Great-aunts

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My great-aunt Maud was a maiden lady. Young men were in short supply when she grew up, unconscionable numbers of them having been killed in the First World War. My grandmother hinted indeed that there had once been a curate vaguely in the offing; if so, nothing came of it and he offed rather than offered. I have a feeling that Maud was earmarked by her mother as the daughter who would stay at home and care for her parents, and to this end was over-protected and discouraged from any adult autonomy.

Maud – or Madeline Maud Bellamy Higham, to give her her full name – went up to Cambridge in 1916, to Newnham, where she wanted to read English. This, however, was not permitted. Her mother feared she would be exposed to much unsuitable smut and nastiness in English literature; Maud was thus steered into reading History instead. In History, after all, decent veils could be drawn: if a Pope had illegitimate children they were at least always politely referred to as nieces and nephews. After coming down from Cambridge, she dutifully returned home. And after her mother’s death she continued to keep house for her clergyman father. I am sure she arranged flowers in the church, presided over parish sewing groups and did whatever else was expected of a country vicar’s unmarried daughter in the 1920s and ’30s.

As the bird flies back through time this is not so very long ago. Yet the habits and assumptions of Maud’s restricted youth now seem as alien to us as if they belonged to a far more distant past. When she left university it was without a degree, since women were not awarded the title of a degree at Cambridge until 1921. However, degree or no degree, Maud became a teacher in the small market town where her father had his parish. One might well imagine her teaching her younger charges to recite by heart the multiplication tables, making them memorize the dates of the Kings and Queens of England, instilling Christian principles and telling them Bible sto

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About the contributor

Petrie Harbouri settled in Greece immediately after leaving Newnham and is both a translator and the author of three novels, Graffiti, Our Lady of the Serpents and The Brothers Carburi.

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