All About Aunts

Spinning wheelNicola here. Today, 7th January, is St Distaff’s
Day and I am writing in praise of aunts. I expect a lot of us may have been
back at work a while but in the past the 7th January was
traditionally the day on which everyone went back to work after the Twelfth
Night holiday. It took the name St Distaff’s Day because it was the day on
which we ladies were supposed to be picking up our spinning once again, the
tool of the trade for women being the distaff to spin flax. From the trade of
spinning comes the word spinster, a recognised legal term for an unmarried
woman. The spear side and the distaff side were legal terms to distinguish the
inheritance of male and female children. 

In a roundabout way this brings me on to aunts since a
stereotype is the spinster aunt. In the news yesterday was a new book by a parenting guru who
is emphasising the importance to young girls in having an aunt to confide in.
Aunts may be young or old, fun and feisty, old-fashioned or trendy. (I hope
that as an aunt myself I have never been the embarrassing type of aunt although
there was an incident once when I took my niece to the zoo…) They can also be
someone in addition to parents who can help with the pangs of growing into
adulthood and still provide a sounding board when a child is grown up. I am
very fortunate in possessing two aunts by marriage whom I value highly. They
are completely different characters but they are both wise and loving. And of
course an “aunt” doesn’t have to be related. She can be a godparent or a friend
and honorary relation.

These days, experts suggest that the breakdown in
communities and the geographical spreading out of
Elizabeth Branwell families has cost children
dear. It was different when families traditionally lived more closely together
or when unmarried or widowed female relatives went to live with their extended
families. Back in the 19th century an aunt had a very important role
to play. Elizabeth Branwell was aunt to the Bronte children and after her
sister died she went to live with them and help raise them and keep house at
Haworth parsonage. Known as “Aunt Branwell” Elizabeth was devoted to her nieces
and nephew and Branwell in particular doted on her. Elizabeth’s influence also
included introducing her nieces to reading subscription magazines (Charlotte
wrote of how she read them “by stealth and with the most exquisite pleasure.”)
Elizabeth also treated her nieces and nephew to trips and outings, and financed
their business ventures.

Fanny KnightJane Austen was also someone who considered the role of aunt
to be important. She was aunt to her brothers’ children (including Fanny Knight, pictured) and her letters suggest
that she enjoyed her role. Aunts also play many and varied parts in her writing. Anne
Elliott in Persuasion is aunt to her sister Mary’s children and is reaching the
age where she might be considered a “spinster aunt” or on the shelf. Mary finds
her useful and is no doubt quite put out when Anne ups and marries Captain
Wentworth and can no longer be used as an unpaid nursemaid and governess. Mrs
Gardiner in Pride and Prejudice is a friend as well as an aunt to Elizabeth, a
listening ear and the one who provides the good advice that Mrs Bennett does
not. Miss Bates is a faintly comic aunt but when Emma makes fun of her Mr
Knightley rebukes her. Lady Catherine de Bourgh is a monster of an aunt and
Lady Russell is an honorary aunt to Anne Elliott.

Fictional aunts come in all shapes and sizes. There are the
overtly comedy aunts like Charley’s Aunt
Charley's Aunt “from Brazil where the nuts come
from.” Perhaps the tradition of the comedy aunt arises from the poverty and
lack of status that so many unmarried women had in history, dependent on the
charity of their relatives and considered to be innocent of the facts of life
because they were unmarried. There can be an element of cruelty in the way
these aunts are mocked in literature.

In Wench Anne’s recent wonderful post On Old Ladies she
mentions PG Wodehouse’s books and Bertie Wooster’s endless supply of aunts who
make his life miserable by demanding that he do something useful. These are
comedy aunts at their finest.

In my own books I have created some aunt characters of whom
I am particularly fond. Lady Ottoline in The Last Rake in London is a tartar
but with a kind heart. She admires the heroine’s feistiness and becomes her
greatest advocate. In other historical romances I have enjoyed it when the
heroine is a spinster aunt who does not expect to find love because she thinks
she is on the shelf, or a widow who does not expect to fall in love again.

I am lucky enough to be an aunt to three nephews and one
niece and whilst my role is different from that of some 19th century
aunts I hope that I can provide a nice cup of tea if needed, a shoulder to cry
on, probably not fashion advice to either sex but certainly a listening ear if
it’s required. I enjoy taking both my niece and nephews out, babysitting for
the younger ones and giving them treats and presents every so often. The
relationships have certainly enriched my life and I hope they will help them
too.

