A Woman Worth Remembering?
I created “The Figurine” in order to reveal the story behind a work of art. The mascot that adorns the hood of every Rolls-Royce car, the iconic little silver sculpture that has symbolized that brand almost since its inception, was inspired by a real woman. Her name was Eleanor Velasco Thornton. Of course my story poem, being a poem, is a work of historical fiction, not a biography or a documentary, since it is filled with embellishments, inaccuracies, flights of fancy and my imaginings of scenes that may not have unfolded in real life the way I tell them. In my defense, since very little is publicly known about Eleanor, I did the best I could with what little I had to go on. For over a century the mascot has been polished, paraded, photographed, has traveled all over the world – and yet in all that time nobody has ever bothered to wonder about the woman behind it. I thought I might change that.
After I recorded “The Figurine” (a process that had plenty of ups and downs as I will explain some other time) I sent it to a friend to get her feedback. She had never heard “The Figurine” before but she was a fan of my other poems so I looked forward to what she had to say about this one. Being an accomplished artist and a discerning reader who knew lots of professional writers and poets (real ones I mean, not just amateurs like me) her opinion was something I greatly valued.
Naturally, me being the unrealistic optimist that I am, I assumed that she would be bound to listen to my poem right away because she couldn’t wait to hear it. She’d listen as soon as she had finished painting for the day, perhaps while she was still cleaning her brushes. And of course she’d be transfixed with rapture at my artistic genius. Who wouldn’t be?
Maybe she really did listen at the first available moment. But she didn’t call and after several days had passed during which I suffered in the agony of anticipation, I finally made up my mind to call her instead.
And that was my first mistake.
Maybe I never should have called. Maybe I could have picked a better time. Though when that would be I never could have guessed. Because from the moment I heard my friend’s voice on the phone I knew I was in for bad news and there’s never a good time for that.
Still, I had asked for her opinion and that was what I was determined to get come hell or high water. If I couldn’t handle honest criticism how would I ever improve, I told myself. The big question was could I handle the truth? I had to honour my end of the bargain. I promised myself that I would quietly listen to every word and say nothing. There would be no interruptions, excuses or explosive retorts from me. Even more importantly, I knew that I shouldn’t let her opinion, no matter how unwelcome, interfere with our friendship. So I closed my eyes and braced myself.
She began by politely praising all the work that obviously had gone into the poem. She praised my narration (something I myself was never fully happy with), she praised the recording quality, she praised all sorts of superficial meaningless things. And then she faltered. Suddenly it seemed like she was sliding out of the phone call, sending polite signals that meant she was preparing to say goodbye and hang up without ever dealing with the mysterious crux of the matter.
I was left with no choice. “You hated it!” I blurted out, my voice filled with accusation that reverberated down the phone line.
There followed a moment of dead silence on her end. I wondered if she had hung up on me.
She hadn’t. “I didn’t hate it,” she said carefully. “I just didn’t like it.”
A distinction without a difference as far as I was concerned. However my outburst (just the thing I had promised myself I wouldn’t do and my second mistake!) had abruptly wrenched open the door for what she really wanted to say - and it all came flooding out. She said that as a feminist she could not accept this poem. She had a big problem with women like Eleanor, women who used their looks to get ahead, women who climbed the social ladder instead of doing real work, women who slept with married men. And she had a big problem with sex and the selling of cars. The figure of a beautiful woman perched like a trophy on a car was utterly abhorrent to her. She said that she was very disappointed in me, dismayed that I had wasted so much of my precious time and effort on such an unworthy subject. Eleanor was a terrible role model. Hers was not a life to be proud of. My poem, by lavishing attention on her, served only to glamorize all the wrong things and that made me part of the problem in this woeful world we live in, not part of the solution.
When she finally stopped I thanked her with every ounce of sincerity and appreciation I could muster from the bottom of my heart (and believe me, I had to dig that deep just to scrape some up). I put down the phone feeling crushed. I hadn’t viewed the story that way at all. But was that because I was a complete blockhead? Was Eleanor Velasco Thornton a disgrace to the ideals of feminism? Was she a woman whose story wasn’t worth telling?
