Manor House Miss Anson
"We take so much of Women's Lib for granted I think I might have a secret admiration for the aims of the Suffragette cause." Miss Anson
Miss Anson
Miss Anson

Watch the video diaries

Miss Anson's Day

As an unmarried woman, Miss Anson has the lowest status in the family
As an unmarried woman, Miss Anson has the lowest status in the family

Edwardian Life

A Typical Day in the House

How to Treat your Servants

The People: Dr Avril Anson

Avril: Thoughts After Leaving the House, 2002

What expectations did you have about entering Manor House?
I thought it would be enormous fun, a fascinating adventure in the past. I imagined strolling through summer woods with my sister, chatting about nothing in particular and returning to a golden-stoned, stately house. I envisaged riding out side-saddle with Anna, Jonty, and Guy. I saw us playing croquet in the sunshine, taking picnics by a lazy river, going to the races. I thought life would be tranquil, peaceful and full of sunshine. Indeed, my biggest concern was that I would feel guilty having such a good time while the servants were working hard under difficult conditions. The reality brought some surprises!

Do you think that taking part has changed you?
I found the three-month experience intensely real. I think everyone involved felt that. I am sure I changed during the experiment, but when we left Manderston I found I slipped back into my old lifestyle effortlessly and with a certain degree of relief. I am a modern woman at heart!

What do you feel you've learnt?
I now have a very personal experience of what it is like to be part of an under-valued group, in my case the women of a hundred years ago. Edwardian women were not generally considered by society to be capable of analytical thought, looking after their finances, understanding politics or religion, or running an estate or business. Women were treated as children in many ways - their decisions were made for them by their fathers, or in due course, by their husbands. As a woman who had never married I was viewed as something of a failure by Edwardian society. I am not used to feeling any kind of failure, and especially not just because my partner and I have not chosen to marry.

Have you remained friends or stayed in contact with anyone from the household? Why?
Besides my family? Well, I have had some fascinating conversations with Becky, Mrs Davies and Edgar and I have had email 'chats' with Mr Dubiard. It has been really interesting getting to know people in their normal lives, and hear their slant on life in Manderston. I have also stayed in contact with the wonderful people who supplied our horses and taught the family riding.

What did you enjoy most?
Absolutely everything to do with the riding. Natural Riding lessons opened my eyes to a delightful new way to learn a skill without it having to be an effort. Riding side-saddle felt quite strange and I wish I could have done more of it. I was surprised to discover I enjoyed singing.

I enjoyed conversations, strolls, bike rides, and swims in the local burn with Jonty and Guy. I met people I would never normally have met: Lords and Ladies, famous politicians, an artist, an author, a race horse trainer, etc. And, of course, there were lots of John and Anna's guests and Jonty's friends who were all very good company.

What did you like least?
Living in a society obsessed by birth, class and status rather than merit. If you were low born your lot in life was hard work and poverty no matter how good you were at what you did or how much potential you had. If you were high born or had accumulated great wealth, you were automatically accorded power, authority, respect and privilege no matter how undeserving you were. Society considered appearances to be overridingly important, which led to hypocrisy and double standards. I think the formality would have been stifling to anyone of spirit or ability, and the assumption that women were inferior was shocking.

What did you find the hardest aspect of the role you assumed?
Not being in charge of my own life. Not feeling free to do and say what I wanted when I wanted. Not being allowed to contribute - my helpful suggestions were frowned upon, my opinions not welcomed.

What did you miss most from the 21st century? Did you ever give in to temptation?
As you might imagine, I missed most things from my bathroom: shampoos, deodorants, electric toothbrushes and showers. Also pens that don't get ink all over your fingers. Oh yes and comfortable trainers to go walking in, and clothes that don't restrict your movement, and hot water bottles that you can cuddle up to at night without cracking your shin, and soppy novels. But much more than any of these, I missed my partner, Gordon, enormously; I had so many new experiences I wanted to share with him. I also missed chatting with my girlfriends, hearing what was going on in their lives.

Do you think that the 21st century can learn anything from the Edwardian era?
The modern world has become very crowded and noisy, houses are packed together; cars cram onto the motorways and adverts demand your attention no matter where you turn. When we returned home, I was struck by just how much plastic we use for packaging nowadays; the Edwardians used brown paper and string for the most part and it seemed fine to me. Feather beds were a delightful luxury and Edwardian baths of the type we had in Manderston were much better than modern baths.

What did you like and dislike most about the Edwardian era?
As tremendously wealthy landowners, our lives were in no way typical of most people's a hundred years ago but I loved the space, the peace and the beauty of our surroundings. Surprisingly I found the absence of televisions, computers and mobile phones a pleasure. For our family the pace of life was slower and more dignified, though certainly not for the servants, nor for people who worked on the land or in the factories. I liked looking elegant but disliked the uncomfortable clothes that restricted your movement and spontaneity, and took ages to put on.

Did you find that the Edwardian setting changed the way that men and women related to each other? How do you feel about it?
Absolutely! It was fundamental to Edwardian society that men are innately superior to women. Men viewed women as intellectually incapable, physically rather fragile and emotionally somewhat unstable. They treated them as possessions. Amongst the aristocracy, the lady of the house was encouraged to bear children (males of course), look beautiful, be a good hostess, manage the household, and possibly do a bit of charity work. Nothing more was tolerated. Women who wanted to contribute more had no outlet for their intelligence or abilities. What a waste! Men and women can offer each other (and society) so much when they respect and value each other. I was amazed to discover just how angry I became on behalf of the women of that time - how suppressed and frustrated some of them must have felt. I can quite understand how the suffragist and suffragette movements gained so much momentum.

Any other stories you want to tell?
Contrary to my initial concerns, the servants took great pride in their work and never seemed resentful of the family's position. They pulled together to make every major event, such as the politicians' dinner or the Empire Ball, a great success and they can be truly proud of what they achieved. I enjoyed my daily chats with Becky who helped me dress each morning and evening.

I remember the night of the Servant's Ball when the social barriers between the family and the servants could be lowered for a while. I loved the festive atmosphere below stairs when we were invited to join in their dancing. At the end of the evening, after the fireworks, John and the footman Robin sang a duet in the hall, and gradually everyone (both family and servants) joined in. It was very moving.

A real highlight for me happened on my very last morning. All the rest of the family had left in their modern clothes preferring not to be seen by the servants. But I really wanted to meet them all just once in my modern clothes as the real me, not as "Miss Anson". They welcomed me below stairs with laughter and questions and more laughter and everybody talking at once. It was wonderful! At last we met as equals, formality dropped! When Mrs Davies came into the room she stood looking at me in a puzzled fashion for several moments, then her face lit up with pleasure when she realized who it was. We hugged and she said, "My name is Jean". She had worked her heart out as the housekeeper of Manderston for three months and this was the first time I knew her Christian name. I replied, "My name is Avril", and it felt good.

I am very glad that, for the first time in my life, I kept a personal diary. I only have to look through it to bring the whole extraordinary experience back into sharp focus.

UPDATE: 2003
Avril is consulting at the University of Portsmouth. She looks back on the experience with mixed feelings: "it was an extraordinary experience- a real chance - but it wasn't actually a fun ride. I couldn't have my partner, I couldn't have friends and I didn't have any control." She is still in touch with Hugh and Becky, Jean and her sister. Given the choice to do it again, she is adament: "If all the circumstances were identical - there is no way you would get me back."


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