“In sooth, I know not why I am so sad:
It wearies me; you say it wearies you
But how I caught it, found it or came by it
What stuff ‘tis made of, whereof it is born
I am to learn;
And such a want-wit sadness makes of me
That I have much ado to know myself.”
(Antonio, The Merchant of Venice)
It was Saturday 23 December 1976, I was ten years old and bored. I was often bored. I loved my boarding school, where there were friends and books and landscaped gardens to explore. At home, there was only my brother James, five years my junior. There were a few possibilities for playing together – Lego or make-believe or the train set, but they were rather limited, and often when I told him what I wanted him to do, James got upset. Whereas I was gregarious and independent and bright, my brother was a shy child, rather highly strung and clingy. Despite the fact that I was disabled, and thus potentially a cause for concern, I’d gone to my integrated nursery quite happily, and then to the village school, and then off to boarding school at nine without a backward glance. By contrast, James had hated playgroup: he was clingy and weepy and never settled when my mother tried to leave him. Things hadn’t improved much now he’d started at the village school. When he was invited to a classmate’s birthday party, often a phone call would follow, asking James’s mother to come and collect him because he was unhappy. My brother loved being with his family but hated being left on his own.
Our house stood back from the road in a big garden. The oldest part dated from 1717, as you could see from the brick numbers on the gable end, but it had been extended in 1924. James and I shared a room, but soon I would move up to my own room in the attic, where there were boxes of books which we’d inherited from my older cousins Sheila and Fiona. Already, I spent hours on my own lying on my back under the roof, reading and reading and reading.
Now my mother wanted us to deliver Christmas cards to the neighbours. I liked the idea of going to play with the two boys who lived in the big house across the main road. The older brother Andrew was my friend, and James seemed to get on okay with his younger brother Nick. They had the full set of Action Man equipment – not just the dolls, but also the jeep and the tank. In the summer, they let us use their swimming pool. So a visit was always welcome, even though we could only spend half an hour because it was nearly time for lunch. My mother was cooking the Christmas ham.
The road outside our house was very busy, so she stood with us until it was safe to cross. We’d been told that our friend’s mum would ring when it was time for us to come back, and mum would wait to see us back over again. But we stayed playing longer than we should have, and then were in a hurry to get back, and for some reason the phone call wasn’t made. I was meant to hold James hand, but I didn’t want to be seen holding hands and I was impatient to get home. As usual, he was dawdling. Now we were opposite our gravel drive, and I carefully looked both ways to cross. Calling for him to come, I walked briskly over the road. But James hadn’t noticed where we were, and when he looked up and saw that I had gone, he rushed out after me without a second thought.
The car which had just come round the bend slammed on its brakes but was unable to stop in time. As I watched in horror, James hit the wing of the car, flew up into the air and landed in a messy heap on the tarmac. I ran to the house, opened the back door and shouted for help. Mum and Dad were in the kitchen and ran straight to the scene. James was rushed to intensive care, and I was dispatched to a neighbour for the rest of the day.
For the first few hours, James’ life hung in the balance. His injuries included a broken leg, broken ribs and a collapsed lung. But my father’s surgical colleagues managed to patch him up, and he spent the next six weeks recovering on the children’s ward, where he lay with tubes coming out of his chest, surrounded by presents and cards. We went to see him every day. After the first shock, it was exciting rather than worrying having a brother in hospital. Despite the smell, I thought hospital was great: I got to have two Christmas dinners, one at home and one in hospital, and to meet Father Christmas who came round the children’s ward with presents for everyone. Somewhere at the back of my mind lurked the dangerous thought that the accident had been my fault, but people kindly didn’t point it out to me, and I managed to block it out successfully, until one morning thirty year later, all the guilt and fear came pouring out in a tearful psychotherapy session.
And that was the closest my childhood got to disaster: my brother’s narrow escape from death, which saved me from a life-defining guilt. Other generations of my family had been less lucky. On my father’s side, his uncle Jack, most loved and most brilliant of the siblings, developed incurable cancer and died in 1940, leaving behind a fiancée and a medical career which had barely begun. On my mother’s side, her uncle Patrick, a police officer in Ceylon, died in a car accident, leaving behind his wife and young child. But the loss which came closest and about which I knew least was the early death of Judith, my father’s younger sister.
My father did not talk about painful things. From an early age he’d been a quiet child, learning to keep his feelings to himself. I think it was partly due to the time and class in which he grew up, partly temperament, and partly a result of spending many months away from home in his childhood. When he met my mother, William said only that he’d had a sister, who had sadly died. Later, Susan heard the full story from Pam, William’s half-sister. Several years after their marriage, my mother asked him to tell her what had happened. As he started explaining about Judith, tears came to his eyes at this memory which he had buried so deeply, and he was unable to complete the story.
When I was growing up, I think I knew that my father had had a sister who had died young, but I only heard the truth from family friends. I was in my gap year before University, travelling around Europe by train. In a rather smart home in a Brussels suburb, I stayed with the brother of my godfather, who’d also been at Radley with Dad, and was able to tell me that at the age of 18 Judith had hung herself in the bathroom of her school. I was shocked, and wanted more details, but I was told firmly that I was on no account to speak to my father about it, because it was too distressing to discuss.
So I never asked questions, and the only information on the subject that came from William was the briefest of mentions in his memoir. A few weeks after I first read those pages, my father himself was dead. When I came to write about my family, the mystery of my aunt was one of the subjects about which I was keenest to know more.
In the boxes which I inherited from my father and grandfather, I found the first evidence of Judith’s life. I seized on them with delight. That single battered photograph album from the 1930s included snaps of William with a girl who I realised must be Judith. In one picture, they stand together on a beach. Three years younger, Judith is already taller than her disabled brother, her arm lovingly draped around his neck, their faces turned towards each other. They wear matching shorts and shirts, barefoot in the sand. She has a cricket bat over her shoulder and is giggling. She is aged perhaps five years old. In another photograph she sits astride a pony, looking a little anxious. In a third, the two children sit in a garden beside a tent: William is wearing dungarees and they both have Red Indian headdresses. These are pictures of happiness and innocence.
This ordinary family photo album also provides an image of that time and class. There are scenes of the children with their governess, the children with the gardener, the children on their holidays, but they are never pictured with their parents. In upper middle class families in the 1930s, the children were mainly brought up by servants. They might be brought to see mother after breakfast, or before supper, or last thing at night, but otherwise they led a separate life, living in other rooms and forming their central emotional attachments to a succession of strangers.
