Sunday, May 01, 2011


Past the Bounds of Time POST 4

Evelyn knew this side of her brother better than anyone except Flora Deacon, and was Sandy’s match in many ways. In one photograph, formally posed, she gazes into the distance, her back straight, her hands resting lightly on the back of a chair. Her eyes, almost identical to Sandy’s, are full of a mischief that even the formality of the pose cannot hide. She would be the recipient of most of Sandy’s emotions, including love and anger, and her life after his death must have had a great gap in it, a gap made wider by emotions she would have been forbidden to show. She looked a great deal like Sandy, and in one group photograph she is standing next to him, their heads tilted at the same angle, their smiles identical. She was known to carry a Mauser handgun in her purse, and she would later teach one of her sons to drive with one hand so that he could hold a girl with the other. This offers one small glimpse into Sandy’s character as well, since this girl was the one person he regularly chose to formally escort to public functions throughout his life.

To raise one child or perhaps two in the strict and puritanically religious atmosphere at Birkenhead, and have them conform as desired, is of course possible. However, it’s obvious that no household containing six children (with the occasional addition of cousins and friends and at least one child who stayed for an extremely lengthy visit) can ever be entirely contained. Willie and Lilian, even though they employed several maids, must have been severely tried at times in attempting to maintain a balance between pious discipline and normal childhood antics. That all six children would appear to have achieved adulthood with level heads and a keen sense of fair play is remarkable.

Lilian’s correspondence leaves us with the impression of a woman who would have had a fainting couch had she lived a half-century earlier, even with a full domestic staff. She would appear to have always been on her knees praying, and would write to her eldest son Hugh that she “never had any regrets or questionings about the right or wrong of letting Sandy go up Everest—it must be the answer to our prayers when we prayed earnestly about our decision to give him permission.” The permission was not technically needed as Sandy was an adult at the time, over twenty-one, but the letter gives us a glimpse into Lilian’s mind. “We prayed” seems to indicate that there was some sort of familial prayer over the decision, and shows clearly that this was a woman (and a family) who prayed about nearly everything. Most parents would sit down with their adult child and reason the expedition out, weighing pros and cons and determining whether that child was in fact serious and capable enough for the climb. The Irvines added “earnest” prayer to the mix. The date of this letter is not indicated, but from the wording it seems to have been written after Sandy’s death, and thus would further hold an element of self-justification, of Lilian reassuring herself that she had done the right thing. This would be the Lilian who lit candles in windows after her son’s death, in a show of vain hope and not a little regret that she hadn’t been emotionally closer to him. Turning to God and claiming that prayer led to a decision is certainly one way to soothe guilt.

Sandy and Evelyn were the most enterprising and inventive of the siblings, and the rest of the children were more their victims than anything else. There is precious little evidence of a “mature and composed” Evelyn here. Even elder brother Hugh did not escape, as they teased him mercilessly over his fear of heights. The teasing they themselves loathed was passed along. Anger, when spread, breeds nothing but more anger, and teasing—bullying—spreads from child to child even today when we are more conscious of the effects of this behavior upon others. Behavior learned from parents is insidious, passing from one generation to the next for good or for ill.

Practical jokes were a large feature of Sandy and Evelyn’s repertoire, and one can’t help wondering how they managed to get away with any of it. Punishment must have figured large in their lives, though no record remains of its nature. It’s quite likely, given Lilian’s personality, that verbal lashings and enforced repentance would have played large parts. Willie and Lilian were anything but physically demonstrative in any way, so corporal punishment would likely have been extremely rare. When Willie wanted to show displeasure at the state of Evelyn’s bedroom, for instance, he simply walked past it making retching sounds. Evelyn must have been humiliated. That sort of punishment is calculated to wither a child’s self-esteem, and would have gone hand in hand with the parental teasing to which Lilian complained that Sandy was “oversensitive” and may have been a cause of his “mood swings,” of which she also despaired.

