Maiden aunts, Missionaries and Mad women:

The work I do involves issues related to maternal deaths. Girls married off at a young age, pregnant, dying in childbirth. Older women being pregnant over and over again, finally bleeding to death. Girls and women pregnant when they do not want to be and dying in the attempt to rid their body of it. So many stories, so many reports, so many tragically avoidable deaths.

So many many girls and women for whom having sex is basically the beginning of a death sentence one way or another. I remember reading of an African tribal ritual where they would dig a grave when the woman was 9 months pregnant and fill it up every week bit by bit till she was 3 months post- delivery. This is mind numbing in so many ways. This was a ritual created out of the knowledge that this was the reality of what a childbirth could end in. Imagine being a 16 year old pregnant girl, watching that grave being dug, waiting with its open mouth for you to go into labour and bleed out your way into its jaws.  Surely modern urban women would go in for a lifetime of counselling and therapy for much less.

There used to many women who escaped this fate simply by refusing to be married or avoiding being married or maybe not managing to get married. The famous maiden aunts who dot the landscape of the life of Bertie Wooster (one of PG Wodehouse’s book is in fact titled ‘Aunts aren’t Gentlemen’), or the wonderful acid tongued aunts from Oscar Wilde plays such as the terrifying Aunt Augusta from the Importance of being Ernest. These women were not sweet, simpering, pale , fluttering creatures meant only to decorate the living room and play the piano after dinner. These are women with a booming voice, a hearty appetite and a strong will that can (and does !) make grown men cry.

Tim Burton’s wonderful new interpretation of Alice in Wonderland had Aunt Imogen who wasn’t so much “single” as “engaged to a prince who doesn’t exist”. We must not forget Miss Havisham from Great Expectations, who is in a twilight zone, forever waiting to be married but not quite there yet.

These women either chose to not marry or were not eligible to marry, being either too tall, too ‘ugly’, too eccentric or too well educated or then too poor to find a suitable match. And so they would either sit in a corner and spin like a hermit spider or they would trot off to far away lands and civilize the heathens or shoot tigers, ride elephants and come back to England after a jolly good time (which never involved any men or sex of course).

The real life single women like Nellie Blye go around the world with one black bag and come back to tell the tale !

Over a 100 such stories are to be found in whose most endearing quote is “There is nothing quite like parrot pie for breakfast. First one must catch one’s parrot, of course, and build the hearth to bake it, but that is all in a day’s work”. What a wonderful life !

There are the women who are labelled ‘mad’ because they simply will not conform. They will leave their hair open, laugh loudly, run around, dance and sing and not be cowed down. ( like RangBiBi from Sohaila’s lovely books with some of my sister’s best illustrations!)

If they display intelligence superior to the others especially the men, if they know how to use herbs and medicines and control fertility, make ill people get well or seem to reverse the course of nature in a disease, they were ( and still are– branded as witches and burnt at the stake. One of the stories I read about the witch-hunts spoke of the ‘test’. Tie her up and throw her in the village pond. If she drowns she was not a witch. Wow. If she doesn’t drown, pull her out and burn her. Anyone see the flaw in this methodology ??

Coming back to aunts, one of those who the girls and I love reading about is Aunt Fidget Wonkham-Strong who thinks her nephew’s activities are too much like having fun and calls upon the fearsome Captain Najork and his hired sportsmen to teach him a lesson. Another one is Conradin’s aunt who gets her justice at the ‘hands’ of Sredni Vashtar the beautiful. Harry Potter’s aunt is of course famously unloving but most often maiden aunts are shown to step in to love and care for the children when mothers are not around as in What Katy Did ( and What Shachi Did for my 2 year old daughter when I was away studying and she was still a maiden 🙂 ).

There are also the single women, who may not be aunts and may be more angles and sharpness than the plump kindly aunts but have their heart in the right place—such as Marilla from the Anne of Green Gables. And of course Miss Marple from Agatha Christie. Her knitting is the only fluffy and woolly thing about her and her spinsterhood only seems to sharpen her acute observations of human life and minds. I think Mary Poppins also fits in here since she does not seem the marrying kind and cares for the Banks children with a very firm hand indeed.

It is no surprise either that newspaper and magazine columns where people bare their souls and ask to have their personal problems resolved, write to the agony ‘aunts’ ( would you dare ask these questions of your mother ??? But with an Aunt your secret can be in safe hands !)

As Tish Durkin says in her blog is nice, but aunting is divine”.

I know I can play at hungry cat and tell my nephew that my contact lenses are the magic eyeballs I put in so I can see him through walls and that at night I switch on my personal rocket and go for a few jaunts. After all, his mother is the one who has to be responsible. My job is just to be fun !!

I must end with a toast to my favourite pair of maiden aunts from among them all –Aunt Abby and Aunt Martha Brewster from Arsenic and Old Lace, with their kind hearts and deadly cordial as well as a basement filled with corpses , hooray for all those aunts who make the world a better place to be in !


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