steepholm (steepholm) wrote,

Of In-laws and Bike Tours

I'm beginning to sort through the family papers...

The good news: my grandfather, Montagu Christie Butler, was an organized man, who clearly anticipated the requirements of future biographers, and against that day put his affairs in order to the extent of typing out documents of interest and sorting them into stout manilla envelopes, divided year by year and in some cases by month by month. At the moment, I'm looking at the material leading up to his marriage to my grandmother Amy in August 1911.

The bad news: most of these documents, including their love letters, are in Esperanto. I may have to make another effort at learning it.

The good news, Part II: Google Translate is certainly good enough to get across the gist, and MCB helpfully glosses some of the letters in red type.

One serious problem early in their relationship appears to have been the class difference - or at least, the usual in-law tensions seem to have found a focus there. Amy's family was not well off. Her father, John Ferguson, had been a printer from Glasgow, who moved to London and married Alice Cook, the daughter of a wheelwright. Unfortunately John died young, and while Amy's brothers took on fairly low paid clerical jobs, she and her mother and sisters turned to dressmaking to make ends meet. She and MCB were already engaged when, in October 1910, her older brother Wally died of typhoid, in the wake of which her mother broke down, dying a month later. (At that point Amy was 25.) A niece followed within weeks, and her younger brother Charlie early the next year. So, in the spring and summer of 1911, I can see why she might have been feeling vulnerable, not least in the area of family.

It was at this point that MCB's brother Guido made some ill-judged remarks, the exact nature of which I'm still trying to determine. Either he "swanked" about the Butlers himself (MCB's word), or else he accused them of swanking. Whatever he said, it put Amy right off meeting MCB's extended family. MCB's immediate relations weren't very imposing: his father, Thomas Robinson Butler (whose school memoirs I've written up in this LJ), was a humble curate, and their means were modest - but there were rumours of grander Butlers around every corner, all of them ready to look down their collective nose at poor Amy.

The first sign of trouble came when MCB's aunt Annie Robina died in March 1911, and Amy stayed away from the funeral for fear of humiliation. After that, with the wedding just months away, there was increasing pressure to meet the relatives, and MCB took it on himself to persuade his fiancée that she'd got the wrong end of the stick. Here's an effort dated 7th June, which an older MCB has ominously glossed "A little rift within the lute"...

Mi ja deziras, ke miaj parencoj sciu, ke mi edzigos. Mi estas tre fiera pri tio, kaj aparte kiam mi memoras, ke la edzino estos Vi. Kaj mi ne vidas ian kialon, ke la edzigo estu sekreto. Pri la kuzoj en Reigate, mi havas por ili persone altan estimon...

NE car ili eble estas ricaj, kaj ec povus fari ni a edzigan donacon, se ili scius, ke ni geedzigos; sed car ili estas bonkoraj, kaj mi pasigis kun ili felicajn horojn, kaj ili faris al la gepatroj kaj al mi diversajn servojn de tempo al tempo, kaj mi pensas, ke ili devus scii, pro la intereso kiun ili havas por ni, same kiel ni interesigas pri iliaj infanoj.

Mi deziris, ke vi venu al la fenebro de mia onklino annie, speciale por ke vi vidu ilin, kaj aliajn el miaj parencoj tiam. Tiumaniere vi vidus, ke ili ne estas tiaj personoj, kiajn vi imagas. Kaj mi bedauris, ke vi ne povis.

Mi tre esperas, ke vi ne pensis min malgentila hierau vespere. Mi ne volis esti tia. Mi nure volis paroli serioze miajn pensojn, car la afero vere ne estas malgrava.

Kredu al mi, Amy. Se oni havas ideon, kaj dum jaroj nutras gin, senkonscie, cu tiu ideo estas vera au ne, gi povas kreski kaj plifortigi en la animo, gis gi farigas nesangebla kaj neracia antaujugo. Mi tre bedaurus, se vi havus tion kontrau miaj amatoj, ec antau ol vi vidis ilin, au ec scias iliajn nomojn. Tio ne estus inda de vi.

