Monday, December 28, 2009

A Russian Countess from Down Under

Some of the best and most remarkable human interest stories are to be found in small publications that go unnoticed by the world at large and are often stumbled upon by accident. These are usually produced by family research or historical societies with the aid of local sponsorship or grants, or are self-published at their own expense by descendants. They can be a treasure trove of historical information and real insight into the lives and achievements of those who have been forgotten by subsequent generations.
A recent addition to my collection is a slim volume by Susanne Foster Atkins entitled "How a Red Cross V.A.D. Became a Russian Countess and Other Soldiers' Stories" *. 
It caught my eye largely because I have both a VAD and Russians in my own Atkins family tree and naturally my curiosity was aroused.
Much of the book focuses on the stories of the male relatives in Atkins' family, one of whom died during the Boer War and was buried at Umtali, Rhodesia (a place mentioned in an earlier blog) and another who died at Polygon Wood in France during World War I - their stories would be common to so many families who lived during those eras.
However, it is Atkins' Great Aunt Lil - Lilian Avice Foster OBE - who is unique and more than worthy of a prominent place in history.
Lilian was an Australian, born in Sale, Victoria, in 1870. Her father was a magistrate and during his time at Beechworth, he sat for the indictment of the famous bushranger, Ned Kelly. Lilian remembered Ned and his "black, beady eyes" and how children danced alongside him as he was to led to the Court House, while he pretended to shoot at them.
Lilian went on to study and teach piano and it was while she was undertaking extra study in Berlin in 1914 that her world changed forever and she never played piano again. She joined the war effort as a V.A.D. (Voluntary Aid Detachment) and after serving in London, France, and the island of Lemnos, ended up " ... as a Quartermaster of three hospitals under the British Committee of the Russian Red Cross". Atkins further summarises her Great Aunt Lil's achievements as follows:
"She is quite possibly the most notable Australian woman to have served in the Great War ... She received the British War Medal, the Victory Medal with an oak leaf for being mentioned in despatches, the Russian Orders of St. Stanislas and St. Anne, and the O.B.E. for service to new settlers when she returned to Australia [and] the Coronation Medal with an Authorisation letter from Buckingham Palace 1937".
It was for her work in Turkey with Russian refugees escaping from the Bolsheviks that earned her the highest Tsarist accolade from General Wrangel, the leader of the White Russian Army and Provisional Government. (Both of the Russian Orders carry personal nobility, thus Lilian was entitled to call herself a Countess.)
Lilian returned to Australia and continued with welfare work until she died in 1955. She was also a regular volunteer at Anzac Day Dawn Services in Melbourne.

* Published Colando Press 2004, PO Box 484, Hobart, 7001. Copyright Susanne Foster Atkins.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Bucket of Enlightenment

I must admit I'd never been aware of any women in the life of the Buddha until I read an online article from the San Francisco Chronicle about a new novel by Gabriel Constans called Buddha's Wife.
I really oughtn't to have been astonished that I didn't know Buddha had a wife, because all the major religions have been founded by men who needed someone to carry the buckets.
Aside from the popular overload of Holy Grail and Jesus-married-Mary-Magdalene-and-moved-out-West wacky theories and novels, the official stance is that Christ was a celibate bachelor who lived with a lot of other men and started a rather worrying tradition in the church about what happens to bachelors and enforced celibacy.
The personal life of Abraham has murky undertones - was first wife Sarah really his half-sister? - and then there's that deliberate desert abandonment of another wife, Hajar, and whose son in turn begat several generations that begat one Muhammed. And he in turn founded a religion but still had time for eleven wives, including one underage - something that might have been perfectly legal in his day but would now place him in the rock spider bracket.
So Yasodhara is not much different, just your typical neglected wife of a workaholic although it seemed she eventually found a kind of fortitude of her own, forgave her wandering husband and became a nun working on his cause: probably her only option.
It is really encouraging to see that it is a male author who has noticed her absence from the Western mainstream and has given her some recognition. Congratulations to Gabriel.

