My only smidgeon of a literary ancestry appears in the slight figure of my great-aunt Edith Miles (1898–1977; on my mother’s side of the family), who from 1929 published a succession of novels “for girls”.
Along with my granddad (also wonderful) and two other siblings, Edith grew up in Potterne, near Devizes.** Their father, Thomas Draper Miles, was the village craftsman bootmaker, last in a family line said to go back two hundred years. And that may make a distant connection with my work on rural artisans in China…
Here’s a remarkable photo of my great-grandfather (d.1946) taken by Edith’s other brother Charlie, probably in the 1930s:
I don’t know how the Great War affected the teenage Edith, but there was evidently something of a studious air in the house at Potterne. Apparently my Granny used to say that visiting there was a trial because all they did—even during meals—was read books!
Edith went on to qualify as a teacher, and from 1920 she taught in the East End of London—what a contrast from rural Wiltshire! She must have begun writing stories then. What kind of music would she have heard? I wondered if she might have became at all politicized—there’s no hint in her novels. Indeed, I now learn that she corresponded with George Bernard Shaw; and her brother Charlie was an ardent socialist (a rare breed around Devizes, I suspect, though the Liberals were gaining ground). I imagine how Edith might have gone on to emulate not Enid Blyton (born a year earlier) but (for example…) Vera Brittain (who lectured for the League of Nations in the East End in the 1920s) or Stella Gibbons (who didn’t—although she was a wry observer of rural–urban contrasts…).
Meanwhile, after the militant suffragette movement had been put on hold to support the war effort, women over the age of 21 were eventually given the right to vote by 1928. Surely Edith must have come into contact with the movement in the East End, but alas we have no inklings.
But then a cruel blow struck. In 1927, after seven years of teaching, a bout of scarlet fever resulted in the gradual loss of her hearing. A letter from the London County Council, dated 20th April, states:
The School Medical Officer is of the opinion that the state of your health is such as to render it necessary for you to give up your School duties in London.
In these circumstances you should not resume your duties after the Easter holidays.
On 27th April she received a handwritten testimonial from the Rev. Wilfred H. Abbot in Haggerston, E8:
In the whole course of the seven years no single complaint of any kind has ever been made by parents or children against Miss Miles and her work.
No higher recommendation could ever be given about anyone at the present day when parents and children are so apt to find fault [sic!—SJ]. I am quite sure that Miss MIles will always prove herself efficient in any work that she undertakes. We part with her with great reluctance.
The authorities provided Edith with a modest superannuation allowance, but she must have been devastated at her abrupt turn of fate. As a door onto a world that had been opening up for her was abruptly slammed back in her face, she retired back to the family home at Potterne.
The spotted book, the first of her eleven novels, was published in 1929. I am most attached to the copy of The red umbrella (1937) that she gave me; it enjoyed considerable success, running into several reprints. Well, more success than my books on north Chinese ritual, I trust… Perhaps the chapters (“The postman”, “The chimney-sweep”, The baker”) subtly prepared me for writing the lives of ordinary people.
The girl chums of Norland road is a fine title too. I’m not sure if I can also count such works as my feminist ancestry… Over the other side of the world, we shouldn’t neglect the role played by the wives of household Daoists in Yanggao villages .
Visiting Auntie Edith in Potterne when I was little, she seemed as quaint and exotic as the old house. She fitted the bill for what, thankfully, is no longer known as a “spinster”, “maiden aunt”, or “old maid”. A certain spark in her eyes hinted at her alert sense of humour, though even I could pick up an inevitable air of sadness. While she could lip-read, there was a youthful frisson for me in passing little notes across the kitchen table to help us communicate.
Having hardly thought of her for several decades, I now find myself moved both by her fate and by her equinanimous resilience. I also discover further fanciful connections. I was too young to articulate the thought, but the im-p-pediment of my stammer must have made me identify with her (another link to my work with blind shawm players in China?). And looking back, I feel that her enforced isolation made her seem pleasantly unworldly, before I dabbled in the hippy values resisting the growing consumerism of the 60s.
Strangely, I know a lot more about Li Manshan’s family than about my own. Now that I learn of the tribulations of my Chinese mentors through the period, and the convulsions of Europe, I wish I knew more about Edith’s experiences—a bright rural girl setting off to teach in a tough bustling urban environment, later to become a solitary single deaf author in troubled times, striving to eke a living by writing from her silent house in a little Wiltshire village.
With thanks to my uncle John and cousin Mark for precious material.