Aunty Joan – #metoo – nothing new!
That summer’s day, I saw my great uncle Ray for the last time. I knew I would never see him again, so it was a chance to get a few questions answered. The one I chose to open with received such a baffling and horrific answer, that I forgot to ask the others. But first the background to the question.
When my gran died, my dad was overawed by the stuff he found in her house. It was mostly junk and had to be thrown away. He couldn’t get a price for any of it. So, he stored much of the contents of my grandmother’s house in his. After his death and when my mother knew she was going to move out of her house after 66 years, she asked me to empty the loft. In one suitcase I found, among other things, a small handbag, more an evening bag, and in it were letters, written in pencil by my aunty Joan, and her husband Foggy, to her mother, my grandmother May Lapensée.
Here they are, unedited, in order.
Hotel Manchen Guatemala 29th May 1934
Dear Mrs. Lapensée:-
Just a few lines to let you know that Joan arrived safely on the 23rd May and we were married last Saturday morning at 11.30 A.M. of 26th May. In the meantime Joan stayed with Mr. & Mrs. Vintner until we were married. Unfortunately we were only able to have a honeymoon of about 4 days as I have to return to work again. The whole affair has been so terribly hard on Joan, Mrs. Lapensée, but I must say she has been the sweetest girl I have ever known and she has been so nice to me. I can only speak good of her in every way, naturally though, she is homesick, which she may get over or may not. Joan has had to meet so many strange people & in a strange country, besides which I guess I have not been as sympathetic towards her as I might have been.
So far, Joan has behaved like a brick & I’m really proud to be able to call her my wife. All the Englishmen at the bank have admired my choice & my every wish is for Joan’s future happiness. As soon as we are settled down here I shall write you again & advise how Joan is getting along. In the meantime I must thank you for all you did for Joan and myself knowing fully well that nothing could have been accomplished without your help in this matter.
I nearly fell out the loft in my hurry to get downstairs and ask my mother how my aunt ended up married in Guatemala in 1934. She was just 18 and it must have taken her at least six weeks to travel there. And “All the Englishmen at the bank have admired my choice”? What was that about? My mother sighed, then explained.
Joan (or her mother) had seen an advertisement in a London newspaper, put there by a rich English banker from Central America who had returned briefly to London to find a wife. Joan had been the successful applicant.
My mother knew why it had all gone wrong. Joan had been told to take a solicitor’s signed copy of May Walter’s and Jean Louis La Pensee’s marriage certificate and her own birth certificate. These had been produced for scrutiny just prior to the wedding, whereupon it emerged that the birth certificate predated the marriage certificate. That was no rarity between 1914 and 18. The wedding went ahead, but Joan was persona non grata among the UK expats in Guatemala.
I asked my mother about the interview for the post of banker’s wife. She said she knew next to nothing about it, which was to be expected as she met my father, Christmas Eve 1939 in the Spring Hotel in Ewell, Surrey- a long way from, and a long time after, Guatemala. I don’t know how long Joan stayed out in Guatemala but she was back in England before the chance rendezvous that Christmas Eve in the Spring. My question, “how the applicants were vetted,” was answered firmly.
“Oh, they went up to town, to a hotel, The Dorchester in Park Lane I think, and there was some sort of interview. The mothers of the girls were expected to be there too.”
My next question was, “Were the short-listed girls invited behind a screen in the hotel room, where a waiting doctor and nurse established virgo intacta?”
My mother denied any knowledge of such detail, but I know that she and Joan were great buddies during the time my mother and father were courting. She knew alright, and her face said more than her words. Pity Foggy wasn’t so careful with the certificates as he was with the vetting process!
Foggy was a master of the euphemism. Let’s have a look at a few.
“The whole affair has been so terribly hard on Joan” = I was less than honest about what she should expect and should have checked her birth certificate in London.
“must say she has been the sweetest girl I have ever known and she has been so nice to me” = we consummated.
“naturally though, she is homesick” = the other expats have behaved shabbily.
“she is homesick, which she may get over or may not” = The people here will continue to behave shabbily and will never accept her.
“I have not been as sympathetic towards her as I might have been” = How did I end up with your bastard for a bride?
“So far, Joan has behaved like a brick” = I was economical about the realities of life her,e but she hasn’t held it against me.
“I’m really proud to be able to call her my wife” = I’m a patronising arse of a man.
“All the Englishmen at the bank have admired my choice” = We are all patronising arses around here.
