I was thrilled to bits. It had never occurred to me that I would ever be able to speak with anyone who had personal recollections of her. Bertha, who died at the age of 77 in 1936, had no children, no nephews or nieces, and none of her friends or colleagues was likely to be still alive almost 80 years later.
Estelle, her carer told me, had been looked after by Bertha for some time when she was a child. Her mother was a friend of Bertha’s and as Estelle was in a state of chronic ill-health she was sent to stay with Bertha in the Home for Wayward Women which she had set up for unwed mothers and their children.
I was curious to know what sort of impression Bertha had made on Estelle. Although most of the action of Guises of Desire takes place when Bertha was in her early twenties, the last chapter fast-forwards to 1925 and is set in the Home. I wondered how close to reality my portrayal of Bertha at that stage in her life would be. Opinions about her among those who knew her at the time were at odds with each other. Some seemed to idolise her while others were highly critical, one person referring to her as ‘nothing but a nut and a lesbian’.
When I was in the early stages of working on the novel someone asked me if I liked Bertha. I’d never really thought about it but when I tried to answer this question I realised that I would probably have found the older Bertha somewhat daunting and forbidding.
From the age of about 30 Bertha started to leave a copious paper trail behind her in the form of articles, letters and stories – even a play – and she is the subject of several biographies. It was from these that I developed my idea of Bertha as she was in later life. As regards the younger Bertha, the one I focused on, there was no background information other than her doctor’s report, so I was free to create this personality myself, on the basis of what was likely given her background, and it was one which I felt more positive about.
I phoned Estelle and had a tantalising conversation with her. She was eager at first to talk about Bertha. She had clearly felt cherished by her; in fact, she claimed to be her favourite. At the same time she described an imposing, authoritative presence – “You knew she was somebody” – and a strict disciplinarian attitude. On one occasion when Estelle had been disobedient Bertha punished her by giving her nothing to eat but oatmeal for three days.
I asked how the girls in the Home had felt about her. ‘They were in awe of her,’ she replied. When I pressed her as to whether they liked her she seemed unwilling to answer and would only repeat that they were in awe of her. ‘I never saw her smile,’ she said. ‘Something in her life was not right.’
I would have liked to find out more about Estelle’s impressions of Bertha but she started to talk about later events in her life, her experiences during the war and her escape from Germany. It was impossible to get her back on track. But at least I felt that the little she had said corresponded to my own impression of her.
Perhaps there are other people still alive who were children in the Home, or descendants of its residents. I’ll put out some feelers on social media to see if I can track them down.