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 wasn’t born the woman she became. She began life simply in 1880 as Nelly, little Nelly Thornton. 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 these notions emanated from Nelly’s father. After all, he had traveled 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. She turned her back on convention and made her big bid for a life less ordinary. Gathering all her naïve courage and audacity, she went on the stage. She changed her name to Eleanor, which was so much more sophisticated than Nelly, and added the name Velasco in front of Thornton to lend a Spanish flair that chimed with her dark looks. Like a butterfly emerging from its chrysalis, Eleanor Velasco Thornton was born. Capitalizing on her beauty, her youth and her highly engaging personality, she nabbed a handful of minor roles in forgettable plays that ran in small theatres until they fizzled out.
Did she hope to find fame and fortune as an actress? Other women had done it so why shouldn’t she. In that day and age the actresses Lillie Langtry and Sarah Bernhardt were superstars. Did Eleanor, like scores of other girls with stars in their eyes, hope to emulate these idols? But being an actress was not very respectable and being a bit part ingénue in second-rate theatres was only a step up from being a prostitute in the eyes of society. Moreover, it probably paid extremely badly.
It is likely that her work as an actress was not enough to live on in which case Eleanor would have needed some kind of second job, something that didn’t conflict with her theatre schedule. The other employment that Eleanor took probably paid better but was no more respectable. If anything it was worse; it was positively racy. She became an artist’s model.
Though holding a pose for hours and hours half-dressed in a cold, draughty studio can’t exactly have been fun, the job had priceless benefits. It drew Eleanor right into the heart of bohemian London, into a vibrant, highly dubious yet oddly fashionable world of writers, painters and their patrons, people who were creative, inventive, well-connected, often well-heeled and who knew about everything that was happening in the great city of London.
Eleanor, with her intelligence, good-humoured patience and kindness evidently made many friends. Even more importantly, she kept them – kept them all her life. One of these was the artist Charles Sykes, at that time an up-and-coming talent. Said to be one of his favourite models, Eleanor is thought to have posed as a saint in one of his paintings and as a water sprite in another. Sykes was a highly versatile artist. Not only could he paint but he was a gifted sculptor and he also did lots of illustrations for magazines. Magazines in that era were all the rage and publishers paid handsomely for appealing pictures to make their printed offerings stand out from the crowd.
Unsurprisingly Sykes had lots of connections and it was probably through him that Eleanor first got wind of a job opening that would turn out to be a lucky break.
Eleanor’s golden opportunity was connected to the invention of a new mode of transportation: the motorcar. These were very early days in its history. For years to come, still experimental and still a rarity, a motorcar trying to navigate the cobbled streets of London would have qualified as an event, disturbing or exhilarating depending on your point of view. These shiny metallic boxes on wheels, noisy, difficult to maneuver and unpredictable, mixed in with the crowded flow of horse-drawn carts and hackney cabs, would have caused havoc. These contraptions panicked the horses, belched suffocating clouds of exhaust and backfired. Sometimes they conked out altogether. While the blocked traffic cursed them, their drivers, equipped with driving goggles and sturdy leather gloves would have worked to get them going again. I can imagine how newspaper boys and grinning street urchins would have clustered around a recalcitrant motorcar and its perplexed operator to watch in fascination. And when the machine roared to life they all would have jumped back with their fingers in their ears shrieking with delight.
Did Eleanor also observe these machines with interest? Did she stop and stand at a distance on the sidewalks of the wet London streets straining to see what was happening over the heads of a crowd of boys? Her father was a telegraph engineer, a hands-on man with a mechanical bent. He may have been an admirer of these inventions. He might have understood something of the genius that lay behind all the noise and smoke. Did he transmit his enthusiasm to his intelligent daughter? If so, Eleanor would have known much more about motorcars than most females. That wouldn’t be so surprising. She wouldn’t have needed to know much. Motorcars, needless to say, were not thought to be the kind of thing a lady should show interest in.