“advise how Joan is getting along” = We’ll see how she shapes up. When you write, make sure she doesn’t go flaky on me.
“nothing could have been accomplished without your help in this matter” = thank you for convincing your daughter that she wasn’t the victim of sexual coercion.
Or was the whole thing May’s idea in the first place. She wouldn’t have been the first mother to prostitute her daughter. Those were hard times. I don’t sit here in judgement! And rumours have surfaced about May’s methods of accumulating her savings for a comfortable life.
May was a rich woman when she died and was always generous to her grandchildren, but she never had been more than a single mother and cleaner; a cleaner for the rich and famous however, who lived south of the railway line in Cheam. She was also a stunning beauty as a young woman! Work it out for yourself!
Here is Joan’s first letter home.
Hotel Manchen etc.
Just a few lines hoping you are well. We got married on 26th May and we are staying at this hotel for a few days. I don’t like it here much as it is raining nearly all the time. I don’t like Guatemala very much there are to many policemen about and they are very strict on what you do. When I first arrived I had to stay at Vintners (that is Foggys manager) house and they were very nice to me they had a wedding cake and champagne and they gave me a lovely wedding present it is a coffee heater, jug and bowl. also mr Townson gave me a tea set on a tray. We had a lot of flowers given to us. I am lonely without all of you and I will not be sorry to get back, which seems a long way off.
I hope you will answer as soon as you can as I haven’t heard from anyone for such a long time. You had better write to the bank but just put mrs Fogg and Foggy will give it to me in case you have forgotten the address I will give it to you it is. The Anglo South American Bank Ltd.
Republic of Guatemala
City of Guatemala
I cant think of any more to write so I will close
PS How is Will as I hope he is well and give all the family my love.
The Anglo South American Bank Ltd.
Just a few lines hoping you are well and that your new bike is OK. It will be a month tomorrow since I was married. I hope you do win the sweep as you deserve it. I wish I could win a sweep or someone leave me a lot of money I would get out of here as the place is a rotten hole so if you do win only come for a visit but don’t ever stay here I am going to mrs Vintner to help her make a dress tomorrow. she has a lovely electric machine but she always works it herself.
How was your dress alright I hope. I have not received my belt or photos yet still I suppose they are still on the way. Have you had the cake yet I hope its alright. I have started playing golf and I like it very much and I am going to learn to ride soon. How is everyone as it seems as if I have been away years instead of two months I have never been so lonely in all my life. How is dave and Grandma. I still cant believe about mrs Parfitt. I think Foggys sister was telling a lie about the present because she came down the Tuesday night while I was playing tennis with dave and she knew I wouldnt have time the next morning. I cant think of any more to write so will close.
The sleuths will notice that these letters are in the wrong order from their dates, but when I put them round the other way they made no sense. I think Joan was confused.
It is odd that Joan expected, as a matter of course to return to England. Perhaps she was only supposed to produce an heir for Foggy and would then be given an allowance and a ticket home. Did she have a child by him? No one mentions it.
Incidentally, The Anglo South American Bank Ltd. went into liquidation in 1936. Joan’s gravy train would have stopped there anyway! I think she was back in England by then.
Joan was not a great letter writer and maybe a bit of a moaner. Golf, riding and tennis were not her normal entertainments. Maybe she was suffering from too much cake. (She appears to have sent some from the wedding to England).
Mrs. Vintner treated her like a domestic, which wasn’t surprising as Joan was an illegitimate working-class girl. My mother told me that Joan was as stunningly beautiful as her mother. But when you compare Foggy’s and Joan’s written English, it is apparent she would never belong. She was Foggy’s appendage at worst and trophy at best. She showed that Foggy could get the best even if the best had no breeding. Did Foggy ever expect things to work out? It’s as if he’d read Pygmalion before seeking a wife and thought he could turn his Eliza Doolittle into a lady. But then the illegitimacy problem doomed that dream.
To be fair to Foggy, he never deserted Joan and as far as we know, never reproached her. He paid the trip home and for the divorce.
So far we have had my interpretation of my mother’s account.
I knocked on Ray’s door. Short and very stout Ray opened.
“How the hell are you Ray?” I grabbed his hand and pumped it vigorously.
“Fine!” he answered. “Who the hell are you?”
His eyes were dim.
“Clive,” I replied. “Louis’s boy.”