Having a photograph of Judith meant that for the first time she became real to me, a creature of flesh and blood and feelings. Seeing what she looked like only fired my determination to fill in the gaps. I wanted to understand Judith’s story. I hoped to bring her, in one meagre sense at least, back to life. But there were so many questions to answer. My only chance of success was to talk to those relatives and friends who had known her best. Over the next few years, I managed to interview most of them.
Scottie Cheshire, the childhood friend and neighbour of the Shakespeares, remembered Judith from an early age. He told me that she was close to his father, who was the local vicar: I already knew she had been rather religious. Scottie described her as “very bright indeed, pretty in her way, delightful to be with”. In the box of papers, there was one loose photograph of a teenage Scottie with Judith and her mother Aimee in a garden, perhaps about to have a picnic. I imagine that the shot was taken by my father.
From my father’s cousin John I learned for the first time that Judith went to North Foreland Lodge, a boarding school for girls in Hampshire. He mentioned that she had bad acne as a young teenager. He described her character as very intense, bookish, quiet and introspective. He told me about a puzzling incident which had occurred when he and Judith were both about 14, when he had been staying in London with his cousins. He and his mother decided to visit the Tate Gallery, and invited Judith to join them. She declined, saying that she had something else to do. Later, as they toured the picture galleries, he caught sight of her standing behind a pillar watching them: “I thought, how very odd”. His sister Ann, ever the romantic, was convinced that Judith was infatuated with John, and that this was the explanation for the Tate Gallery incident. Ann also told me about how Judith would come and stay with them in Malvern occasionally, and how she loved to ride ponies. Ann remembers Judith as quiet and serious, with a serene and slightly sad face.
Judith’s interest in spiritual matters started when she was a teenager. John remembered that Judith had been found wandering in Trafalgar Square in the middle of the night, after an attack of religious mania. This may be the occasion in 1948 when she ran away from home and was eventually found trying to volunteer for the inner city mission for pauper children run by Leslie Weatherhead, a charismatic Christian preacher. His liberal approach to doctrine and non-judgemental interest in issues such as sex and psychology appealed particularly to young people.
My father’s nephew Mark Fisher also remembered Judith. In 1949, his father Nigel had been adopted for the local parliamentary constituency of Hitchin, and Nigel brought his two children to stay with the Shakespeares at nearby Walnut Farm, the family’s country home, while he went out canvassing. Mark remembers someone who was rather bookish, a big sister rather than an aunt. She was endlessly patient, and would always read to Mark and his sister Amanda, but was less inclined to play games.
Inspired by Mark’s stories of Walnut Farm, a place which my father had mentioned with great affection, I decided to detour to Sandon when I was driving with my daughter from Cambridge to Aylesbury to see my mother. On the map, I realised with a sense of shock that the tiny village was very close to the main Baldock-Royston road in Hertfordshire, just off our route. My father had driven me or my brother back and forwards along that road dozens of times, at the beginning and end of Cambridge terms. But we had never once stopped.
Now Ivy and I took the turn off and drove slowly through the ribbon development, peering at each house. Finally, we stopped and asked a local for directions to Walnut Farm. As soon as we turned down the right road, I recognised it immediately from the framed photograph of my grandparents standing outside the front door, which I always remember sitting on my father’s desk. The current owner was working in the back garden, and didn’t object to us having a look and taking a photograph. Walnut Farm is an old thatched cottage with outbuildings. One of them had been converted into a rather drafty bedroom by Geoffrey, doing the building work rather amateurishly at weekends, emulating the example of Winston Churchill. He and the gardener had also dug a swimming pond in the garden: a dip in the ground still remains, which I pointed out to the owner. Seeing where my family had once lived, and where my father had had very happy times with Judith and his cousins, made me feel connected to the past. But I felt sad that the tragic associations that the house held for him after Judith’s death had made it impossible for William to return there to show it to us in later life.
I put together my first attempt at describing Judith, and sent it to my father’s cousin Jane in Oregon, who had perhaps known her best of all her generation. Jane and her sister Joanna had spent much time with William and Judith, on their visits to England with their mother, before and after the Second World War. Jane’s response to my writing surprised me:
The first thing that struck me about you when you visited us as a teenager was that you were so much more like Judith than like William. She was quite cocky and opinionated and, though she was moody, most of the time it was a good mood. And she wasn’t just bookish; she was interested in exploring ideas. I always thought of William as intelligent and Judith as intellectual.
In my own mind, I had associated Judith with my younger brother. James grew up to be a rather serious, intense person, who studied theology at University and eventually ended up as a parish priest. He found life at boarding school very difficult, and felt homesick and unhappy for much of the time. With five years between us, I would be in the final year of school just as he was starting out. Although I tried to be sympathetic and supportive, I did not know what to do to help him when he came to my room, eyes red for weeping. Things did not particularly improve as he grew older. By the time James reached Cambridge, I had got my degree and was living with my partner and child. he found University life just as difficult as he had school, and again his visits became a familiar part of our week. But then to everyone’s relief, James got through his years of depression and anxiety, and flourished in work and particularly in his church role.
Teenage religiosity and mental instability were therefore something I associated with my brother, and when I discovered more about Judith, I naturally imagined her as a female version of him. It was a considerable shock to be told that it might be me that took after her. Not for the first time, I had jumped to the wrong conclusion. But then I remembered that I’d also had a very religious phase as a teenager, when I became a server in the school chapel, and thought of becoming a monk. Cousin Jane reminded me that I had worn a rather prominent crucifix when I had arrived in Oregon on my gap year travels. Jane and her husband Ladis Kristof were both academics at Portland State University, and I remember their draughty but very well stocked library, a maze of metal bookshelves in an outbuilding on their farm, where I read Kierkegaard and Schopenhauer. After I left, she found the crucifix lying on the floor under my bed and sent it on. When I reached Cambridge a few months later, I spent the first term singing in the chapel choir, but later transferred my allegiance from the Church of England to the Communist Party of Great Britain.
Although I love James deeply, we were not very close as children. Our personalities were too different, and I found it hard to empathise with his problems. The same seems to have been the case for William and Judith. They went to separate schools, and had separate groups of friends, although the age gap between them was only three years. Jane suggested that this lack of intimacy may have made Judith’s death even more painful for my father.
