The Complete Book of Aunts


By Rupert Christiansen

With Beth Brophy

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Of all our blood relations, an aunt offers the most potential for uncomplicated friendship. The Complete Book of Aunts is an entertaining and touching exploration of aunts in all their guises and varieties, culled from real-life, literary and historical sources. Bewitching illustrations and anecdotes illuminate various aunt types: Bargain Aunts, Mothering Aunts, Damned Bad Aunts, and X-Rated Aunts. With stories and poems about famous or historical aunts, Christiansen and Brophy attempt to uncover what “aunt-ness” is.


Used with permission: (16) French fashion designer Coco Chanel. Collection: Time & Life Pictures. Photographer: Roland Schoor; (17) Photo of Hillside Home School, S.001 in The Architecture of Frank Lloyd Wright, a complete catalog, 3rd ed. by William Allin Storrer © 2002; (19) Marcel Proust. Hulton Archive. Artist: Hulton Archive; (20) Truman Capote and his aunt Mary Ida Faulk Carter. Photo by Jennings Faulk Carter. Courtesy of Jennings Faulk Carter Collection, Monroe County Heritage Museum, Monroeville, AL; (83) Gustav Klimt's Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer I, courtesy of Getty Images; (106) Aunt Jemima portrayer Anna Robinson. Photographed between 1933 and 1951. Copyright Bettmann/CORBIS; (111) The Andy Griffith Show, Andy Griffith, Frances Bavier, 1960–1968 © Everett Collection/New York; (124) Rosalind Russell in Auntie Mame. Collection: Hulton Archive. Photographer: Hulton Archive; (169) © Peter Lofts Photography/National Portrait Gallery, London. Virginia Woolf (née Stephen) and Angelica Garnett (née Bell), by Ramsey & Muspratt. Bromide print, 1932, 7 ¾ in. x 6 3/8 in. (197 mm x 162 mm). Given by the daughter of Lettice Ramsey, Jane Burch, 1988; (185) No Place Like Home, Collection: Hulton Archive, Photographer: MGM Studios; (192) SPIDER-MAN 2, Tobey Maguire, Rosemary Harris, 2004 © Columbia/courtesy Everett Collection; (205) Dr. Ruth Westheimer, portrait, 1990 © Everett Collection/New York.

Permission for the scrapbook illustration on page 30 was granted by Rosanna Devereux.

Copyright © 2006, 2007 by Rupert Christiansen

All rights reserved. Except as permitted under the US Copyright Act of 1976, no part of this publication may be reproduced, distributed, or transmitted in any form or by any means, or stored in a database or retrieval system, without the prior written permission of the publisher.


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First eBook Edition: November 2007

ISBN: 978-0-446-55349-0

Book design and text composition by L&G McRee

Illustrations by Stephanie von Reiswitz

For my sister Anna,
and in memory of J.M.M. and K.G.C.



Why are there aunts?" asked a baffled four-year-old boy as I sat in his parents' dining room talking about this book over lunch. It's a question I cannot answer. Aunts are not ordained by nature; they do not exist in the animal world. (Elephant herds are matriarchal, and when the males are out of the way, the females band together to look after one another and nurture the calves, even to the point of adopting any orphans. But these ladies are not necessarily blood-related—they are simply public-spirited.)

Anthropologists studying kinship patterns have had little to say about aunts. Not all societies recognize them—or at least, not all languages have bothered to develop a single word to describe a mother's or father's sister: Romany has only sachi calli, "female relation." A separate word for "aunt" is almost nonexistent in the languages of sub-Saharan Africa, while in the extinct tongues of Old High German and Anglo-Saxon, the words nevo and nift, from which our "nephew" and "niece" are derived, appear to have been used to describe uncle and aunt and grandson and granddaughter as well. Other peoples make careful distinctions between maternal and paternal aunts, in the interests of keeping lines, laws, and customs of inheritance clearly defined. In Hindustani, for example, a paternal aunt is phu-phi, a maternal aunt kala; Latin has matertera and amita; and Scandinavian languages double up tante or tant with faster and moster.

