An interview with Erlys Onion, God daughter of Jessie Munroe, Elizabeth’s Companion and Personal Assistant
While on holiday in Pembrokeshire back in 2007, my husband drove me to Newport to meet Erlys Onions the goddaughter of Jessie Munroe. Elizabeth had been to stay here a number of times, as Jessie had as yet un-revealed connections with the area so knew it well. We descended a winding lane that led us ever closer to the coast, terminating in a sweep of gravel and fields behind some houses hidden by conifers. Mr Onions with companion dog was there to open the field gate and show us in. We descended steps entering the calm of a small but pretty back garden, a good private sun trap on a bright day. Drwy gymorth (black dog) lead us towards the gravelled patio in front of the double doors at the back of the house. I was aware of containers filled with plants and a well-stocked garden, which on a different day I would have stopped to admire. Maybe Mrs Onions had inherited green fingers. The doors opened into a flagged dining area, with a study to one side and the lovely proportioned sitting room, both with extensive views over the bay, ahead. The kitchen dining room I was to discover, led off of this room and had three windows making it light and airy even on a grey day.
Mr Onions opened the doors calling out to Erlys that we had arrived. She came through from the depths of the house, a slight, dark woman, trim of figure and smiling in greeting. She was younger than I had expected, and although probably in her early sixties, she appeared younger. She ushered me through the living room into the kitchen and we exchanged those safe, small, weather words of the newly met, which are common currency throughout the British Isles.
We went through and sat in the sitting room, whose window overlooked the bay. I could appreciate now that the cottage sat on the quayside. I sat rather nervously on the edge of an extremely large and comfortable settee, the sort that if you knew the people it belonged to well, you would kick your shoes off and curl up on, and sipped good tea out of a thin china cup, and tried to listen with all my senses to what Erlys was saying. The room was painted a silvery grey and cream and its colour, the spiral layout of the rooms and influenced no doubt by the view from the window, it reminded me of the inside of a whorled shell. It was very quiet.
I thanked her for seeing me and explained why Sylvia Gower, author of “The World Of Elizabeth Goudge”, had given me her address and why, as one of the few people left who truly knew Elizabeth I wanted to meet her.
She started off by talking about Jessie, as it was only natural for a god daughter to do. Jessie it transpired had been a highly principled individual, who hadn’t had much sympathy for the emotional frailties of people, which had led to a prickly relationship between the two of them, as Erlys tried to look after her in her old age.
It seems that Jessie Munroe was a wealthy woman, and chose to live with Elizabeth because she wanted to rather than needed to. She had attended Horticultural College and had been working for the Bishop of Worcester’s family when she was asked if she would consider being interviewed for the position of companion/housekeeper/Gardner to Elizabeth. Her family were extremely well off, Erlys said, everything they touched turned to gold; shipping lines, chutney and perverse making, anything they participated in succeeded. But she was fiercely independent and wanted to work in her own chosen field of horticulture.
During the war, she had been sent to work on the land near Newport, on the other side of the bay. She worked on a farm and fell under the magic spell of the place and in love with a local man called David. Why they never married Erlys doesn’t know, but when she was helping to sort out Jessie’s effects after her death, she came across a letter from a mutual friend saying how sad he was that she and David hadn’t married. but that he was pleased that David had been ordained. Perhaps that was the reason. Jessie really had been brought up on Foxe’s Book of Martyrs and was passionate in her beliefs. Perhaps they clashed over religious doctrine, or maybe she simply didn’t want to become a vicar’s wife, having to take second place to his parish.
Erlys went to great pains to explain to me that Jessie and Elizabeth’s relationship was purely platonic and that they were never lovers. I had not imagined that they were and was frankly mildly irritated but not surprised to hear that rumours to that effect had circulated. Two women living together in a strong relationship is going to attract gossip in any day and age I suppose. Elizabeth would never have treated her as a subordinate, but as a valued friend, and people are always going to go for the salacious.
What I found more surprising was that Elizabeth had no idea of Jessie’s wealth and independent means. At one stage, after Green Dolphin Country the movie had made a lot of money in America, Elizabeth found herself in the embarrassing position of not being able to pay a large and unexpected tax bill. She had to ask Jessie to move out as she could no longer afford to pay her wages and Jessie went. She doesn’t seem to have offered to lend her friend the money and stay but chooses on the face of it to leave behind her friend and employer to sort out the mess herself, returning when she had done so. Maybe Elizabeth turned her offer down; I didn’t like to ask such a personal question.
Jessie was a very controlling person and tried to dominate her relationship with Elizabeth. But, although on the surface it appeared that she did, Erlys assured me that this was not the case and that Elizabeth had a quiet, firm way with her that prevailed. She quoted a lovely story to illustrate this. It seems that Jessie had been approached by the magazine Homes & Gardens to have Rose Cottage appear in an issue. Jessie had worked hard on the garden and was naturally delighted. She told Elizabeth and then said that she now going to buy a gun to shoot” them pesky birds” that were ruining her lovely plot. Elizabeth gently reminded her that they had both been lifelong members of the RSPB and that Jessie would purchase a gun over her dead body. No gun was bought.
From this point on, it was easy to steer the conversation onto Elizabeth. Erlys it seems was adopted, and her family sent her to boarding school which was nearer to Rose Cottage than her family home, and she spent many of her school holidays with the two women, not where a young teenager necessarily wanted to be. She would rather have gone home at first and bitterly resented it. But, despite herself, she began to enjoy it and as she got older to value Elizabeth’s friendship, insights and warmth.
