Saturday, 11 December 2010

Training a good wife, catching a good husband

If you were a woman born in the Swiss canton of Argau at the turn of the twentieth century, the younger daughter of a master craftsman, career opportunities as you reached adulthood were limited. The heroine of today’s story is Emma Lina, who faced just this predicament.

Things were better for the elder sister, Bertha, who stood to inherit something. She lived a colourful life, including a long list of unsuitable lovers (but when was a lover suitable?) and adventures in every corner of the globe. And I mean every corner: she was someone made for the age of flight, catching planes to every imaginable destination.

In fact, she eventually became a little tired of Emma Lina’s stay-at-home prudence.

‘Some day, you’re just going to have to learn to get into a plane.’

‘A large metal thing suspended in thin air? Not on your Nelly.’

You understand that neither sister spoke English, so the expression ‘not on your Nelly’ is artistic licence by your humble narrator. But I’m sure there’s some equivalent in mid-twentieth century Swiss German dialect, and equally sure she used it.

Despite all that, Bertha convinced her eventually. Emma Lina caught a plane from Basel to Geneva – not a flight you can take any more – to see her youngest daughter there. As they approached their destination, the plane seemed to take an unconscionable time circling over Lake Geneva. A beautiful view, but it palls after a while. Still, the boredom turned out to be infinitely preferable to what it was replaced by.

‘We regret to announce,’ said the pilot over the public address system, ‘that we are unable to lower the undercarriage at the present time. We are therefore going to have to circle to burn off fuel and then force land at the airport. We regret any inconvenience caused.’

That last bit is probably artistic licence too.

They eventually belly landed on a foam-covered runway surrounded by fire engines and ambulances. Emma Lina immediately insisted that she would never fly again and, indeed, her family had better book her a railway trip back to Basel.

‘Don’t be silly,’ said Bertha, ‘that kind of thing is just terribly bad luck. It’ll never happen again.’

Bertha must have been gifted with oratorical charm, or been a highly dominant personality, or perhaps both, because she persuaded Emma Lina to get back into a plane for the flight home.

They got to Basel and the pilot came on the public address system. ‘Terribly sorry, Emma Lina, it’s happened again. We can’t get the undercarriage down.’ I expect he really used other words to that effect, but that was the effect on Emma Lina.

Unfortunately, Basel airport is smaller than Geneva and couldn’t accommodate a belly landing, so they had to fly on to Amsterdam. Check the map: Basel is a lot closer to Geneva than to Amsterdam. There they put Emma Lina through a repeat of her previous landing: foam on the runway, fire engines, ambulances.

‘Never again,’ were her first words when her family, who’d been flown up to Amsterdam, met her at the gate. This time even Bertha saw the wisdom of buttoning it. The airline had offered the choice of a free flight back to Basel or rail tickets. They went by train.

Now rewind back to the years immediately after the First World War. What to do with this younger daughter with limited prospects, poor Emma Lina? Well, her parents sent her to housekeeping school in Basel. Here the young women learned the best way to dust, to iron, to make a nutritious and succulent evening meal, to keep household accounts, to look after kids and to warm slippers in front of the fire. The last bit may not actually have been on the curriculum.

‘If she does really well at that school, who knows?’ said her parents, ‘a prosperous farmer might like her enough to marry her.’

Every Saturday, the young women of the school ran a little café where the public could enjoy a cup of coffee and a slice of the cakes the inmates had baked. Obviously, all the eligible men of the district would be there, checking out the talent on show.

By ‘talent’, I mean, of course, ‘housekeeping talent’. Anyone who thought anything else please move immediately to the back of the class and write a hundred times ‘I will not think prurient thoughts while reading respectable family blogs.’

One such eligible bachelor was a young man who had recently been made French, by ‘réincorporation’ as the government put it, i.e. by their action in taking Alsace back from Germany. He was rattling a bit from the shrapnel still inside him and which would, ultimately, kill him; I presume, though I don’t know for sure, that it was French shrapnel, received while he was in a uniform of German grey rather than French blue. His brother hadn’t made it through the war at all.

He, Prosper Brugner, took a shine to Emma Lina. The results, in April 1921, are revealed by the photo below.

Prosper was no prosperous farmer. He was a craftsman who prospered by installing shutters in buildings. His sons would later set up a whole business in that trade.

Between them, Emma Lina and Prosper had a short but happy married life, which produced two daughters and three sons. Their elder daughter and second child was Jeannette. Her only child was Danielle, who went even further out on a limb than Bertha, and married an Englishman, in probably about the best coup I’ve ever managed to pull off in my life.

As for Emma Lina, her marriage ended far too soon, in 1947, when the shrapnel at last got the better of Prosper. She found herself another husband, though, by the simple expedient of going round the village and looking at the wood piles outside the houses of all the bachelors. She reasoned, correctly as it turned out, that a man with a large wood pile would know how to look after a house and the woman inside it. It didn’t matter at all to her that he was Jewish, a pleasing and refreshing freedom of racism in the face of pragmatic good sense.

When Danielle was reaching adulthood herself, her grandmother used to say to her regularly, ‘I wish the housekeeping school still existed and you could go there. Your mother’s taught you nothing.’

Don’t worry, Emma Lina, don’t worry. She’s learned. By dint of looking after me and three other boisterous males, she learned to stay calm in any situation, keep a house that is neither too tidy nor worryingly dirty, and cook some extraordinary meals.

You don’t have to go to a formal housekeeping school. The school of life can be just as effective.


Bob said...

I rise from the back of the classroom to praise this compact family history. Delightful!

Anonymous said...

Delightful post. I am positive that had she gone to Housekeeping School, Danielle would have learnt nothing that she does not know already.


Awoogamuffin said...

Yup, that was definitely worth reading - I'll get round to all the rest once I'm done with your brilliant manuscript!

Peggy said...