She also raised the question of whether Geoffrey and Aimee may have favoured William. Because of their concerns about his disability, he may have received more attention than his sister. After her death, according to my mother, he certainly felt guilty that he had been unaware of the depths of her problems, and that had failed to do enough to help her. In his memoir he wrote
I really don’t know how much my disability had to do with her upset, but I always had a feeling that it might have been partly responsible. It is regrettably common in a family who have an affected child that this child is over-protected and cared for to the detriment of normal siblings.
Reading this, I wonder whether my brother ever felt neglected when compared to me. He may have felt overshadowed by my reputation when he followed me through school. But I think my parents made every effort to treat us in the same way. I know that James felt protective towards his disabled father and brother. He is a loyal and loving person, who had a very close bond with our father, particularly towards the end of William’s life. Whereas my mother and I are assertive and can be abrasive, my brother shares the same kind and gentle personality as my father.
Geoffrey and Judith seem to have had a difficult relationship. When his sister Mary told him that she should appreciate Judith more, Geoffrey replied that it was hard not to get irritated with her, because she would argue with him about things which he said she knew little about. Judith, the serious and religious teenager, worried about her parents’ lifestyle, so full of frivolous parties and political gossip. It disturbed her that Geoffrey and Aimee were not leading good Christian lives. This zealous young woman despaired at parents who didn’t seem to share her concern about the poor, and who risked hell as a result of their immorality.
Jane told me that Judith had not really felt as if she belonged with her own parents. It was as if she had found herself in the wrong family. This sounds like a case of what Sigmund Freud called “a family romance”, the common childhood fantasy that one’s real parents must be different people, perhaps of exalted birth. Freud thought that this idea expresses the feeling that the everyday parents do not come up to the standards of the child’s private sense of self. Others had noticed the lack of empathy between parents and daughter. Aunt Mary, Jane’s mother, had even said that Judith might have been much better off in their family, rather than living with Geoffrey and Aimee. Jane’s father Donald McWilliams was a serious and spiritual person and Mary herself was literary and intellectual, and perhaps they would indeed have been better suited to Judith’s high aspirations about morality and culture.
According to my father’s memoirs, Judith suffered from very severe intermittent depression and ‘nervous trouble’ throughout her teens.. It seems as if the Shakespeares had considerable confidence in the medical profession. When their son William turned out to be disabled, they took him over to the Continent to be treated by the German endocrinologist. When in turn their daughter developed symptoms of mental illness in 1948, they made the appointment with the psychiatrist, who labelled her as depressive. Judith’s problems were thought to be so serious that she was given insulin coma treatment at Guy’s Hospital. This drastic therapy, an early alternative to electro-convulsive therapy, was popular during the 1940s and 1950s. The treatment suggests that someone may even have diagnosed her with schizophrenia, then known as dementia praecox, perhaps because of her religious mania.
Knowing nothing of insulin coma treatment, I went to the Wellcome Trust Library to explore the medical history. I discovered that this horrible therapy was pioneered in Vienna in the early 1930s. The unfortunate patient would be injected with insulin, and would fall unconscious for up to an hour. In the coma, they would respond either by becoming hot and sweaty, or with hot dry skin and twitching muscles. They would have epileptic fits and often soil the bed. After an hour they would be revived with glucose, and would wake up ravenously hungry. Sometimes, the treatment reduced delusions and anxiety. Often, the patient gained considerable weight over a course of treatment. In about one case out of ten, the patient died. One victim described the experience of ICT: “I dreamed I was on a roller coaster and the place where the roller coaster was, was in Hell.”[i] Another described her brain crumbling like a stale cake. During the 1950s, first ECT and finally neuroleptic drug treatments replaced insulin coma treatment. The mathematician John Nash was one of the last people to undergo the ordeal, in 1961.
As well as this drastic medical response, Judith’s worried parents were also advised about what they could do to support their troubled daughter. They were told to make more time for the sort of family activities which Judith would enjoy. Geoffrey and Aimee’s idea of fun was a party, preferably with silly party games. Judith preferred more cerebral pastimes. Several of my relatives told me about rather awkward sessions when the family would gather to read poetry together. Apparently, my father William would do everything possible to escape these tense and self-conscious evenings.
During 1949, Judith’s situation improved. She took her Higher School Certificate, and received three distinctions and four credits: a good result, but one with which she was dissatisfied. Geoffrey had high hopes for his daughter’s academic career, and it was decided she would apply to Newnham College, Cambridge, to read English. In preparation for the entrance examination, she would attend a crammer, Kirby Lodge in Shelford, conveniently near Baldock and Walnut Farm.
To recreate the story of those months, I was able to turn to my father’s journal. He kept a diary throughout his life, but his entries are fuller and more personal for these early years. Judith in Shelford was close to William in Cambridge, and neither were far from Sandon, so the family seems to have been in close contact, often meeting up for weekends at Walnut Farm. During summer and early autumn 1949, William records Judith sewing his trousers and shorts, and helping him wash his hair at Walnut Farm. She tells him that she would like to have more “philosophical discussions”. At one point, she is trying to write an article for the Daily Graphic.
In August 1949, Geoffrey took William and Judith together with their cousins Jane and Joanna on a driving holiday through Europe, ostensibly so that the teenagers could visit the cultural highlights of France and Italy. The hope was that the trip would help Judith relax and become less inward looking. Originally, Aimée had planned to come too, but in the event her poor health prevented her coming: she was suffering from high blood pressure, and it was even feared she might die. The evening before the Continental trip began, Jane remembers Aimée in an armchair at Walnut Farm, with William sitting on the floor at her mother’s feet, holding her hand, silently, as if each feared that they might never see the other again.
Amongst the family papers, I found the diary which Judith had written during the holiday, and typed up on her return. Her account is lively but unremarkable. She records her disapproval when her father takes them trespassing for lunchtime picnics, or when he does slightly shady deals to get around the currency restrictions. In Paris, Judith had wanted to visit the Louvre, but writes that her lowbrow brother and cousins wanted to see the tourist attractions instead. She was concerned about the poverty of the workmen and hotel staff and made notes about the average wage and the high cost of meat. But she obviously enjoyed the trip, and the diary casts no light on her mental problems. Jane remembers that Judith took most of the photographs of the holiday. When the others pointed out that they would as a consequence not have any pictures of her, she replied that her absence would be no loss. Only later were they to interpret this remark as a clue to her troubled state of mind.
