Department of Mathematics and Statistics

A Necessary Balance: Alec and Harry Aitken 1920-1935
P.C. Fenton

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2.   Otago Boys High School; marriage; departure

Alec wrote in March 1920:

I have been a month at the High School and appear to have given satisfaction as classical master, not that I am keen to go on and be officially that high dignitary, for I should prefer to glide gracefully into a lectureship at the University and then — who knows? I have lately been appointed to a part time job in Mathematics at Varsity in addition to OBHS work, at £100 per annum, so that I am now in the opulent state of drawing £375 per annum. In addition I am doing a little coaching, and may touch £400, all told.22

Winifred and Alec were engaged on 11 June 1920. That they met in the aftermath of Elizabeth’s death, and the bonds between them matured during and after Alec’s experiences at the Somme, and, looking ahead, that in later life Winifred assumed, almost affected, a frowsy plainness, invite speculation about the nature of their relationship. How much was love, how much dependence? As in other marriages, the proportions shifted with time but here at the beginning they were undoubtedly in love. When Alec wrote to Pearl about an affair of the heart, he advised her:

[D]on’t go and analyse your cardiac sensations and weigh things in hair-balances; we spoil everything nowadays by being aware of things, being self-conscious, instead of giving ourselves up with gladness to the surprises of new experiences. I am gladder just now than I have been in my life.23

After their marriage – ‘a very quiet wedding, and no bridesmaids or any of that sort of nonsense. Not a single person will be invited, but the family’24 – he wrote to Pearl, ‘I amply realized the most romantic of my dreams, and more.’25 In the same letter he wrote straight-faced of their honeymoon on the Caitlins River that ‘we were tired each night, for we had rowed far’. Marriage brought an orderly joy to Aitken, and his choice of ‘gladness’ to describe his condition, with its suggestion of Blakean innocence, rings true. Winifred was adept in the household and her needlework brought a lamplit calm to their evenings that delighted him. He may have felt that with Winifred beside him he had secured himself against the past.

What of Winifred? Perhaps the surest measure of her feelings for Alec lies in her care of him during the prolonged periods of depression that afflicted him later, when ordinary happiness was a bare possibility in an indefinite future. But here at the beginning, how could there not be scope enough in a life with this buoyant, brilliant, charming man? If she had glimpsed what lay ahead it might have frozen her heart.

They moved to Alec’s flat in Royal Terrace and settled into a ‘quiet jog-trot’. On a school holiday26 they rented a cottage at Macandrew Bay on the Peninsula. ‘And it’s all so small!’ Alec wrote.

The fields that once were the whole broad world to me, seeming leagues and leagues, are tiny now: I walk across them in a couple of minutes. Once, long ago, we took a whole day to go to the beach and back: in two hours I walked from Macandrew’s to the crest of Pukehiki, down to the sea at the Gulf and Robertson’s Beach, and back to Macandrew’s. Ah! but I got a waft of that breeze that sometimes, rarely, rarely, blows in from the past that is a world away, that breath of longing for the times that have gone that absolutely hurts much more than any homesickness; and those well-known fields and the “gangway” and the kaio trees down the slope by the Big Creek nearly wrung tears from me.

They shifted to 7 Elder Street, ‘nine-roomed, two storied, handy to the city’, a palace that took half Alec’s income. In addition to school teaching, Alec worked at the University as an assistant to the professor of Mathematics, R.J.T. Bell, and was encouraged to apply for a scholarship to study under E.T. Whittaker at the University of Edinburgh. In early 1923 he learned that he had been successful and hurried to tell William the news.

It was very amusing, Alec tried tactfully to get Dad alone, but Minnie kept buzzing round all the time. In the end Alec gave it up and went away looking somewhat ruffled without having chatted [to] Dad at all.27

Amusing or not, communication within the family was threadbare. In the same letter, Harry wrote, perhaps vicariously dreaming his own future,

Alec is going to England this year, about Xmas I suppose. He has composed some remarkable music and intends to try for Dr of Music, to undertake research in mathematics and various other things at some of the great universities. This is what I gather. I think it is a good move as he has finished what N.Z. can give him as far as education is concerned. In my opinion he is a great man and I am sure he will improve his fortune and reputation in the old Country.28

Edinburgh offered Aitken escape, not only from school teaching and the provincial attitudes of Dunedin, but from family relationships that had grown cramped and sour. For him leaving New Zealand entailed no quick return. For all his desire that things should be outright, the extent of his hopes and ambitions may have been impossible to admit, even to himself. William though could not encompass such large and uncertain perspectives, and there is pathos in his fretting words to Pearl:

Alec will be well on his way to the old country by this time. I will be wearying for him to come back but two years soon passes.29

One feels the loss he anticipated, but more the one – for he was never to see Alec again – he did not foresee. Or did he see it and turn away?

22  ACA to Pearl, 31 March 1920.
23  ACA to Pearl, 17 October 1920.
24  Winifred to Pearl, 19 May 1920.
25  ACA to Pearl, 26 March 1921.
26  September 1921.
27  Harry to Pearl 16 February 1923.
28  16 February 1923.
29  Undated [1923?].

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