Aunties, Advance!

Posted by on March 13, 2021 in Blog, feminism, Humour, Literature, Nostalgia, Women's equality issues | 2 comments

Maggie Smith in Travels with my Aunt

I was rather shocked to see in an online poll (so probably wildly unscientific) that 35% of respondents thought the BBC had a right-wing bias, and only 31% thought it unbiased. (Interestingly, only 24% thought it had a left-wing bias – hey, North London liberal intelligentsia, where are you?) As far as I’m concerned, this is Auntie we’re talking about: Auntie who’s fair and trustworthy – discuss, citing examples to support your argument. Two hours.

I had been musing about aunties anyway, as a result of meeting a high-level consultant who works behind the scenes with leaders to shake up their companies and take them off in new directions. In talking about how he had come to this career, he was insistent that it was in large part because of two aunties who had been a prominent presence in his childhood. Colourful and creative, they had opened up a world of possibilities for him, showed him the power of art and music, and encouraged him to follow his intuition. Reader, I almost cried. Here were two women who today might well be dismissed as Karens getting the recognition they deserved.

As a child, I was surrounded by a large cast of aunties. In fact some of them were great aunts, and some of them were family friends, with ‘Auntie’ as an honorific to be used by children. There was Florrie, Rene, Clytie (yes, short for Clytemnestra, though she was much better behaved!), Marguerite, Daisy, Elsie, Gladys, Joan, Madeline, Rosamund and Gwen. I didn’t differentiate between types of auntie when I was very young, but the last two in the list were friends of my mother’s whom I did eventually address just by their forenames, though it felt like taking liberties the first time I did so.

They all brought something to the party: Auntie Gladys was a diabetic who made chocolate confectionery in massive shapes (her foot-high solid chocolate Father Christmases took about a month to eat), Auntie Rosamund swept in with all the glamour of her job in television, Auntie Elsie regaled us with tales of her time as a missionary in Nigeria, and Auntie Daisy was a diminutive eccentric who knew just how to talk to small children.

I firmly believe an eccentric aunt is worth her weight in gold – a fact that has not been lost on literature and film, hence Patrick Dennis’s Auntie Mame (‘Open a new window ev’ry day!/If you follow your Auntie Mame’ go the lyrics to a song from Mame, the musical) and Graham Greene’s Travels with my Aunt. An eccentric aunt pops up in the best opening sentence to a novel ever: ‘”Take my camel, dear,” said my Aunt Dot, as she climbed down from this animal on her return from High Mass.’

Devoid of parental responsibility, she doesn’t have to maintain a façade of order and authority. In fact, it’s her duty to inject an element of anarchy into proceedings, giving nephews and nieces unsuitable presents and whisking them off on slightly dodgy outings.

Ann Dowd as Aunt Lydia in
The Handmaid’s Tale

Some aunties just don’t know when to stop, though. Consider Peter Sellers’s creation Auntie Rotter: (‘Then out with your Robin Hood sword and plunge it into Mummy’s back’). And beware aunties who have been co-opted by the forces of evil, such as the terrifying Aunt Lydia in The Handmaid’s Tale, personification of the tyrant’s knack of getting members of the oppressed to police the rest of them.

I think I’ve been something of a failure in the eccentric aunt stakes myself, but there’s still time. Once lockdown stops I’ll start practising in earnest for my future career as a disgraceful great aunt.


  1. I was an aunt long before I was a mother and loved the role, in fact I still do. Thanks for reminding us Verity of the importance of such family members although I suspect few families could sport eccentric aunties like yours!

    • Thanks – I think I probably had more than my fair share of eccentric aunties!

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