A Victorian governess faces a difficult and painful decision.

     “Where’s Auntie Catherine, Grandma?” asked little Kate Wairing.

     “Why, she’s walking out with her admirer, pet,” replied her grandma, Ann Potts, ruffling the little girl’s hair affectionately.

     “What’s an admirer, Gran?” enquired the inquisitive child.

      “An admirer is…well…he’s a gentleman who likes a lady very much,” replied Mrs. Potts hesitantly. “Sometimes,” she continued, “the gentleman admirer wants to marry the lady.”

      “Who is Auntie Catherine’s admirer, Gran,” persisted Kate. “What’s his name?”

     “Why, it’s Mr. Roscoe,” said Mrs. Potts. “Tha’s met him, Kate. He came to tea once when tha was visiting from Middlesbrough.”

     “Will Mr. Roscoe ask Aunt Catherine to marry him?” asked Kate.

     “Eh, lass, how do I know?” said Mrs. Potts, a worried frown creasing her brow. “My, but tha’s a nosey child today!” she scolded. “Now, Kate, if tha’s finished thy tea, hop down from that stool, and go play with t’ dollies till it’s time for bed, pet!”

    Kate, who was normally a charming and well-behaved child, swallowed the last mouthful of bread and jam and climbed down from the wooden stool. She planted a swift kiss on her grandma’s cheek before trotting off into the corner of the snug sitting room of the Potts’ truckle cottage. She sat down cross-legged on the floor and, picking up a pair of rag dolls, began speaking to them in a low voice as she arranged their hair and clothing neatly.

     A warm smile crept over Mrs. Potts face as she watched her beloved grandchild at play.

     “Aye, but she’s such a sweet girl,” she murmured to herself. “Never a scrap of trouble!”

     A little later, as she was washing the dishes, Mrs. Potts heard the door latch lift and turned to see her daughter, Catherine, come in from the High Street.

     “Eh lass, where hast tha been?” asked Mrs. Potts anxiously. “Tha’s been gone for hours. I wondered where tha’d got to!”

      “Why, ma, I told you that I was walking out with Mr. Roscoe. We went down to the promenade and walked along by the sea,” replied Catherine, a slim woman with a pleasant face and curly auburn hair.

     “Hast tha had thy tea then?” asked her mother. Mrs. Potts was from Guisborough, and she had retained her broad Yorkshire accent.

    “Yes, ma. Mr. Roscoe took me to a café after our walk, and we had a lovely tea, bread and butter and scones and some cakes,” answered her daughter.

     “Aye, well, lass, sit down a minute,” said her mother.

     Catherine unpinned her hat, and set it carefully on the dresser. She drew up a chair to the table as her mother put a steaming hot cup of tea in front of her.

     “So what were ye talking about all this time?” asked Mrs. Potts.

     “Oh, just the usual things, ma,” said Catherine evasively, “The family, work, Redcar gossip!” She was, as usual, mildly irritated by her mother’s interrogation. She was after all a grown woman of thirty-five, albeit still single and living at home. “Where’s everybody?” she asked, looking around the room.

     “Thy brother, William, Thomas and Elizabeth’s John, are out fishing in the boat. Elizabeth and t’ baby are asleep in the back, and thy niece, Kate, is playin’ with her dollies,” said Mrs. Potts. “So there’s just the two of us.”

     Catherine Potts sipped her tea, and glanced cautiously at her mother. Oh well, she thought, she’s got to know. Now’s as good a time as any.

    “Ma, Mr. Roscoe has asked me to marry him,” she said.

     Her mother’s mouth dropped open in surprise, and she put her cup down carefully on the table.

      “Asked thee to marry him, has he?” she repeated, scarcely able to believe it.

      “He has!” confirmed her daughter.

      Mrs. Potts’ mind was in a turmoil. All her other adult children were already married except for William, the eldest. All of Catherine’s sisters were married, even the youngest, Elizabeth. But Mrs. Potts had assumed that Catherine, well into her thirties, would be a life-long spinster, especially after she’d acquired the job of governess to the children of a wealthy local family.

     “And did tha’ give him an answer?” she finally asked her daughter.

     “I told him that I’d think about it,” replied Catherine. “I said I needed to talk to you, ma, but I’m inclined to accept his proposal.”