Are you an aunt – or uncle – or do you have your own aunt or
honorary relative who has provided advice and treats and a listening ear? Do
you have a favourite literary or fictional aunt?

100 thoughts on “All About Aunts”

  1. Lovely post, Nicola. I approve, being an aunt, myself, and being very fond of my aunts, also.
    I have an aunt in my Feb book — well a sort-of aunt. She claims my heroine and her ‘sisters’ as nieces, and nobody wants to argue — except her nephew, who knows. . .
    And then there’s a fave book (and movie) Travels With My Aunt, where Maggie Smith (I think) played the aunt.

    Reply
  2. Lovely post, Nicola. I approve, being an aunt, myself, and being very fond of my aunts, also.
    I have an aunt in my Feb book — well a sort-of aunt. She claims my heroine and her ‘sisters’ as nieces, and nobody wants to argue — except her nephew, who knows. . .
    And then there’s a fave book (and movie) Travels With My Aunt, where Maggie Smith (I think) played the aunt.

    Reply
  3. Lovely post, Nicola. I approve, being an aunt, myself, and being very fond of my aunts, also.
    I have an aunt in my Feb book — well a sort-of aunt. She claims my heroine and her ‘sisters’ as nieces, and nobody wants to argue — except her nephew, who knows. . .
    And then there’s a fave book (and movie) Travels With My Aunt, where Maggie Smith (I think) played the aunt.

    Reply
  4. Lovely post, Nicola. I approve, being an aunt, myself, and being very fond of my aunts, also.
    I have an aunt in my Feb book — well a sort-of aunt. She claims my heroine and her ‘sisters’ as nieces, and nobody wants to argue — except her nephew, who knows. . .
    And then there’s a fave book (and movie) Travels With My Aunt, where Maggie Smith (I think) played the aunt.

    Reply
  5. Lovely post, Nicola. I approve, being an aunt, myself, and being very fond of my aunts, also.
    I have an aunt in my Feb book — well a sort-of aunt. She claims my heroine and her ‘sisters’ as nieces, and nobody wants to argue — except her nephew, who knows. . .
    And then there’s a fave book (and movie) Travels With My Aunt, where Maggie Smith (I think) played the aunt.

    Reply
  6. Lovely, Nicola. Aunts rock! As I think of it, I had two even in my very first book, one the bossy sort, one who is a widowed who gets to fall in love again You’re right, they can fill all sorts of useful roles in life and in stories.
    I have one niece by blood and three nephews by marriage, and while geography has prevented being a daily influence in their lives, I get along well with all of them.
    Love the bit about “the distaff side and the spear side” being legal terms!

    Reply
  7. Lovely, Nicola. Aunts rock! As I think of it, I had two even in my very first book, one the bossy sort, one who is a widowed who gets to fall in love again You’re right, they can fill all sorts of useful roles in life and in stories.
    I have one niece by blood and three nephews by marriage, and while geography has prevented being a daily influence in their lives, I get along well with all of them.
    Love the bit about “the distaff side and the spear side” being legal terms!

    Reply
  8. Lovely, Nicola. Aunts rock! As I think of it, I had two even in my very first book, one the bossy sort, one who is a widowed who gets to fall in love again You’re right, they can fill all sorts of useful roles in life and in stories.
    I have one niece by blood and three nephews by marriage, and while geography has prevented being a daily influence in their lives, I get along well with all of them.
    Love the bit about “the distaff side and the spear side” being legal terms!

    Reply
  9. Lovely, Nicola. Aunts rock! As I think of it, I had two even in my very first book, one the bossy sort, one who is a widowed who gets to fall in love again You’re right, they can fill all sorts of useful roles in life and in stories.
    I have one niece by blood and three nephews by marriage, and while geography has prevented being a daily influence in their lives, I get along well with all of them.
    Love the bit about “the distaff side and the spear side” being legal terms!

    Reply
  10. Lovely, Nicola. Aunts rock! As I think of it, I had two even in my very first book, one the bossy sort, one who is a widowed who gets to fall in love again You’re right, they can fill all sorts of useful roles in life and in stories.
    I have one niece by blood and three nephews by marriage, and while geography has prevented being a daily influence in their lives, I get along well with all of them.
    Love the bit about “the distaff side and the spear side” being legal terms!