In The Development of Family and Marriage in Europe, Professor Jack Goody writes, "A kinship terminology that grouped together the siblings of both parents, placing each in the same category of 'uncle' and 'aunt' (though the holders of these roles were not inter-changeable in all areas of activity) developed first in Vernacular Latin in the late Roman Empire, then spread through the Romance languages, reaching England with the Norman Conquest." But in English aunt, like cousin, continues to have a more general application as well: An aunt is not just the sister of one of your parents but any older woman with whom you are on friendly terms—an "auntie." It is in this latter sense that the aunt makes one of her rare appearances in the writings of William Shakespeare, when Puck boasts about his antics:

The wisest aunt, telling the saddest tale,

Sometimes for three-foot stool mistaketh me:

Then I slip from her bum, down topples she

A Midsummer Night's Dream, II.i

Where to begin? The Bible is uninterested in aunts; Homer and the Greek tragedians pretty much ignore them. The first aunt of any historical significance appears in ancient Rome. When Nero was three, his father, Domitius, died. Much to the fury of his atrocious mother, Agrippina, who was exiled in disgrace, the boy was sent to live with his father's aunt Domitia Lepida. Being far from respectable, she proved a thoroughly bad influence, "choosing a dancer and a barber to be his tutors," according to Suetonius.

When Claudius became emperor in 41 ce, both Nero and Agrippina were brought back to court. Agrippina loathed Domitia Lepida and instigated a campaign of vilification against her, charging her with witchcraft. "In beauty, age and wealth," writes Tacitus,

there was little between them. Moreover, both were immoral, disreputable and violent, so they were as keen rivals in vice as in the gifts of fortune. But their sharpest issue was whether aunt or mother should stand first with Nero. Lepida sought to seduce his youthful character by kind words and indulgence. Agrippina, on the other hand, employed severity and menaces—she could give her son the Empire, but not endure him as Emperor. . . .

When Nero became emperor in 54 ce, he murdered Agrippina (thwarted incestuous passion being one putative motive) and then set about getting rid of Domitia Lepida, too, hoping to inherit her fortune since she was childless. "He found her confined to bed with severe constipation," Suetonius gossips:

The old lady stroked his downy beard affectionately—he was already full-grown—murmuring: "Whenever you celebrate your coming-of-age and present me this, I shall die happy." Nero turned to his courtiers and said laughingly "in that case, I must shave at once." Then he ordered the doctors to give her a laxative of fatal strength, seized her property before she was quite dead, and tore up the will so that nothing should escape him.

After this unforgettable scene, the records go very quiet on the matter of aunts for seventeen hundred years. Whether nephews and nieces were genuinely indifferent to them we cannot know, but certainly there is little evidence of any intense emotional relationships. Uncles fare no better. For some reason, this seems to change in mid-eighteenth-century England, when aunts become the objects of affection and gratitude. We hear about Catherine Perkins, who helped her nephew William Hutton become a bookseller, and the historian Edward Gibbon's devotion to his aunt Kitty (see page 45), while novels by Samuel Richardson and Fanny Burney paint vivid pictures of their heroines' aunts, who play more than passing roles in the story. In her fascinating book Novel Relations, Ruth Perry attempts to relate the rise of the aunt to a deep social change that took families away from a consanguine to a conjugal model, in which loyalty toward your parents and "extended" family became less important than loyalty toward your spouse and children—a phenomenon underpinned by the drive toward capitalistic independence and small businesses, with more people marrying younger and reproducing sooner.

Why should this make aunts more important? Because, Perry suggests, they were implicated in the question—urgently asked by young women especially—of the extent to which parents should be obeyed in the quest to marry, and in the search for other adult figures who might support rebellion. This is certainly an obsessive interest of novels of the period, which repeatedly explore the theme of a girl fighting to marry the man she loves against the will of her tyrannical or uncomprehending parents—an issue made more urgent by England's Marriage Act of 1753, which made it illegal for anyone under twenty-one to marry without parental consent. Whom could a girl turn to for sympathetic, disinterested adult advice? Not a similarly inexperienced girlfriend but a wise old aunt with no ax to grind. Elizabeth Bennett's reliance on her companionable aunt Gardiner in Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice is only one example.

But this is only a theory, and a rather porous, tendentious one at that. Maybe it's better just to accept that suddenly, it was time for aunthood to get its due. In the course of the next century or so, the familiar stereotypes emerge. The poet William Wordsworth's sister Dorothy is an early instance of the childless spinster aunt who grows up devoted to her big brother and then duplicates that love toward his offspring, in whose nurturing she plays a crucial role. Dorothy's particular care was the firstborn, John, born with a "noble forehead" that gave promise of a fine intellect. Alas, as Dorothy was forced to admit after attempting to homeschool him, he turned out dim and obtuse. This made no difference to her love for him. She sewed him new suits and shirts when he went off to boarding school and prayed that "God grant he may preserve his ingenuous dispositions." Finally, he got into Cambridge, where he struggled to keep up. Appointed to a curacy in the wilds of Leicestershire, he begged his aunt to come and help him settle in. So she set off, canceling an exciting holiday in Rome without a murmur of complaint.

