“I was born the fourth, last, and unwanted child of parents who should never have had children at all.”
This statement came from a set of autobiographical scribblings in the hand of the person pictured above and used as source material by journalist Gaby Wood who wrote an incredible piece about the life of the woman I write about today. I will include a link at the end of my post to the full article by Gaby which was published on The Telegraphs online webpage on the 5th August 2010. That statement and the paragraph that followed those words just shook me to the core and remained with me. I struggle to think of someone reaching adulthood with such feelings of disappointment and fear about their childhood. Every image I have seen of this lady gives nothing away of the sadness and regret she must have held deep inside her to have such feelings about her family. Let me first tell you who she is and how she fits into my family tree.
Eunice Ellen Frost born 5 Nov 1914 in Burton-on-Trent, Staffordshire, England, the youngest as she states of four children born to Frederick Spencer Frost, a Brewer from Somerset and Althea Gentel from Notinghamshire whom I have written about before and include images of here.
(The four Frost children with Eunice on the far left sat next to sisters Margaret Emma, Althea Barbara and brother Lewes Spencer Frost)
Eunice and her siblings were 2nd cousins three times removed to myself. Their Great Grandfather William Cammon Gentel (1798-1866) was my 4th Great Grandfather on my mother’s side of the family tree and the Gentel’s are an extension of the Brumby line that forms a major branch in that side of the tree.
Very little is known about growing up in the Frost household. My opening quote from the hand of Eunice herself hints at her feelings about that matter. Her birth came with complications and she was born with pneumonia and she reflects “My birth must have been a difficult one, for my mother was given every attention while I was laid in some little basket to get on with the dying that was expected of me.” She then makes the following observations about her father. “He was a proud, weak and intolerant man, who returned from the First World War entirely unable to articulate any problems he might have had. There was never anything but hate between us, and on my side great fear… I never remember him to have made a comment on any idea or an original remark, or, indeed, use words as anything other than for orders, cursing or the necessary exchanges of life… His temper became the ruling will… something which was constant, tangible and to be felt everywhere in the house.”
I can’t help when doing family history research feel a sadness for some of the individuals I read and learn of where family relationships weren’t as idyllic as I would want them to be and I try to remember that this was a one-sided perspective only and says nothing of the feelings that perhaps Eunice’s father did have for all his children but had difficulty expressing. The Great War did terrible things to a man and many reported that their husbands and fathers who came back home were changed and often emotionally shut off.
Eunice’s career is one which she appears to have fallen into quite accidentally, since she first applied for secretarial work which then quite quickly turned into something else altogether. Have a look around your home and consider if this symbol can be currently found or has ever been apparent in your home.
It is of course the iconic trademark that has become associated with the Penguin Publishing House and in 1936, Allen Lane, the founder of the very very first Penguin Paperback firm advertised for a Secretary, an advertisement to which Eunice responded. She was hired on the spot and within one week of starting there she was tasked with taking on a lot of the editorial work that came through the door whilst Lane and his brothers dealt more with the financial and logistical side of the business. Penguin was particularly successful in making literature available and affordable to the masses and although Eunice Frost’s name never appeared on any books she was a major part of their success and became the firm’s first female director and also the first woman appointed an OBE for her services to literature. Renowned artist Rodrigo Moynihan was commissioned to do a large-scale portrait of the Editors of Penguin Books in 1955 entitled “After the Conference” which deliberately places Eunice in the centre of a room of dark suits – the powerful woman in a world of men.
(Black and white image of Rodrigo Moynihan’s commission piece for Penguin Books with Eunice Frost depicted in the centre)
Eunice married in 1957 at 43 years of age to Henry Vincent Kemp, aka Harry Kemp a divorcee with 2 children who was a teacher of Maths and also a published poet. Eunice and Harry never had children and their marriage as well as Harry’s first ended in divorce. Close friends reported that that divorce left her with a great sadness and sense of regret.
Reading through the available material about Eunice she was pretty yet quirky, solitary yet lovable, bold and forthright, yet anxious and neurotic and I think her mental state eventually led to her early retirement in the 1960s. She died alone on the 12 Aug 1998 aged 83, donated her money to various charities and her body to medical science.
I find Eunice’s story fascinating. I admire her work ethic and her drive and as a beneficiary of her efforts in the field of literacy I can’t help but feel great pride in my connection to her yet I also feel an overwhelming sadness for what was obviously lacking in her life.. We often talk of leaving a legacy behind for others but I think the lesson I take from the life of Eunice is more about what do I take with me from my life. To have loved, felt loved, enjoyed family, gained peace and satisfaction with whatever life brings regardless of the degree of success I have or the money I earn would be the things I choose to take with me…
Thanks to Alethea Gentel’s Great Great Grand-daughter for sharing these lovely family images. Also, as promised are two important links for Eunice’s story. The first is for the article in the Telegraph written by Gaby Wood and can be found here and the second being Eunice’s obituary written for the Independent by Isabel Quigley, Eunice’s close friend and colleague at Penguin Books. That may be read here. You won’t want to miss reading them as they are a big insight into Eunice ‘s life.