    Reply
  11. Auntie Mame is the one that always comes to mind for me, LOL!
    I have a few blood aunts who I’m not at all close to, and a godmother who has meant a great deal to me. She’s a novelist (as is her mother). Via example they taught me that being a writer is a perfectly normal thing to be, and more directly they taught me important things like how to research and incorporate history and life experience into my own books (many times I’ve recognized a faintly veiled occurrence or quote from our lives in their books).

    Reply
  12. Auntie Mame is the one that always comes to mind for me, LOL!
    I have a few blood aunts who I’m not at all close to, and a godmother who has meant a great deal to me. She’s a novelist (as is her mother). Via example they taught me that being a writer is a perfectly normal thing to be, and more directly they taught me important things like how to research and incorporate history and life experience into my own books (many times I’ve recognized a faintly veiled occurrence or quote from our lives in their books).

    Reply
  13. Auntie Mame is the one that always comes to mind for me, LOL!
    I have a few blood aunts who I’m not at all close to, and a godmother who has meant a great deal to me. She’s a novelist (as is her mother). Via example they taught me that being a writer is a perfectly normal thing to be, and more directly they taught me important things like how to research and incorporate history and life experience into my own books (many times I’ve recognized a faintly veiled occurrence or quote from our lives in their books).

    Reply
  14. Auntie Mame is the one that always comes to mind for me, LOL!
    I have a few blood aunts who I’m not at all close to, and a godmother who has meant a great deal to me. She’s a novelist (as is her mother). Via example they taught me that being a writer is a perfectly normal thing to be, and more directly they taught me important things like how to research and incorporate history and life experience into my own books (many times I’ve recognized a faintly veiled occurrence or quote from our lives in their books).

    Reply
  15. Auntie Mame is the one that always comes to mind for me, LOL!
    I have a few blood aunts who I’m not at all close to, and a godmother who has meant a great deal to me. She’s a novelist (as is her mother). Via example they taught me that being a writer is a perfectly normal thing to be, and more directly they taught me important things like how to research and incorporate history and life experience into my own books (many times I’ve recognized a faintly veiled occurrence or quote from our lives in their books).

    Reply
  16. Fascinating, Isobel. Having such an interesting role model in your godmother and in her mother must be wonderful. And how interesting that you have spotted familiar if veiled occurrences in their books! I had a godmother who was a writer but she wrote Christian non-fiction and was quietly appalled when I chose romance!

    Reply
  17. Fascinating, Isobel. Having such an interesting role model in your godmother and in her mother must be wonderful. And how interesting that you have spotted familiar if veiled occurrences in their books! I had a godmother who was a writer but she wrote Christian non-fiction and was quietly appalled when I chose romance!

    Reply
  18. Fascinating, Isobel. Having such an interesting role model in your godmother and in her mother must be wonderful. And how interesting that you have spotted familiar if veiled occurrences in their books! I had a godmother who was a writer but she wrote Christian non-fiction and was quietly appalled when I chose romance!

    Reply
  19. Fascinating, Isobel. Having such an interesting role model in your godmother and in her mother must be wonderful. And how interesting that you have spotted familiar if veiled occurrences in their books! I had a godmother who was a writer but she wrote Christian non-fiction and was quietly appalled when I chose romance!

    Reply
  20. Fascinating, Isobel. Having such an interesting role model in your godmother and in her mother must be wonderful. And how interesting that you have spotted familiar if veiled occurrences in their books! I had a godmother who was a writer but she wrote Christian non-fiction and was quietly appalled when I chose romance!

    Reply
  21. My father had six sisters, my mother had one plus an orphaned cousin whom my grandparents reared, and my lone uncle married young and gave me one of my favorite aunts. Then there were the great aunts, four whom I adored, one whose high standards challenged me, and one great-great who terrified me. All of them were important in my life. My father’s sisters and my uncle’s wife were all great readers (as were my parents), and I talked books with them from an early age. Even now when I see my two surviving aunts, who are in their 80s, they inevitably ask, “What are you reading?”
    And I love being an aunt. One of my favorite Christmas gifts is a photograph of a grand-niece and a grand-nephew in front of their local library wearing shirts proclaiming “I love books” in a frame that says “I heart my aunt.” One of my gifts to them was books. I guess you can tell that across the generations we are a reading family who loves sharing books.