     “If tha marry him, lass, you’ll not be able to keep your job as a governess. They’ll not allow a married woman to teach their children,” declared Mrs. Potts.

     “That’s true,” acknowledged Catherine.

     “Well, what’ll tha live on?” asked her mother. Catherine saw the little creases of worry around her mother’s eyes.

      “Now, ma,” she said tenderly. “Don’t take on! Ted – Mr. Roscoe, that is – has a good position at Saltburn School. And I can take on students in our home after we’re married. We’ll get by quite nicely.”

     “Aye, lass, but I’m not sure that we will,” said her mother ruefully. “The nets are not as full as they used to be and the price of cod is down. We can scarcely put food on table, as it is. We depended on your salary, as was prompt and regular, to keep us heads afloat!”

     Catherine realized with a sinking heart that her mother’s words were true. Since her father’s death the family had struggled. William was not the fisherman his father had been and two of her sisters had moved away. She felt a pang of guilt that in the excitement of her admirer’s proposal she had thought only of her own future, and had taken no account of the rest of her family.

     “It was selfish of me, ma, not to think of the rest of you,” she said quietly. “I was so happy to hear Ted’s proposal. After all, I’m thirty-five years old. How many more offers can I expect at my age?”

   Her mother looked at her sadly. “I feel bad too, pet, to be a burden around your neck, but I just cannot think as to how we can manage without thee.”

    Catherine poured herself another cup of tea, and stirred in a spoonful of sugar. She sat deep in thought, running the problem around and around in her head, but without catching even a glimpse of a solution.

    “Aye well, ma,” she said finally. “Let’s sleep on’t, and we’ll talk again tomorrow. There’s no hurry.”

    Her mother nodded, and began absently folding a basket of clothes.

     As it happened, Catherine and her mother did not resume their conversation in the morning as neither woman had anything fresh to say.

     Mrs. Potts had lain awake till midnight racking her brains for some solution that would free her last remaining unmarried daughter to fly the coop. A number of ideas had suggested themselves. She thought of taking in washing or selling balloons on the street or perhaps finding some kind of job cleaning a house or an office, but she doubted that any of these would bring in enough money to support four adults and an infant.

     Catherine had tossed and turned restlessly, dreaming strange dreams in which she was riding in an ornate carriage drawn by white horses which had passed by her family’s cottage on Redcar’s High Street. Outside the house had stood her mother, brother, sister and brother-in-law in ragged clothes, their arms stretched out to her in piteous appeal. She woke with a start in the early hours of the morning. When she came down to breakfast, her niece, little Kate Wairing, was sitting at the table, drinking a glass of milk.

     The child stared with big round eyes at her aunt’s drawn, haggard face.

     “Sit down, Auntie,” she said anxiously. “You look poorly. Didn’t you sleep?”

     Catherine smiled at the little girl. “You’re a kind soul, little Kate, to be asking after me. Don’t you worry! I’m canny enough although a strong cup of tea would do me the world of good just now!”

    After her aunt had finished pouring her tea and had settled down at the table, the little girl looked at her shyly and asked:

     “Auntie, are you getting married? If you are, can I be your bridesmaid?”

     Catherine felt a lump in her throat and tears started to form in her eyes as she glanced at the little girl’s face with its earnest expression.

     “I haven’t decided yet whether I’ll be married or not,” she said carefully, “but, my pet, if there should be a wedding, why you’ll be my very first choice for a bridesmaid!” She watched with pleasure as little Kate’s eyes lit up with excitement.

     “I think you’d look so lovely in a wedding dress, Auntie,” said Kate dreamily.

     “Aye, well that’s as maybe,” said Catherine, anxious to change the subject. “Where’s your Gran?”

     “She went down to shops,” replied Kate. “She’ll be back in a while.”

     When Mrs. Potts returned, she found that her daughter had already left the house, but her other daughter Elizabeth was at the table, feeding Ada, the baby.

     “Where did Catherine go?” asked Mrs. Potts.

     “She told me to tell you that she had some thinking to do and was going down to the front for a walk,” replied Elizabeth. “She said as she’d be back for tea.”

     Mrs. Potts nodded absently. “How’s the bairn this morning?” she asked.

     “Champion!” said Elizabeth. “She’s got a grand appetite!”

     “Yet another mouth to feed!” thought Mrs. Potts.

