Marriage Break-up

The week after the Royal Wedding, changes began in the Ewing family, changes that had been years in the making but which moved swiftly in the months that followed. The marriage between Cynthia’s parents, Carol and Gordon Ewing, was not a happy one.  I have said before that I suspect my grandfather Gordon suffered from depression, or bi-polar disorder, and in his sixties things seemed to get worse. His wife was the one who bore the brunt of his behaviour.  At the end of 1947, their troubles came to a head, and Carol decided to leave him, coming to live with Cynthia in Cambridge.

Eventually Gordon was diagnosed with hardening of the arteries of the brain. I don’t know whether he had vascular dementia or had had strokes, but within two years of his wife leaving him he had been institutionalized. 

In Cynthia’s late seventies, she wrote a short story “The Straw That Broke” that fictionalized the break-up, giving a good picture of the sort of life Carol and Gordon led and what their daughter thought of it.  Then there is a letter from Carol to Gordon- probably not sent to or read by him- that shows clearly the psychological abuse she endured and the toll it was taking.  Cyn’s letters to her mother that follow are supportive – and worried!- as Carol goes through the process of splitting up the home and moving.  But by April 1948, Cyn and Carol were happily sharing a flat in Cambridge and enjoying it- and there was no need for letters between them!  

Luckily by then Cyn had met Cec Costain, her future husband, so that 1948 is illuminated by a few of his letters to his mother, and holiday postcards to Cyn, as well as photographs from a happy Cambridge courtship.  In the summer of 1949, they began a much happier marriage than Carol and Gordon’s, honeymoon letters were sent to Carol, and then they all left Cambridge, scattered, and- 

          the letters continued.  

A short story by Cynthia Costain.


“Are you coming swimming Katie?” asked my College roommate.

I hesitated.

“No- you go ahead. I just got a letter from my Mother. She’s leaving my Father.”

“Oh. I’m sorry,” as she quickly grabbed a rolled up towel and ran out the door. Parents separating was not an everyday thing in the 1930s and she was glad to leave.

I looked at the letter again. I wasn’t surprised in some ways- I’d been glad enough to leave home and my Father’s dictatorial ways myself, but after 20 years of seeing my mother trying to please, pacify and on very rare occasions, rebel, I had got used to the status quo. I must write I thought. But no, she says that she is going to her cousin Dorothy in London – I’ll phone Dorothy tomorrow. I looked at the familiar writing. A letter every week at boarding school – a letter every week since I came to University. What did I really know of my Mother as a person? A loving Mother, a devoted member of a close family and a much younger wife of a stern husband.

When I was a child one of my favourite ways to spend a dull winter afternoon was to persuade my Mother to open the big cabin trunk which stood on the upstairs landing. It was cold but the excitement of seeing the fascinating contents made me forget the unwarmed landing. In the trunk was the satin wedding dress, mellowed to a deep ivory colour; evening dresses with demure necklines and elbow length sleeves made of silk embroidered with glittering beads, or pastel coloured georgette trimmed with ruffles. There were evening shoes to match with Louis heels and long pointed toes, beaded evening bags and delicate fans decorated with sequins. For me it was just a glorious afternoon of dressing up. I wonder what my Mother felt as she saw the lovely things never worn in England, remembered back to the time the trunk was first packed.

As the daughter of the British Resident in a corner of the Empire, just returned from Finishing school in Europe life must have seemed like a big exciting parcel filled with thrilling little packages in bright paper and silk ribbons, all waiting to be opened. Into the storybook setting of tropical sunshine and waving palm trees swept the handsome prince. The newly arrived Cultural Attaché was charming, good looking, travelled and was single!

“What happened next?” I would ask when I was told this story.

“Well” my Mother would say “My Mother thought he was too old for me, and Dad wondered why a young man had been moved so often but I wanted to get married – it was SO romantic.” and she would laugh at her 19-year-old self. “We got engaged and then we got married and not very long afterwards we came to England.”

How could my mother know that the charm could be turned on at will; that the friendliness could change to cold dislike if his opinions were challenged; or that irritability could become rage?

On returning to England my Father left the Foreign Service and joined a business firm. In the provincial city where we lived my parents at first knew no one. My Father’s work bored him and he had no hobbies. How quickly my Mother’s dreams must have dissolved, living in a small house in a suburb of identical houses, with one young untrained maid coming daily to clean. The shopping for someone who had never bought a loaf of bread; the cooking of three meals a day for someone who had only been taught to bake a cake for tea; the whole bewildering process of running a house with a husband and eventually a child. I remember in my teens realizing that no one had ever given my Mother a Cookbook.

“But what did you do Mum?”

“I just tried and tried again- not always very successfully. I had a nice neighbour, Mrs. Halliday- do you remember her? She helped me a lot, but I still made lots of mistakes.”

“I remember one mistake that I liked. The steamed puddings that sank in the middle and that was the part I liked! I was sorry when you learn to make them properly!”

