I don’t think anyone should be condemned as a disgrace to feminism without us first looking a little deeper and considering all the details. Eleanor Velasco Thornton, the woman who stars in my poem, lived in times that were very different from those of today. Whether we realize it or not, whether we admit it or not, we are all products of the age we are born into. We are shaped, pushed and pulled by the forces of our circumstances and by the society we live in. We don’t control these forces – even though we think we do.
Eleanor began life simply as Nelly, little Nelly Thornton. Born in 1880, she grew up in very modest circumstances on the outskirts of London, England. Her mother, Sarah Anne, came from a working class background and had the kind of dark complexion and eyes that didn’t seem English at all – and maybe they weren’t. Nelly inherited her exotic foreign beauty in spades.
Nelly’s father was supposed to have been a telegraph engineer. Whether he truly was is unclear since he claimed to work at telegraph companies where he did not. The impression this imparts of unreliability may be terribly unfair. Perhaps at times he was inclined to exaggerate his credentials in an attempt to get ahead since he was always at a disadvantage. You see, he was Australian. That distant outpost of the British Empire had been settled as a penal colony less than a century earlier. A certain degree of stigma would have been a burden Nelly’s father bore day in and day out. The English would have looked down their noses at this bottom-of-the-barrel colonial, this untouchable, no matter what he did.
Beyond these meager facts not much is known. My guess is that the Thornton family lived on uncertain resources all the while putting up a pretense of gentility to hide the fact that they were chronically late in paying rent on the rooms they called their home. A lot of people, the hoi-palloi, lived that way in the crowded, cut-throat city of London.
Still, despite the quotidian worries there must have been some inkling of grand horizons in that family, some sense of adventure, some vague concept of ambition. My guess is that it emanated from Nelly’s father. After all, he had travelled across an ocean. From him Nelly must have grasped the idea that the world was wide and that there were opportunities beyond her wildest imagination if only she could see further than her own doorstep.
Nelly was clever. Intelligence was an asset that was usually ignored in girls but in this case, perhaps because of her father, hers was encouraged. She went to school until the age of sixteen gaining much more of an education than most girls did in that day and age.
What might the future hold for a bright and beautiful girl with no money, social standing or useful connections? If she played her cards right she might be lucky enough to marry a tradesman, someone hardworking, dependable and prosperous, someone with a good head on his shoulders. If she did she’d have security and a home of her own, probably one of those narrow terrace houses, the rooms two up and two down, in a long line of identical dwellings. She’d have a family. There would be church and roast beef on Sundays, a goose at Christmas and the occasional holiday at the seaside.
The fact is, Nelly didn’t marry and we’ll never know exactly why. Did she turn away suitors? Maybe that life wasn’t enough for her. An infinity of tedium, certainty and its attached boredom might have horrified her. Maybe she had bigger dreams. By not marrying she was taking a huge risk. One thing was for certain, without a husband to support her she had to support herself. With her education she could have been an assistant manager at one of the many tea shops that dotted London. Or a sales girl in an expensive hat shop. She could have found a position as a governess for a family out in the country.
In the end Nelly chose to do none of those ordinary things. Instead she threw good sense and caution to the wind and did something rather shocking.
(To be continued...)