Motorcars were toys for boys then as much as they are now. Competition was a key ingredient of the motorcar craze right from the beginning. Navigating cars through the traffic of the city, where Eleanor would have had the chance to see them, was never the real goal of the men who owned them; speed was the goal. Racing over private tracks in the country was how winning was measured. New ideas were tried, adapted and improved. Advances in technology were the result as men strove to outrace each other. Since everything about fiddling around with motorcars was very, very expensive they were playthings only for the very rich. Eleanor may have heard about these car races on private estates but she would never have seen one. They were out of her league.
Then, in 1897, when Eleanor was seventeen, a club was formed to bring motoring enthusiasts together. This organization needed secretaries. Eleanor was hired to be one of them.
These days the Royal Automobile Club in London is one of the swankiest private clubs in the world with grand and luxurious premises on Pall Mall. But in the beginning, in 1897, when Eleanor was hired as a secretary, the club made do with more cozy quarters in Whitehall. And there was no royal stamp of approval yet. That wouldn’t come for another ten years. Now the Royal Automobile Club accepts women as members but back in those days it was only for men. Who would dream of it being otherwise? Private gentlemen’s clubs were a well-established element of upper-class society. These members-only clubs were where men went to be with other men, to savour fine cognac, to smoke cigars, play billiards, talk politics, cook up schemes, make bets and generally divide the ownership and management of the whole world among themselves. Wives, mothers and daughters never set foot in these male enclaves and what happened at a man’s club stayed there. Privacy was an unspoken guarantee.
The best, most desirable clubs had been in existence for many, many generations. Sons followed fathers and joined their clubs and their sons followed them. Membership was exclusive and rigid. The characters of these clubs were thus fossilized. No surprise then that this new car club, a rebel upstart centered on what was a disturbing and exhilarating technological revolution, was suddenly the coolest club in London.
For Eleanor, landing a job at this motorcar club would have been a great coup. She would have felt the smug pride of being part of the “in crowd”. And more than that. She must also have felt a nervous elation just being in proximity to the members. These men were the geniuses of the era, the equivalents of Elon Musk, Steve Jobs, Bill Gates.
How on earth did this seventeen year old girl get a job like that? Well, don’t forget that unlike most girls, she was actually qualified to be a secretary because she had stayed in school. She was energetic and bright and someone put in a good word for her. Did her looks help her get the job? My guess is yes, of course they did. To be fair, it wasn’t Eleanor’s fault that she was beautiful. And when has personal appearance ever not been a factor in the job market. We all know that even now men and women alike put huge stock in their appearance when they go for a job interview. No doubt Eleanor’s beauty and appealing personality would have been great assets to this hip new club. Along with the artwork on the walls and the fine furniture, why not get a beautiful girl to dress up the place?
The other question that begs to be asked is why didn’t this men’s only club hire male secretaries? If the club was off limits to wives and daughters then why was it OK to have this charming seventeen year old girl around? Of course the bald answer must be that it was OK because Eleanor was lower class. She was an outsider, not a part of their social circle. They didn’t have to worry about what Eleanor saw or heard. Who would she tell who mattered? And they didn’t have to care about her reputation the way they would care about their own wives and daughters.
Regardless of how she got the job and putting aside the whole issue of whether that job was even appropriate, Eleanor was a success. She didn’t coast on her looks. She worked and worked hard. By what little snippets of information exist, it seems that Eleanor was a great secretary, reliable, capable, efficient and amazingly on the ball. She was appreciated – and noticed. And it was through the club that she met the man who would be the love of her life.
His name was John Walter Edward Montagu-Douglas-Scott. Eventually he would inherit a title and be Lord Montagu. He was handsome, energetic and active in everything from sports to politics. Yet for all things motoring, this man kindled more than just ardent enthusiasm. He burnt with passion, passion still in evidence to this very day. Though Lord Montagu is long dead his passion lives on through his great family estate of Beaulieu which is now a famous car museum.
