She bore a baron, shocked the British, lost her fortune, settled in Sussex and loved mightily - the story of Marjorie Underhill
On February 7, The Telegraph Journal profiled the late Sir Philip Grant-Suttie; a Sussex schoolboy turned Scottish lord. That story prompted calls from readers who had known Sir Philip and his family in his early years. This week we trace Sir Philip's story back one generation and tell the story of his mother, Marjorie Underhill, who defied poverty and social customs to raise seven children as a single mother. Our thanks to her daughter, Marjorie Tomlinson, who shared her memories.
By Kate Jaimet
A Brown oak leaf hung by a single strand of cobweb outside the bedroom window. Marjorie Underhill, 83 years old and sick with cancer, watched it as she lay in bed. She saw the leaf move in the breath of the wind and admired how the strand of spiderweb glistened in the sunlight.
"Marjorie" she said to her daughter, who sat beside her. "You know I'm not going to live much longer. When that leaf falls, I will be gone. I don't want you ever to forget that. The leaf is hanging from a thread, like me. One big storm will take it down. "
It was September. Already the thin birch splashed the forest with yellow and the maple trees swathed it in orange and red. She had a long life to look back on: men she'd loved, children she'd raised. She'd borne an heir to a baronetcy and seen him educated to take his place among the lords of Scotland. She'd gone from riches to rags, but always kept the demeanor of a woman of class.
But her daughter, looking back, shakes her head at this notion of class. For it was transgressions against class and social custom that threw her mother into poverty, made her life a struggle, and turned her into an exile from her family and her native Newfoundland.
Marjorie Carter was born September 2, 1913, the daughter of Ida and Cornelius Carter. Her father was a retired commander in the Royal Navy and Justice of the Peace in Barachois, Newfoundland. At that time, Newfoundland was a British colony and a favored retreat for former naval officers searching for a wilderness paradise.
For the first decade of her life, Marjorie grew up as an only child. Her father instilled in her a love of the wilderness, taught her to hunt, fish, snare rabbits and pole a canoe.
In a story she wrote later, she reminisced about those childhood day's: One day my father said to me if I were a good girl he would take me to see the two pine trees at the foot of the mountains. I looked forward eagerly to that great day. I had never seen a pine tree, not even a very large tree of any kind. The trees in Newfoundland were small and scrubby...
The day finally came. He said with a most mysterious smile, "We will go to see the two pine trees". It was a long walk- no trail. I followed my beloved father through three bogs and bushes, crossing streams and little grass meadows. Unspeaking, my heart pounding-my dad looked behind at me and smiled. "Here we are," he said. " What do you think?" I looked up at two enormous trees in awe. I could hardly see the tops, which seemed to reach the very sky. I felt as if I were looking at God himself... "
This was the thrill of my young life. I think I was five years old... Words cannot tell the love I have for the forest. Come with me-imagine walks through a wilderness of beauty. To setup a tiny tent, build a fire of pinewood, boil a tin kettle for tea and relax. No noise, only the cracking of the trees, the song of a bird and the lapping of water. Your brain becomes free of pain suffered. Are you with me? Then I shall carry on. Your becomes pure and you feel good, perhaps even Godly."
As Marjorie grew into a beautiful young woman, the pressures of her class and gender took her away from the pioneering life in the woods; she was sent to learn etiquette and protocol at a finishing school in England.
"I believe that was the beginning of an extreme inner struggle in my mother's mind," her daughter Marjorie Tomlinson reflects. "She often told me that when she was over there in school she longed to be out in the woods. The other side is I think she enjoyed whatever goes with being in that situation (as a young lady of class). I think she got torn about what she wanted."
At her return to Newfoundland, she enlivened the dinner parties her father threw for visiting British Officers. She was strong, adventurous, witty, spiritual, and she quickly captured the heart of the handsome Capt. Ralph Neville; it was the first love, and the first scandal, in her life.
Not only was Capt. Neville 20 years her senior, but he was already married to a woman in England. He left his wife and she her family, as they ran away to live together in a cabin in the Newfoundland woods. Though never formally married, they lived there for four years and had a daughter together named Nadage. Close to nature and the man she loved, Marjorie must have been happy.