Evelyn, as the only daughter, was expected to play maid to her five brothers—even though the family employed servants—up to and including folding their clothing and cleaning up their messes. It’s interesting that Willie did not retch his way past his sons’ bedrooms, and it’s hard to imagine that Evelyn’s bedroom was in worse state than any of theirs. It’s also not surprising that she had no time to tidy her own things. She didn’t always accept her fate with a smile, and no doubt gritted her teeth often. According to Alec, during World War I at the age of fourteen she “knitted endless yards of khaki comforters in the conservatory, and cursed Fate that made her a girl.” Cursed Fate not because she couldn’t join the fighting, though that may have crossed her mind, but because she was the unpaid maid and no doubt ached to be allowed out of the house. Sandy would one day write that he “always looked on her more as a boy than a girl” and it was always in Sandy’s company that her wilder side came out to the full. Evelyn once remarked aloud that she hated every one of her brothers. She was punished (it’s not known how) and the entire family, unsurprisingly, then said prayers for her forgiveness. The strict Evelyn who would force her own children to remain inside until a Psalm was perfectly recited was not the Evelyn Sandy had known. It was only after her brother’s death, after she married the stodgy Dick Summers (whom Sandy openly regarded as an incomplete man ) that the Lilian-like Evelyn emerged.

The boys’ education was of primary concern within the family, with very little mention ever being made regarding Evelyn’s scholastic life before the age of fourteen. The boys, most of whom would eventually excel in one sport or another, were quite obviously the lights of the family, and great hopes rested upon them. The early 1900s saw heightening global tensions as World War I approached with ever increasing speed, and the nations of Europe looked to their sons to uphold the values and safety of their countries. Girls were necessary to any war effort, but only in the sense that they were the home-based cheerleaders and supporters of the men in uniform, or else were nurses. Evelyn’s knitting of comforters was completely in character for the role she, as a wealthy young woman, was expected to play, even though she was only fourteen when the war began. It’s hard to picture a girl of fourteen knitting “endless” comforters, but for Evelyn to do anything else would have been unthinkable and seen as letting the side down.

In the early years of the twentieth century emphasis was always placed on a boy’s education rather than a girl’s, and most books and magazines reflected that strongly held bias. Adventure tales for boys were huge sellers, in particular “the adventure stories of George Alfred Henty, set during colonial campaigns and full of the deeds of young heroes.” Young British heroes, of course, and Sandy’s head must have been full of these tales as a young boy.

Also popular were such authors as Arthur Conan Doyle, James Barrie and H. Rider Haggard. Boys’ magazines did a flourishing business, and “Blood and Thunders,” the former Penny Dreadful pulp magazines of the Victorian age, sold rapidly. Attempts were made at wholesome entertainment as well, with magazines such as “Boys Own Paper” and “The Boys’ Friend.” These were loaded with morality tales, adventure stories and craft-making instructions. “Chums” “was another good, wholesome and well-illustrated journal that was thought by many to be the best available. It stressed the merits of outdoor activities and incorporated good, solid middle-class values into its stories. Heroes were upright and manly and always triumphant over rotters and cads.” “Punch” and “The Strand” were also hugely popular, and most homes that could afford to do so subscribed to both.

Sandy must have relished these magazines, and no doubt devoured the craft pages. Most boys’ journals carried detailed plans and instructions for creating a wide range of masculine toys, and with Sandy’s love of tinkering he must have had quite a collection.

Evelyn, and Flora Deacon, until a journal called “Girls’ Own Paper” came along, would have had very little apart from novels to read, as for girls “all that was available were trashy novelettes, full of silly love stories about aristocrats in their mansion.” And even then, “Girls’ Own Paper” “was meant for older girls and young wives and contained love stories.” Evelyn, although a tomboy, must have longed for more feminine things to read, things comparable to the journals and dreadfuls her brothers were reading. For novels, of course, girls like Evelyn and Flora had Frances Hodgson Burnett’s tales of young girls succeeding against all odds, and the fairy-tales of George Macdonald and E. Nesbit. And they would have had their scrapbooks.

The making of scrapbooks was all the rage among girls in Edwardian England, and publishers put out bound journals made especially for this hobby. Girls would drag out boxes filled with greeting cards and “sheets of special pages of colourful scraps that could be bought in newspaper and toy shops…” Pictures were carefully cut out and pasted artfully and skillfully into the scrapbook’s pages.

Collecting was also a big children’s hobby. All sorts of things were collected, and publishers and businesses deliberately catered to this obsession. Sandy would have had his pick among stamps, postcards, scrap sheets, and cigarette cards. These last were wildly popular, and collecting old cigarette cards is a huge hobby today.