     “I told him that I couldn’t accept his offer of marriage at the moment,” said Catherine.

     Her mother detected a look of sadness in her daughter’s eyes.

     “I’m sorry, pet,” she said. “Did he ask you why?”

     “He did,” said her daughter, “and I told him that times were hard and that my family needed my support.”

     “And what did he say to that?” asked Mrs. Potts.

     “Well, ma, I could see that he was as disappointed as I was. But he said that he understood, and he asked if there was any way that he could help. I told him thank you but no, that we couldn’t be accepting charity,” answered Catherine.

     “How did tha’ leave things?” enquired Mrs. Potts.

     “We agreed to leave it for six months, and then we’d see if the situation had changed enough for him to ask again,” replied Catherine.

     “Will tha’ be seeing him again?” asked her mother.

     “Not for a while,” said Catherine, a tinge of regret in her voice. “As you know, ma, the children returned from their holiday in London, and I’m required to resume my governess duties at the hall.”

     “Don’t fret,” said Mrs. Potts, laying her hand on her daughter’s shoulder. “If he’s as good a man as you say he is, he’ll wait for thee.”

     “I hope so, ma. I hope so,” breathed Catherine wistfully.

POSTSCRIPT: This story arose from a remark made by my late Aunt Mary who told me one time that she had always been upset because her Great-Aunt Catherine had had ‘an admirer’, but had been prevented from marrying him by her mother, Ann Potts. My Aunt Mary thought that it was selfish of her great-grandmother to stand in the way of her daughter’s happiness. The story takes place in 1881 when Ann Potts and her son, two daughters, son-in-law and granddaughter were living together in Potts cottage at 118 High Street, Redcar, a seaside town in North Yorkshire. I had to invent the character of Ted Parkinson as the identity of Catherine’s admirer is unknown! Catherine was a governess, and the family undoubtedly depended on her salary, modest though it probably was. The little girl, Kate Wairing, is my paternal grandmother. At the time she was about five years old. I don’t know if she often visited her grandmother, Ann Potts, but I’m sure she must have been in the ‘truckle cottage’ at some point. Sadly Kate died in 1938 before I was born. Equally sadly Catherine Potts never married.


   

     “Where’s Auntie Catherine, Grandma?” asked little Kate Wairing.

     “Why, she’s walking out with her admirer, pet,” replied her grandma, Ann Potts, ruffling the little girl’s hair affectionately.

     “What’s an admirer, Gran?” enquired the inquisitive child.

      “An admirer is…well…he’s a gentleman who likes a lady very much,” replied Mrs. Potts hesitantly. “Sometimes,” she continued, “the gentleman admirer wants to marry the lady.”

      “Who is Auntie Catherine’s admirer, Gran,” persisted Kate. “What’s his name?”

     “Why, it’s Mr. Roscoe,” said Mrs. Potts. “Tha’s met him, Kate. He came to tea once when tha was visiting from Middlesbrough.”

     “Will Mr. Roscoe ask Aunt Catherine to marry him?” asked Kate.

     “Eh, lass, how do I know?” said Mrs. Potts, a worried frown creasing her brow. “My, but tha’s a nosey child today!” she scolded. “Now, Kate, if tha’s finished thy tea, hop down from that stool, and go play with t’ dollies till it’s time for bed, pet!”

    Kate, who was normally a charming and well-behaved child, swallowed the last mouthful of bread and jam and climbed down from the wooden stool. She planted a swift kiss on her grandma’s cheek before trotting off into the corner of the snug sitting room of the Potts’ truckle cottage. She sat down cross-legged on the floor and, picking up a pair of rag dolls, began speaking to them in a low voice as she arranged their hair and clothing neatly.

     A warm smile crept over Mrs. Potts face as she watched her beloved grandchild at play.

     “Aye, but she’s such a sweet girl,” she murmured to herself. “Never a scrap of trouble!”

     A little later, as she was washing the dishes, Mrs. Potts heard the door latch lift and turned to see her daughter, Catherine, come in from the High Street.

     “Eh lass, where hast tha been?” asked Mrs. Potts anxiously. “Tha’s been gone for hours. I wondered where tha’d got to!”

      “Why, ma, I told you that I was walking out with Mr. Roscoe. We went down to the promenade and walked along by the sea,” replied Catherine, a slim woman with a pleasant face and curly auburn hair.

