Memo to Meghan: From a writer banished by her father-in-law for being ‘unspeakably vulgar’… Letting your husband take your side against his family never ends well
- For five years, Rowan Pelling’s father-in-law refused to even speak with her
- The rift came due to the journalist’s previous work at The Erotic Review
- However, she says other family relations were able to get closer as a result
- READ MORE: ‘Leave Meghan alone!’ Furious Duchess of Sussex fans brand Politico RACIST and demand outlet apologize for publishing essay branding royal a ‘narcissist’ and likening her to Trump, Elizabeth Holmes and Kanye West
As some may have just discovered, there is nothing quite like the festive period to inflame family rifts. The very fact people regard it as a time when you meet up with relatives for compulsory jollity only serves to amplify underlying tensions.
I have hard-earned experience of this myself. For five years, my father-in-law not only refused to speak to me, he wouldn’t have me inside his house. This meant all seasonal celebrations came fraught with sorrow, as well as difficult decisions.
You might imagine that, like Prince Harry and Meghan, I decided we should steer well clear of in-laws over Christmas and New Year. After all, surely the worst thing you can do for a husband with a difficult relationship with his relatives is to lead him back into the quagmire?
Personally, though, I wouldn’t be so sure. In her recent podcast series Archetypes, Meghan discussed the thorny themes of ‘good wife, bad wife’. I couldn’t help feeling she’d overlooked one key quality when it comes to acting in your husband’s best interests.
For five years, Rowan Pelling’s father-in-law refused to even speak with her or let her into the house
I’ve long felt a supportive wife should do everything in her power to help her spouse maintain a warm relationship with his own family and avoid the temptation of widening rifts.
Clearly, some clans are so unpleasant and vindictive that keeping distance becomes the only sane policy. But for the most part (and I certainly include the Windsors in this generalisation), schisms spring from the sorts of common misunderstandings that plague families. They tend to involve sibling rivalry, past grief and the fact that different generations often hold polarised beliefs.
As an in-law, you can either encourage your other half to try and better understand their family members’ points of view (which is not the same thing as agreeing with them) or you can amplify their sense of outrage.
As I fully appreciate, this is harder when your husband’s family don’t appear to endorse you enthusiastically as his life partner.
‘I can’t help feeling Prince Harry would be happier if Meghan was able to put some of her hurt and mistrust of the royal institution aside,’ Rowan says
According to a new survey this week, the average parent takes 90 days to judge whether a new partner is suitable for their offspring. But I’m all too aware those opinions are not set in stone. While I was grudgingly accepted at first, relations cooled dramatically over time.
However hard it got, though, I maintained that it was better to pursue a policy of rapprochement, because a man who is estranged from a family he once loved is always carrying a deep wound within him.
Why would you wish that hurt on anyone you love? Also, if you have children, these undermining family members are still going to be grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins to them. It’s more important your offspring have a chance to establish warm relationships than that you harbour a grievance, however justifiable.
I know this isn’t a fashionable line of thought in the modern era. There’s a brand of therapy spiel that dictates if you have ‘toxic’ people in your life, cut them out. Surround yourself with people who affirm you. But if you reject everyone who gives you unwelcome critiques, you’ll be doomed to spend your life among cowards or sycophants. And if you reject your spouse’s family, you’ll never have the quiet satisfaction of proving them wrong about you. Battling through the rejection can, eventually, prove rewarding.
When I first met my late father-in-law, he seemed quite keen on me as a match for his son Angus, then 41, though much of that was down to the fact I wasn’t one of the previous girlfriends he deemed unsuitable: the vegan, the CND (Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament) activist, the one with a ‘common’ voice.
I didn’t relish his snobbish side, but I also understood he’d developed it as a form of social armour. My father-in-law had endured an emotionally neglectful childhood in Australia, before coming to Britain to sign up for World War II.
Aged 22, his leg was shattered in the desert but he continued to lead his platoon after his officers were killed, for which he was awarded the Military Cross.
He was then transported to South Africa, where a surgeon amputated what remained of his leg before he was put on a troop ship back to Britain. The ship was torpedoed midway and he ended up in the sea clutching a makeshift raft and kicking his ‘tin leg’ at sharks; most of the men in the water with him didn’t survive.
Back in Britain, he gained a first-class degree at Cambridge, joined ICI (Imperial Chemical Industries), played cricket and tennis and lived for shooting and fishing. Eventually he retired to a remote Georgian manse in Scotland.
Rowan says that Harry would be happier if he didn’t have a rift with his family, and that ‘there are rewards in putting family unity first’
He would have preferred his son to have the kind of landed class life that mattered so much to him, with its regimented social conventions. Instead, he got a 26-year-old publican’s daughter who was an undeniable domestic slattern.
The only things going for me were my RP voice, love of kilts and the fact I ate offal, which proved enough for my new in-law to feel I might just be worthy of the engagement ring he’d given to Angus’s mother. She had died when Angus was 13, leaving a legacy of bottled-up grief and poor communication between father and son.
So, we married and things went smoothly enough until I accepted a job in the cramped London offices of The Erotic Print Society, answering phones and editing their newsletter. I had big ambitions for this little magazine and managed to infiltrate it into various Waterstones stores retitled as The Erotic Review.