Returning from the Continent, Judith prepared to return to school for her exams. Over the following weeks, my father’s diary entries mark a deterioration in her emotional state:
16th September. Talked with Judith about faith healing etc and finances and general arrangements. She is a wonderful little person, full of religion and good thoughts.
19th September. She seemed a bit depressed about her exams when I said goodnight. We must impress on her that it does not matter, we do not want a recurrence of last year’s trouble brought on by worrying about it.
20th September. Came back via Shelford where J had left her bike. She seemed very depressed about her work.
21st September. Judith rather strange and did not get up all day – even when Scottie arrived. I do hope Judith is not going to have one of her attacks. It worries Mummie so – with some reason.
The story unfolds with what in retrospective seems tragic inevitability. The trajectory is such that it is almost to be expected when finally my father records
31st October 1949. Lectures etc. Kirby Lodge doctor rang me up to say that Judith had committed suicide.
The entry seems strangely laconic: my father lost for words, perhaps, or not trusting himself to express his grief, but still continuing to record the events of his life, day by day.
Suddenly I realised that this moment, the most traumatic imaginable, must have stayed with my father throughout his life as a secret sorrow. When my brother began to have symptoms of despair and religious mania, and was so clearly failing to cope with the pressures of life, perhaps my father began to worry that history was repeating itself. Throughout James’ teenage years, Dad must have dreaded receiving another awful phone call. While he never mentioned any such fears, I cannot imagine that he failed to make a connection between James’ unhappiness and that of Judith, forty years previously.
Having at last found the date of Judith’s death, I wanted to find out more details. The key fact I had already learned from those family friends in Brussels: Judith had hung herself, in a bathroom. When I interviewed Ann, my father’s cousin, she had mentioned newspaper coverage. I imagined salacious stories in tabloids. I soon discovered that my university library did not stock what I required. I would have to go to the British Library Newspaper Collection at Colindale, North London. A few months later, I found an opportunity to make the trip.
From King’s Cross, I set off on the Northern line, chugging northwards through the suburbs, keen to arrive at Colindale as soon as it opened. I felt a mounting sense of occasion, as well as slight anxiety. I arrived, as always, far too early. The 1930s building was only two minutes from the tube station, along a road with boarded up suburban villas. I sat with my notes in the Readers’ Lounge, where a few seasoned hands were already hunched over their laptops. The vending machine held scant promise. At 10am, the rope was removed, and the riches of the world’s media lay open to us.
When I gave my name at the desk, I was handed four cardboard boxes of microfilm. I had hoped for bound volumes. I had never used microfilm before, and the machines were bulky and intimidating. It was hard to reach above the screen where the films were loaded. I stood precariously on an office chair, and followed the instructions for winding on the spool. Once organised, I sat back down and pressed the fast forward button. The months sped past with a busy rattle, like a tram. It was like watching a time machine, the headlines giving way week by week. As I slowed down for October 31 1949, I felt a wave of trepidation. What would there be? Suddenly, it felt very real.
I had started with the News of the World, dreading an expose of our family tragedy. Headlines leaped out at me: “Husband sees death leap”; “Declares she heard quarrel before tragedy”; “Mystery countess is jailed for fraud”; “Wife denies lodger kissed her”. A series of stories described young girls or boys being chloroformed by rapists or sexual abusers. There were several suicides: a 24 year old student found poisoned in a hotel room… a 16 year old Southend schoolboy found hanging in a garage. But there seemed to be nothing about my aunt.
I turned to the Daily Mail for November 2nd, two days after Judith died. On page 5, I found the item I was looking for: “Girl Hanged At School”. Our family tragedy, in black and white. She was found hanged by a piece of string, in a bathroom. “Miss Shakespeare had been ill recently’ – a reference, I assume, to her mental health problems. The Principal of the school, Mrs Florence Smalley, said she was a bright and happy girl, and a good scholar.
I turned to the Daily Graphic. I was keen to find out if the article which my father notes that Judith had been writing had ever been published. I scrolled through the editions from August to November with increasing frustration. What would the article have been about? Religion or literature, I imagined. Certainly the paper carried a regular column of Christian commentary. Wasn’t a schoolgirl being unrealistic to hope that her thoughts might be printed? Or perhaps she’d written a piece on the family trip to the Continent. But nothing by Judith Shakespeare, until on the Friday 4th November I found the inevitable account of her death, headlined “The Girl Who Set Her Ideals Too High”. Geoffrey told the paper “she had set herself very high ideals and she may have thought she had failed. I can only conclude she may have been suffering from depression, but being brave kept her feelings to herself”. This sounds somewhat evasive, given Judith’s history and the evidence from my father’s diary that his sister’s mood had been troubled throughout September. Geoffrey also disclosed that Judith had been dissatisfied with her School Certificate results and that she had previously had a nervous breakdown.
The Daily Mail carried a report on the inquest in its Friday 4th issue, headlined “A Father Pays Tribute to his daughter”. Geoffrey had said “The trouble was always to stop her working. She acquired knowledge so fast that she strained her brain and her depression took the form of religious melancholia. She was intensely spiritual. She was dissatisfied with her character… but she had a lovely character. Her fault was that she felt she had failed in her ideals, which were very high. She was deeply religious and took it out of herself trying to live too high.
The Coroner had read out the suicide note, and it was reported in full: “Judith – suicide – occasioned by no misunderstanding or maltreatment by the family, teachers or friends. I have exceptional patience and kindness shown to me. I am merely dissatisfied with my own character, and I am not brave enough to amend it. I am not a Christian, or I would not have done this.” The note seemed so laconic and unemotional. The official verdict was “Suicide while the balance of her mind was disturbed” Her negative interpretation of herself and her place in the world must have arisen from her depression, but the Judith who wrote this note seemed strangely rational and far from mad.
I thought of 18 year old Judith, on that October day. Was All Souls Day a premeditated choice for this highly religious teenager? How long had she planned it? Had she lain awake all night with a sense of mounting despair, and then decided, in the lonely early hours, to do for real what she had considered so often in the past? I imagined her writing her note, thinking of others and trying to ensure no one blamed themselves. She would have stood on the lavatory seat and tied the string – perhaps her dressing gown cord – first to the cistern and then around her own neck. A final prayer, perhaps, and then the slow and miserable death from asphyxiation.
