a u t o b i o g r a p h y

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Stella Snead


In a bedroom of a London house a woman, my mother, was in labor. I was told, in the fullness of time, that it lasted thirty-six hours. Perhaps a maid was there, and a nurse; a doctor, at intervals. My father would have been hiding, sheltering himself, one might say, in some other part of the house or walking in the garden nursing his neuroses, quite unable to take any part in the natural drama of the birth of his first and, as it turned out, his only child. It was a difficult birth. When I did finally emerge into this world I was not breathing. Smacking did not help; I was given oxygen and then I yelled, showing that I meant to live.

During these same hours England’s King Edward VII was dying. Some of the population might have been grieving, the rest contemplating the next in line to be enthroned—George V and his already queenly wife, Mary of Teck. First would come the sombre pageantry of the funeral and, later on, a splendid display of pomp and circumstance for the coronation of the new monarchs. For centuries England had been well versed in the art of pomp, and in 1910, it was unlikely that any diminishment of such power and glory was thought of. The shows would proceed with their traditional expertise with perhaps only the weather being perversecheerful sunshine for the funeral, hard rain and deadly grayness for the coronation. What the weather did, I do not know, only that these events were kept from my mother until after my birth. Also at about this time Halley’s Comet appeared on one of its known and regular rounds of the heavens and was clearly seen in the northern hemisphere. For those who believe in astrology, as my mother did, this would have been considered auspicious; actually I would say that my life has been a mixed bag like anybody else’s, albeit with some remarkably good luck here and there.

Let it be said that this account of the marriage of my parents, as well as much in my early years, is based on what my mother told me, facts and memories repeated through my childhood and on into adulthood. They were part of the atmosphere, and were absorbed into my mind almost as unconsciously as breathing. Conjectures concerning my father are mine; actual memories of him are dim; and after the age of five I never saw him again. And I never heard his side of the story.


When my father, Clarence Frederick Heron Snead, married my mother, Ethel May Johnson, the chemistry, as we say of star-crossed couples, was all wrong; one might just as well say there was no chemistry, merely two rather unsophisticated people trying to make a match, each with their differently wrong reasons. From hindsight it would appear that my father married my mother for her money so that he could give up a career as a barrister which he had not the confidence to pursue; and that my mother, as the eldest of a large family, knowing that marriage was expected of her, especially since her two younger sisters had already found husbands, had felt duty-bound to accept the proposal of the good-looking Clarence. They were wed in 1901, when my father was twenty-five and my mother two or three years older.

It would seem that very little happiness graced this union. My mother probably married with some reluctance, my father out of desperation. Even as an adolescent he had black moods which isolated him from his companions and mystified his cheerful half-Spanish, half-French mother. She, Afra Rosa Augusta, had met the Englishman she married in Rome, who brought her to live in suburban London. My grandfather seems to have been a background sort of man, rather conventional, not very successful. My father was their only son among three daughters, two of whom fared no better than he did. The eldest had mental trouble similar to my father’s, becoming mad in later life; the second daughter had severe bouts of depression, and committed suicide. Only the youngest was balanced enough to teach school in Canada most of her life. The fact that three of the four offspring of these seemingly normal parents should be so mentally afflicted is an unsolved mystery; nothing is known of their families except that a brother of Afra Rosa was governor of the Balearic Islands.

After returning from a joyless honeymoon on the French Riviera, my parents settled into a pleasant house with a large garden in the south London suburb of Dulwich. My father, who had had a reasonably good education and had competed his studies in law, quickly abandoned the idea of pursuing his profession; thus the bridge between himself and the world became less and less used and therefore more fragile. His only known activity was pruning the roses. Floundering in mental troubles then so little understood, he became a recluse, venting his frustrated energies in bouts of uncontrolled temper, dominating and frightening his inexperienced wife, isolating her from friends, neighbors and most tragically from the family she loved.

