AUNTS are in the eye of the beholder - almost entirely, in fact, in the eyes of their nieces and nephews. Auntieness is a concept, a figment of childhood imagination, or a requirement for something female and adult in the order of things that isn't a mother or an older sister.
You might think, from Victorian and Edwardian fiction, that some people were, in those days, solely and simply aunts - born that way, auntish through infancy and school days and, after about 29 or 30, maturely set in aspic as aunts-complete thenceforward. Probably most of us accept our own aunts that way, forgetting that they are as much our invention as theirs.
In thinking about my own aunt, I find I really cannot think of her as anything but aunt. Theoretically, she was sister to my mother, daughter to my grandmother (in whose house she always - unmarried - lived), and woman to her horse, but she was principally Auntie Jo.
I'm certain she rarely thought of her auntieness, except when those of us who saw her that way were around - but then that is one of the special charms of aunts: They don't take their involuntary role too weightily. They can be adult friends for their young relatives. Their responsibilities come and go. And the exercise of these responsibilities can even be rather fun since theirs is not a year-in, year-out, morning-noon-and-night relationship from which there are no periods of respite. They can also get
away with instances of mischief, eccentricity, and unconventional behavior - all very appealing to lively child-minds.
Aunthood is a fabrication that is colored by the character who happens to inhabit it; but even more - at least in the imagination of the said nephews and nieces - it is the character that is colored by the aunthood.
Factual aunts often upstage fictional ones - but that does take some doing. There are some aunts in fiction who are sheer delight. Others are sheer horror. An astonishing number, either way, are wonderfully unforgettable.
Among the first sort is Edward Lear's "Aunt Jobiska" - a most obliging dame of true Victorian nonsensicality, and more than a mere foil for her odd nephew, the enigmatic "Pobble" who "Has No Toes." She owns (or has apparently mislaid somewhere in the Bristol Channel) a "runcible cat with crimson whiskers." It is while fishing for this cat that the Pobble's toes inexplicably vanish. The dotty poem ends, however, with a satisfactory, if stoical, domestic arrangement. It's based on a turn of events that onl y an aunt could concoct: Kind people had returned the Pobble from the Bristol Channel to her.
And she made him a feast
at his earnest wish
Of eggs and buttercups fried
And she said, - "It's a fact
the whole world knows,
That Pobbles are happier
without their toes."
Only a stone's throw away from this fanciful aunt is artist Gwen Raverat's real-life Aunt Etty, described in her classic childhood autobiography, "Period Piece." Of this redoubtable lady, the epitome of fussiness, Raverat writes, "Dear Aunt Etty, how easy it is to draw your absurdities, how difficult to show your lovableness...."
Aunt Etty rested a lot. Always had breakfast in bed. Her household revolved with continual activity around her sedentary inactivity. She wrote letters, but had her maid Janet put the stamps on. "Once she wrote when ... Janet was away for a day or two: 'I am very busy answering my own bell.' We all laughed at her and we all adored her," wrote her niece.
She waged war with a stick on "Stinkhorns" (a kind of fungus) in the wood, convinced that "some day there will be no more stinkhorns left in the wood." When she "was quite old, she suddenly announced that she had never heard a nightingale sing, and must do so at once." But, unfortunately, her "special bird-listening costume" in which she was pushed in a bath-chair late at night to the end of the garden, upset the bird so much it refused to pipe a note. "I'm thankful to say that I never had an aunt who wa s afraid of seeming ridiculous," wrote Raverat.
She describes her Aunt Etty as having a "warm atmosphere," and comments that she always felt "loved and welcomed" by everyone in her Aunt Etty's house. "At home I was loved, to be sure; but there I was always apt to get across the current...." Aunt Etty's value was that her home offered all the security, but less of the convention, of the parental house.
Probably one of the lasting attractions of the aunts in the novels of Henry Fielding, Jane Austen, George Eliot, Charles Dickens, and E.M. Forster is that these characters, presumably borrowed from the writers' personal experiences, typify aunts in the lives of their readers.
