In honour of ‘#Granumentally’, whose twitter feed I discovered this morning and who turns the very grand age of 87 today, I decided to run this story from my book. ‘Edna' was 93 years old when I interviewed her. I loved the fact that she was prepared to tell me this story although having said that, it was very much in keeping with the kind of character she was. She told things like they were. She was happy to share. Men of that generation were definitely not into talking about their personal lives whereas women of almost any age have a fluency when it comes to the discussion of their personal lives. It’s in our nature to talk about how we feel.
Note the use of language in Edna’s story. She never mentions the word ‘sex’ once. That’s absolutely in-keeping with the sexual and social mores of the time. It was not the done thing. Or, as she also pointed out to me, one didn’t mention ‘going to the loo’. One talked about ‘powdering one’s nose’ or ‘brushing one’s hair’ but one never mentioned anything that even alluded to the fact that we had bodies that, er, did stuff. All those clichés that we hear are absolutely true. But it never sounded to me as if Edna lived less of a life as a result.
‘The First World War was already a year old when I was born in 1915. Both of my parents were involved in it so I stayed with my grandmother in Surrey. She had big boobs and feather beds and I loved it. I used to get into bed with her in the morning in this feather bed, and the boobs, and that was my first few years of life.
Eventually my mother gave up war work and we went back to live in Wimbledon where I had been born. One day I was playing and a man passed around the house and I didn’t know who he was. My mother was sitting on the table and she had had her hair cut. She used to have beautiful hair and she had an Eaton crop and she was smoking a cigarette and he came back and found this woman who he had left with lovely long hair and didn’t know what a cigarette was, sitting on the table, smoking a cigarette and reading a newspaper. That was my father. My little brother was born nine months later.
Though I had two brothers, I never knew what a man looked like until I got married. Now, how my mother kept the two brothers from me, one bathroom, has always been an enigma. You’d have thought I would have had an idea, but I didn’t. Sex was a forboden (sic) subject. And going to the lavatory was a very private matter and that’s how it was. My mother never gave me any advice. When I started periods, she just said, ‘You’ll have these once a month and don’t let your brothers know’.
Eventually, as I grew up, I left school and got a job as a receptionist in a hotel in Bloomsbury. I used to meet lots of chaps and I hung onto my virginity. It was taken for granted that I would. Some of these chaps would grope around but I had had this austere sort of childhood and no one was going to get too near me. Men fumbled and tried to find their way through like the prince did in ‘Sleeping Beauty’ and he had to get through all those brambles and everything. Well, they never got that far with me.
I was in love several times, deeply in love. I was going to commit suicide when it ended but I decided not to in the end. Also my father was ill. We thought he had cancer but he actually had TB. He contracted it in the trenches during the war. It lay dormant and took a hold of him when he got older. I used to visit him in the hospital and he would write me these wonderful little poems. I was in love with a man from Peru at the time so there would be a little poem entitled ‘My friend from Peru’ and another time it would be something else. Anyway, he died, just before the Second World War.
Although I was engaged to the chap from Peru, there was no familiarity at all in those days, a kiss good night and that was it. Eventually, he went back to Peru and I was to go out to Havana and get married to him. In the meantime, I met Henry and fell in love with him and we decided to get married. Unfortunately, how it worked out with dates, our wedding day, 12 January 1940, was also the anniversary of my engagement to the chap from Peru and all these roses arrived and my mother was absolutely furious. She said, ‘What are you going to do with them then?’ and I said, ‘You put them on dad’s grave’. So that was that and Henry and I got married.
Before our wedding, I would go up to London at the weekends when Henry was free but we always had separate rooms. One night he did come into my room and got into the bed and things could have gone on from there but with my austere upbringing; I knew that this wasn’t right so off he went. I had half lost my virginity when I say that I’d been fooled around with and manhandled by previous boyfriends but when I got married, that was when I really lost my virginity.
I was frightened on my wedding night and when I saw how he looked, I laughed. I’d never seen anything so funny. In spite of having two brothers I didn’t know what a man looked like. My mother had never told me anything. She never said anything about what would happen when I got married, I had to find out by myself. On the first night I might tell you, I thought this is much ado about nothing, but then I got to quite like it.
In days gone by virginity was a commodity that was sold. Today virginity is a very cheap thing. On the one hand, I don’t think the ideal thing is to keep yourself pure and meet the right man and save yourself for marriage, I don’t believe in that at all. But I feel sorry for young people now because they’re taking their young days and making the most of them but I think there is going to be a regret later on. I don’t think poor girls setting out for an evening’s boozing and then all finding a one-night stand is a good way to start.
I think it is very likely that if you’re in love with someone and you’re not married, that it can happen in a natural sort of way; that happens. But to go out with the intent, that you’ve got condoms in your bag, I don’t like it. The whole point about marriage is that you grow into a deep friendship. You grow older together and you become deeper friends. Henry and I were very deep. We were very good friends.’