Today my mother’s situation and her submission to it seem almost inexplicable. Why didn’t she run away then instead of fourteen years later? Why didn’t her parents help her, rescue her even? Why did they allow themselves to be estranged by the abusive letters my father forced her to write? Why didn’t she confide in them, or in anyone? Perhaps she really was a born old maid yet did not want to admit it. She had lived contentedly at home until her late twenties, had looked after her mother, particularly after the early death of her father; she had been devoted to her two much younger brothers, helping with their upbringing. Both she and her mother were sheltered and shy, knowing little of the world beyond the church and their genteel suburb. But her father was a competent and forthright businessman who had made a fortune. Surely he could have stood up to Clarence Snead and somehow rescued his unhappy daughter. But all too likely it was around the time of the marriage that he died. Perhaps he had warned her during their engagement that she had not made a wise choice; but my mother could be headstrong, and she plunged right in. It was a plunge into quicksand.

During those first years of marriage my father was often unkind and uncaring, but not yet violent. My mother was constrained, perhaps trying to please, above all, trying to avoid trouble. His black moods would occasionally lift and he would exclaim, “I’ve never felt better in my life!” a remark disturbing to my mother since it was too often followed by a tirade about some trivial matter.

It could have been during one of his more positive mood periods that the idea of another trip occurred to my father; in fact why not a Grand Tour, the then popular diversion of the idle rich? — for although only moderately rich my parents were rather immoderately idle. They chose Egypt and travelled in style, if not exactly light-heartedly, to a fabulous land. It was, of course, sheltered travel, not the rugged, exploratory kind of those much bolder individuals of earlier centuries. It was polite, drawing-room travel; but what an adventure it must have seemed to a suburban couple who seldom, if ever, went into central London! They went a thousand miles up the Nile, as far as Wadi Halfa in the Sudan. Wadi Halfa was then a sleepy desert town of mud with one brick-built hotel for visitors. They probably stayed several days at this farthest point of their journey. Such tours were leisurely affairs more often than not arranged by the redoubtable Thos. Cook & Sons, one of the earliest of travel agencies. Transportation was mainly by Cook’s Nile Steamer, something like a small cruise ship. It docked at several points along the way, from which passengers would travel by horse-carriage to see the finely preserved temples of one of the world’s oldest civilizations. These excursions were not arduous as most of the monuments were close to the great river. At Luxor, the most prolific center of ancient tombs and buildings en route, they would have left the ship to stay in the then-renowned hotel, with its grounds charmingly exuberant with bougainvillaea and other semi-tropical plants, with its balconies to every room and a terrace where dinner was served on balmy evenings. There were the dragomen or guides who conducted the sightseeing, but never were there hordes of tourists. When back in Cairo they would have gone, again by carriage, to the Great Pyramids of Giza, for then there was neither hotel nudging the desert nor Son et Lumière coloring up the monuments; but chances are they could have ridden camels for a short distance and walked close to the Sphinx. Finally they went to the oasis of Biskra, which was then surely remote enough to be idyllic. My father likely did some reading which involved him in Egyptian history: the colossi, those twice life-sized statues of the kings; the treasure-filled tombs; the reliefs covering the walls of so many of the temples and telling intricate stories of a people and their animal- and bird-headed deities. Was he perhaps soothed for a while and drawn away from his tormented self? It might have happened, but it did not last; once home, he slid further into the pits of depression.

Although Sigmund Freud’s theories had been pouring out of him since the late 19th century, translations of his works into English did not appear before 1910. So in the first years of the 20th century, in insular Great Britain, little was recognized or named between mental health and insanity; doctors lumped it all under the term “neurasthenia” or, simply, “nerve trouble.” Thanks to Freud, Jung and others, we now know something about this vast and pulsing area, those spaces in the brain where lurk minute gradations of disease: from mild disturbances and fleeting obsessions to suddenly inexplicable fears; fantasies more and more menacing; moods that swing first among shades of gray until the contrasts intensify into dense, heavy black zooming to a high white glare. The worst agony comes when the brain seems to divide against itself, when emotions and intellect withdraw into the limbo of insanity.

People such as my parents would have been deeply in the dark, but possibly at some point my father might have decided that he had a mental illness and that the time had come to seek a cure. Spas were known and were already popular, and there were sanatoria; the latter occasionally advertised treatments for mental troubles. And so to one of these establishments my parents went. It looked like a country hotel, the diet was vegetarian, and this almost certainly was something new and unexpected. Although it worked no magic on my father’s condition, the idea of not eating animals appealed to both of them. It was by no means an immediate transition but it prompted visits to other such places, some offering even more unconventional cures. There was heat, presumably designed to cause the patient to sweat out poisons. One sat in a wooden box surrounded by rows of light bulbs, head only emerging from a hole in the top; there was air-bathing, an early precursor of nudism, but in those pre-World War I years people wore a loose, light garment and simply walked in the breezily bowling air; there was also dew-walking to be done in the early morning on one of those fine grass lawns so prevalent in England—prevalent too were big, slimy slugs also enjoying the damp dawns. So as my parents indulged, if somewhat gingerly, in all this, there followed, for my mother at least, the first intimations that she was not a thoroughly conventional person.