Ec se estus io hontinda pri la nomo Butler (kio ne estas vera), neniu estas responda pri la elekto de siaj gepatroj au la nomo de ili heredita.

Kiel ajn vi ricevis la ideon, ke Onklino Annie en la komenco ne satis vin, au ke onklino Lucy faris ofenda demandon pri vi, mi ne povas diveni. Eble vi tion kredas, sed me estas absolute certa, ke tio neniam okazis ekster via imago. Neniam antaue mi audis iam ajn pri tiuj aferoj, kaj mi tre certe memorus tion, se gi iam estus okazinta, car mi tro amas vin, ne senti cion, kio estus ofenda al vi.

Mi bone memoras, kiel unu-du-foje mia patrino songis, ke la patro diris au faris ion, kaj en la mateno riprocis lin pro tio, forgesante, ke gi estis son. Mi ne deziras insinui, ke vi ankau simile songis pri tiuj aferoj, sed mi nur povas supozi, ke vi konjektis al vi pri kio mia onklino eble povus esti demandinta, kaj kion mia patrino eble respondis; kaj car mi meditis pri tio multe, gi sajnis al vi iom post iom pli versajna, gis fine vi subkonscie ekkredis, ke tio vere okazis. Ni ciuj emas trompi nin tiumaniere, se ni ne gardas nin.

Au eble mi parolis neklare, au mi misaudis min, au miskomprenis min. Sed ciukaze, kiel ajn gi okazis, vere, Amy, kredu min, ke vi havas tute eraran impreson. Ne estas agrable audi tian diron, car oni nature ciam deziras kredi sin neerarema, kiel Papo. Tamen mi sentas, ke estas mia devo al miaj parencoj provi seniluziigi vin, se vi misjugas ilin.

{IN ENGLISH} I do hope you will not mind my writing like this. It is better to say what you feel than to brood over it, and let it grow. I am not asking you to like any of my relations: I only hope that you will try to think of them in common fairness with an unprejudiced mind, and not condemn the lot off-hand, simply because they have the name Butler, or because some of them have had prominence in English life, and you have the idea from Guido that therefore they are a lot of swankers and think themselves the salt of the earth, or because of things that you imagine might have been said, but really never were. {/ENGLISH}

Amo, mi havas pli altan opinion de via inteligento kaj sento de justeco, ol kredi, ke vi vere povas jugi tiumaniere. Se vi legis mian leteron gis tie ci, ne pensu, ke mi estas kolera au riprocas vin. Mi nur sentas min malgoja, ke vi tiel insiste misjugas mian patron kaj fraton kaj ciun pare con mian, senkauze. Kredu min: ili penses pri vi alimanierol ol vi pensas pri ili. Se oni rigardas la mondon per rugaj okulvitroj, estas senutile atendi, ke cio aspektu verda, ec printempe!

I do want my family to know I am going to get married. I am very proud of it, and especially when I remember that the wife will be you. And I do not see any reason that the marriage should be secret. About the cousins in Reigate, I personally have high esteem for them...

NOT because they may be rich, and could make us a wedding gift if they knew that we were married, but because they are very good, and I have spent happy hours with them, and they have done my parents and me a variety of services from time to time, and I think that they should know, because of the interest they have in us, as we are interested in their children.

I wanted you to come to the funeral of my aunt Annie, especially so that you see them, and others of my relatives then. This way you would see that they are not the kind of people you imagine. And I regret that you could not.

I hope very much that you did not think me rude yesterday evening. I do not want to be like that. I merely wanted to discuss my thoughts seriously, because the issue really is not slight.

Believe me, Amy. If you have an idea, and feed it for years , unconsciously, whether this idea is true or not, it can grow and strengthen in the soul, till it makes an immutable and irrational prejudice. I'm very sorry, if you have something against my loved ones, even before you see them, or even know their names. That would not be worthy of you.

Even if there was something shameful about the name Butler (which is not true), no one is responsible for the choice of their parents or the name they inherited.

