In her Introduction, Astrid Hess describes the serendipitous way in which the materials for this book came to be discovered in her family archives and how her great-grandmother’s memoirs were jointly translated over many months of rewarding but often hard labour. Alice Thiele Smith carefully recorded her memories in late age for the benefit of her grandchildren and the very simplicity of her style is in itself one of the book’s attractions. At the same time, it is not claimed that the book is a literal translation throughout or that Alice’s exact words are everywhere reproduced. In justification for the occasional editorial liberties taken, we would quote the famous remark of her namesake and contemporary – Lewis Carroll’s own Alice – “and what is the use of a book without pictures or conversations?”
Accordingly we have now and then introduced an element of dialogue into Alice’s text, based faithfully on the original narrative but supplemented by details drawn from the many letters written by the Smith family members to one another, since these provide a key to the way in which they actually spoke, as well as to the everyday topics that interested them. The family letters, together with her father’s account of his early life, have also allowed us to correct a few dates and other details where Alice’s memory has failed her. All the illustrations and photographs are reproduced from those remaining in the possession of the family.
At one level Alice’s story provides a straightforward account of her girlhood in rural Aberdeenshire during the 1860s and 1870s. As such, it offers a vivid and picturesque description of daily life, with all its ups and downs, within the large household of her father, William Pirie Smith, Free Church minister at Keig and Tough from 1845 to 1881. At a deeper level, however, Alice’s story has much more to tell the perceptive reader. While death within the family figures all too painfully often, the sexual development of Alice and her siblings remains, in common with respectable Victorian conventions, a completely taboo subject.
Yet very obvious psychological tensions are traceable throughout the story. In virtually every respect, Alice’s brothers are treated quite differently from herself and her sisters, beginning with the all-important issue of their education. Alice’s barely concealed frustration on that matter is repeatedly apparent, and her ambitions are continually thwarted, even though she genuinely rejoices in the successes of her brothers, William, George and Charles. She writes of a time when the first moves in the long and often bitter struggle for gender equality were being made in Scotland by women like Sophia Jex-Blake and, though her sympathies with that cause are never made explicit, they lie just below the surface of the text like a constant yet unacknowledged irritant.
For the whole family, the eldest brother, William Robertson Smith, justly typified the finest kind of Victorian achievement, won at great cost through a combination of intellectual prowess, personal endeavour and indomitable struggle in the face of adversity. In Alice’s tale, Will’s presence as guide, supporter and counsellor is always apparent, yet she and her sisters are inevitably required to fulfil subservient roles. From infancy onwards their common destiny, by virtue of rigorous training and conditioning, is to become competent wives and mothers; and their decidedly limited success in those respects is one of the bittersweet ironies of the book.