For centuries many Hindus and Buddhists have observed particularly strict forms of vegetarianism while in the West it only became a “movement” from about the middle of the 19th century—my parents therefore were close to being pioneers. The basis of the practice can be religious, humanitarian or health. At first my parents adopted it from a humanitarian point of view believing that animals should not be made to suffer and die to feed mankind or to clothe them in furs; also the cruelty of vivisection was abhorred, together with foxhunting, bullfighting and other blood sports. On the health side it was thought that refraining from meat led to fewer diseases, that herbal medicines should be used in place of drugs and injections. The ways of cooking vegetables, in particular in England, were an abomination: fast boiling in quantities of water which rendered them tasteless, adding soda which turned their natural color to a fierce metallic green; and then came the final mistake of throwing out the cooking water which might have retained some of the taste and nutrients of the mistreated vegetables. Running side by side with vegetarianism there are often other persuasions such as Theosophy, astrology, a belief in reincarnation. All of this was in no way fashionable as it is now, rather it was considered crank nonsense and socially unacceptable. Nevertheless my mother, in particular, became a stalwart believer in and an ardent missionary for these convictions for the rest of her life.

Many years elapsed before my parents journeyed abroad again, but the visits to sanatoria continued. Certainly they must have been more cheerful places to be than the gloom of the Dulwich house. They offered respite as well as hope and then there was the new thinking of vegetarianism to be further discovered. During this time too my mother did a surprising thing: she took up photography. Perhaps the first seeds of interest were sown by her father, who headed a large and diversified printing firm. She had grown up in a house hung with large printed reproductions of oil paintings, some of which migrated with her when she married. Alternatively, perhaps while in Egypt she had wished she knew how to record its beauty and strangeness in order to have something tangible to take away, or perhaps it was not until she knew she was pregnant that the means to make a record of the coming child became imperative. No diary of my mother’s has survived, no photographic notes while learning, no information even as to how she learned. The fact that she not only took photos but developed and printed them herself and later hand-colored them, makes me regret enormously that I was such a dull child and never asked any of the right questions. Luckily at least I remember the camera, a rather modest one of the period, in which glass plates were used; hers were only 3 x 4 inches. The outer casing was of wood, as was the tripod it stood on, and a black cloth covered the head of the photographer. Obviously she must have set up a darkroom somewhere in the house but I have no recollection of visiting it, though I do distinctly remember that the printing was done by the sun. Small wooden frames, each containing photo paper and

plate, were put at suitable sun-catching angles on the back terrace. The trick, of course, was to take them in at just the right moment, a skill my mother had diligently acquired, judging by the two fat albums still existing. Each page holds four photographs and each album has thirty-six pages. AtSneadAlbum4sm.jpg (14090 bytes) a guess the pictures date from 1908 or 9— the first five pages show the house, front and back, sections of the garden, a uniformed maid, a fluffy cat, a formally posed group of three women and three children, all unidentified and with serious expressions — no “say cheese” grins here— and it is the same with my father. Invariably he sits in a deckchair either reading or looking straight at the camera, he has a moustache and his good looks are apparent, his stance tends to be hostile and suspicious. In one he nurses the cat, in all he wears high-buttoned, well-polished boots, a dark suit with sometimes a rose in the lapel; beside him there is usually a soft drink or a plate holding an apple or two. In not a single photo does he smile.

