Annie Matthews, My remarkable grandmother.
This David Lockwood’s magnum opus. It tells the life of his grandmother built up from the stories that she told him when they lived together in Winchester during the second world war. When the hotel business went bankrupt the family moved to Winchester to join Annie’s daughter Kit and her husband John. During the war they lived in a rented house whilst his uncle John Barlow was serving in India. David enjoyed his grandmother’s company and stored away her stories for future retelling.
The story starts in London with Annie’s mother, Marianne, going to Yorkshire to marry a school master Benton. They had a fresh, young love that Is depicted rather romantically. Annie’s mother is soon pregnant and then has three children, Annie, William and Edith. Annie is the oldest and is shaped by the hardship that engulfs the family when her father dies of TB. She is 9. Her mother then takes jobs to provide for her family, first she works as a nurse in Stanley Royds asylum, then she takes a position as assistant matron in Wakefield prison. This job comes with a house so the children grow up next to the prison but also under the benevolent eye of the prison governor. Annie is bright and able and does well at school soon progressing to become a pupil teacher. However sacrifices are made for her brother William. He always wanted to be a sailor and rebels at school even the boarding school for Yorkshire boys that his mother found for him in London. When he was 16 Marianne paid for him to have a commission in a ship and go to sea. His mother was enormously proud of him and his sea chest, his sailor uniform is captured beautifully in a photo but he then never contacted her again. Later there was news that he had deserted his ship in Australia, which would have caused Marianne shame and embarrassment.
Annie develops her own career as a teacher. She did not have formal training but was offered a position as an English teacher in a girls school in Leiden. She is keen to travel and moving to work in Holland seems to have been an accepted way of broadening one’s horizon She seems to have thrived in Holland and David conjures up the Leiden canals vividly. He also captures the way in which she grew and learnt to teach whilst at the school. He also captures the constrictions that can exist in small schools. She acquired an admirer, a very eligible bachelor nobleman. He sees her at a dance and then pursues her with flowers and letters, but these are intercepted and there is an angry scene when the school heads accuse her of undignified behaviour. She in turn was furious that her letters were opened. She also builds u a deep friendship with a Dutch pastor and his family. He seems to have taken a deep like to Annie and they went on long walks and had deep philosophical discussions. She was so close to this family that when Francois Haaverschmidt became very depressed Annie is called to talk to him and encourage him, later on when she was escaping from an unwanted courtship in Germany she fled to the sanctuary of their home. After a few years Annie had learnt all she could from the school and had outgrown the narrow work environment so moved on to Germany to work in a very wealthy family there. With the family she went to the mountains and also travelled on the Rhine. She again acquires an admirer, this time a senior military man, brother of her employer. He makes advances and she then flees back ti the safety of the Haaverschmidts. in Holland. From here she goes to Den Haag where she works for the von Prens, another wealthy family with a young daughter Kitty. Here Annie matures into a beautiful woman , as part of the family she enjoys the lifestyle of a wealthy continental with dinners and balls in Paris, Brussels and Den Haag. Here the master of the house falls in love with her and this time she reciprocates emotionally. This unattainable love produces huge tensions for them both. Von Pyrn’s love is visible when Annie developed diphtheria and almost dies and is saved by the application of a chinese herb to her throat which enables her to breathe. However she realises that she cannot stay in Den Haag and so she joins her sister Edith in Scarborough, Yorkshire. At this point Annie is still not married and we are 450 pages into the narrative.
In Scarborough she takes up a position as a companion to the alcoholic Mrs Matthews and meet her son Frank who is just setting up a hotel business. Annie sees a solid man in Frank and marries him. It does not have the passion of her love in Holland but it does have the steadiness of Yorkshire. She thrived developing the hotel. supervising staff. Having just the right words for guests., They also had Hds three children, Kit, Nancy and Alan. But whilst at the hotel she was encouraged by Frank to just spend as she wanted. She seems to have initially been responsible but then enjoyed spending large amounts on furnishings and clothes. She was always immaculately dressed and seems to have dwelt on the details of every dress in her descriptions to David. They became prominent members of Scarborough society, Frank becomes mayor Frank then developed an oral cancer and after several local removals needed more extensive surgery and went to London and died shortly after a major operation in 1926. There had been no succession planning for the hotel business so Alan, the son, was called back from his engineering career to run the hotel. He had no aptitude or enthusiasm for this unwanted burden. But even worse he failed to control the finances. Annie had always been permitted by Frank to buy what she wanted and to decorate the hotel in the latest fashion. The combination of the Depression, poor management and high expenditure e lead to the hotel failing. In 1938 the business went bankrupt and the family moved down to Winchester. Here they lived with Annie’s daughter Kit who was married to an Indian Army officer John Barlow. The families moved in together, this created disastrous tensions between john and Alan which were partly relieved when John rejoined the Army at the outbreak of war. The family stayed in Winchester during the war, Nancy worked in Winchester College as an assistant matron and David and Annie spent much time together. In 1940 soldiers from the Dunkirk evacuation flooded into the city, Annie was as practical as ever and bought and distributed note paper to the troops so that they could write home. It was during this time that she talked to him about her life, She must have done so with a vividness that captured his imagination. She then developed heart failure and died in Feb 1948.
The book is two novels and a memoir. David must have been entranced by his grandmother’s tale of her life which she related to him after the closure of the hotel and the move to Winchester when they became very close and supported each other during the war. The Victorian tale tells how she had to make her own way in life because of her father’s early death and she became a governess; she worked hard and rose up her professional ladder from a small ladies school in Leiden to being the governess for a very rich family in Den Haag. She was clearly very adept at learning languages, she was fluent in Dutch and German. She was also clearly very personable and in each place families took her to their heart, the Haaverschimdts in Holland and then the Van Prens in Den Haag. At the latter she enjoyed the late 19 century life of balls and dinners in The European capitals. But she was also vulnerable and in each family seems to have been too close to the man of the family and had was passionately in love with van Pren and it seems that it was reciprocated. But as a Victorian woman she would also have been very aware that even though she was a highly regarded governess she was still a servant. This would have been one of the forces pulling her back to Yorkshire. The Edwardian tale is of a woman who made a decided choice in her marriage and then became a successful hotelier. She was successful because of her ability to manage a large organisation which she did with charm. She had an excellent design sense and the hotel must have been a beautiful place to visit, also she made the guests feel welcomed. She and Frank were obviously stalwart members of Scarborough society. But she was excluded from the financial side of the business and also there was no succession planning , when Frank died the family were surprised although his throat cancer had been becoming more difficult to treat.
David writes fine evocative descriptions of the places where Annie lived and he imagines conversations which must be built on what his grandmother told him. The book is strongest in the Victorian and Edwardian sections when he is describing her life as a governess and then as a hotelier. He also always has affine sense o f the clothes that she would have worn and evne how she would have moved. The bankruptcy of the hotel is glossed over and poorly described. The book which is rich in detail in the first two thirds is much weaker in the last section and it does feel unfinished.
Review by Diana Lockwood