Testimony to Love, by Gwen Steele-Perkins
With Commentary by Mary Tiffen: The Foretold Child
As Baroness Perry remarks, this book has many levels. It is social history and women’s history, depicting upper middle class life in Britain or in foreign postings, in a world, 1900-1939, which is now utterly strange to us (and appalling in relation to medical matters). There were social, and even legal, restrictions on what a wife could do. Usually they had to resign a job on marriage. A wife should be dependent on and obedient to her husband, though by this time the law gave her control over the income from assets which she brought in to the marriage, in Gwen’s case, only £1,000. (She often tried and failed to get at the capital.) Even voluntary work could be suspect. While the First World War gave value to single women’s skills, the Second World War also utilised wives’ skills. Gwen’s voluntary work, in Hong Kong in Air Raid Precautions and in running canteens in India 1942–5, gave her self-confidence. This helped her establish and run her own catering businesses in Britain after the war, to supplement a small allowance from a husband who had by then deserted her. She had grown into a modern woman.
It is also a story of a near-death vision and its impact. She had joined her husband, Horace, when he was posted to Hong Kong. After having had no second child for fourteen years, she had an unexpected miscarriage, which turned septic. She spent several weeks in hospital. After one operation in May 1930 she nearly died, but on finally coming round, wrote immediate notes on the vision she had had of God as Light and Love. She had been told she must return to have another child, and was also left with the impression of a death to come, maybe hers. Despite a final operation that was supposed to end the possibility of more children, she was able to write up her notes in 1931 while expecting the foretold child.
Finally, it is a love story. She was passionately in love with her husband. She knew he loved her body; she was never so confident that he loved her as a person. They did not share financial worries, and he was scornful of her vision. He had transferred from the navy to the Royal Air Force in 1918 but his age obliged him to retire in 1932 as he had not reached Squadron Leader rank. In fact, he did better financially after leaving, working initially in the Home Office and later in Hong Kong and India in Air Raid Precautions (ARP). However, his housekeeping allowance to his wife remained stingy, leaving her often worried and in debt, for his needs came first. She herself never described him as selfish or self-centred but she describes the actions from which we see it. His son John, who had suffered but eventually recovered from horrendous burns while at school, must conform to his wishes career-wise, regardless of his different talents. John’s sudden death in 1935 grieved both, but while Gwen had some consolation from knowing that John was with the God of Love, Horace rejected God, and also the commandment against adultery. In December 1945 he effectively left his family who returned to England without him. In the future Gwen was often to feel bitterness against him, but she could never entirely forget her love. This created new heartaches when he returned to Britain in 1949 with a young son.