It was most likely the latter part of June 1909 that my mother found herself pregnant, and quite a surprise it must have been. More than eight years had elapsed since the beginning of this unharmonious marriage, based as it was on misguided motives rather than love or even friendship. sneadfiordssm.JPG (10652 bytes)My mother, though, was a loving person and to find herself with child was as if a boon had been granted; her apprehensions and anxieties were flooded more often than not by a glow of joy. Around this time too, possibly before he knew of the coming child, my father was contemplating another journey abroad. He had decided on a boat trip up and down the fjords of Norway and he went ahead with these arrangements. My mother had no choice; they went, she took photographs of glass-like water and ships backed by misty mountains while suffering the morning nausea of pregnancy. Probably they were only away two or three weeks, then she was home to prepare in earnest for the baby.

How isolated my mother was by this time it is hard to say. Her mother was still alive, her two younger sisters must have been well versed in the raising of babies, both having been married before my mother and having had varying numbers of children. It would be nice to think she had some contact, together with help and advice. Whether my mother did it alone or with the assistance of family and friends, the baby paraphernalia accumulated: a cot hung with white flounces and with a high draped headpiece, a large and handsome perambulator on four wheels protected by mudguards and with a folding hood like a carriage. My first baby clothes were long, shielding my feet, and they, like the coverlets of the pram, were edged with patterned crochet worked by my mother. Everything I wore was white only, and this, with the crochet continued, with a complete disregard for school uniforms, until I was eight or nine. At first there was a nurse who, according to my mother, only stayed a month, although there is a photograph of me at just over a year being held by a neatly dressed nurse-like woman—maybe she had come back on a visit only. In any case it is certain that from a very early age I was looked after solely by my mother, and not by a nanny as was the usual English custom in those days.

Quite early on it was decided by my parents that I was to be a life-vegetarian, untainted by meat, fish or fowl; nor was my pure baby-blood to be contaminated by anything like a vaccine; so, as a baby, I was not vaccinated against smallpox. I was not christened or baptized either, but this was not a decided-upon omission; rather it was caused by stress. My father had quickly begun to resent my mother’s joy in the baby and the time and attention she lavished on me; his heart could not open to hold any of the delight she felt in this new possession they had acquired and thus his meanness toward her increased. He insisted I must be called the rather uncheerful name Magdalene and had me registered thus; my mother’s choice was Stella, which was adopted later on, and Magdalene was demoted to an unused middle name.

There is no doubt that my mother became a more ardent photographer once I was born, though beside the first baby photo in the albums I am labelled five months. I am lying, with a backdrop of white pillows, on a garden seat; my face is chubby but I appear to have no hair. Soon my mother began to color some of her pictures with tiny brushes from liquids in minute bottles. The house became dark green since it was covered with ivy; the blossoming garden was brilliant, the well-tended lawn an extra bright spring green; her favorite trio of colors at the back of the house—yellow laburnum, mauve wisteria and a copperbeech treewere shown at their best. The shower of clematis over the front door was a luscious purple and the round pillarbox across the road for mailing letters was red, indeed. The tree for my first Christmas touched the ceiling and was hung with scores of glistening glass ornaments, which, oddly enough, my mother did not color in the photographs. I got to know these fragile decorations well in later years as they were preserved in boxes with divided spaces to fit their varying shapes and used again year after year. By the time I was one I had a neat crop of brown curls clinging tightly around my almost intellectual forehead. At a year and a half the hair was bushier and a quite substantial curl was trained to hang down mid-center, so that I fretted, probably in more ways than one, the nursery rhyme— “There was a little girl who had a little curl right in the middle of her forehead./When she was good she was very very good but when she was bad she was horrid.” I did seem to pout a lot; soon with my coloringsneadmother.jpg (4808 bytes) my plump cheeks were rosy, my lips several shades too bright. At nineteen months I smiled, showing two teeth. And here comes the only photograph in the albums of my mother and me together, which I would guess was taken by her best friend, known to me as Aunt Kitty, who evidently visited us just then. My mother looks nervous and wary, holding me on her lap, both of us in total white. Next to us is a picture of Aunt Kitty looking serene in a deckchair wearing a white high-necked blouse and a long khaki-colored skirt.

The pictures continue as I grow older month by month and the garden blooms; often a color and a black & white version of the same shot are placed side by side. It would seem that rather more visitors came than I was led to believe, for there we are, grouped in the garden. In one picture labelled “2 & 92” I sit gazing up at a very ancient lady, not a relative but a friend of my mother. Then there are photographs of our next door neighbors, the father solemnly proud of his family, his wife smiling contentedly, the two well dressed daughters in large hats full of feathers or flowers. Elsewhere there are several of their son sitting at a table, busy with papers. He had become a barrister and might have struck a chord in my mother who must have wished her husband had been normal enough to have successfully entered this profession. But mostly the second album, like the first, contains more images of me and the garden than anything else.