     “Hast tha had thy tea then?” asked her mother. Mrs. Potts was from Guisborough, and she had retained her broad Yorkshire accent.

    “Yes, ma. Mr. Roscoe took me to a café after our walk, and we had a lovely tea, bread and butter and scones and some cakes,” answered her daughter.

     “Aye, well, lass, sit down a minute,” said her mother.

     Catherine unpinned her hat, and set it carefully on the dresser. She drew up a chair to the table as her mother put a steaming hot cup of tea in front of her.

     “So what were ye talking about all this time?” asked Mrs. Potts.

     “Oh, just the usual things, ma,” said Catherine evasively, “The family, work, Redcar gossip!” She was, as usual, mildly irritated by her mother’s interrogation. She was after all a grown woman of thirty-five, albeit still single and living at home. “Where’s everybody?” she asked, looking around the room.

     “Thy brother, William, Thomas and Elizabeth’s John, are out fishing in the boat. Elizabeth and t’ baby are asleep in the back, and thy niece, Kate, is playin’ with her dollies,” said Mrs. Potts. “So there’s just the two of us.”

     Catherine Potts sipped her tea, and glanced cautiously at her mother. Oh well, she thought, she’s got to know. Now’s as good a time as any.

    “Ma, Mr. Roscoe has asked me to marry him,” she said.

     Her mother’s mouth dropped open in surprise, and she put her cup down carefully on the table.

      “Asked thee to marry him, has he?” she repeated, scarcely able to believe it.

      “He has!” confirmed her daughter.

      Mrs. Potts’ mind was in a turmoil. All her other adult children were already married except for William, the eldest. All of Catherine’s sisters were married, even the youngest, Elizabeth. But Mrs. Potts had assumed that Catherine, well into her thirties, would be a life-long spinster, especially after she’d acquired the job of governess to the children of a wealthy local family.

     “And did tha’ give him an answer?” she finally asked her daughter.

     “I told him that I’d think about it,” replied Catherine. “I said I needed to talk to you, ma, but I’m inclined to accept his proposal.”

     “If tha marry him, lass, you’ll not be able to keep your job as a governess. They’ll not allow a married woman to teach their children,” declared Mrs. Potts.

     “That’s true,” acknowledged Catherine.

     “Well, what’ll tha live on?” asked her mother. Catherine saw the little creases of worry around her mother’s eyes.

      “Now, ma,” she said tenderly. “Don’t take on! Ted – Mr. Roscoe, that is – has a good position at Saltburn School. And I can take on students in our home after we’re married. We’ll get by quite nicely.”

     “Aye, lass, but I’m not sure that we will,” said her mother ruefully. “The nets are not as full as they used to be and the price of cod is down. We can scarcely put food on table, as it is. We depended on your salary, as was prompt and regular, to keep us heads afloat!”

     Catherine realized with a sinking heart that her mother’s words were true. Since her father’s death the family had struggled. William was not the fisherman his father had been and two of her sisters had moved away. She felt a pang of guilt that in the excitement of her admirer’s proposal she had thought only of her own future, and had taken no account of the rest of her family.

     “It was selfish of me, ma, not to think of the rest of you,” she said quietly. “I was so happy to hear Ted’s proposal. After all, I’m thirty-five years old. How many more offers can I expect at my age?”

   Her mother looked at her sadly. “I feel bad too, pet, to be a burden around your neck, but I just cannot think as to how we can manage without thee.”

    Catherine poured herself another cup of tea, and stirred in a spoonful of sugar. She sat deep in thought, running the problem around and around in her head, but without catching even a glimpse of a solution.

    “Aye well, ma,” she said finally. “Let’s sleep on’t, and we’ll talk again tomorrow. There’s no hurry.”

    Her mother nodded, and began absently folding a basket of clothes.

     As it happened, Catherine and her mother did not resume their conversation in the morning as neither woman had anything fresh to say.

     Mrs. Potts had lain awake till midnight racking her brains for some solution that would free her last remaining unmarried daughter to fly the coop. A number of ideas had suggested themselves. She thought of taking in washing or selling balloons on the street or perhaps finding some kind of job cleaning a house or an office, but she doubted that any of these would bring in enough money to support four adults and an infant.