    Reply
  22. My father had six sisters, my mother had one plus an orphaned cousin whom my grandparents reared, and my lone uncle married young and gave me one of my favorite aunts. Then there were the great aunts, four whom I adored, one whose high standards challenged me, and one great-great who terrified me. All of them were important in my life. My father’s sisters and my uncle’s wife were all great readers (as were my parents), and I talked books with them from an early age. Even now when I see my two surviving aunts, who are in their 80s, they inevitably ask, “What are you reading?”
    And I love being an aunt. One of my favorite Christmas gifts is a photograph of a grand-niece and a grand-nephew in front of their local library wearing shirts proclaiming “I love books” in a frame that says “I heart my aunt.” One of my gifts to them was books. I guess you can tell that across the generations we are a reading family who loves sharing books.

    Reply
  23. My father had six sisters, my mother had one plus an orphaned cousin whom my grandparents reared, and my lone uncle married young and gave me one of my favorite aunts. Then there were the great aunts, four whom I adored, one whose high standards challenged me, and one great-great who terrified me. All of them were important in my life. My father’s sisters and my uncle’s wife were all great readers (as were my parents), and I talked books with them from an early age. Even now when I see my two surviving aunts, who are in their 80s, they inevitably ask, “What are you reading?”
    And I love being an aunt. One of my favorite Christmas gifts is a photograph of a grand-niece and a grand-nephew in front of their local library wearing shirts proclaiming “I love books” in a frame that says “I heart my aunt.” One of my gifts to them was books. I guess you can tell that across the generations we are a reading family who loves sharing books.

    Reply
  24. My father had six sisters, my mother had one plus an orphaned cousin whom my grandparents reared, and my lone uncle married young and gave me one of my favorite aunts. Then there were the great aunts, four whom I adored, one whose high standards challenged me, and one great-great who terrified me. All of them were important in my life. My father’s sisters and my uncle’s wife were all great readers (as were my parents), and I talked books with them from an early age. Even now when I see my two surviving aunts, who are in their 80s, they inevitably ask, “What are you reading?”
    And I love being an aunt. One of my favorite Christmas gifts is a photograph of a grand-niece and a grand-nephew in front of their local library wearing shirts proclaiming “I love books” in a frame that says “I heart my aunt.” One of my gifts to them was books. I guess you can tell that across the generations we are a reading family who loves sharing books.

    Reply
  25. My father had six sisters, my mother had one plus an orphaned cousin whom my grandparents reared, and my lone uncle married young and gave me one of my favorite aunts. Then there were the great aunts, four whom I adored, one whose high standards challenged me, and one great-great who terrified me. All of them were important in my life. My father’s sisters and my uncle’s wife were all great readers (as were my parents), and I talked books with them from an early age. Even now when I see my two surviving aunts, who are in their 80s, they inevitably ask, “What are you reading?”
    And I love being an aunt. One of my favorite Christmas gifts is a photograph of a grand-niece and a grand-nephew in front of their local library wearing shirts proclaiming “I love books” in a frame that says “I heart my aunt.” One of my gifts to them was books. I guess you can tell that across the generations we are a reading family who loves sharing books.

    Reply
  26. ***ACK!! It ate my post!***
    But what I said was… what a wonderful post! I’m an aunt twelve times over, and since I never had children, my nieces and nephews are very special to me.
    I was very close to my great-aunt growing up, also a tartar who lived to be 100!

    Reply
  27. ***ACK!! It ate my post!***
    But what I said was… what a wonderful post! I’m an aunt twelve times over, and since I never had children, my nieces and nephews are very special to me.
    I was very close to my great-aunt growing up, also a tartar who lived to be 100!

    Reply
  28. ***ACK!! It ate my post!***
    But what I said was… what a wonderful post! I’m an aunt twelve times over, and since I never had children, my nieces and nephews are very special to me.
    I was very close to my great-aunt growing up, also a tartar who lived to be 100!

    Reply
  29. ***ACK!! It ate my post!***
    But what I said was… what a wonderful post! I’m an aunt twelve times over, and since I never had children, my nieces and nephews are very special to me.
    I was very close to my great-aunt growing up, also a tartar who lived to be 100!

    Reply
  30. ***ACK!! It ate my post!***
    But what I said was… what a wonderful post! I’m an aunt twelve times over, and since I never had children, my nieces and nephews are very special to me.
    I was very close to my great-aunt growing up, also a tartar who lived to be 100!