"Nephews and nieces, whilst young and innocent, are as good almost as sons and daughters to a fervid and loving heart that has carried them in her arms from the hour they were born," writes Thomas de Quincey in his memoirs, presumably thinking of his friend Dorothy's poignant devotion to the hopeless John. "But after a nephew has grown into a huge bulk of a man, six foot high, and as stout as a bullock . . . there is nothing in such a subject to rouse the flagging pulses of the heart and to sustain a fervid spirit." Yet Dorothy was a loyal soul, and aunts can sustain their love on very little return: To be needed was sufficient joy.

The Victorian era was perhaps the aunt's finest hour, and the chapters that follow will detail several of their triumphs. Aunts (and this includes great-aunts) in the nineteenth century could be heroic figures, women who had avoided the surrender of marriage and sought spheres of activity beyond the roles of wife and mother. But chiefly they were objects of indulgent affection, in a culture that sentimentalized the relics and recollections of childhood. E. M. Forster, for instance, wrote Marianne Thornton, a touching memoir in tribute to his great-aunt, a woman selflessly devoted to the cause of education, who had died when he was barely seven. She had pampered and adored her little nephew, who at the time found her billing and cooing cloying and irritating. "I was in the power of a failing old woman, who wanted to be kind but she was old and each visit she was older. How old was she? 'Born in the reign of George the Fourth' my mother thought. 'More likely Edward the Fourth' cried I." When she died, she left Forster eight thousand pounds—a sum that he described as "the financial salvation of my life . . . she and no one else made my career as a writer possible." The biography, his final book, was a pious attempt to repay a debt of love and gratitude.

Aunts also become ripe for some good-natured ribbing. From the mid–nineteenth century date such innocent expletives as my aunt! or my sainted aunt! (The expression of incredulity my aunt Fanny! comes much later, according to the Oxford English Dictionary.) Aunt Sally was a fairground game, still popular in Oxfordshire pub gardens today, in which the dummy of a woman's head with a pipe sticking out of its mouth is assailed by sticks or balls aimed at dislodging the pipe—from which presumably springs the figurative use of Aunt Sally to describe a person or phenomenon that is a sitting duck for criticism or mockery. An Aunt Emma, in the quintessential Victorian recreation of croquet, is a player who obstreperously avoids risk and aims solely to impede the progress of others.

Late in the nineteenth century and into the early twentieth, aunts seem to have become even more emphatically comic figures—some of them merely amiably dotty, such as Aunt Etty in Gwen Raverat's Period Piece (see page 132); some of them figures of ludicrous self-importance and rigid propriety, such as Oscar Wilde's Lady Bracknell (page 131) or P. G. Wodehouse's Aunt Agatha (page 126). The prim maiden aunt and the stingy old aunt became staple figures of theatrical farce and children's books, where they regularly make unseasonable appearances and unreasonable demands and usually soften up in the end. Uncles, it should be noted, have much less force as either figures of authority or butts of satire. In fact, uncles won't come into this book much at all, partly because so many notable aunts were unmarried.

After the Second World War, people began to tire of their aunts, identifying them with a discredited order of moral values and ramrod behavior—a force of conservatism in an age desperate to break free of the catastrophic recent past. The BBC was sneerily nicknamed Auntie, in reference to its role as guardian of public decency, while in 1953, an essay by the West End playwright Terence Rattigan conjured up the figure of Aunt Edna as the embodiment of a certain sort of theatergoer who enjoyed a Shaftesbury Avenue matinee—"a nice, respectable, middle-class middle aged maiden lady with time on her hands" who "does not appreciate Kafka" and is "in short, a hopeless lowbrow."

At the beginning of a new millennium, the great age of the aunt is over, at least in the Western world. It lasted for about two hundred years, between the mid–eighteenth century and the mid-twentieth, greatly enriching our sense of family. Aunts continue to exist biologically, of course, but they have less potency in today's society. Younger women no longer want to be called aunt, with its stigma of prim middle age—which is just as well, since today's children are even more distinctly disinclined to use such an uncool word. For their part, children look to idiotic celebrities rather than their elder relations for their role models. The freedoms they have and their increased access to a wide range of experience via the media mean that aunts can offer them less in the way of novelty and adventure.

In China, a nation whose citizens are encouraged to have no more than one baby, and where male children are almost superstitiously favored over female, the aunt must be classified as an endangered species. In Muslim and Hindu societies, where women have more definitely circumscribed territory and where the family remains a more cohesive institution and a more active shaper of lives than it does in Christian societies, she has a better chance of flourishing in her traditional functions and identity. Quite what aunthood can mean among fundamentalist Christian West Africans, one cannot imagine: Recent cases of horrific child abuse reported in London saw aunts from this background involved in the unspeakably vile torturing and eventual murder of nieces they deemed to be possessed of devils in need of exorcism. Savagery is too mild a word.

