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Wednesday, March 5, 2014

My Irish Granny - by Hilda van Stockum

Emily Heloise MacDonnell
Boissevain (1844-1931) as a
young woman.
The following is a guest (ghost?) post by my late mother, Hilda van Stockum (1908-2006), who left a description of her grandmother Emily MacDonnell Boissevain and also her grandfather Charles Boissevain, which I transcribed and have lightly annotated. A book is planned that will include this following excerpt.  (c) Copyright by Boissevain Books LLC for the estate of Hilda van Stockum.  

To me she was always a little, but formidable old lady, who was the heart of her family, adored by husband and children, but a little daunting to the grandchildren, all 50 of them. Maybe the older ones knew her as a younger woman; I came at the end of the family.

Luckily my grandmother lived long enough [at Drafna, near Amsterdam] for me to get to know and love her, but when I was a child we were always at odds. I wasn’t Irish looking; I took after my father. I had few “feminine” qualities. My grandmother liked to see girls doing needlework, but for me the needles never did anything but prick. I was a bookworm, which in those days was frowned on, because girls were supposed to be playing and exercising in the fresh air to get nice complexions.

But I was too fascinated by the bound volumes of the “children’s corner” of my grandfather’s newspaper [the Algemeen Handelsbladthen Holland's leading newspaper], and could not wait to read the next installment of the current adventure story. I was introverted in those days, and found it difficult to make conversation with my Granny, who spoke Dutch with an accent.

Charles Boissevain (1842-1927), my
grandfather, publisher of the leading
newspaper in Holland.
My grandfather wrote a daily column in the Algemeen Handelsblad, the most successful daily paper in Holland, and wrote a feature called “From Day to Day” in the most frivolous part of the paper, which also included a children’s section. We grandchildren often, on arrival at their grandparents’ house, made a bee-line to their library where all these wonders could be found.

I earned a scolding from my Granny for doing so:
The first thing you do when you visit anywhere, is to present yourself to your hostess and greet her. I didn’t even know you had arrived.
So in future I did as she told me, and as the drawing room was next door to the library not too much time was wasted. But I have to confess I was not the most popular guest. Those who had not learned to read yet fared much better

I was my grandfather’s favorite, and was placed beside him at table. So I was the one who witnessed the first time he lost a tooth. He was very unhappy about it because he had kept all his teeth till he was 80. I sympathized very much because going to the dentist was one of my phobias and no doubt my grandfather appreciated my heart-felt sympathy.

My grandfather told me I had a talent for making up verses and he said I inherited this talent from him.  He had also written books, mostly on his travels. I have an article reviewing his literary output by some literary bigwig of his time - although it was a very superficial criticism.

The great attraction I felt for my grandfather was his naughtiness. He was always doing forbidden things: putting marmalade and cheese on the same piece of bread and then declaring with a naughty twinkle and a sigh of satisfaction, after consuming this concoction: “It was just as if an angel peed on my tongue.” That’s the sort of thing I loved Grandfather for.

Granny wasn’t angry. She laughed... but we weren’t allowed to imitate him.

I don’t think my Grandfather ever knew that my Granny ruled him. She was so full of deference and respect! He met her in Ireland where he had gone as a young and handsome reporter for the little commercial paper that employed him - as he worked his way up he made it into the most important Dutch daily newspaper.

Charles went to Dublin to report on some trade event, on the lines of the modern expos, and probably it included the annual Dublin horse show [which had started up three years earlier, in 1864]. Hercules MacDonnell invited him to stay at his home, Sorrento Cottage, in Dalkey, where he met the numerous MacDonnell family. The oldest girl, Emily Héloïse, was strikingly beautiful. As it happened, my grandfather got ill, and he was nursed by my great-grandmother and her daughter Emily. Perhaps it was not surprising that my grandfather fell in love with the charming young nurse. At any rate, married they were.

I asked my Granny once what made her marry a foreigner like that. Wasn’t it a big step for her to take?

“Oh,” she said, “he made me laugh so much I hadn’t the breath to say ‘no’.”

My grandmother had had a glorious youth in Ireland. My grandfather wrote a poem about her, in which he describes how she jumped from the rocks into the sea and rode bareback on her pony. [She was one of the inspirations for HvS's book Pegeen.]

She herself wrote my mother about her teen years and all her admirers. With one she went for walks, with another she practiced archery. One she always met accidentally on her way to church and with one she went to visit the poor. But she did not like that much [visiting the poor], she added. She must have missed all that freedom later.

They were married in London and there is a legend that they quarreled after they left the church, because my grandfather claimed her arm, as was his right as a husband in Holland. But Granny acknowledged no such right and refused to allow anything so immodest.

So the Irish rose was transplanted among the stiff Dutch tulips, and not without friction. She did everything wrong... and as the Boissevain family consisted of endless cousins, aunts, uncles and great-aunts, their disapproval made a big noise.

In those days the activities in Holland of a proper lady were greatly restricted. You could not go out in the mornings because then the domestic servants did the shopping and it would be awkward to meet them. You can imagine the horror the family felt when they saw Charles’s wild Irish wife out at eleven in the morning, skating on the canals arm in arm with her cook.

However, nature soon put an end to these exploits. My Granny presented my grandfather with eleven children: five boys and six girls, one more clever and handsome than the other. She acquired a Yorkshire nanny called Polly, who became such a member of the family that she stayed with them till her death. And she made the clothes of the children and grandchildren out of the then so-popular Liberty cottons.

