I have spent the last week or so very enjoyably being an aunt. It’s something I think I may be quite good at, having been practising since I was eleven years old. While this is really a family that specialises in cousins – we have hundreds of the blessed things, and indeed, darling reader, you may well be one, and much treasured you are too – the NorthernReader household has accumulated quite a clutch of nieces and nephews of various ages and sizes. In coming up with an Aunting Strategy, I have been guided over the years, not only by my good fortune in possessing some of the very best sorts of aunts and uncles, but also, of course, by reading.
My nephews will, I suspect, confirm that my essential role models have always been Bertie Wooster’s tribe of aunts. They appear in pretty much every one of the great man’s oeuvre, but the general idea of them is neatly summed up in the title of his 1974 contribution to the sum of human happiness, Aunts Aren’t Gentlemen. I hope I have veered appropriately between the nephew-crushing attributes of Aunt Agatha – a girl could be proud to have earned the accolade, ‘the one who chews bottles and kills rats with her teeth’ – and (and I do hope this is the inner aunt that predominates) the ability of Aunt Dahlia to show an idiot nephew an aunt’s love. (‘Idiot nephew’, I should perhaps explain hastily – especially to those of you who happen to be my nephews and have nonetheless mysteriously so far put off familiarising yourselves with the works of PG Wodehouse – is a quotation rather than a considered or personally-held opinion). There is also within the tribe from which I spring a slight touch of Bertie’s lesser aunts, with their tendency to circulate incriminating information: ‘Aunt […] calling Aunt like mastodons bellowing across primeval swamps’, as Wodehouse rather niftily puts it.
Need we stray from Wodehouse? Well, Jane Austen is pretty good on aunts. Mrs Norris, Fanny Price’s aunt in Mansfield Park, is definitely not who we should aspire to be. Skinflint, self-pitying and (worst indictment of all) a terrible bore, we might keep her as the poster-girl for how not to do this aunting business. She could, I suppose, slug it out for the title with Lady Catherine de Bourgh, the pantomime-dame Ghastly Aunt of Pride and Prejudice. The Bennett sisters’ aunt, Mrs Gardiner, on the other hand, feels very like an aunt of choice for us NorthernReaders, especially since she threw so much helpful light for us on real aunts and uncles of the distant past (Week 34). In fact, she’s pretty much alone as an aunt who is a normal woman, not an over-the-top, barkingly-mad, dangerously unbalanced harpy, humorous or frankly sinister. David Copperfield’s aunt Betsey Trotwood, anyone? (note to self: stay away from the donkeys). Talking of normal women, I confess to a slight obsession in childhood with the farce, Charley’s Aunt, based, I think, on the eye-popping glamour of Danny La Rue, who I saw when very young and impressionable (me, not Mr La Rue).
Graham Greene at least had the decency to suggest that nephews should take their aunts with them on their travels. Aunt Augusta might make quite a good president of the Aunts’ Association, actually, being (as is so often the case among us aunts) a lot more laid-back, dashing and daring than her nephew. Isn’t it interesting, by the way, that nieces generally come off rather better in encounters with aunts? They rarely find themselves in the uncomfortable role of dull timid stooge to their remarkable aged relative. Some nieces do find themselves scooped up in auntly travel plans, but all that gallery-trudging can pay off: look at Little Women’s Amy March nabbing Laurie in Europe (and hurray for the irresistibly selfish Amy, anyway, for saving her sister Jo from an inevitable murder charge had she accompanied Aunt March on the Grand Tour).
And then there are the aunts that haunt the gloom of the wildest, most rural retreats. Life in the countryside can take a girl in different ways, and my, don’t our two characters model those differences? I’m thinking of Mary Yellan’s Aunt Patience in Daphne Du Maurier’s Jamaica Inn and Aunt Ada Doom – queen of her tribe – in Stella Gibbons’ Cold Comfort Farm. If you have very sensibly not bothered to try to hear the current disastrous BBC version of Jamaica Inn, do add it to your reading list – and do feel free to point out to the BBC that filming with the lights out at midnight may have worked once, briefly, in Wallander but the term ‘film noir’ is actually meant to be a bloody metaphor, not an instruction – and meanwhile take my word for it that Aunt Patience is a terrible drip who could do with a good shaking (what happens to her is rather more extreme than a good shaking but I’m afraid I cannot muster much sympathy). But Aunt Ada Doom, who saw something nasty in the woodshed, is one of the great literary creations of all time, and, had I political power, I would instantly propose an annual Aunt Ada Doom Day, on which we aunts could be properly feared, pampered and revered by our assembled nieces and nephews. Until that happy day, I shall make do with Rupert Christiansen’s The Complete Book of Aunts, which should give me some tips. After all, as Wodehouse pointed out, ‘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.’ Something to live up to there, I feel.