     Catherine had tossed and turned restlessly, dreaming strange dreams in which she was riding in an ornate carriage drawn by white horses which had passed by her family’s cottage on Redcar’s High Street. Outside the house had stood her mother, brother, sister and brother-in-law in ragged clothes, their arms stretched out to her in piteous appeal. She woke with a start in the early hours of the morning. When she came down to breakfast, her niece, little Kate Wairing, was sitting at the table, drinking a glass of milk.

     The child stared with big round eyes at her aunt’s drawn, haggard face.

     “Sit down, Auntie,” she said anxiously. “You look poorly. Didn’t you sleep?”

     Catherine smiled at the little girl. “You’re a kind soul, little Kate, to be asking after me. Don’t you worry! I’m canny enough although a strong cup of tea would do me the world of good just now!”

    After her aunt had finished pouring her tea and had settled down at the table, the little girl looked at her shyly and asked:

     “Auntie, are you getting married? If you are, can I be your bridesmaid?”

     Catherine felt a lump in her throat and tears started to form in her eyes as she glanced at the little girl’s face with its earnest expression.

     “I haven’t decided yet whether I’ll be married or not,” she said carefully, “but, my pet, if there should be a wedding, why you’ll be my very first choice for a bridesmaid!” She watched with pleasure as little Kate’s eyes lit up with excitement.

     “I think you’d look so lovely in a wedding dress, Auntie,” said Kate dreamily.

     “Aye, well that’s as maybe,” said Catherine, anxious to change the subject. “Where’s your Gran?”

     “She went down to shops,” replied Kate. “She’ll be back in a while.”

     When Mrs. Potts returned, she found that her daughter had already left the house, but her other daughter Elizabeth was at the table, feeding Ada, the baby.

     “Where did Catherine go?” asked Mrs. Potts.

     “She told me to tell you that she had some thinking to do and was going down to the front for a walk,” replied Elizabeth. “She said as she’d be back for tea.”

     Mrs. Potts nodded absently. “How’s the bairn this morning?” she asked.

     “Champion!” said Elizabeth. “She’s got a grand appetite!”

     “Yet another mouth to feed!” thought Mrs. Potts.

     “I told him that I couldn’t accept his offer of marriage at the moment,” said Catherine.

     Her mother detected a look of sadness in her daughter’s eyes.

     “I’m sorry, pet,” she said. “Did he ask you why?”

     “He did,” said her daughter, “and I told him that times were hard and that my family needed my support.”

     “And what did he say to that?” asked Mrs. Potts.

     “Well, ma, I could see that he was as disappointed as I was. But he said that he understood, and he asked if there was any way that he could help. I told him thank you but no, that we couldn’t be accepting charity,” answered Catherine.

     “How did tha’ leave things?” enquired Mrs. Potts.

     “We agreed to leave it for six months, and then we’d see if the situation had changed enough for him to ask again,” replied Catherine.

     “Will tha’ be seeing him again?” asked her mother.

     “Not for a while,” said Catherine, a tinge of regret in her voice. “As you know, ma, the children returned from their holiday in London, and I’m required to resume my governess duties at the hall.”

     “Don’t fret,” said Mrs. Potts, laying her hand on her daughter’s shoulder. “If he’s as good a man as you say he is, he’ll wait for thee.”

     “I hope so, ma. I hope so,” breathed Catherine wistfully.

POSTSCRIPT: This story arose from a remark made by my late Aunt Mary who told me one time that she had always been upset because her Great-Aunt Catherine had had ‘an admirer’, but had been prevented from marrying him by her mother, Ann Potts. My Aunt Mary thought that it was selfish of her great-grandmother to stand in the way of her daughter’s happiness. The story takes place in 1881 when Ann Potts and her son, two daughters, son-in-law and granddaughter were living together in Potts cottage at 118 High Street, Redcar, a seaside town in North Yorkshire. I had to invent the character of Ted Parkinson as the identity of Catherine’s admirer is unknown! Catherine was a governess, and the family undoubtedly depended on her salary, modest though it probably was.

The little girl, Kate Wairing, is my paternal grandmother. At the time she was about five years old. I don’t know if she often visited her grandmother, Ann Potts, but I’m sure she must have been in the ‘truckle cottage’ at some point. Sadly Kate died in 1938 before I was born. Equally sadly Catherine Potts never married.

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