There must have been lean years, but my grandfather describes his home life in these words:
I am always struck anew by the intimacy of our family life: I see the family sitting by lamplight, in the room with red drapes, grouped around their mother, who is their spring of action, their source of love. 
It’s a vivid picture by a fond family man. He was so proud of his family he kept their photographs in his pocket to show at the drop of a hat. He was nicknamed “The Kangaroo”.

Once he visited a Turkish Emir and boasted of his eleven children. “That’s nothing”, said the Amir, “I have 26.”

“Ah, that is a large number,” said my grandfather, impressed, “but I have only one wife!”

It was the Emir’s turn to be very impressed.

There are charming letters of my grandmother to my grandfather, which tell of her difficulty with such a large family. One problem was the noise at table when they all talked at once, and the dreadful stillness when no one talked. She tried to let them talk one by one, but only Mary, the oldest girl, responded and in the end she gave up - rather the noise than the silence.

On another occasion she had to punish her second son Alfred for teasing the little girls, and she locked him in a room. He kicked and kicked at the door till he kicked out a panel. Then he stuck his handsome head through the opening and cried:

“I didn’t do it, Mother, I didn’t do it!”

She writes that it was difficult for her not to laugh. Yes, we get the feeling of an Irish household rather than a staid Dutch one.

Once my uncle Alfred had a serious quarrel with his wife. He had been given a little inheritance and he proposed to give his wife half for new slipcovers and with the other half they would go to Paris and have fun. Aunt Mies was aghast. To spend money for fun when they needed new sheets as well was wicked.

She went and complained to her friend, my mother.  Her response shows the influence of my Granny.

“You are suffering from different religions,” said my mother.

Aunt Mies was puzzled - “What do you mean?” They both belonged to the Walloon church (very proper, rather like the Anglican church).

“Yes,” said my mother, “you were brought up to feel that in order to be a virtuous spouse and housewife you must think first of the necessities of your home, and last of all of your own enjoyment.”

“That is truth,” said aunt Mies seriously.

“So my brother is very fair,” said my mother. “He gives you half for your religion. But he, on the other hand, was brought up to think that the one thing we must do is to enjoy ourselves in the beautiful world God has created for us, and that the last thing we should do is to bore ourselves with necessities.”

Aunt Mies looked at my Granny and thought, and then agreed: “That is true too,” she said.

“Therefore,” said my mother, “aren’t you a little mean not to enter into his religion while he generously enters into yours?”

They had a wonderful time in Paris.

My Granny was always ready for a lark. She went to football matches to see her boys play, and later, when they were young men, she’d sit up with them talking and drinking whisky till late at night. Her husband’s numerous admiring females did not bother her at all.

“Isn’t it time you wrote to your Scottish Thistle?” she’d ask.

“Who was that?” grandfather would ask.

“Oh, how shameful of you Charlie, have you already forgotten her?”

Her morals were very broad too. She wanted my grandfather to smuggle wine to her relatives in London and Ireland. My grandfather said he could not do it. He was known everywhere to be an honest man. He could not compromise his principles.

“Nonsense,” said my Granny. It’s just because they trust you that you can smuggle so easily”.

My grandfather remained adamant. But the next time he crossed the North Sea and was bowed past the customs with by deferential officials, he opened his suitcase in his hotel room and right on top, without any attempt to hide them, lay a row of bottles.

I don’t know what happened to my Granny after that, but she survived.

My Granny did not believe in illness. If her children chose to succumb to such an indignity, she did not cosset them, because that would only encourage them to be ill again. Many a weary day did my mother once lie in bed, unattended, with a raging appendicitis.

My mother, born Olga Emily Boissevain, later Mrs. Bram van Stockum, was the middle one of eleven children -- five brothers and sisters above her in age and five below.

The oldest child of Charles was a son called Charles E H [“Charles Eh Hah” in Dutch]. Charles EH was the wealthiest of the 11 “Careltjes” He married a woman who was became the first female member of the Dutch Parliament – Marie Pijnapple; they had ten children. So it was not surprising that my grandparents ended up with 125 grandchildren, all of whom were welcome to visit them.

If creativity and complexity go hand in hand, then large families lend themselves to being creative. The Boissevain family is a large and creative one and its components were focused on houses.

The 11 children of Charles and Emily Boissevain and called the Charletjes. They lived in a semi-circle stretching from the seaside resort town of Zandvoort to the west, then 20 miles east through Haarlem to Amsterdam, another 15 miles east to Naarden-Bussum (served by a single train stop), Baarn, and Blaricum, and finally 45 miles northeast to Hattem, near Zwolle, where the van Halls lived. The center was at Bussum, where Drafna was located.

Drafna was described by Tom de Booy as having “a special atmosphere [as] the throbbing center of the Boissevain clan.” The De Booys built a house called De Sparren near Tante Trot’s house. In Hattem were Astra, built by the van Halls, and Kleine Astra, where the van Halls stayed while they were building their house. The de Beauforts (the family Teau married into) also lived near Hattem.

The importance of houses may be conveyed by the fact that Teau de Beaufort composed a play about
houses. Each character was given a house to play. They had to memorize their lines. I remember it being very embarrassing. I was 10 years old and was given the part of a seaside resort house (probably the one at Zandvoort). But my father was there and he took the liberty of changing some of Teau’s lines. I thought her father’s changes were good (he had a good ear for meter), but Teau and her fellow authors did not want to recognize any line changes. As a result, I never learned the changed lines properly and I was prompted with the original text, which I hadn’t studied. It was a disaster.