A more edifying development in aunthood comes from the further reaches of medical technology, where it is now possible, thanks to egg donation, for a child to have his biological aunt as his biological mother, too. Emma Davies's moving account of being the aunt to her son appears on page 23. Another remarkable case of this scientific legerdemain was reported in the British press in November 2005, when thirty-two-year-old Alex Patrick, left infertile as a result of cervical cancer, won the legal right to be recognized as the mother of a baby son who was the product of her husband's sperm fertilizing her twin sister's ovum, which was then carried through pregnancy by her elder sister. It was impossible not to be moved by this remarkable instance of unselfish sisterly solidarity, itself a bedrock of aunthood and the familial affections that fill this book.


Most European languages use a one- or two-syllable word that appears to have derived from the ancient Greek tethis or the Latin amita and tata. The latter—a word meaning "rearer"—could be assigned to a father or a wet nurse as well as an aunt.

Czech, Croatian: teta

French, Dutch, German: tante

Finnish: tati

Italian: Zia

Russian: tetya

Spanish, Portuguese: tia

Turkish: teyze

Farther afield, "aunt" is otherwise rendered:

Basque: izeba

Guarany: sy'y

Hungarian: nagyneni

Kikuyu: taata

Sanskrit: nanandaa

Swahili: shagazi

Welsh: modryb

Japanese: amitam (rather alarmingly, the word for "mother's sister" is the same as that for "father's concubine")

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the word aunt first appears in written English around 1300, derived from the Old French aunte or ante. This usage survives today in the way that children are enjoined to call close but unrelated female family friends Aunt or Auntie. In the more louche periods of the seventeenth century, the word briefly entered smart urban slang as a term for "prostitute," "procuress," or "brothel-keeper."

In sign language, "aunt" is indicated by clenching the right hand and leaving the thumb facing upward to form the letter A, then holding the hand close to your right cheek and shaking it slightly back and forth.

An oddity of French: Tante is also a popular heterosexual term of abuse for a homosexual—the equivalent of "nancy-boy" or "pansy."

An oddity of English: Although uncle has been comfortably related to avuncular since the 1830s, no equivalent adjective has ever evolved from aunt. In this book, I am resorting to auntly, a word that, according to the OED, had only a brief and feeble currency: In 1844, Lady Lyttelton's letters send "my best regards and Auntly blessings to my nephew," and two years later Sara Coleridge's memoirs record "a very motherly and auntly tale." But it never caught on—why?


This term is said to be Prince Charles's satirical nickname for Kensington Palace, in reference to its warren of grace-and-favor apartments, occupied by his elderly female relations.

COCO CHANEL (1883–1971)

The French couturier considered by many to be the single most influential arbiter of fashion in the twentieth century could owe it all to her aunts. Gabrielle Bonheur Chanel, nicknamed Coco (for "little pet"), was orphaned at age six. She was raised in Auvergne by two aunts, who taught her to sew. Had it not been for those early sewing lessons, Chanel might have wound up in another line of work.

In 1922, she introduced her Chanel No. 5 perfume.

In 1952, Chanel designed her signature cardigan jacket.

Her signature quilted handbag with the chain-link strap is still popular today and retails for fifteen hundred dollars and up, depending on the size and type of leather.

At the time of her death in 1971, Chanel was still working. Since 1983, Karl Lagerfeld has been chief designer of her fashion house, and has been instrumental in updating the classic Chanel looks into modern clothing and accessories for today's chic and wealthy fashion trendsetters.

Coco Chanel


The first commissioned work of another great and influential icon of the twentieth century, the architect Frank Lloyd Wright, is connected to his aunts Jane and Nell Lloyd-Jones, who in 1886 founded the Hillside Home School, a coed boarding school near Spring Green, Wisconsin. Wright's first commissioned work was to design some buildings and a windmill for the school. After the facility closed in 1915, Wright pursued the idea of repairing the damaged buildings and incorporating them into an institution devoted to the study and practice of architecture. The first twenty-three apprentices formed the Taliesin Fellowship in 1932. The Taliesin estate, Wright's Wisconsin home, became a National Historic Landmark in 1976.


On Sale
Dec 14, 2008
Page Count
256 pages

Rupert Christiansen

About the Author

Rupert Christiansen has been writing about the arts for the Daily Telegraph since 1996. His many books include Prima Donna, Paris Babylon, and Romantic Affinities, which received the Somerset Maugham Award. A fellow of the Royal Society of Literature since 1997, he teaches at Keble College, Oxford and lives in London.

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