Wherever you get the idea that Aunt Annie did not like you in the beginning, or that Aunt Lucy asked you an offensive question, I cannot guess. Perhaps you think that, but I am absolutely sure that it never happened outside of your imagination. I never heard about these things, and if it ever had happened I would certainly have remembered it very clearly, because I too love you, and feel everything which would be offensive to you.

I remember, once or twice my mother dreamed that my father said or did something, and in the morning rebuked him for it, forgetting that it was a dream. I do not want to insinuate that you also dreamed these things, but I can only assume that you conjectured to yourself about what my aunt might ask, and what my mother might answer, and since you thought about it a lot, it seemed to you progressively more likely, until finally you unconsciously believed that it really happened. We all tend to deceive ourselves in this way, if we do not watch out.

Or perhaps I spoke unclearly, or you misheard me, or misunderstood me. But in any case, no matter how it happened, really, Amy, believe me, you have a completely wrong impression. It is not pleasant to hear such a statement, because we naturally always want to believe ourselves infallible, like the Pope. However, I feel that it is my duty to my family to try to disabuse you if you misjudge them.

{IN ENGLISH} I do hope you will not mind my writing like this. It is better to say what you feel than to brood over it, and let it grow. I am not asking you to like any of my relations: I only hope that you will try to think of them in common fairness with an unprejudiced mind, and not condemn the lot off-hand, simply because they have the name Butler, or because some of them have had prominence in English life, and you have the idea from Guido that therefore they are a lot of swankers and think themselves the salt of the earth, or because of things that you imagine might have been said, but really never were. {/ENGLISH}

Love, I have a higher opinion of your intelligence and sense of justice, than to believe that you really can judge this way. If you have read my letter this far, do not think that I am angry or blame you. I just feel sad that you have so repeatedly misjudged my father and brother, and all pairs con mine [?], without cause. Believe me, they think of you more kindly than you think about them. If you look at the world through red glasses, it is useless to hope that everything will look green, even in spring!

While I sympathize with MCB, caught in the middle between his fiancée and his family, I'm not sure that his strategy of telling Amy the problem is all in her head is really a winner. He was still having to work hard in a letter of 20th July, just weeks before the wedding, to persuade her to visit his rich relatives in Reigate. In this one he has changed tack slightly and is assuring her that true gentility lies in behaviour rather than birth. That perhaps proved a more fruitful line of argument, since the visit duly took place, and according to the older MCB at least, "we both spent a very happy day with Gerard and all the cousins (Bella, Dick, etc) in woods around Reigate".

The Reigate relatives were Gerard Weeden Butler (a cousin of MCB's father) and his family. I've barely mentioned Gerard before (just once, in fact), largely because I don't know much about him, but I'm going to have to remedy that, since my desultory googling has revealed that he is in fact a classic Butler, if we take Butlerism in the sense in which I have previously defined it, as that of becoming expert in two apparently unrelated subjects and then finding ways to combine them.

In Gerard Weeden's case, the two subjects were cycling and geology. Or perhaps we should say that he was a cycling geologist's companion, that person being Grenville Arthur James Cole, who in 1894 published The Gypsy Road, his account of a journey of geological discovery from Krakow to Coblentz, which he had undertaken with Butler the previous year. The journey, of some 1,055 miles, was completed in 38 days - a feat that is more impressive when you remember that Gerard Weeden did it on a penny-farthing, without gears. (Cole was on a tricycle.) I've yet to read the book, but according to this account, "Butler is named throughout the narrative as the 'Intellectual Observer', and comes across as being a man of quiet wit and perception," although "little is known" of him except that he enjoyed painting and may have been a mathematician. Surely we can do better than that?

Unfortunately, amongst all my grandfather's photographs, there is none of Gerard Weeden. We have his father, and his children, but so far the only picture I have of Gerard Weeden himself is this illustration from The Gypsy Road, of him powering his penny-farthing through the Hungarian alluvial plains.

gerardbutler on penny farthing

I don't think I'd be able to pick him out from a crowd.
Tags: family history
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