With my Father’s boredom came depression and through my childhood the periods when he sat in his armchair staring at the fire for days on end while my mother tried to get him to eat or persuaded him to look at a paper or go for a walk. I would return from school, creeping into the house praying that he would be “happy” again.

As the years went by I escaped to boarding school and we moved to a new house. In that move the cabin trunk and its contents disappeared. My father was no sentimentalist. I began to want my independence and holiday times at home became more difficult as I rebelled at the strict rules. However, once I was away from home I was free.

Through the years my mother had found a few good women friends, but visits from her family were frowned upon and contact with his family was minimal. I realize that she had developed a “peace at any price” attitude; they went where he wanted for their rare holidays; they entertained as little as possible; outings to theatre and concerts dwindled. I got used to it but did my mother?

When I went to London to see her that weekend she told me that she had decided to go and live with her unmarried sister in Mexico.  It seemed like a very long way away. 

“Mum” I said “What finally made you leave?” 

“He called me a parasite.” she said.

The beginning of the critique from her writing class. Spot on!

Cynthia fictionalized the minutia of dates, jobs, and places in telling the story but the details of the relationship were completely true. I remember Cyn telling me about my grandmother’s ending the marriage.  The final question was the same- “What finally made you leave?” The answer even simpler. 

“He told me I was useless,” she said.  

When Cyn next saw her father, as she was collecting the packed boxes from the house during her holiday, she found him baffled.  After all, he had called her things like that for years…

Coming of Age in the Twentieth Century

My mother introduced me, at the age of fifteen, bored and disgruntled at our rented summer cottage with nothing new to read, to Georgette Heyer, then coming out in paperback.  I fell in love with her books, read my mother’s copies, and joined my friend Janet in collecting all we could.  The fact that Cynthia had had a ball in her honour when she was 21 put her firmly in the Georgette Heyer class in my mind.  One of the exotic stories I remembered from childhood was Cynthia’s coming of age ball.  She had been the focus of family and friends on Her Day – the closest we would ever come was the high school graduation dance in a hotel when we were 18, where we would as always be in competition with the popular and more sophisticated ‘in’ girls.  She may not have had A Season or been Presented as they had in the Regency- I didn’t know or care about 20th century debutantes- but she had gone to dances and had one of her own.  However, Cynthia’s vague allusions to her 21st birthday suggested it had not been a night of complete pleasure.

I remember as an adult asking questions to try to get a handle on the class she lived in- was it common in her circle to have a Coming-of-Age ball?  Did Jessie Muir, a doctor’s daughter as well, but one whose job after completing school was to manage her widowed father’s house, surgery, and phone, have a ball?  Did Dottie, who shared my mother’s domestic science training and also became a teacher, have a ball?  Did boys have an equivalent celebration?  I got no clear answer.  It could be that Gordon wanted to indulge his daughter and she was not appreciative; that her feelings towards him were affected by the difference of opinion over her college training; or that events in the future coloured her opinion of her father as she looked back on what, at the time, she enjoyed.  I have no idea how big this dance was, or whether it was a success.  All I know is that what she remembered were the flaws in the evening, not the enjoyment.
(And, by contrast, what do I remember of my high school graduation dance?  Well, not much.  It was the end of the sixties- hippies and free love were cool, dating/pairing off/marrying was not, really, except that if you weren’t in a relationship, you knew you were tagging behind as always.  But at my life stage and academic level, I was not ready for any of that- along with the rest of my high school class, all 5 of the Grade 13 classes, I was off to university with at least 3 years of that before we would consider settling down.  The idea was to go away to university first year and snag a date for your high school graduation in October.  I had no interest in that so I begged my cousin Bruce to be my escort and he very kindly obliged.  We returned for the graduation weekend- Thanksgiving?- had the usual tedious ceremony in rented gowns, and with close friends, organized ourselves for the evening.  

I remember my dress: floor length, A-line, sleeveless, made of a strange material in a bluey-green aqua pattern with sparkling pale silver threads sort of laminated on a spongey foam backing, made by my mother and never worn again that I remember. (The foam disintegrated in time, leaving a nasty mess among other carefully preserved garments of the era in cotton or silk.)  In fact, I remember very little- we went downtown to a hotel, we were all dressed up, we had familiar or unfamiliar dates, and it was awkward.  I can’t remember that we fundraised the way graduation classes in schools I taught in did, so did we pay for the whole thing ourselves?  If so, it was the done thing to do so, because everyone was there.  There were round tables and food, there was no drink since we were all under age and no surreptitious drinking around me anyway, there was a band, we must have danced and caught up on each other’s lives, but my main feeling was that I had moved on.  I loved my new university life at Trent where I wore blue jeans all the time instead of the incessant pressure of dress-to-look-good of high school, I had new friends who liked me, and I didn’t need my high school acquaintances any more.  Bruce and my friend Janet would always be a part of my life, but that was the last I saw of most of those people, and I have to say I didn’t miss them.  