When I was about two my toys began to appear; a teddybear almost as big as I was, which Istellababy.JPG (13709 bytes) could barely carry, or I sit at a table, standing my wooden building blocks on end like skyscrapers. It was extremely unlikely that then I had ever heard of New York; nevertheless I look pleased with my unconscious imitation. Sometimes I wore a pink sunbonnet or was sheltered by a black and white checked parasol or I stood obediently under bowers of roses and, surprisingly, there I am on a white-painted garden seat draped in furs—my mother’s put out to air, but no doubt to be disposed of as she became more thoroughly and seriously vegetarian. By the time I was three, my hair had acquired the proportions of an afro. stellapram.jpg (10952 bytes)One of my birthday presents was a pale blue doll’s pram with a doll wearing a straw hat. I, too, had a straw hat, a rather battered one which I wore at home only; it was a kind of play-companion and I loved it. Somewhat before I was three comes the last picture of me with my father; we sit side by side, he looking severe in a stiff upstanding white collar, but he holds my hand. My rolled forehead curl reached down to between my eyes; fortunately it was often displaced, so I did not become cross-eyed. I learned to bowl a wooden hoop and to beat a cheerful-looking drum. I had a fine doll’s house, verandahs outside, four well-furnished rooms inside, and an even more elaborate Noah’s Ark with two stories of separate cages, each with a manger and beautifully made pair of animals. My rocking horse wasstellahorse.JPG (11111 bytes) covered in real ponyskin and could be detached from the rockers and dragged around the garden with me on its back. This was hardly exciting; I think I preferred rocking.

Perhaps what I liked most as I grew older was to take walks with my mother into that little-known outside world. There was a park near us, not a very manicured one, or was it what in England is called “a common”?—just a piece of land for recreation among wild flowers, bushes and trees. I could run and hide, telling myself tales of the creatures that seemed to me to populate these hidden places, then back to my mother, brimming with stories of nymphs, elves, monsters—each with names presumably invented by me since they were unlike any I might have heard. Later my mother used to lament that she had never written down any of these wisps of an emerging imagination.

It sounds like a placid childhood but there were intimations of danger. One of my first memories is of being held by my mother while with one hand she tried to ward off blows from my father. After my birth I think his condition must have deteriorated considerably. Beyond the fact that he held my hand in one photograph, I never remember even the smallest gesture of affection from him, though I do remember that, like so many fathers, he played with my toy train more than I did; perhaps this was when I felt closest to him.

To distinguish the real memories from hearsay becomes increasingly difficult, even impossible, as time marches on, so let us assume that the exercise is not of great importance. A blow is a blow; any child can be exceedingly irritating when disobedient; and a father with an uncontrollable temper can hit hard. One day he knocked me unconscious. It was temporary and perhaps only happened once, but in my mother it must have instilled a very real fear that persisted and seethed into her mind; quite possibly it was from this moment she knew that, somehow, she must make an end to her marriage. My own reactions are totally forgotten; but there came another incident in some way comparable, which perhaps gives a clue and also suggests that the blow was not as serious as some psychologists would have us believe. My father decided that we should have a dog. It was to stelladog.JPG (10376 bytes)be a chow and one of impeccable pedigree was chosen. I was probably delighted by this young and jolly companion. My father, fanatic that he was, ruled that to avoid catching distemper, the dog must not have contact with other dogs, so therefore must not go out beyond the garden. When the danger of infection had passed he was big, strong and unmanageable. His first encounters with other dogs were wild and frightening; nobody could hold him. Chows as a breed are known to be aggressive and inclined to fight; he was untrainable as well. The servants were nervous to say the least; my father retired to his room. Ultimately our unhappy dog had to be sent back to the kennels. I was the only member of the household who was, innocently rather than bravely, unafraid—so much so that one day I took his bone away from him and he promptly bit me. No doubt I screamed and cried, but my disposition towards dogs remained fearless for many years to come. At the time of the bite I was used to taking daily walks with my mother. I was attracted to every dog we met large or small, and this easy confidence was there as much after the bite as before. Similarly, I was not aware that my father’s hard hit had estranged me from people in general. I might even have had the comfortable feeling that people liked me, since my mother often told me that from an early age my pram would be stopped by admiring strangers.