At the time that Montagu met Eleanor he was in the process of hatching a signature project, a magazine to be called “The Car Illustrated”. At that time England was virtually awash with magazines. There were hundreds of start-up publications and competition for readership was fierce. The best magazines set themselves apart from the crowd not only with great articles but with beautiful illustrations. Since Montagu never settled for less than the very best, he roped in Eleanor’s old friend the talented and versatile artist Charles Sykes to do the pictures and make his magazine a run-away success. And since Montagu badly needed a secretary he poached Eleanor herself away from the club. Montagu knew that there was nobody better than Eleanor. He needed her for his magazine and the club would just have to find somebody else.
Somewhere along the way, Montagu and Eleanor fell in love. It was the real thing, the kind of love to last forever. But there was one giant problem. Montagu was married. Before passing judgement on the couple I think it is important to keep in mind the norms and atmosphere of the era. This was stuffy, feudal, inflexible England on the cusp of the twentieth century, a time when lives were ruled and divided by class, that ruthless social prison system that determined which particular cage each individual was assigned to at birth.
Montagu was an aristocrat. He had naturally followed the path that was required of him. And marriage was a step on that path because marriage was a duty, something to get done and out of the way so that you could tick the box and move on. For the upper class, marriage was not about love. Marriage was about connections and alliances, the combining and preserving of wealth, land, titles and prestige – and the production of properly pedigreed offspring to ensure the continuity of lineage.
For the upper class, young women were viewed as broodmares, valuable breeding stock – and bargaining chips. Each season a fresh crop of girls came on to the marriage market. They were each presented for approval at Buckingham Palace and then showcased to best advantage with a massive expenditure of money in a mad whirl of lavish balls and parties. All the eligible bachelors could take their pick. Hopefully the girls would be married within a year. They needed to be before the next crop came along. If not they might be left on the shelf like shopworn merchandise to be marked down, to be gotten rid of at a steep discount.
Certainly love was a desirable ingredient in a union. But love wasn’t really love in the frenetic upper class marriage bazaar. It was usually attraction stoked by the parties, champagne, satin dresses and laughter. Attraction would hopefully evolve into compatibility through the course of marriage. If it didn’t that was just too bad. Love was for fools. Love was common. It could be found and lost anywhere. Wealth and titles were concrete. Since marriages weren’t based on personal feeling, divorce was therefore extremely rare.
The harsh truth is that even if Montagu had still been single when he fell in love with Eleanor he wouldn’t or couldn’t have married her. In any case, he wasn’t single and Eleanor would not have deluded herself with the mistaken idea that Montagu might divorce his wife and marry her. Eleanor became Montagu’s mistress. Sadly, that was the easy solution to the dilemma of love. Lots of men kept mistresses and found in them the long-term companionship and support that they lacked in their marriages.
Did Montagu’s wife know? It seems that she did. Did she care? Without knowing for sure, probably she didn’t. Why should she? Eleanor was not a threat to her. This mistress in the guise of a “secretary” would never cross paths with her socially. Eleanor was an employee, a compliant underling who could easily be kept in her place.
Viewed from this angle, far from being a homewrecker, stealing someone’s husband and destroying the happiness of a wife, it was Eleanor’s own life and happiness that was at greatest risk. Her position was terribly vulnerable. She was completely at Montagu’s mercy. In becoming his mistress Eleanor had turned her back utterly on respectability. Her reputation was lost forever. Whatever happened she could never reclaim it. Montagu loved her but if that ever changed what would become of her? He was under no obligation. If he got bored with her he could easily dump her and there was nothing she could do about it. All I can say is that she must have trusted him very much.