Erlys thought that Jessie played on Elizabeth’s frailty to make herself indispensable to her and that although Elizabeth had a mild heart condition and her propensity towards depression were both debilitating, neither was as bad as Jessie pretended. In part, it was a desire to protect Elizabeth from the world so that she could get on with her writing, something Elizabeth probably needed. But it was good to find out that she possessed a little of her Mother’s iron will and ruled her own fate and home life.
One of the questions I wanted to ask was about Elizabeth’s lifestyle, and if it was true about the simplistic nature of her life. She had indeed lived a regulated, quiet life, with good simple food, a writing regime and a routine of pray and contemplation. I was delighted to find that she too had her own personal alter, it sounded like a prie-dieu, or kneeling stool, for praying. Erlys had found a battered statue of the Madonna in an attic at Rose Cottage after Elizabeth’s death.
Erlys was too young to have met Elizabeth’s Mother and didn’t know anything about a relationship in her distant past at Ely, but then I don’t suppose that it would have been the sort of thing that Elizabeth would have confided to a young girl. She also knew nothing about her connection to Evelyn Underhill, although she did remember that she had used a quote from her at the beginning of Green Dolphin Country, this apparently being Elizabeth’s name for an earthly paradise or Shangri-la. She too thought that had Elizabeth been alive now, she might well have been considered “new age” with her empathy towards all sincere religious strivings.
She said she thought it would surprise many people to know that Elizabeth would have been firmly on the Muslims side and outraged at the war being waged in Iraq. She would have seen it as a failing on our part of faith and negotiations. We have become a secular society, and although she was liberal in her thoughts, views and actions, she was also able to see our weakness and their strengths.
I found out that when Elizabeth had stayed with them, she had sat in the window overlooking the bay when writing. She had always bought the dogs, and Jessie drove them around the area, to all the places of interest that they visited, such as Roch and St David’s. She was apparently not a quick writer, as she liked to undertake through research before she wrote on a subject. She had a good relationship with her publishers Hodder & Stoughton, who over the years had reason to trust her methods. Nothing like today when publishers expect a book every other year or so from their authors. She knew other writers well and was one of the inner circle which included Mary Steward and Rosemary Sutcliffe. Confirmation of the letter I have got at last! Erlys when I told her agreed with me that it certainly sounded like it was to them, and said that Jessie had indeed disposed of books and papers at Elizabeth’s request.
I asked her if she would share her favourite memory of Elizabeth with me, and after a slight hesitation, she did.
She had gone through a sticky and thoroughly unpleasant divorce, I don’t suppose they are often simple or pleasant, but Jessie had been very unsympathetic and not understood the situation at all. Marriage was for life as far as she was concerned and that was that. Elizabeth, on the other hand, had been understanding and empathic towards the frightened, distressed Erlys, earning her deep gratitude. Elizabeth told Jessie that she shouldn’t be so quick to judge a situation that she knew little about and that they should support Erlys in her time of need.
Later with the divorce in the past, she met her present husband and when they realised that the relationship they had was going to be special and long lasting, she wanted to take him to meet the person whom she had come to love and respect and who had stood by her in her dark days.
It was nine o’clock at night and Elizabeth, now in her seventies, was already in bed when they arrived. Jessie was all for making them wait till the morning, but Elizabeth insisted that they be shown up immediately, and held court in her bed without the least show of shyness or reserve. She was so pleased that Erlys had found happiness and love and wanted to meet the person she loved.
This sounded like something Lucilla would have done.
Both Erlys and her husband’s abiding memory of her is of her compassion and grace, a great lady, an epithet that would have delighted and abashed the shy Elizabeth.
Another story she told me was of a dinner party held at Rose Cottage shortly after Elizabeth’s death. Jessie was still living there, although it was becoming increasingly obvious that she would have to move nearer to Erlys to be looked after.
There were two other guests beside Jessie and herself, her daughter Helen, home from University and a blind lady whose name Erlys couldn’t recall. They were sitting at the dining table in the rather small cottage and Jessie had got up to fetch something from the kitchen.
Erlys was sitting with her back toward the double doors that led into another room when she saw a hooded or cloaked man walk towards her across the room, and disappear through the doors. She felt the classic cold shiver and realised that she had seen a ghost. The blind lady, who had been talking, stopped and followed the apparition as if she could see it too.
As her daughter was present and Jessie was still living in the house, Erlys did not tell them what had occurred in case they were frightened or thought she had imagined it.
Some time later, when Jessie was living in the nursing home in Wales, Erlys told Jessie what had happened and to her surprise, Jessie was very matter of fact about it. She told her that Elizabeth had seen the Monk/Priest a few times and neither of them had been concerned about sharing their home with a ghost.
She also mentioned something about the ghost in Devon at Pomeroy Castle, which I know nothing about. I think in fact that it was Jessie who introduced Elizabeth to spiritualism, although I can’t quite make this fit with her Presbyterian faith. Pomeroy Castle is the Castle on the Hill that Elizabeth wrote about in the book of the same name and is reputed to be one of the most haunted places in Britain.
By this time I felt that I must wind down the interview, as the weather was closing in and I felt rather sorry for my husband wandering around in the cold and wet with his camera. In fact, he ended up coming in for coffee while Erlys kindly printed off a copy of an article that she had about Elizabeth from the “This England” magazine autumn 1989. The interview had gone well and they had both been so kind to two complete strangers. She also gave me a photograph of Elizabeth I had never seen before, a head and shoulders shot, taken in a studio, possibly for publicity purposes. It is one of my treasured mementoes of this wonderful author.