When I was about three the health of my mother’s mother was deteriorating, and her doctor advised that she should spend the winter in a warmer and dryer climate. One of my mother’s sisters was taking her by ship to Madeira when she died on board and was buried at sea. When this news was repaired it was the first time I had become conscious of sadness in my mother, and, oddly enough, it had nothing to do with my father. As I watched her trying to hold back tears I became upset too, but all I could say was, “Mummy, please put your face right.”

The brooding blackness of my father’s moods was both penetrating and enveloping, giving our house a menacing atmosphere. My mother had difficulty in finding servants; when she did and they had settled in, all too often they wished to leave, and did so. However there were still times when the tensions lightened, and during one of these we suddenly had a car. As far as I knew it was the first occupant of our garage and it was quite handsome. It rose in tiers from the front to the back, and it was very convertible; it could be open, semi-open or closed, even the windscreen could be half-open. Inside there was the rich, attractive smell of fine leather; probably it was of a make long extinct. Our chauffeur had a winter and a summer uniform and he always looked neat. There is astellacar.JPG (15916 bytes) photograph of him holding open the car door as I emerge —I hope I felt like a princess although I never remember actually going anywhere in this well-polished vehicle. I think its life with us must have been brief, because when the First World War started, in 1914, our chauffeur had to become a soldier.

Sometime near the beginning of 1915, a vegetarian cook-housekeeper called Hetty, who Mummy liked and trusted, came to work for us. She was comfortably plump and she was kind, but quite soon she too wanted to leave. My mother begged her to stay, saying she would get a live-in male nurse who could control my father during his fits of fury. Hetty had a good heart and agreed to stay, although the male nurse could not be found on account of the war. By this time my mother was particularly fearful on my behalf and I was never left alone with my father. It soon became clear that my mother’s nerves were giving way. She would collect all the knives in the house each night and have Hetty hide them in her room. I slept with my mother, doors locked, while my father often paced back and forth for hours at a time. I suspect I was the only one who got a good night’s sleep. Finally my mother sent for a doctor. My father, furiously shouting, refused to see him. The doctor, observing my mother, asked her a few pertinent questions. “It is time to go,” he said, “your husband is at a dangerous stage of a long mental illness. You must escape with your child to somewhere he cannot find you, so leave no clues.” It was precisely the kind of advice my mother was more than ready to receive. Within a few minutes of hearing these remarks my mother’s mind switched from frightened uncertainty, and she began to gather the positive energy needed to follow the doctor’s instructions.

“It was extraordinary, almost a miracle,” Hetty told me when we met again very much later. “All your mother asked was that I should come too as a helpful companion and I readily agreed.” But back then, how to get away was the immediate and baffling problem. This near-madman, my father, seldom left the house. He was seemingly detached and uncaring yet always controlling us; we were the mice while he was the hawk. Then came another of his unpredictable mood changes; he swooped into one of his up-moods, which brought him a degree of confidence and enterprise. He announced he would go alone to one of the sanatoria he had previously visited. Within a few days he was gone. Sensing that every moment was precious, my mother and Hetty quickly packed us each a suitcase. The doctor had said that someone should be at the house to receive my father on his return, and Hetty’s mother had agreed to come. Although he was not expected back for two or three weeks, we left hurriedly the following morning. Later we heard what a shockingly narrow escape it was, for my father came back the very next day.

So on that mid-summer morning of 1915, since our car was no longer in use, we summoned our local cabby—I do believe it was a horse-drawn carriage—to take us to Waterloo station. The war, just across the Channel in France and Belgium, was going full blast, yet families in England, mothers, grandparents and children, were going to the coast on holiday. The crowds at the station suited my mother’s plan; we waited among them for perhaps fifteen minutes to be sure the cabby, who knew us, had left. Then we were anonymous and took another cab across London to King’s Cross, from where the trains go north. My mother’s only remaining plan now was to be where we knew nobody, so we sat on one of the several platforms and got on the first available train. I suppose it was easy enough to pay on the train. We got off at a small town in Hertfordshire and rented a cottage near a village called Potter’s Bar. It seemed a peaceful and off-the-beaten-track kind of place but all too soon it was in the news—the war news.