There seemed little point ordering another batch of papers, so I packed up my pencil and notebook and headed back towards town. Now that I knew everything, I felt deflated. I met my wife at the British Library, where we had lunch. As I read out to her the press reports which I had noted down, I found myself, for the first time that day, weeping. I was overwhelmed by a feeling that it was just the saddest of stories. I wept for Judith, and her wasted potential, and her lonely end. I wept for my father, blaming himself. I wept for my grandparents, because as a parent myself I could empathise with their incomprehension and despair. I can imagine no worse horror that the death of a child.
In my searches through Colindale Newspaper Library, I discovered that the name of the proprietor of Kirby Lodge school was Mrs Florence Smalley. When I returned home, I searched for Kirby Lodge on the internet. The school no longer existed, but I found a parish newsletter from Little Shelford which contained the name of the current occupant, a Mary Smalley, obviously a member of the same family. I drafted a careful letter. Tact seemed in order. It would surely be distressing to any householder to discover that fifty years earlier a young woman had hung herself in their bathroom: I mentioned the tragic death, but not the circumstances.
A few weeks later, I answered my telephone one evening to a businesslike but friendly lady, who announced herself as Mary Smalley. For some reason, I was taken aback. I had expected a correspondence, or perhaps an email. I was unprepared for a delicate conversation. But Mary was very straightforward. Yes, she had known Judith, quite well. Did I know what had happened? Mary was obviously relieved not to have to break the news to me herself, and once the subject of Judith’s suicide had been broached, the story flowed much more easily.
The school itself had opened in 1948, with six pupils lodging in the large family home. The main teachers were May Smalley – as Florence Smalley was generally known – and her sister. By their second year of operation, they had about ten pupils, all girls, although the doctor’s son from the village sometimes also attended classes. Some of the girls had their own room, and others shared rooms. Judith had been studying English, and her teachers were a Miss Garrett and Mrs Katie Oakshott. The girls had also studied Classics, and a few other subjects. Judith had been there for a year: she was very bright and loved working
In Mary’s words, Judith was a terribly nice girl. Everyone was very fond of her, she was a good mixer, and easy to get on with. One of the other girls had also come from North Foreland Lodge, and was a particular friend of hers. Judith would regularly visit her grandmother who lived in Cambridge, and Mary would sometimes give her a lift to the house in Gonville Place. Mary also remembered my father coming to visit Kirby Lodge: they had a mutual friend in Cambridge with whom she went beagling. Yes, Judith was rather serious, and certainly religious. Like the rest of the girls, she attended the village church on Sunday. But no, she did not seem obsessively religious. She was very kind, very helpful. Delightful in fact.
Mary was finally able to explain the events of Judith’s death. That afternoon, she had been helping out in the kitchen with tea. She had wanted to learn how to make chocolate cake. The other girls had been planning to put on a show for the evening, but she had opted out. It was late afternoon, and the girls were doing their prep, before dinner when Judith was discovered to be missing. Then it was noticed that a bathroom was locked. The gardener had been summoned, and he had broken down the door, and that’s where Judith was found. She’d left the note on her bed. By some method – probably one of the domestic staff – the Evening Standard had found out and the next day the story was on the front page. Mary had been out to dinner in London that night, and was shocked to see the news.
Mary said no one had been entirely surprised, which perhaps explains the tone of my father’s diary entry. They all knew that Judith had to be closely supervised, after her mental problems the previous year. After the tragedy, May Smalley had received a letter from one of the teachers from Judith’s previous school, telling her not to blame herself in the slightest: she explained that they had had to watch her day and night while she was at North Foreland. Apparently, she had had a “bee in her bonnet”: she was convinced that anyone called Judith Shakespeare was destined to die young. It was clear that the suicide was carefully planned: she had chosen October 31st, All Souls Day, as the appropriate date in the church calendar for her death.
I was not sure what else to ask. We talked more about my father. I learned that the house had been a language school until 1992. May Smalley had lived on to the age of 99 years and 7 months, dying before her planned centenary celebration. Now Mary and her sister Ros were selling up. Because they were sisters, if one died, the other would be liable for death duties. So they had found a pair of houses in Somerset, and they were going to live next door to one another. As we ended the conversation, Mary casually let slip something I had not even thought of: “She’s buried in the village churchyard, of course.”
As I rang off, my mind was racing. I was planning to visit my son Robert in Cambridge that weekend. How could we manage to get to Little Shelford? In the train on the way down that Friday, I phoned an old friend. Bella and her partner Richard would be delighted to have a trip to the country with Robert and me. We could have lunch in the pub, we could go for a walk at the nearby Wandlebury Ring, and we could track down the final resting place of my long lost aunt. Richard and Bella have past form as graveyard detectives. With their theatre company, In Situ, they create experimental performances in unusual locations. A few years earlier, my daughter and I had experienced their very atmospheric show about Christina the Astonishing, a medieval Belgian mystic, which they performed in Barnwell Leper Chapel on the outskirts of Cambridge. As Robert and I piled into the car, they kept us entertained with tales of driving through the Low Countries in search of funerary monuments.
We drew a blank at the first church we visited, in Great Shelford. We continued another few miles down the road, past thatched cottages and country pubs. I felt embarrassed to be taking my friends on a wild goose chase. Finally, we found Little Shelford Church. We fanned out and examined every grave. None there seemed to be Judith’s, although we found the graves from the 1940s. Many of the grave markers were wooden, and several had been removed and propped against the graveyard wall. Perhaps it had rotten away. Perhaps, as a suicide, Judith had been buried somewhere else, somewhere away from consecrated ground.
The final option was to ask the Smalleys. This meant a slow drive around Little Shelford, until we found Kirby Lodge itself. It was a large Georgian building, with a gravel sweep. The others hovered in the road outside, as I pressed the door bell. When Ros Smalley opened the door, she soon understood what I had come about, and we were all ushered inside. Mary would know about the grave, but she had gone to Cambridge to pick up a printer cartridge. We perched on sofas, amidst piles of books and packing, admiring the paintings on the walls. I was uncomfortably aware that I had a train to catch, and that I had dragged my son and friends into having tea with total strangers. Just as I was beginning to make apologies, Mary arrived. She immediately took charge. She had a map of the churchyard. It would be easy to find Judith’s grave.