I felt sorry for those, Janet among them, who had stayed at home in Ottawa and went to Carleton to university- scurrying around those tunnels greeting known faces from high school and only gradually finding better friends in other places.  Living in residence at Trent had acquainted me at once with all the girls on my corridor, and helped me to become good friends with people in my college that I liked.  Classes were small so within weeks, I had acquaintances in all the other colleges and knew my professors well enough to talk to.  My life expanded in every direction- but enough about me. Maybe my poor memory explains Cynthia’s vagueness- she didn’t remember much either.)

I don’t remember her description of her dress, but she did tell us about the cold water thrown on her appearance by her friend as Cyn appeared in all her glory.  Meeting at her house was the party she would go to the dance with- her escort, and her close friend, as well as her parents.  I don’t remember if it was Nancy, Jessie or Dottie, but the girl friend cried out as she twirled in front of them, “Oh Cynnie, you haven’t washed your neck!”  (This entailed a pause in the story while little Canadians were given an explanation of coal fires and soot in 30s England, and an assurance that she had washed in a lavish bath and was totally mortified by this comment.)  Even when it was discovered to be a shadow, not dirt, and the friend had apologized, and they had all moved on for a gay evening, it was the humiliation of the moment that Cyn remembered.

Was this the dance where the skirt of her dress was so tight that when she kicked a little too enthusiastically, she knocked herself right off her feet and landed on the floor?  As her 1939 Travel Diary and her letters show, dancing was one of her favourite things.

I’m not sure if it was this night or a later event, but one of her friends was staying at the Ewings’ and going to a dance with Cyn.  They went, they had fun, I assume they separated after since they had different escorts- and the friend got home before Gordon’s curfew while Cyn did not.  That meant that Cyn was locked out huddling in the cold, the household was in bed, and the friend had to feel her way down in the dark through the unfamiliar house  to let Cyn in.  Another example of Gordon’s peculiar control.

This underlines the difference between the position of women in the 30s and mine.  My mother and I both were privileged.  In my 20s, with teaching credentials and a teaching job, (having been given the gift of my education and the old car by my parents- much nicer than Gordon, I may add), I made enough in the 1970s to rent a one-bedroom apartment; run an old car to get me to my job, and drive away home or to friends in cities three to five hours away on weekends; go to visit my grandmother Carol in St. Vincent in March Break; and generally be independent.  Cynthia, also a teacher, obviously did not.  (I did have trouble finding a job for more than that one year- hence the adventure of CUSO in Nigeria 1978-80.  Furthermore, I missed my university friends, finding myself out of step with the young couples at my school.  But back to my mother.)  Until the end of the war, through 8 years of teaching, she lived at home with her parents.  And at least her father’s diktat had given her training, and her profession opened the way for her post-war exchange.  Her friend Jessie had lived at home and acted as her father’s housekeeper and receptionist after her mother’s death- until he married again and did not need her any more. The solution?  Early marriage.

When she moved to Cambridge, Cynthia seemed to have a room in a house shared with women colleagues from her school, and did not rent a flat in a house until her mother joined her.  Was it the salary or the culture?  Unmarried women in the 1930s may not have needed chaperoning at this stage of the twentieth century, but they did not seem to live alone.  My mother’s letters are full of older pairs of women sharing a life- lesbian couples or hard-up friends?  The Great War had wiped out much of a generation of young men but working women were not paid equally- a thing we’re still coping with one hundred years later.  And women teachers in the 20th century always have been held to a high standard of moral behaviour- along with the lower salaries.  (My Canadian grandmother had more in common with my mother than either of them perhaps realized, coming from different generations in different countries.)  But Cyn’s exchange year in America had given her experience of working in a different culture among people with different ideas- as my years teaching in Nigeria did me- which broadened her world view, as well as boosting her self-confidence. This maturity made her later immigration much easier than the experiences of many of the British war brides trying to cope with life in a strange new country.

Cyn, at different stages of her life in different cities and countries, seems surrounded by friends and acquaintances in her own age group doing the exactly same thing as she- working, dancing and holidaying, then slogging through the war, all the time conscious that other people were suffering more than she, since saying goodbye to friends who did not return was not the same as death or widowhood.  

But her post-war generation faced a different kind of Coming of Age.  The Nuremberg Trials attempted to establish a universal agreement about the responsibilities of states and individuals, and the consequences of abuses.  The world became more conscious of global connections, the UN established the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and in England, post war elections meant a Labour government moved to a better kind of attitude towards its citizens, instituting safety nets such as the National Health and changes in education and social services.  Canada followed, with the 1949 baby bonus, for example, which was sent out in the mother’s name, and Cynthia would benefit.  Again, she and her generation were all doing the same thing: getting married, getting pregnant, creating the world-wide Baby Boom- my generation- and, after she had emigrated, falling off on the letter-writing as she and her English friends produced offspring and got on with their lives far apart from each other, but still parallel.

It’s a pleasure to follow them into the post war era.