Some, certainly, are monsters: Lady Catherine de Bourgh, Darcy's aunt in "Pride and Prejudice," insufferably snobbish and domineering; Lady Bertram in "Mansfield Park," the epitome of an indolence that breeds weariness; and the other aunt, her sister, an organizing, selfish do-gooder. David Copperfield's aunt, Miss Betsey Trotwood, is certainly one of Dickens's happy inventions, "austere but kind-hearted," battling against the trespassing donkeys like Aunt Etty against the stinkhorns. Indignation is some thing that aunts gloriously specialize in.
SOME writers have taken aunts to comic extremes. Lady Bracknell in Oscar Wilde's "The Importance of Being Earnest" bestrides that witty play like a colossus with a parasol and comes out with some unforgettable phrases.
Lady Bracknell: Now to minor
matters. Are your parents
Jack: I have lost both my
Lady Bracknell: To lose one
parent, Mr. Worthing, may
be regarded as a misfortune;
to lose both looks like
Or aunts in the writings of P.G. Wodehouse. Formidable! From "The Code of the Woosters" comes this observation: "It is no use telling me that there are bad aunts and good aunts. At the core they are all alike. Sooner or later, out pops the cloven hoof." Better still is the image of "family rows" summed up by the Wodehouse description of those "occasions when Aunt is calling to Aunt like mastodons bellowing across primeval swamps."
Georgia O'Keeffe's Aunt Ollie had an important influence on her remarkable career as an artist. She appears early in Roxana Robinson's biography of O'Keeffe. Aunt Ollie had "taught school," and then her "fierce independence" led eventually to her becoming, at the end of the 19th century, "the only female proofreader at the Milwaukee Sentinel," wrote Robinson. O'Keeffe stayed with her aunt in Chicago as a young student, and Aunt Ollie must have added to her determination to break the mold and become a pai nter.
My own aunt may seem an anti-climax (an auntie-climax?) in comparison with such outstanding characters, yet they remind me pleasantly of Auntie Jo's place in my childhood. She was not, however, an imperious example. I think of her as a kind of atmosphere in jodhpurs, mingling a firm kindness and attention to this probably troublesome, certainly babyish, little boy. But her attentiveness was tinged with a preoccupation with other matters; and that, my memory at least tells me, was what I liked about her.
She dragged me along when she went down to the village to fetch the cream, or to see Mrs. Die, or to chat with some other friend about her goats, or to call in at the butcher's. I chatted nonsense while she rearranged the flowers on Grandpa's grave. I tailed along with her when she went to collect the guinea-fowl eggs for breakfast, or fed the chickens mash from an old saucepan, or cut the asparagus for lunch.
I hung around while she mucked out the horse's stall, threw in new straw and hay, and talked sweet nothings to the horse's nose. I grasped the sides of the pony-trap when we went for a ride down the springtime back lanes with their primroses. She used an ancient bicycle with a front basket for most short journeys. "Sparks," her pet terrier, rode in the basket.
Perhaps because she decided I would be less of a hindrance on a bicycle than walking, it was Auntie Jo who took charge of my bike-riding lessons and finally announced, as I wobbled forward, that I could now officially ride a bicycle, because she had let go of the seat some minutes before without telling me. What a wonderful freedom that was. I cycled unstintingly around the bush-crowded, rose-rambled paths of that old-fashioned garden at every possible opportunity. And it was she who dug up an old tennis
racket in "the garden room" somewhere, and a ropy old ball, and encouraged serious practice against the wall of the house.
It was that garden room, its inner door kept shut to hide it, which more than anything I associate with her: a treasure-trove of total chaos, horse-bits and bridles and shoes, a leather punch, scissors, and pruning shears, on the walls reproductions of pencil drawings of the hunt, pastel still lifes she had done many years earlier on black paper. In drawers and on tables: old raincoats, packets of seeds, old seats and umbrellas, walking sticks and baskets, and all manner of bits of string.
This was the room that housed anything without a designated home. It went there and it stayed there, probably never to be used or seen again. But not lost. It was kept. Not wasted.
In that slightly musty room, which could open out onto the fresh air of the garden (if you could fight a way through the jumble to the doors), congregated the activity, the carelessness, the interests past and present, the forgotten enthusiasms, the particularity and character ... the exciting, rather wayward, unself-conscious normality of my aunt.