My elucidation did the trick. (Louis’s boy – I was 60 at the time).
“Good Lord. I’m sorry. Do come in, I’ll put the kettle on straight away.” He scuttled off to the kitchen. “Take a seat. You know your aunty Glad passed away.”
“Yes. I’m so sorry.”
“Oh well. She was 92, couldn’t move for arthritis and could neither see nor hear in the end. Clive; what’s the point?”
He returned with tea with milk and sugar although I use neither.
“You’re visiting your mum. How is she?”
“Fine. She is moving up to Yorkshire to be closer. Probably in the next few weeks.”
“Give her my love.”
“Will do! I wanted to ask you something. I found some letters from Joan in an old evening bag belonging to Mapier. Written from Guatemala. Can you tell me anything about it?”
Ray went silent for some time. Then he erupted in glee as the old memories returned.
“Oh, crikey Clive. How long ago was that?”
“1934 it says on the letters.”
“Was it really? I bet it was. That was a circus I can tell you. I don’t know what happened in America but it was bedlam here.”
“Do go on.”
“I know nothing of the early stuff. I think May got hold of this idea that Joan could use her good looks to get a rich husband. There was plenty of that sort of thing going on in those days. Joan wasn’t interested – I don’t think she was. She was just a sweet kid who wanted to please. Your dad and I got involved after May had set it all up. What was the bloke’s name?”
“He signs himself Foggy.”
“Really. I’d forgotten that. Well, he went on in advance, but booked Joan a sailing from Cherbourg. So, Joan had to get to Cherbourg. Foggy booked her a hotel in Dover. She was to get the ferry from Dover to Cherbourg. Joan was scared stiff. She’d never stayed in a hotel in her life nor caught a ferry to France. None of us had, not in them days. So instead of taking the train we borrowed old Honeyfield’s van and the four of us went down to Dover. 1934. You can imagine; cars weren’t like now. Ruddy thing boiled on every hill. No motorways of course. 90 miles sounds nothing now but it took us over 6 hours. Lou and I had put all our spare cash in the petrol tank and when we got to the hotel, of course, we were starving, but we had no money. We ordered a cup of tea and we were cleaned out. Been better if we’d gone straight down the chippy. Foggy had forgotten to leave any spending money. Joan didn’t get a meal until breakfast and after that, until she got on the ship in Cherbourg. Then it was luxury all the way. We expected to drop Joan off, turn around and come straight back home, because we had nowhere to sleep. But Joan begged us to stay, so we sneaked upstairs and we all bunked down in her room. May and Joan had the bed and Louis and me slept in armchairs. It was bad, but Joan was desperate. She said we had to see her on to the ferry so we did. I remember she stole some breakfast for us, wrapped it in a serviette and brought it up to the room. She told us that it was the first time in her life she had stolen something. I’m sure that was true.”
“How long did she stay in Guatemala?”
“I can’t remember, Clive, but it was months rather than years.”
“Did she have a kid out there?”
“No idea! No one ever spoke about it.” He paused, letting the memories surface.
“I remember when we got back, Louis and me got in a dreadful row with Honeyfield for staying away with his van. He would have sacked us, but he didn’t know who to fire first and he couldn’t afford to lose two grease monkeys in the same morning. He’d had to have got his own hands dirty. So, he thundered and we sloped off and got on with some work before he had chance to make up his mind.”
“But you and my dad could only have been 16 and Mapier never drove.”
“Didn’t worry about things like that. We probably only saw about three cars there and back; no one had a licence.”
“How or why did May change to Mapier?”
“I think big Louis called her that and it stuck. Maybe a French-Canadian nickname?”
I assume Ray has died by now. No one has informed me.
Joan is long dead. On her return to England she met a feckless spendthrift radio engineer who liked the good life. I think Joan encouraged him after her experiences with the stuffed shirt expats. My father always said “he pissed the profits up against a pub wall.” They ran out of money so the business was sold off and they, with their three very young children emigrated to……. Canada. I’m sure she took up contact with the old Jean Louis when she got there. From about 1955 onwards, May wouldn’t talk to Joan. I think May was worried we might learn Jean Louis’s side of the marriage story.
Joan and her husband George died in their early fifties in Canada. I never had another chance to meet them or my cousins, apart from an evening spent in London, around 1972, entertaining cousin Jane, who was over here – looking for a rich husband. I don’t know if she was successful. I doubt it. She didn’t have the guile of my grandmother.