Having memorised the location, and heard again the story of the sisters’ impending move, we stood up to go. As we walked down the hall, I almost asked if I could see the bathroom. But it seemed just too voyeuristic to visit the spot where someone killed themselves, not to mention rude to intrude further on the privacy of these most hospitable and helpful ladies.
Back at the churchyard, we counted out the graves and wandered out. We still couldn’t see the right one. Then Robert called out to us. Here it was. A rather ugly and elaborate grave: an oblong of stone to mark out the plot, and a stone marker at the end. We had to wipe away moss and lichen to read the inscription:
Judith Anne Shakespeare
Dearly loved daughter of
Sir Geoffrey and Lady Shakespeare
Born May 9th 1931
Died October 31st 1949
The grave was furnished with an empty metal urn. I wondered whether my father had ever visited, on his own, during his trips to Cambridge. He had certainly never mentioned it. He did not speak about Judith, but whether this meant he had entirely blocked the memory from his mind, I cannot be sure. Perhaps he had sometimes visited and brought flowers. He continued at Cambridge, as a medical student, until 1953. Even so, it was most likely that there had been no visitor to the grave for fifty years. My grandmother had died, and my grandfather had remarried and moved to a new home: I suspect he never returned.
Robert was still scraping away the undergrowth, exposing a Bible verse at the end of the grave: “In thy presence is the fullness of joy”. The inscription, the stained and overgrown stone, the empty vase, all seemed tatty and sad. To me, the grave felt uninspired and disappointing: I had hoped for something better for Judith. Had the Shakespeares selected something conventional from the stone mason’s catalogue with little thought or care? Or did they take comfort in the thought that Judith was now with God, in whose presence was joy? I wanted something more dignified and simple, like my father’s own grave. But I realised that I had not even brought any flowers with me.
* * * * *
The tragedy had a terrible impact on the whole family, as the surviving cousins later told me. Jane recalls that it “felt like the end of our happy world”. Mark told me “there was this horror and Judith was no more”. Ann remembers being at her boarding school and how she came downstairs one morning to find that someone had clipped an article out of the newspapers to prevent anyone reading it. Later that day the bad news was broken to her privately.
Aimée, already physically frail, was hospitalised in the weeks after Judith’s death. Less than six months later, on February 14th 1950, she died after suffering an immense stroke. While she was known to have high blood pressure, it seems very likely that her condition was exacerbated by her daughter’s death. It was a double tragedy which changed my father’s life forever.
William’s diary gives a limited picture of his reaction to the suicide. It almost seems as if he had expected it to happen. According to Jane, my father felt isolated after his sister’s death. His college friends avoided him, because they did not know what to say. His best friend Scottie and his cousin John were both away on National Service. William’s strong Christian faith seems to have helped him to make sense of the tragedy. Less than a week after Judith’s suicide, he wrote
7th Nov. Christianity is a wonderful thing and this has made me believe all the more – when we would expect it to do the opposite.
10th Nov. Goodnight all my darlings. I am feeling so much happier about you Judith darling, and while missing you terribly – I feel perhaps it is for the best. God moves in a mysterious way his wonders to perform.
I imagine that he would have turned to the College chaplain or perhaps to the theologian Charlie Moule, a particular friend amongst the Clare fellowship, to help him understand the tragedy and come to terms with it. Later in November, William attended a series of five sermons by Dr Barnhouse at Great St.Mary’s, the University church. In his diary he talked to Judith about how much she would have loved to hear them. On December 12, he recorded
Granny told me something rather shattering about Judith – I must contact Pam about it.
At first, I was intrigued by this, speculating as to what it might have referred to, and entertaining sensational suggestions. But in the end I guessed that Judith might have had a crisis of faith, which she had confided to her Cambridge grandmother, and this might have contributed to her decision to end her life. The protagonists now being dead, it remains a frustrating secret beyond the reach of my amateur detective work.
Over the following months, Judith was often on my father’s mind:
19th April. I have been thinking so much about you Judith darling today and felt so very sad, it will be your birthday soon, I do miss you, but we must not be selfish – we were such friends and I wish I have been more appreciative.
8th May Oh Judith darling, it is your birthday tomorrow, I will be thinking of you my love. I do so wonder whether you and Mummy are together.
I wondered whether Judith’s dates of birth and death continued to have resonance for my father throughout his life, even though he never referred to them. He was undoubtedly deeply affected by his sister’s suicide, followed so closely by his mother’s death in February 1950. Part of him may even have felt himself to blame for Judith’s problems, either for neglecting her needs, or because he got more attention as the disabled son. William found his academic studies very hard that winter and spring: he felt isolated, and worried about his exams. When in June he was awarded a Third class degree, he was relieved to have passed, but there must have been disappointment too. In his Part One examinations he had got a Second, and had all been well he would have expected to have repeated that result in Finals.
Armed with my new knowledge, I turned back to another photograph from the boxes of family papers. It is a studio portrait of Judith, taken in London two or three years before her death. As if for the first time, I look into the face of my mysterious aunt. She looks very like her mother Aimée, with slightly scrunched up features, and wavy hair that I imagine might also have been auburn. She gazes intently at the viewer, her mouth closed, neither smiling nor sad, but with her eyes steady, as if she is seeing something in the distance. In this photograph she is a young teenager, still a child rather than a woman, but already she seems to have a depth and intensity of personality.
Solving the mystery of what had happened to Judith prompts further questions which resist definitive answer. Why had she killed herself? What, or rather who might she have become, had those months in 1949 taken a different course? Speculating about the second question seems simpler. Judith was due to study English at Newnham. Given that she was reputedly rather cleverer than my father, and that he reached Clare, I assume that she would have passed the entrance examinations and followed him to Cambridge. She had a love of poetry – Matthew Arnold’s poem Dover Beach was a particular favourite – and I could imagine her flourishing in the intellectual life of the 1950s. I sent an email to the Newnham College archivist to discover who Judith’s peers might have been at Newnham. Among them were the novelist A.S.Byatt and the biographer Claire Tomalin. Immediately, I began to imagine Judith’s possible life – an academic perhaps, or a writer.