But the summer of 1936 Capt. Neville fell ill with pneumonia. She wrote in a diary of the bad omens that persisted that summer: how their dog howled unnaturally day after day, and how the tea kettle still whistled on the wood stove long after they'd fall asleep.
Only her own words, written years afterwards, can tell what she felt when he died of pneumonia: "Lost all notion of time. No end or beginning. Cut off from any conscious awareness of surroundings. Lost feeling of existence. Overwhelmed by terrifying sensation of nothingness. No longer can think. My soul has stopped. Everything has turned to stone, mind and heart. I am ectoplasm. I have become nothing."
As Marjorie Underhill lay facing death through the autumn and winter of 1997, she must have thought about the people she loved who had died before her. She and her daughter often watched the dry, brown leaf that hung on a cobweb outside the window. As it held on through the storms of November and December, she held on through a major strike. Often there were nights where the doctor said she wouldn't see the day. But she did, and in the morning, the leaf still hung there. It really seemed there was a bond between the old lady and the oak leaf.
"I asked her once, are you afraid to die," Tomlinson recalls. "She said 'No, I know everything that's going to happen. One day you're going to come into the room: I'll be calling your name but you won't hear me, I'll be raising my arms but you won't see them come up.' She started crying. It was life... "I said, 'I don't believe there is a heaven or a hell. If I live on, it will be in you.' "
She'd never said that to me before, that she didn't believe in heaven. So I said, I'll tell you what, if you do get to heaven, you'll have to give me a sign somehow.'"
In her grief after Capt. Neville's death, Marjorie returned to her parent's home. Less than a year later, she married Major Donald Grant-Suttie, the cousin of a Scottish baronet. It was well known that when the baronet died, Major Grant-Suttie or his heir would inherit the estate.
"Ralph Neville died in August, and she married George Grant-Suttie in June of 1937. Which lead me to believe that her parents moved very quickly to make sure that she married, that she would be taken care of," Tomlinson says. " I know that she loved Ralph and I'm sure she wasn't over his death. I look back and I picture it: she probably didn't know where to go or what to do or where to turn and her parents probably led her into it.
The suitable marriage, soon followed by the birth of her son Phillip, returned her to the good graces of her family, Tomlinson continues. "
When Phil was born, her father took her aside and said he was very proud of her having a boy. She knew it was her duty, and she often called it that, to educate Phil so he could take over his estate. And she was very proud of fulfilling that duty." With the subsequent birth of her daughter, Anne, it seemed the path of her life was settled. But fate took another turn. In 1940, he husband died. At 27, she was too young and vivacious to settle into the decorous life of a widow. Four years later, she fell in love again, this time, to a low-ranking American officer, Tom Underhill.
The match scandalized her British-born, high-ranking parents and caused a rift in the family. Headstrong and passionate, Marjorie, now Mrs. Underhill, left Newfoundland with her new husband, cut off from her father and mother she loved.
According to the family stories, Marjorie's years with Tom Underhill were fun while they lasted. But when the money was gone, so was he. By the late 1940's, she ended up in Sussex, New Brunswick, with only a mother's allowance and a small monthly sum from Donald Grant-Suttie's estate to live on.
Her first daughter, Nadage, was grown up now. But she still had Anne and Philip to raise, along with four more children form her most recent marriage: Tom, Catherine, Joyce and Marjorie. So began the hard time of her life. Still estranged from her family in Newfoundland, she struggled to feed, clothe, and bring up her children single-handedly.
"Money was scarce," recalls Linda Nilsson, who lived down the street from the Underhill family. "Phil used to cut our lawn for pocket money. He cut all the neighbors lawns. I remember he didn't have enough money to buy a suit for graduation, so we all chipped in to buy him a suit. We all used to tease him about his inheritance. We really didn't believe in it."
Although Philip stood to inherit a baronetcy, there was no difference made between him and the other children at home, his brother Tom Underhill recalls. All of them worked hard to keep the family alive.
"I never remember not having a job-before school, after school, and worked til midnight. Phil did the same. Mum taught us we were the men and we had to take care of things," Mr. Underhill says.