On warm summer nights I was allowed to sleep out on a balcony. On one such night I remember being awakened and bundled downstairs to the parlor, where we sat around a table with a dark green cloth. The sky, what I could see of it, was a deep dark red. There was an intense silence except for a crackling sound. My mother and Hetty sat very still; very possibly I fidgeted, asked questions or fell asleep again. The fact was that a German zeppelin was hovering above us— on fire. Had I been anything but an uncomprehending child I think I would have wanted to run outside and see this object of destruction destroying itself. But my two adult companions chose to sit tight for what they assumed were their last few moments of life. At this point, the fiery monster above us could no longer have been manipulated by the men on board, their lives already consumed by the flames and smoke. Only the wind directed the still-burning skeleton of that once bulky craft; perhaps an updraft, a puff or two moved it onward a few hundred yards, and not even a fragment dropped to ignite our defenseless roof.

The next morning, far more people than usual were passing down our lane, and we heard that the zeppelin had come to earth only two fields away from where we were. We joined the stream of young and old converging from all directions to view the still-smoldering wreck. But we never reached it. My mother suddenly stopped and blurted out, “No! we must turn back—your father might come down from London to see it. We are not safe here.” Perhaps we fled that very day to a more remote and hidden cottage.

Understandably these were difficult days for my mother. She had survived fourteen years of a drastically unhappy marriage, a long submissive period of seldom if ever feeling at ease with my father, and over the slow-moving years this unease had developed into sickening apprehension, into fear. Then, quite suddenly, action was demanded of her: revolutionary action it might have seemed to this rather retiring lady brought up on Victorian precepts such as marriage was “until death do us part.” Only the very bold or the desperate left their husbands. During those few days of planning and undertaking the flight my mother had become one of the desperate; courage welled up, adrenaline flowed. There was no time for contemplation or hesitation. She had done it. She had left her husband, she had escaped with her child, and now perhaps freedom, which she had hardly ever experienced, lay ahead. But she was assailed by a new kind of fear, that of being caught, of being forced back into the old life which could only become more unbearable, if not fatal. Being found was not very likely, but by some rough turn of luck it could happen. She had heard via Hetty’s mother that my father had gone to Waterloo Station every day and taken trains to the south coast resorts, hoping to trace us. His desperation must have been extreme, for without the sheltering presence of his wife he was helpless. My mother had nightmares; a noose hung over us which must be avoided at all costs. One day when Hetty ran into an acquaintance, panic seized my mother and, like fugitives, we moved again.

Throughout all this there was one remarkable fact on our side. The money we lived on was, and always had been since my parents’ marriage, my mother’s, and she was still in full charge of it. I never remember hearing that my father had made the slightest attempt to take control. Really, in this case it was his illness that saved us; he could not bring himself to assume responsibilities. Just how my mother made our leaving arrangements I’ll never know. Presumably she had a quick chat with her bank manager, swearing him to secrecy, or perhaps the doctor was an intermediary. No firm receiving spot could have been plotted before we left, as we had no idea where we were going. Whatever these arrangements were, they worked. We ate and had the means to make our several moves. My father and Hetty’s mother ate, too, and her salary was paid. In fact, to the end of her life my mother had the reputation for paying all bills promptly; and as well, she had the habit of deducting 5% of the bill’s total for this promptness, showing perhaps that she had inherited something of her wealthy father’s business acumen.

A month or two into our vagrancy, an occurrence on the ex-home front, as one might say, made it imperative that Hetty’s mother must leave; one of her sons had returned wounded from the war and she must look after him. She no doubt informed the doctor. My father found himself at an impasse which he had neither the wit nor the incentive to surmount. His search for us came to an abrupt halt. He gave in and, without protest, allowed himself to be confined in a private nursing-home selected by the doctor, my mother of course paying the bills. What intense relief! There was now no chance of coming face to face with him on a street or country footpath, no chance of the doorbell ringing and finding him there. With these tensions lifted, my mother relaxed almost into collapse, but with so many other problems still to be faced, she rallied once more.