To my amazement, this became a Sunday newspaper story and the following week I was summoned as a guest on the BBC’s The World At One. I’d never done a radio interview before and when Nick Clarke asked me about the magazine’s content I replied: ‘Well, it’s not one of those journals that tells the reader how to have 20 orgasms a night. I presume our readers know what they like already.’
Later that day, I phoned my father-in-law to check up on him and his second wife, as Angus (also a journalist) was investigating a story about Aboriginal land rights in the deep bush of north-west Australia.
When he answered, he was spluttering with rage: ‘You, you . . . you said ‘orgasm’ on the radio!’ He then told me how unspeakably vulgar I was and that I must henceforth never use my married surname for any of my journalism. I tried to tell him that I’d never have done the interview if I’d thought it would upset him. That The Erotic Review was a literary magazine, full of celebrated names like Barry Humphries and Auberon Waugh, and that no one I knew found it vulgar. But he said witheringly: ‘Your sort of people and our sort of people are very different.’ Then he hung up on me and I burst into tears.
The next few months were dominated by this row and my husband’s fruitless attempts to calm his father down. I wrote a long letter asking what I could do to make things better (anything, I begged); he wrote back saying numerous unkind things.
In summary, I was the wrong kind of woman from the wrong sort of family. I put work first when I should be playing tennis and arranging flowers in my local church.
Angus was appalled by his father’s unkindness and spent hours trying to comfort me. He also shared the equally harsh letters he’d received from his dad when he was in his 20s in the 1970s, raging at his awful clothes, lack of ambition and dreadful job working on a music magazine.
Bit by bit, my father-in-law dropped me. The more apologies I offered, the greater the silence. It became impossible for me to visit his house in Scotland, though two years down the line, I met my husband’s wonderful stepmother in Edinburgh, then again in Hay-on-Wye.
Angus asked if he should take my side and risk a total breach with his father and I said absolutely not.
I had been brought up to observe and believe that your own feelings aren’t always the most important factor in family decisions. Angus’s father was his sole, living close blood relation and I knew severing that link could be disastrous for both men.
One unexpected side-effect of the debacle was that my father-in-law had started being warmer and more approachable to his only child.
It seemed to me that all the anger and frustration (which I suspected were really with himself) had been transferred to me, leaving the path open for a new connection with his son. The pair were finally able to have the conversations that had been impossible for the preceding 25 years — about Angus’s mother’s death and his father’s war years.
Even so, it was hard for my husband. The drive to his dad’s freezing, remote house in Scotland took six hours minimum, and his conversation was curtailed, as he couldn’t mention me without provoking anger.
One Easter he really didn’t want to go and asked if he should simply say he was staying with me. I longed to say yes, but I could see the visits kept something fragile alive that could otherwise perish. I cried as our trusty Fiat pulled out of our Cambridge street and headed north, leaving me alone.
Looking back, the one grave consequence of his harsh behaviour to me was that it made me feel stubborn about plans to start a family.
If he was going to damn me for being a career woman at a time when we needed two salaries to fund a mortgage, then I’d put my career first for a while.
Put simply, I wasn’t going to have a baby just so that my father-in-law allowed me to enter his house.
Sad to say, our first son was born two years after his grandfather’s death in 2002 — and shares his second name with him. By that point, he and Angus had reached an accord and the words that are hardest for any British male born before 1980 had been spoken: ‘I love you.’
At the funeral, I was struck by the fact that no one seemed to know he had stopped talking to me. I shook hands and nodded when people said: ‘He was such a generous, funny man. You must have loved him!’
They also all joked about The Erotic Review and it transpired a couple were even subscribers. It was clear they had no idea he disapproved of it.
I am no saint and, in private, over those fractious outcast years, I was mortified at being made to feel like an 18th-century trollop. But I also believed that after losing his best friends and a leg in World War II, followed by the deaths of a wife and an infant (my husband’s sister, who was born with Down’s Syndrome), he had earned the right to see the world through his own, often harsh, lens.
His values were formed in a previous era and it would have been uncouth of me to expect him to bend to my more modern ones. I knew my own father, who had died in 1988 when I was 20, would have had terrible trouble accepting the erotic side of my journalism.
Above all else, it would have been horrendous for my husband to have to suspend contact with his one remaining close relative, not to have achieved the reconciliation he so craved.
If that came at some cost to me, so be it.
There have also been many, perhaps greater, acts of sacrifice on Angus’s behalf over the years. He’s the one who, for the past ten years, has taken on the greater share of parenting our boys and running the home, so I can work.
This is the way most marriages endure: trusting your spouse to be your staunchest ally when dealing with life’s hardest tasks. And trusting them to tell you when you’re being ridiculous, or unforgiving.
I can’t help feeling Prince Harry would be happier if Meghan was able to put some of her hurt and mistrust of the royal institution aside, to foster a better relationship with his family — particularly with William.
These two men have suffered a terrible early bereavement that only the pair of them can fully comprehend, and estrangement can only deepen the wound. Similarly, Harry would do well to try and encourage his wife to reconcile with her father before that opportunity is snatched away from her.
There are rewards in putting family unity first. My own is that I became close to Angus’s stepmother in the final decade of her extraordinary life and she became a loving grandmother to our two sons.
It transpired that she had tried to heal the rift too, telling my father-in-law that he was being obstinate and unkind. ‘But then,’ she said shaking her head at the daftness of it all, ‘he was always quite Victorian about sex’.
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