"Phil and I were good pals. We used to fish together. Our mother taught us to snare rabbits and we had a rabbit line. We did chores around the house, split wood, that's the way it was.
I used to look up to him cause all the girls were crazy about him. He reminded me of Elvis Presley. He looked like him, at least to me.
"When I was growing up, I could never figure out if we were rich or poor," Tomlinson says. "Because in actual fact, there was nothing around us; we didn't have anything, we didn't have a car, there was bare essentials of food, there was nothing but yet, she would always talk about this grand life, about money and rich things that she did, and going off to Bermuda, and I used to think;: are we rich or are we poor?"
As she struggled financially, Marjorie Underhill also struggled to keep up social appearances. She never let on, for example, that her husband had left her. Instead, she told her children that he was dead.
She never reconciled with her family either. Stubbornness and pride were part of it, but her daughter also believes she was afraid to reconcile: afraid that if she and her family became close again, the secrets of her past life would come out to her children and her neighbors.
I've always thought of Mum and what a life she must have had, trying to keep people from talking to each other, solely to hide these social secrets she had," Tomlinson recalls sadly. " That's what it was all about. It was nothing to do with anything she'd ever done wrong. It was to hide what she felt-and obviously was punished for-as social transgressions.
"She truly feared all her life the social impact of things she'd done and I think that's a crying shame. Mum never did admit to me, even in these last three months, when I spent day and night with her, and I sat by her bed night, after night, after night, and she never did admit that she wasn't married to Ralph She'd say 'I don't know where you get these foolish ideas!' She'd say 'Of course I was married to him!' and 'I don't know where this stuff comes up!' and 'You're talking to the wrong people!'
Marjorie Underhill's determination, discipline and independence rubbed off on her children. All of them have gone on to make successful careers, as nurses, teachers, in the armed forces and in real estate. Not least, it rubbed off on the baronet Sir Philip Grant-Suttie, who managed to pull his 1,000-acre estate in North Berwick, Scotland, out of huge debt and make it profitable.
"I didn't envy him inheriting the estate because he was many hundreds of thousands of dollars in debt," his brother Tom Underhill says. "I know it was hard for him, and he had to make some decisions that were unpopular. He made do and he worked bloody hard."
"My mother was never afraid of risks," Tomlinson says. "What holds people back is the fear of losing something. We never had that fear. She always made us feel it's okay if you have nothing or if you have everything." The success of her children gave her a comfortable life style in her later years. But she was never materialistic: her possessions in the end were a collection of scrapbooks and photographs, and a trunk full of dried flowers, leaves, rocks and driftwood she'd gathered from special places around Newfoundland and New Brunswick.
Until the end of her life, Underhill never lost her strong character. Her daughter recalls that after one rough night, her mother woke up and asked the nurse for a glass of gin.
"Oh, Marjorie, it's 6:30 in the morning here, surely you don't want a glass of gin," the nurse said in surprise.
"Well it may be 6:30 in the morning here, but it's 6:30 in the evening somewhere in the world, and I want a glass of gin!" the feisty old lady answered.
She loved looking out the window at a pair of tall pine trees that grew in the yard, and in the end, as her mind drifted, she believed those were the pine trees she had visited with her father as a child in Newfoundland.
Marjorie Underhill died on Wednesday, January 7, 1998. Before she died, her daughter pressed something into her hand. It was a brass plaque her mother had kept all these years. It had hung from her cabin door in Newfoundland. The one she had ran away to in the thirties.
On it was written: R. Neville. Marjorie Underhill closed her hand around it shortly before she died.
The story is best told in her daughter's words:
"Mum died at 4:31 in the afternoon. She was in my arms when she died. I turned around kind of automatically to look at the leaf, and it was still there. It was a strange feeling. I thought, 'Oh, the leaf's still there.' Because she'd said for so long that when the leaf fell, she'd be gone.
"Mum's funeral was Friday morning at 10 a.m. She was scheduled to be cremated at five Friday night. You won't believe this, but many people saw it: the leaf came down at 5 o'clock. It came down at the hour of her cremation.
"I said to myself it was her sign to me. It was her sign to tell me she went to heaven.
Kate Jaimet is a reporter for The Telegraph Journal based in Moncton.