ON A trip to Canada in her seventies, Claudia Parsons was being driven by a much younger male relative on a busy freeway when they had a flat tyre. Parsons' instinct was to leap out of the car saying "Where's the jack?" This wasn't affectation - such a minor running repair would have been nothing to one of the first three women to graduate in engineering in England (from Loughborough) soon after the First World War. At her death she was the oldest member of the Society of Women Engineers.
She was born in 1900 in the Indian hill station of Simla; her Anglo-Irish father was a major in the Indian Staff Corps. At the age of three, Claudia and her older sister Betty were taken to England and left in the care of an overbearing, temperamental and sometimes cruel aunt. On her father's death when she was 12, her overriding emotion was "relief that our mother would now be permanently home".
In her fluently written, funny and often gripping autobiography, Century Story (1995), written in her nineties, Parsons charts her full and adventurous life: her numerous travels at a time when it was rare for women to travel at all, and certainly not alone, as she did, or in the company of men to whom they weren't married, as she did; and her ways of earning money (of which she was always short) as a chauffeur-companion-mechanic for wealthy adventurers and, more lucratively, as a writer. ("Writing was almost a disease in the Parsons family.")
Aside from writing stories and travel pieces, she had considerable success with her 1936 novel Brighter Bondage and with her travel book Vagabondage (1941). The latter was only prevented from running into a third reprint by the shortage of paper during the Second World War, when she worked in a munitions factory (as a skilled engineer), where her sense of justice prompted her to take her boss to court on behalf of a fellow worker. She also later had a spell as a china restorer, which spawned a manual.
When she was 10, she was among the crowd who watched the royal procession on the occasion of George V's coronation. The man next to her told her to tell her grandchildren that she had witnessed this scene standing next to a veteran of the Crimean War. But Claudia never had grandchildren. She never married. On being asked why not during a newspaper interview she gave at the age of 95, she said of men, "They very often threatened to stop me doing what I wanted to do."
There were certainly love affairs and there were many strong friendships with men. There was the diplomat who "had decided never to marry . . . as he was a non-marrying man, and as I was myself a bit of a loner and could understand his feelings, I decided to be a non-marrying wife, to meet and live with him whenever chance offered . . ." and there was the wacky and fun Kilton Stewart, an American psychoanalyst she encountered by chance on a bus in Angkor when she had uncharacteristically miscalculated her funds and ended up travelling free by sitting on the mailbags.
He then resurfaced in Calcutta, where Parsons was staying with her younger sister Avis and her husband, and together they bought a second-hand 1925 Studebaker and in April 1938 embarked on a hugely eventful journey masterminded by her back to England, which took them via India, Afghanistan, Iran, Iraq, Syria, Palestine, Egypt, Libya and Tunisia.
There were countless breakdowns, the reasons for them succinctly described ("It was a worn seating in which the distributor shaft was mounted"). Being a car lover, she often referred to her cars in anthropomorphic terms ("Thanks to Baker's patient nature . . .") but she was never a car bore. As for the nature of her relationship with Kilton, she left us guessing.
Parson's sketches of people encountered on her travels were never cruel, but always made their point: on a voyage from Vancouver to Yokohama (where the war against China was raging and she, having had all her money stolen, sold her clothes and wrote articles for the Japan Times to earn more), she wrote:
I had a missionary in my cabin going to convert the Chinese . . . and she practised meanwhile on me. God, however, came to my rescue by rocking the boat, when preacher and subject fell sick. Conversion was postponed.
When not travelling, Parsons returned to the Elizabethan house in the village of Wonersh, near Guildford, where she lived with her mother, aunt (still feared, but loved) and sister Betty from 1924 onwards. Betty (who also had the writing disease) once described Claudia as "one who had broken the ice of convention that held women down to certain jobs but denied them others, and at a time when to the majority of people the world was unknown". And it was Betty who urged her, long before her own death in 1986, to write her autobiography.
Betty's seal of approval was very important to Claudia, who despite being one of the most capable, well-read, funny and dignified people I have ever met, had a ridiculously self-deprecating view of herself as "a clownish character and a charlatan in most of the jobs I took up".
Even though the more infuriating aspects of old age forced Claudia Parsons to move into a home over a year ago, the emotional self-sufficiency, indomitable common sense and sense of humour which had seen her through so many journeys, stood her in good stead and she never once complained nor appeared to pine for the house she'd lived in for over 70 years, which contained a lot of furniture made by her.
Soon after she moved, I visited her and e-mailed my sister in the States: "I expected to feel terribly depressed, but instead came away, as I always do having seen Claudia, feeling nourished, uplifted and happy."
Claudia Parsons, writer and traveller: born Simla, India 15 August 1900; died Cranleigh, Surrey 5 June 1998.
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