Thankfully, Montagu proved worthy of Eleanor’s trust. They became an inseparable team. It is fair to speculate that if not for Eleanor, Montagu’s talents might not have flourished as they did. For every one of Montagu’s goals and projects Eleanor provided the practical support. She organized his schedule, took notes, sent letters, took dictation, copied out his articles and speeches and tirelessly encouraged him in everything he did. She acted as sounding board for his thoughts, threw light on confusion and was kind and loyal always. She believed in him.
Perhaps Eleanor, in the bliss of collaboration with her soul-mate, was able to forget the reality of her position. If so, it was not for long. Eleanor became pregnant. Her condition was carefully hidden and when the child was born, a baby girl, it was given to a couple in the country to raise. Eleanor was forced to behave as if nothing had happened, as though she’d never been pregnant and the child didn’t exist Perhaps only then did Eleanor truly understand the extent of the sacrifice she had made. She’d chosen to be with Montagu and because of her choice she’d never have a family of her own. Her little daughter was illegitimate, a bastard, an embarrassment to be hidden away, denied and disowned instead of fussed over and celebrated as the crowning joy of two people devoted to each other. It must have broken her heart. What hurt Eleanor would have hurt Montagu too – and what he felt might, in a strange, oblique way, explain what happened next.
Montagu had long been a friend and supporter of Charles Rolls and Henry Royce. When the Rolls-Royce company was launched Montagu soon became the proud owner of a Rolls-Royce Silver Ghost. There are photographs that survive of Eleanor and Montagu with the Silver Ghost, a mechanical masterpiece, solid as a tank and seemingly the size of a small yacht. At that time cars were not sold with emblems or mascots mounted on the bonnet. Probably nobody had thought about it yet. But someone somewhere got the bright idea to ornament the radiator cap above the grill and it quickly became a fad among motorcar owners. Each owner invented his own personal mascot. Some of these creations were attractive and artistic. Some were not. There were miniature horses, dogs and birds. There were also frogs and, in one instance, links of sausages, the brainchild of a millionaire who had made his money with butcher shops. It is hardly surprising that Montagu felt the urge to embellish his prized Rolls-Royce Silver Ghost with a mascot that represented his own personality and interests. What is surprising is that in the end, the mascot he drove around with, the mascot he chose to flaunt to the world took the form of Eleanor.
Obviously Montagu’s friends knew about his relationship with Eleanor and understood “the situation”. But the wider world didn’t – and wasn’t meant to. Montagu was a high profile man and publicly an upstanding married one. His mistress was a secret. So the big question is this: If your illicit relationship is something you are trying to hide then it doesn’t make much sense to mount a breathtaking statue of your beautiful, scantily clad lover on the top of your car does it? No, it doesn’t. But that is exactly what Montagu did. Why on earth did he do it?
The figurine, a masterpiece of sculpture by Eleanor’s old friend Charles Sykes, certainly drew attention, that much is for sure. How could it not? Suddenly people were asking questions. Montagu wasn’t stupid. So I can only conclude that the figurine represented an astonishing act of passive aggression by a deeply frustrated man. It was his silent statement of defiance, his soundless primal scream. “Here she is. Look at her. This is the woman I love.”
Perhaps we would know much more about the inner thoughts of Montagu at that time if Eleanor had not died shortly after, a victim of ruthless history like so many others of that era. Though her life was cut short by tragedy the figurine she inspired survived, a monument to love, tiny in size but as outspoken in its own way as the Taj Mahal, another great monument to love.
For all the choices she made, whether we agree with them or not, all we can really do for the memory of Eleanor is look back through the telescope of time with empathy and say to ourselves “But for the grace of God, there go I.” Every one of us reading this blog was lucky enough to born into a very different world. And in response to my friend’s criticism I can only say that I think she judged too harshly. Eleanor did the best she could with what she had. She played the cards she was dealt in life. She played them with honesty, good-will and open-heartedness, qualities that any woman should be proud of. That reason alone should be enough to make her a woman worth remembering. To me, revealing her untold story wasn’t a waste of time at all.