Tobacco companies in America were the first to put collectible cards inside packets of cigarettes, and the craze soon swept to England. Jane Pettigrew noted that, by the turn of the century, “collecting [cigarette cards] was a very popular hobby, and the range [of things depicted on the cards] was extended further to include cars, motor bicycles, military uniforms and equipment, sports and sporting personalities,…beautiful women, famous explorers,…Scottish clans, ships, wireless telegraphy,…and characters from literature….Children stuck the cards into albums or special books that were printed by the card companies and which gave information on each page about the pictures…” It’s easy to picture Sandy carefully pasting the cards into albums. Players cigarettes were the most famous distributor of the cards, and Sandy couldn’t have known that, in 1925, his own image would appear in a Players cigarette card set. This set of 25 cards, devoted entirely to the 1924 Everest expedition, is highly sought after by today’s collectors, fetching today upwards of $400 US for a near-fine set.

Sandy and his siblings were taught their basic numbers and letters in the nursery. Children of their station were handed into Nanny’s care as soon as they were weaned, and remained under the watchful eyes of nursemaids until they were sent away to school at seven or eight. By five years old, “infants left the nursery and Nanny’s lessons to join the older children and the governess or tutor in the schoolroom.” It was while they were in this schoolroom that Willie Irvine came to tell the children about the outbreak of World War I. “After the first few years of lessons…in the schoolroom at home, wealthy little boys were sent away to ‘prep’ school at the age of seven, while their sisters continued their education with the governess at home, or were sent to private schools ‘for the daughters of gentlemen.’” I see no reason this wouldn’t have held true for the Irvine family as well as for Flora Deacon.

In between lessons in the nursery and schoolroom, wealthy families took holidays, and the Irvine family seems to have been perpetually on holiday while the children were little. Most of these vacations were spent in Snowdonia and surrounding areas in Wales. Willie rented places to stay during these trips, and they must have been fairly large places as the family traveled with their maids. During these holidays, Lilian forced her children, and any children staying with the family, to pay close attention to the scenery around them, flying off the handle at them if they were so careless as to speak amongst themselves instead. It’s difficult to believe that enforced enjoyment of the scenery could have resulted in any appreciation of that scenery whatsoever. One wonders what the maids thought of this, and there may very well have been a high turnaround among the Irvines’ domestics.

When he was ten, Sandy and his siblings stayed with relatives for Easter, and during that vacation he discovered what would become a lifelong love of writing. Flora Deacon, the only girlfriend Sandy would ever have, noted in her diary that he had written “reams” of things during his lifetime, apparently filling notebooks and journals, even trying his hand at fiction. He kept a journal during this holiday, and at first was completely unenthusiastic, but this didn’t last. Sandy wrote quickly all his life, ignoring the rules of grammar and almost all punctuation, and seems to have been always in a hurry to fill pages with his thoughts and experiences. Writing came easily to him, and his love of words spilled out passionately onto the page. When writing for publication—all expedition diaries and journals at the time were written for publication—he became more cautious, choosing his words and expressions carefully, hiding a letter back home to Flora (whom he always called “Effie” ) with the simple notation that he’d written to “F.” His voluminous letters, however, show a Sandy brimming over with the desire to get life down on paper, and caution was tossed to the winds. It’s a huge loss that no one today knows where those “reams” of his are, an even greater loss if their location is known but the writings themselves hidden from public sight.

Sandy’s education really began when he entered Birkenhead Preparatory School in 1910 at the age of eight. No mention is made of where his sister was educated as a small child, but all five Irvine sons would attend this school. A certain Miss Cox was the headmistress there. Sandy must have proven quite a handful, as he had to be “licked into tolerable shape” by Miss Cox’s “formidable band of colleagues.” Judging by Sandy’s escapades later in life, one can only imagine the behavior displayed at eight years of age that would have required licking into shape. It’s entirely possible, even likely, that Sandy didn’t really know how to act among other children than his siblings, and ended by behaving badly. His upbringing to that point would hardly have prepared him for a world where other children had been allowed to be simply that, children. Emotionally repressed at home, punished with disgust and prayer, the eight year old probably acted out those emotions at school.


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