Reflections on a Valentine Tragedy

By Brown, Margaret | Contemporary Review, February 1996 | Go to article overview

Reflections on a Valentine Tragedy


Brown, Margaret, Contemporary Review


For nearly everyone else, whether successful in love or not, 14th February is St. Valentine's Day. For me it has a different significance. On 14th February 1957 my mother killed herself. The causes and consequences of this event have made it the most important of my life. I have a BA in European Studies from the University of Sussex and an MSc in, effectively, Modern European History from the University of London. For nine years I have been a cleaner. In the University of Reading I polish the floors of the Faculty of Letters and sometimes look out over the rabbit-nibbled grass at the Library where books by me sit on the shelves.

My parents were doctors. My mother was the only child of a wealthy Scottish businessman. Her mother was, to say the least, a little odd. After a row at my birth in 1943 my mother never spoke to her mother again. My father was the son of a PresbYterian minister who had managed to get him a free place at a public school. My parents met as medical students and as young doctors they settled in a Northern industrial town. They had a lot of children, of whom I was the eldest, and took a prominent part in local affairs. A Northern town in the 1950s was as rigidly stratified as Ancien Regime France. It consisted of the working class topped by a thin layer of interlocking patriarchies of industrialists, lawyers, doctors etc. Our family differed from the other medical families. We children went to an ordinary elementary school instead of a prep school. We were the only children of graduates there. We did not usually play with the other privileged children. My father kept changing cars. He had about 30 in succession. My mother had only one - a small green Morris with the number DET 793. My father had frequent short holidays by himself.

Academic success was what mattered - the proof of worth, the badge of caste and the path to Heaven. Only in adult life did we realise that to fail an examination was not 'The Sin Against The Holy Ghost'. Our parents were largely indifferent to us otherwise. They saw as little of us as possible. My father was rarely in anyway. Every holiday we were sent away to relatives. For the last few years of our mother's life the younger half of the brood lived elsewhere permanently. On her visits to them she was upset when some of them did not recognise her. Each time I returned from my paternal grandmother's I cried myself to sleep at night. Once I asked my mother, 'Why don't you ever hug us or love us like other mothers?' 'Love has to be earned,' she screamed, 'and you haven't earned it!' At school I had behaviour problems. Our mother never set foot in any of our schools. The task of placating angry teachers fell to my father. One of my last memories of my mother is of her telling me, about three months before her death, that I was driving her to an early grave.

On that particular St. Valentine's Day we all went to school as usual. Early in the afternoon my father, for the first time, collected me and those of my brothers still living at home. He told us that our mother had disappeared, almost certainly to try to commit suicide. There had been previous attempts. Five months into her last pregnancy she had put her head in the gas oven. She had been revived. A year or two later she had taken an overdose and driven to a common six miles away. She had been found and her stomach pumped out. Imbalance was in the family. A maternal aunt and uncle had spent most of their adult lives in mental hospitals. The next day we all went to school as usual. I was sent to the medical room. At about 11 a.m. the headmistress came to tell me that my mother had been found drowned in a river 100 miles away. She had died at about 1 a.m. I cried but recovered enough to have my lunch. Within a week I was saying, 'At least she could have waited until after my examinations.'

The inquest resulted in a verdict of 'suicide while the balance of mind was disturbed'. It reached the national press.

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