Tuesday, 30 October 2012

183: Matilda

Before you ask, no I don’t frigging waltz.  Yes, I know it’s a very funny joke and I agree, it is an unusual name.  That doesn’t make it any less tedious each time I hear it, though.  No, my father didn’t have a thing for the outback and no, I don’t want to see your billabong, not unless it is particularly large or an abnormal shape.

I’m named after a great aunt on my mother’s side, I’ve been led to believe.  I’m not sure she waltzed much either, judging by the sepia photograph that is the only image of her I’ve ever seen.  Like most women of that time in photographs, she was upright and her face was mirthless.  She wore a starched frock with a bustle, held a frilled umbrella and balanced a monstrous feather hat on her head.  She looks, one might say, like a real tartar.

However, Great Aunt Matilda was nothing like the image portrayed her at all.  Family history tells of her being so different I wondered if she had chosen to dress up for her picture as some kind of joke.  Great Aunt Matilda was a pioneer, an adventurer and a character.  Gran found a bundle of letters she had written to her sisters during years of travelling, bound up with lilac ribbon and stored in the back of an old bureau.

Great Aunt Matilda was known as Tilly by everyone.  Her own mother said it made her sound like a scullery maid, which she seemed to revel in.  The family wasn’t wealthy but were comfortably well off, holidaying ever summer in Italy and visiting London hotels every Christmas.  She was the eldest girl in a family of eleven children and as such, expected to marry first.  At 17, Tilly declared marriage was a simply awful mistake, one she didn’t intend to make, ever.

After some years of attempting to match her with desirable young men, all of whom were rebuffed, the family stopped trying and concentrated on marrying off the younger girls instead.  That left Tilly free to do as she pleased, so she bought a parrot, taught it several coarse words and set off for an adventure.

Rather than head to India where she might find any number of family friends, Tilly went to Egypt.  Swathed in pale cotton, she rode a camel across deserts and explored temples thousands of years old.  She wrote to her sisters with vivid descriptions of the inside of the pyramids, told them about excavations looking for tombs in the Valley of the Kings and drew pen pictures of the king’s Winter Palace, the Nile and of her parrot in a palm tree.

Years passed and Tilly stayed in Egypt, settling into life in Cairo and Luxor with ease.  She befriended other English families and sometimes helped on excavations.  She was there at the discovery of a new pharaoh’s tomb and wrote long letters home describing the golden treasures inside.  And she imagined the life the pharaoh had before he died so many years ago.

In middle age, Tilly returned to England following the death of her beloved parrot.  We couldn’t find more than the odd trace of her after she came back, although we know she lived in the family house until she died at almost 80 years of age.  She never married, never bought another parrot and never returned to Egypt.

I have promised myself that when I have time I’ll try researching more about Great Aunt Tilly.  When I have money I’d like to visit Egypt like she did and I’ll climb in tombs and pyramids and worship in temples at dawn.  I can’t draw but I’ll buy coloured postcards and take hundreds of photos to show my own sisters.

Until then, I’ve bought myself a parrot and I’m teaching it to say “bugger”.

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