To get a sense of Cambridge at the time, I read the memoirs of Jane Miller, an academic and writer. Her book Relations describes life at a women’s college at in the 1950s, at a time when only one in ten Cambridge undergraduates was female[ii]. Women’s colleges had only been given full membership of the University in 1948. Miller explains how women were expected to be subservient to men, how they were meant to take a detached tone in their essays, avoiding anything subjective. Most women graduates were expected to become teachers, or nurses or secretaries. The majority were only putting in time until they got married and gave up work. It sounds a rather frustrating environment for a clever young woman.
I imagine this bright and rather troubled teenager, and the academic or author whom she might have later become. It’s difficult to know what aspects of her character at eighteen were a teenage phase of intensity and religiosity, and how much were the real Judith. Would she have kept her faith? My father certainly did, as did his cousin Jane, but other family members fell away from the Church. The religious Aunt Judith would have been delighted when her nephew James became a priest. The literary Aunt Judith would have been so interesting, perhaps inspirational, to me, as I grew up to love books and writing and then became an academic myself.
Would she would have ever married? In her photograph, she is attractive, rather than beautiful. Like Jane Miller, she might have found those Cambridge men rather patronising, expecting women to be decorative, not intellectual. I imagine Aunt Judith as an academic spinster, but that’s almost certainly because we never met, and she never read me books as she did my cousins Mark and Amanda at Walnut Farm in the summer of 1949, a girl full of life and sweetness.
Thinking of Judith’s possible futures, I also think of those other troubled, literary Cambridge women – Sylvia Plath, who killed herself in 1963, and Virginia Woolf, who threw herself into the river in 1941. Woolf experienced her first episode of manic depression at the age of 13. Her symptoms, like my Judith’s, involved feelings of inadequacy and despair and the belief that she was a burden to others. She came from a family where several generations of Stephens had experienced similar depressions. Perhaps Judith too would have had a lifetime of misery, or maybe, like my brother, she might have recovered from teenage problems to lead a happy and successful adulthood.
Shortly before his sister’s suicide, my father was reading A Room Of One’s Own. Almost certainly, it was Judith herself who lent it to him. In the book, based on lectures which she delivered at Newnham College in 1928, Virginia Woolf asks “what would have happened had Shakespeare had a wonderfully gifted sister, called Judith”, a woman who suffers greatly and eventually commits suicide because she can find no socially acceptable outlets for her talent. It is just a coincidence, but a chilling one none the less.
Imagining what did not happen offers the intrigue of constructing counterfactuals, but explaining what did happen is more difficult. Why does an intelligent eighteen year old girl take her own life? A premature death seems a mystery to be solved. But on reading the literature, I discovered that suicide is the second commonest form of death for teenagers. Every year, hundreds of young people end their own lives, often around exam time. Many of them feel worthless, hopeless and helpless as Judith did. A key risk factor is being of more than average intelligence. Another is experiencing family problems. The literature suggests there are three important dimensions to the unhappiness which suicidal teenagers feel: a negative self-concept; a negative view of their relationships with other people; and a pessimism about the future. In this sense, Judith seemed to be a classic case. She was perceptive enough to realise the imperfections of the world, but not yet able to deal with that knowledge. As a powerless young person, she felt unable to influence things for the better. Lacking maturity, she was unable to imagine overcoming her own flaws or being able to make a difference. Most teenagers feel depressed at some point, and many feel considerable self-loathing and despair. But while 10% of adolescent deaths are suicides, it remains a very rare phenomenon. It seems inadequate to explain Judith’s death merely as an exaggerated case of normal age-related unhappiness. The evidence seems strong that Judith suffered some form of depressive illness. And the statistics suggest that one in ten depressives kills themselves.
The idea that mental illness runs in families is not a product of our modern DNA obsessed age. As early as 1810, insurance companies were refusing life insurance to people whose brothers were mad. In the 1920s, the hereditary nature of mental illness was common knowledge. Just as the Stephens, Virginia Woolf’s family, had a history of depression, so the Shakespeares have long believed that our own family is particularly susceptible. The patriarch Revd John Howard Shakespeare, Judith’s grandfather, had a series of nervous breakdowns through his life. He would work manically hard in his role as secretary of the Baptist Union: modernising the denomination, raising funds, or trying to promote ecumenism, his personal passion. Then he would collapse for months at a time, tormented by insomnia and despair.
According to his biographer, “For several months in 1888 and 1889 he had been almost unable to sleep, eat or study, and had suffered from continual headache. His physician described his condition as involving “no active disease, only a delicacy of organisation”. In March 1898 he was invited to become Secretary of the Baptist Union, but by the next month he was seriously ill and advised to decline the role because of his fragile state of health. In September, he changed his mind, deciding to accept the role because of his medical problems: apparently, he saw his illness as a message from God telling him to take the job. In 1901, after intense work raising money for the fledgling denomination, John Howard again had to take several months off work because of illness. There followed a decade of good health, before he was forced to take extended sick leave for 9 months in 1912, remaining in a fragile state throughout the following year. By the end of 1918, his health again deteriorated: he missed the 250th anniversary celebrations at his former church, St Mary’s Norwich. In April 1921, he informed the Superintendents of the Baptist Union of his decision to retire from the Secretaryship. Although by July of that year things had improved – according to the Baptist Times, “He had regained the faculty of natural sleep, and with that the black cloud of depression which had rested upon his mind and heart had been lifted”, he had a final breakdown in October 1923 and in 1924 he “sank into a profound melancholy from which it was impossible to rouse him”, according to his obituarist J.D.Jones, who wrote “Poor Shakespeare! Something like religious melancholy laid hold of him towards the end of his life. He doubted his own redemption and refused to be comforted”. He lingered on until March 12 1928, unable to speak because of a stroke, but able to play chess until the end.
Like his granddaughter, John was intensely religious, and inclined to interpret unusual events as a direct sign from God: as a young man, he had sat the Civil Service entrance exams, but in one of the papers was seized with a temporary paralysis which prevented him from writing, which he took to be God telling him to take another career path. Later, he felt God was signalling that he should accept the role of Baptist Union secretary. Then late in life, invited by the famous Bishop Sodestrom to give a sermon in Uppsala Cathedral, John Howard Shakespeare was horrified when the great Bible fell from the pulpit during his address. He decided that this was God telling him that his ministry was over, and it marked the beginning of his final decline.