Sunday, December 6, 2009

An Aussie gold medalist of a different sort

Following on from the previous post about missionaries, Australians in particular should know about one woman who doesn't feature in the Australian Women's Register and rates less than a single line in the Dictionary of Biography, yet her achievements in China and working with the blind in particular were monumental and for which she was awarded a gold medal ("Order of the Golden Grain") by none other than the President of the Republic of China himself, Hsu Shih-chang (Xu Shichang).
She was Amy Isabel Wilkinson, nee Oxley, granddaughter of Australian explorer, John Oxley, and was also descended from the infamous Reverend Samuel Marsden.
Amy was one of the first female missionaries sent from Australia by the Church Missionary Society to Foochow (Fuzhou), China, where she founded a school and worked at adapting the English Braille system for teaching the blind.
Two researchers, Ellen Hope and Ian Welch, have produced a wonderful document of her letters which is freely available here online, but they state that nothing is known of Amy's life after about 1903 which is incorrect. Through a good friend who has been researching Amy's famous grandfather, John Oxley, I have obtained a copy of an article written by Amy herself, in which she details her very busy charitable and religious work in England in the 1920s. In it, she also describes the ceremony in 1918 in which she received her gold medal. (Original article held by Berrima Historical Society archives.) Photo from the Hassall Family history, page 4

God's second choice

Missionaries have long held a curious fascination for me. I have never been convinced enough by any religion myself to have strong beliefs, but all the same I am full of admiration for their singlemindedness and dedication. I wrote an earlier post on Mary Livingstone who is one of the better-known missionary wives, but was in reality a female bucket-carrier, being first a missionary's daughter and then later a missionary's wife and not someone born with her own evangelizing fire burning within her.
Many other less well-known women went out into dangerous and forbidding territory and have been forgotten by history. Although she enjoyed somewhat of a revival in the 1950s after Ingrid Bergman portrayed her in the film "Inn of the Sixth Happiness", who today remembers Gladys Aylward? There are a number of sites that carry her biography. But, as is so often the case, sooner or later somebody had to besmirch her reputation and she was the subject of a controversial BBC documentary. This Chinese language website might have another viewpoint, and perhaps there are still some people alive today who were rescued by her who will be truly thankful for what she did.
"I wasn't God's first choice for what I've done for China…I don't know who it was…It must have been a man…a well-educated man. I don't know what happened. Perhaps he died. Perhaps he wasn't willing…and God looked down…and saw Gladys Aylward…And God said - "Well, she's willing."

Gladys Aylward

Saturday, December 5, 2009

Josephine and the Porno Queens

Being of a certain age, I have seen many fads and fashions come and go and in my lifetime have witnessed huge shifts in standards of morality, social behaviours, the rise of equality for women with a corresponding decline of religious faith and, dare I say it, respect for others, common sense, and discretion.
While I believe some of those changes have been a very good thing, I have also seen the faltering of feminism and a new and rather alarming modern young female creature come of age.
She is simply awful, this girl of the Noughties. She's proud of being stupid, never heard of subtlety, never mind decorum. Her mouth is muddier than that of any trooper and she blabs loudly and proudly into her permanently affixed mobile phone about how she's such a cool bitch. She wears stretchy clothes several sizes too small that expose spray-tanned flesh and an excess of studs and tattooes. She staggers about on ludicrous strappy heels that Germaine Greer so aptly described as "f***-me's". Her hair is a sprawling mess that has never known control either. She boasts about how she binge-drinks every weekend until she vomits and has lots of casual sex with men she doesn't like, or even know. She fills me with despair.
If we could transport some of those early female reformers and activists of the Victorian age to our present day, I wonder what they would have to say about her? Apart from an initial rude shock and a good dose of sal volatile, I'm sure they would be in turns disappointed, sad, and ultimately infuriated to think that this example is what has been achieved by womankind after they commenced that first struggle along the long, hard road to equality. 
I particularly wonder what one of my personal heroines from that age, Josephine Butler, would think? Josephine was no stranger to hookers and I won't go into her work here as it is well-documented elsewhere, but I'm sure she couldn't possibly have foreseen the day when porno queens rule OK.
On the other hand, being the brave and feisty individual she was, she just might roll up her leg o' mutton sleeves and tackle the problem from a new angle. She could even decide that the poor men who have to put up with these creatures are now the victims and need saving!
The photo on the right is of a stained glass window commemorating Josephine in the church at Kirknewton, Northumberland, where she is buried (© Phil Brown docspics 2009)