Our present roving way of life was never considered to be anything but temporary. For my mother, particularly, it was alien; she was in no way a nomad. At forty she had had no more than two, perhaps three addresses in London; her trips abroad had always been instigated and arranged by others, otherwise she might never have set foot outside of England. In her late teens she was sent to a finishing school in Dresden, where she learned some German and longed to come home; the rest, as has been said, were decided upon by my father. At this juncture she needed to be in one quiet place and to be looked after with kindness. The idea of returning to the house in Dulwich, so heavy with scary memories, was abhorrent, and after the zeppelin experience, why return to London at all? Her best friend, Kitty, lived in Leicesterm and there, too, was a vegetarian sanatorium where meals and treatments were available. We said a fond goodbye to Hetty and took a spacious room for one month. It was so much the right place that we stayed for two and a half years.

Leicester was a medium-sized town in the Midlands, a good 100 miles from London. The couple who ran the sanitorium had five daughters, ranging in years from teens to two, so for the first time in my young life I was daily surrounded by playmates. The last few photos in the album are of us girls in the large garden. The whole atmosphere was cheerful and so close to normal that it seemed almost strange. Still, there were irregularities stemming from the old life to be faced; two of them, in particular, were difficult for me. Sometime after we had settled into the sheltering calm of the sanatorium, school became my next new experience. There was a reputable girls’ day school just across a corner of the park opposite. I was enrolled and eager to go. My mother must have been aware that there was a school uniform but, apparently without giving it a thought, she sent me in white. I don’t believe she meant to be cruel; it was just that she had become in some ways a nonconformist, and I, as a child of six or seven, had not yet had a chance to develop this precious faculty. So from that first day I stood out like a very sore thumb and was pestered week after week about those little white dresses with their crochet borders and inserts. Actually, the uniform of this school was just about as outstanding in itself as my dresses, but since it was worn by all, it presented no problem to any. It was a garment in a style copied from medieval Italy and referred to as a jibba (the spelling is mine since I have not been able to trace it in any dictionary, but because I desired it so ardently the name is strongly imprinted in my memory). It came in shades of brown: first, a long-sleeved blouse of a reddish tinge, topped by a darker tunic with projecting epaulettes and a pointed vee-shape in front bearing an embroidered emblem. I was evidently taken to a professional photographer to commemorate my belated acquisition of this treasure. I am seated on an absurd chair of the kind often found in photographers’ studios of the day, looking far from ecstatic, my hair grown long and straight, my legs, in thick brown stockings, ending in a cloud.

My second ordeal turned up sometime after the first and was worse. In order to cover our tracks more thoroughly at the time of our escape from my father, my mother changed our name to Slater. It was perhaps wise, as at that time Snead was a decidedly unusual name; in fact, when we moved back to London, in the late ’20s, there were still no other Sneads in the telephone directory. So there I was, enrolled as Slater in this perfectly proper and conventional school; then after a year or so I became Snead. It was bewildering, painful and irritating— just about every child asked me, “Why have you changed your name?” I had only one thing to be thankful for: my first name, Magdalene, had been promptly supplanted by Stella when we left my father—a mercifully small and private alteration taking place perhaps in one of the cottages; or, even on the train as we left London, my mother may have said to Hetty, “Well, now I am going to call her Stella.” And that was that. A surname is different, it is more formal and public, and besides, it is something that does not normally get changed when one is a child. I was seven, that boundary between early and mid-childhood, and I was a ‘new girl’ in the largest gathering I had yet encountered. As do most children I longed to be like the rest, to find my niche —originality was not the aim. But those white dresses being oh-so-insistent in the wrong direction, reducing me to a noticeably unfortunate white blob among all those exotic and contented browns. And then came Snead blustering in, shriveling me, shutting me out like a bad puppy. I was indeed out of luck; both situations called for more brazenness than I could muster at that stage. But of course it was not the end of the world, just the beginning of learning how to cope. Time simply moved things along, winds blew, no doubt rounding up the next obstacles to take the place of these first two. In spite of all, I believe I grew to like school and managed, in most ways, to be after the relatively ghastly introduction, a fitting-in-child.


August ’91

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See also:

The Paintings of  Stella Snead
Chronology as a Painter

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©Stella Snead. Photos by Ethel May Johnson, by permission of Stella Snead, with assistance from CFM Gallery.


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