a clock. Its face was set into the side of a bronze well—the Well of Haran—and on the base stood a bronze palm tree and the bronze figures of Jacob and Rachel.

Everything in that house seemed to be growing out of its basic shape. The rooms were dim and stuffy—tightly sealed against “a body’s” two main enemies: the night air (which Nettie used to say, “gets into a fella’s lungs and jus’ stays there”) and the dreaded draft. When I was a child, I thought that house was like a mausoleum—not that I knew what a mausoleum was, but I’d seen that word in books, and Hannah’s house brought “mausoleum” to mind.

I think Hannah and George made at least two trips to England and took Nettie along. The first trip, according to my mother, took place, at Hannah’s insistence, shortly after George’s fortune passed the 25,000 dollar mark. At that point, she felt as rich as a lady. She brought back gifts. My mother received a pair of shoes. I found one of them when I, myself, was a child and thought it must be for a largish doll.

“No,” said my mother, “not for a doll. For me. But they never fit.”

Hannah assumed the shoes would fit my mother because (like a lady) she assumed that reality always corresponded to her conception of it. She was tiny. All the people she’d grown up with in Aspatria were tiny. It followed that her granddaughter was tiny, too—or should be. The shoes have brown leather tops with a dainty rosette on the instep and a strap to go around the ankle—an incredibly thin ankle. But on closer examination, they are not shoes as we think of them. They are clogs. The leather is tacked to a single piece of wood, more or less shaped to fit the bottom of the foot. And nailed to the bottoms of those pieces of wood are two narrow metal rails, one on the sole and one on the heel. They are curved like horseshoes, with the open end, in each case, facing the instep. Those rails must have helped a person walk on soggy ground but they also turned those shoes into weapons. All the “unsentimental, unforgiving” citizens of “Spatry” wore clogs.

Now since Mary Ellen was born in 1904, and since the shoes are for a child who was able to walk and not for an infant, her grandparents’ trip to England may have taken place in 1906 or ’07, when she was two or three years old. If so, how much was George’s 25,000 dollars worth in 1906 when a pound of bacon was 20 cents and quart of milk seven cents? There are a number of ways to figure this, but if we restrict ourselves to a comparison of income and wealth, the historic standard of living value of 25,000 dollars in 1906 would be $688,000.

George died September 12,1929, a month before the stock market crash that introduced the Great Depression. I assume the crash diminished his wealth. However, there was enough left to support his widow in her accustomed style until she died in 1937, and his two daughters until they died over forty years later. During that time neither daughter was employed. Indeed, Nettie was never employed. (Ladies don’t work.) And although they must have inherited a substantial sum, they never learned anything about money. Their idea of an investment was to put money in savings accounts. Nevertheless, when they died they still possessed a modest amount of capital.

Hannah was a third-class passenger when she first crossed the Atlantic and, as such, was permitted only so much luggage. Now, as a first-class passenger, she brought back to America the things she’d been forced to leave behind: her Bible (ten by fifteen inches), three wooden boxes made in 1840 by her uncle Joe, and her childhood book, Jenny’s Geranium.

Hannah moved up socially in America, but this was not entirely satisfying to her because in her mind she was still locked into an imaginary contest with the ladies in the country house where she had been a scullery maid—a skivvy.

She had been willing to risk going to America to find George in order to say goodbye to all that. But in her new country, she continued to resent and envy “the ladies” back in England. She wanted to be an aristocrat, too, like them, which is to say she wanted to be a person who could do anything without even trying, a person who didn’t have to do anything to be somebody. She wanted to be a person who simply was somebody because she had been born somebody.

Hannah passed on her feelings of self-importance and timidity, of ruthlessness and sentimentality, and of ignorance and determination to her daughter, Bessie, who altered them in response to her own experience. Then Bessie passed them on to her own daughter, my mother, who altered them more extensively in the light of her broader experience, and she passed them on to her children: my sister, and my brother, and myself. We dealt with them in different ways in the light of our own experiences, but none of us dreamed while we were growing up that our lives were being influenced in untraceable ways by attitudes, dispositions, and assumptions that had originated in response to events that had taken place long before we were born and in another country.