    Reply
  31. Auntie Mame always jumps to the forefront as a wonderful aunt to emulate! My neice & nephew were frequently out of the country with their parents [military service] and sometimes just plain the other side of the country

    Reply
  32. Auntie Mame always jumps to the forefront as a wonderful aunt to emulate! My neice & nephew were frequently out of the country with their parents [military service] and sometimes just plain the other side of the country

    Reply
  33. Auntie Mame always jumps to the forefront as a wonderful aunt to emulate! My neice & nephew were frequently out of the country with their parents [military service] and sometimes just plain the other side of the country

    Reply
  34. Auntie Mame always jumps to the forefront as a wonderful aunt to emulate! My neice & nephew were frequently out of the country with their parents [military service] and sometimes just plain the other side of the country

    Reply
  35. Auntie Mame always jumps to the forefront as a wonderful aunt to emulate! My neice & nephew were frequently out of the country with their parents [military service] and sometimes just plain the other side of the country

    Reply
  36. Lovely post, Nicola. I’m quite close to my niece and nephew, who are delightful, interesting and engaging to be around. I hope I’ve been a good listener and offered helpful advice when they’ve wanted to talk. I know they’ve enriched my life.

    Reply
  37. Lovely post, Nicola. I’m quite close to my niece and nephew, who are delightful, interesting and engaging to be around. I hope I’ve been a good listener and offered helpful advice when they’ve wanted to talk. I know they’ve enriched my life.

    Reply
  38. Lovely post, Nicola. I’m quite close to my niece and nephew, who are delightful, interesting and engaging to be around. I hope I’ve been a good listener and offered helpful advice when they’ve wanted to talk. I know they’ve enriched my life.

    Reply
  39. Lovely post, Nicola. I’m quite close to my niece and nephew, who are delightful, interesting and engaging to be around. I hope I’ve been a good listener and offered helpful advice when they’ve wanted to talk. I know they’ve enriched my life.

    Reply
  40. Lovely post, Nicola. I’m quite close to my niece and nephew, who are delightful, interesting and engaging to be around. I hope I’ve been a good listener and offered helpful advice when they’ve wanted to talk. I know they’ve enriched my life.

    Reply
  41. Janga, it is lovely that reading is one of the things that binds your family across the generations. It sounds as though your aunts have been so important and influential in your life and that you are continuing that tradition. Wonderful.

    Reply
  42. Janga, it is lovely that reading is one of the things that binds your family across the generations. It sounds as though your aunts have been so important and influential in your life and that you are continuing that tradition. Wonderful.

    Reply
  43. Janga, it is lovely that reading is one of the things that binds your family across the generations. It sounds as though your aunts have been so important and influential in your life and that you are continuing that tradition. Wonderful.

    Reply
  44. Janga, it is lovely that reading is one of the things that binds your family across the generations. It sounds as though your aunts have been so important and influential in your life and that you are continuing that tradition. Wonderful.

    Reply
  45. Janga, it is lovely that reading is one of the things that binds your family across the generations. It sounds as though your aunts have been so important and influential in your life and that you are continuing that tradition. Wonderful.

    Reply
  46. Dee, that’s another aspect of being an aunt or niece, isn’t it. If the age gap is smaller it must be great to have an aunt who is like a big sister! One of my cousins has children and half-siblings who are the same age. Interesting family dynamic!

    Reply
  47. Dee, that’s another aspect of being an aunt or niece, isn’t it. If the age gap is smaller it must be great to have an aunt who is like a big sister! One of my cousins has children and half-siblings who are the same age. Interesting family dynamic!

    Reply
  48. Dee, that’s another aspect of being an aunt or niece, isn’t it. If the age gap is smaller it must be great to have an aunt who is like a big sister! One of my cousins has children and half-siblings who are the same age. Interesting family dynamic!

    Reply
  49. Dee, that’s another aspect of being an aunt or niece, isn’t it. If the age gap is smaller it must be great to have an aunt who is like a big sister! One of my cousins has children and half-siblings who are the same age. Interesting family dynamic!

    Reply
  50. Dee, that’s another aspect of being an aunt or niece, isn’t it. If the age gap is smaller it must be great to have an aunt who is like a big sister! One of my cousins has children and half-siblings who are the same age. Interesting family dynamic!

    Reply

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