Nicola here. Today, 7th January, is St Distaff’s Day and I am writing in praise of aunts. I expect a lot of us may have been back at work a while but in the past the 7th January was traditionally the day on which everyone went back to work after the Twelfth Night holiday. It took the name St Distaff’s Day because it was the day on which we ladies were supposed to be picking up our spinning once again, the tool of the trade for women being the distaff to spin flax. From the trade of spinning comes the word spinster, a recognised legal term for an unmarried woman. The spear side and the distaff side were legal terms to distinguish the inheritance of male and female children.
In a roundabout way this brings me on to aunts since a stereotype is the spinster aunt. In the news yesterday was a new book by a parenting guru who is emphasising the importance to young girls in having an aunt to confide in. Aunts may be young or old, fun and feisty, old-fashioned or trendy. (I hope that as an aunt myself I have never been the embarrassing type of aunt although there was an incident once when I took my niece to the zoo…) They can also be someone in addition to parents who can help with the pangs of growing into adulthood and still provide a sounding board when a child is grown up. I am very fortunate in possessing two aunts by marriage whom I value highly. They are completely different characters but they are both wise and loving. And of course an “aunt” doesn’t have to be related. She can be a godparent or a friend and honorary relation.
These days, experts suggest that the breakdown in communities and the geographical spreading out of families has cost children dear. It was different when families traditionally lived more closely together or when unmarried or widowed female relatives went to live with their extended families. Back in the 19th century an aunt had a very important role to play. Elizabeth Branwell was aunt to the Bronte children and after her sister died she went to live with them and help raise them and keep house at Haworth parsonage. Known as “Aunt Branwell” Elizabeth was devoted to her nieces and nephew and Branwell in particular doted on her. Elizabeth’s influence also included introducing her nieces to reading subscription magazines (Charlotte wrote of how she read them “by stealth and with the most exquisite pleasure.”) Elizabeth also treated her nieces and nephew to trips and outings, and financed their business ventures.
Jane Austen was also someone who considered the role of aunt to be important. She was aunt to her brothers’ children (including Fanny Knight, pictured) and her letters suggest that she enjoyed her role. Aunts also play many and varied parts in her writing. Anne Elliott in Persuasion is aunt to her sister Mary’s children and is reaching the age where she might be considered a “spinster aunt” or on the shelf. Mary finds her useful and is no doubt quite put out when Anne ups and marries Captain Wentworth and can no longer be used as an unpaid nursemaid and governess. Mrs Gardiner in Pride and Prejudice is a friend as well as an aunt to Elizabeth, a listening ear and the one who provides the good advice that Mrs Bennett does not. Miss Bates is a faintly comic aunt but when Emma makes fun of her Mr Knightley rebukes her. Lady Catherine de Bourgh is a monster of an aunt and Lady Russell is an honorary aunt to Anne Elliott.
Fictional aunts come in all shapes and sizes. There are the overtly comedy aunts like Charley’s Aunt “from Brazil where the nuts come from.” Perhaps the tradition of the comedy aunt arises from the poverty and lack of status that so many unmarried women had in history, dependent on the charity of their relatives and considered to be innocent of the facts of life because they were unmarried. There can be an element of cruelty in the way these aunts are mocked in literature.
In Wench Anne’s recent wonderful post On Old Ladies she mentions PG Wodehouse’s books and Bertie Wooster’s endless supply of aunts who make his life miserable by demanding that he do something useful. These are comedy aunts at their finest.
In my own books I have created some aunt characters of whom I am particularly fond. Lady Ottoline in The Last Rake in London is a tartar but with a kind heart. She admires the heroine’s feistiness and becomes her greatest advocate. In other historical romances I have enjoyed it when the heroine is a spinster aunt who does not expect to find love because she thinks she is on the shelf, or a widow who does not expect to fall in love again.
I am lucky enough to be an aunt to three nephews and one niece and whilst my role is different from that of some 19th century aunts I hope that I can provide a nice cup of tea if needed, a shoulder to cry on, probably not fashion advice to either sex but certainly a listening ear if it’s required. I enjoy taking both my niece and nephews out, babysitting for the younger ones and giving them treats and presents every so often. The relationships have certainly enriched my life and I hope they will help them too.
Are you an aunt – or uncle – or do you have your own aunt or honorary relative who has provided advice and treats and a listening ear? Do you have a favourite literary or fictional aunt?