Although contemporary accounts are not explicit, my great-grandfather’s mysterious illness seems to have been of a depressive nature, possibly with interludes of mania. Overwork seems to have been a major trigger for his symptoms, and insomnia seems to have played a large role. There is even a family legend that he once attempted suicide. His daughter Mary told my cousin Jane that she had gone up to her father’s room and found him hanging from a noose, managing to cut him down and revive him before it was too late.
Although John Howard Shakespeare’s problems are best documented, his brother and sister are also reported to have been rather eccentric, and possibly depressive. Several of his children may also have mental health difficulties. His daughter Mary was very highly strung, and had a breakdown in her early twenties. Throughout her life, she was excitable and anxious. His son Bill suffered from depression, exacerbated by alcoholism and a sense of personal failure, and Bill’s daughter had a bad period of depression aged 19. I have already mentioned the turmoil and anxiety of my brother’s teenage years. Several other Shakespeare cousins have also experienced symptoms of anxiety and depression, particularly in their late teens and early twenties. So Judith is far from unique in our family.
Scientists have long believed that there are genetic factors involved in susceptibility to mental illness. Studies of twins are useful to determine whether a condition is heritable. Identical twins share identical DNA, while non-identical twins are no more closely related than ordinary siblings. If a condition or behaviour is more commonly shared by identical twins than by non-identical twins, this suggests genetic influence, rather than an environmental cause. If one identical twin has severe depression, there is a fifty per cent chance that their twin will also suffer the illness. In the case of non-identical twins, the risk is only 25%. This implies that approximately 50% of the variation in depression is explained by genetic factors. Other studies estimate that bipolar disorder has a heritability of 70% and schizophrenia of 80%. The fact that relatives of people with depression have a 20% chance of experiencing depressive illness themselves is also suggestive of a genetic connection.
Recent studies have claimed that different forms of “affective illness” are closely related. In other words, there may be a common genetic factor behind both anxiety and depression. People may be born with this genetic predisposition, but the circumstances of their own lives and development influence whether they express this either as depression or as anxiety, or indeed avoid either difficulty. Learning this reinforced my suspicion that the Shakespeare family legend may have some truth to it. As well as those unfortunate individuals, like John and Bill and Judith, who suffered severe depression, there were many others who had very anxious personalities.
To think in terms of inheritance and DNA does not mean that there is such a thing as a “gene for” either depression or anxiety. For a start, there are different forms of depression and anxiety, and there may be many different genetic factors, and indeed, genes may not be involved in all cases. In the West, up to 10% of the population will experience some form of depression over their lifetime, for a variety of reasons: women have twice the risk of depression than men. Where genes are implicated, it is unlikely that they will be sufficient to cause mental illness on their own. Rather, the genes are a risk factor predisposing to depression or other problems. There is some evidence that genetic influences on depression are greater during adolescence[iii].
The risk may operate by making the individual less resilient in times of high stress and emotional turmoil. This mechanism seems plausible in the case of both John Howard and Judith Shakespeare. John was the leader of a growing denomination, and a workaholic. Judith was a teenager, which is a difficult stage of the life course for anyone, and was under pressure to succeed in her Cambridge entrance exam. She was seen as more intellectual than her older brother, and Geoffrey would have expected top results from her. The strain of revision and exam preparation, added to a personality which was rather introspective and depressive, led to disaster.
* * * * *
I’m not entirely certain why I was so keen to find out the truth of Judith’s life and death. Partly it was because I felt sorry for my aunt, and frustrated at the senseless loss which had prevented us from knowing her. Partly it was because my father had been so reticent, and I wanted to find out what had happened and why. But it was partly also because I was writing a book about my family, and it was excellent material.
Writers are often like vultures, feeding off the darker aspects of their own upbringing. Philip Roth wrote “when a writer is born into a family, that family is finished.” Although Alan Bennett had previously written about both his parents, not without a measure of guilty anxiety, it was shocking for him to discover that his maternal grandfather had drowned himself in a canal, rather than succumbing to a heart attack as the family had always maintained. The surprise arose less from the act than from the secrecy which had surrounded it for four decades. Bennett the writer was immediately intrigued by this fascinating tragedy, and then simultaneously ashamed of himself for his prurient interest. He tried to find out more details, even locating the spot at the canal where the drowning had occurred. In his memoir he wrote:
“I wonder whether Grandma ever came to look. Probably not, which makes it worse that I am here, tracking down the place where someone I never knew and about whom I know nothing did away with himself, long before I was born. Have I nothing better to do? Or rather, have I nothing better to write about?”[iv]
If a family grief has been hidden for years, is it better to bring it out into the open, or leave it buried? I wonder whether such secrets often lie hidden beneath the surface, unseen but influencing everything, like the DNA that ticks away in every cell, or whether the discretion of an age before memoirs and celebrity chat shows was a wiser response to tragedies that ultimately cannot be explained or resolved. Families close up around grief, particularly early death. I discovered in the course of my research that a close friend had a brother who killed himself, something that he’d never shared with me over the twenty years we’ve known each other. My own instinct is to tell all, because privacy has never seemed a virtue to me. Dysfunctional families would be better analysed and scrutinised, I believe, than left to fester behind closed doors. If people were more able to admit to depression and other mental problems, perhaps they would be more likely to find appropriate help. Part of the difficulty of suicide is the shame associated with it. But there’s also a danger of voyeurism in tracking the darker paths of family history.
My efforts to trace the details of my aunt’s life have explained some mysteries and provided a fuller story. But I still feel far away from knowing the true Judith. My thoughts about her final illness, about what might have been, and about the ultimate causes of her problems remain hypothetical. The more I find out, the more I realise I can never know. The biographer Richard Holmes writes how biography becomes a kind of pursuit,
“a tracking of the physical trail of someone’s path through the past, a following of footsteps. You would never catch them, no you would never quite catch them. But maybe, if you were lucky, you might write about the pursuit of that fleeting figure in such a way as to bring it alive in the present.”[v]
The more I have found out about Judith, the more real she has become to me, and the more sad I have felt. By imagining a real person, I can feel a genuine emotion. My curiosity has been replaced by a great sense of loss, which I have found difficult to explain or understand.
I’ve rescued my aunt from the silence and shame and grief which formerly surrounded her. Now I can get Judith’s photograph framed, and hang it on the wall next to the other family portraits. One thing seems very clear to me. Geoffrey Shakespeare was wrong about his children. For twenty years, he felt that the family shame was to have a son with restricted growth. But in the end, it turned out that the real tragedy was not William, but Judith.