By Vanessa St Clair
In 1952, the day after having been presented to the Queen and coming out as a debutante, my aunt Flora left her fourteen bedroom home in Gloucestershire, with its stabling for six horses and its Rolls Royce parked in the driveway, for a trip round the world, culminating in Tasmania.
Flora always said that coming out was the worst night of her life. I imagine her trussed into a dress, struggling with small talk to men she hated, gripping onto her champagne glass in the Palace like a mast in a sea in which she was drowning.
She spent time in Barbados, Africa, New Zealand, but Tasmania, as she said, was the end of the line. It gave Flora the chance to come out again. In Tasmania she changed her name to Jo. She met the love of her life and set up home with her in a bungalow in Bellerive, a woman with whom she would stay with until her death more than 40 years later. She loved Tasmania for its, as she put it, “hilly billiness,” its simplicity. She gathered her own firewood. She tinkered with car engines. I’ve always imagined her in a pair of shorts, her sensible legs bestriding the land, wrestling a ram with her bare hands. She stayed there for fourteen years.
But, of course, the story is more complicated than those easy tropes. When Flora returned to London in the 1970s, she brought her girlfriend, sure, but the door was slammed back on the closet, if indeed it had ever fully opened. Even though they were just like any other married couple, running by now an unofficial guest house in the Little Boltons, to mention that she might be a lesbian in the family brought cries of disbelief, and to talk about homosexuality to Flora was unthinkable.
A visit would find her (still doggedly called Flora by her family) wrinkling her nose at all the Arabs who were moving in next door and disparaging people as “frightfully common.” At the same time she was still known to be happier hanging out with chauffeurs in the car park than attending the party at the big house.
I’ve always struggled to coalesce these two sides of her. But perhaps I had it wrong all these years. Perhaps Tasmania, instead of being a great big pool of freedom, was in fact more class bound (for Flora at least) than England, only she could be a bigger fish in it. Without the English aristocracy she had to socialise with “ordinary people,” as she put it to me the other day. By which she meant the middle classes. Her girlfriend, a librarian, “was more important in Hobart,” Flora says. “Librarians’ children went to the best schools.” The social life she described to me was a very proper round of parties, BBQs and sailing, all undertaken with other librarians, preferably English.
But I can’t help hoping that occasionally she’d kick back, crack open a tinny, don a pair of leather shorts and let the closet door swing on open again. For her sake – and mine.
Names have been changed.
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Vanessa Tait is a writer and journalist. Also a mother of nearly three children. And a vegetable garden enthusiast. And a housewife and feminist. She is working on her second novel about her great-grandmother Alice Liddell.