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In a Strange Garden: The Life and Times of Truby King

Chapter Twelve: The elusive Bella

page 143

Chapter Twelve: The elusive Bella

The more I delved into the convoluted life of Truby King, the more I became aware of the paucity of information relating to his wife, Bella. It was only when trying to fully understand Truby's erratic behaviour and eventual mental decline that I realised the invisibility of his wife. Little was written of her, with attention always focusing on her charismatic husband. Bella appeared satisfied playing an invisible supportive role, leaving Truby the adulation and limelight. Adopted daughter Mary chose to downplay Bella's role, perhaps telling us indirectly about her own subjugation and the influence exerted by Truby. The puzzle of Bella King remains.

Isabella Cockburn Millar was bright and scholarly, the only daughter among six children. Her upbringing was Scottish liberal. It is recorded by her brother that 'All sorts of people met in our home and discussed the subjects of the time — politics, economics, page 144 literature, the sciences and the arts'.1 The Millar family were educated, well read and enjoyed the privilege of travelling in Europe. Her brothers all joined the professions. Bella distinguished herself in German, French and Latin at school. She gained the Gold Medal as dux of her college, the Edinburgh Institution for Young Ladies.

In the words of her friend Mary Cairns, 'Her countenance had a delicate bloom, the skin sometimes transparent, and when she was animated her bright eyes sparkled, her cheeks were suffused with a soft pink that came and went delightfully.'2 Another friend noted: 'Bella saw and brought out the best in people, and so she made them her friends and always lightened her intercourse with a touch of humour. After school days, Bella's love of literature and poetry developed under the inspiring lectures delivered in connection with the Edinburgh Association for the University Education of Women. Young women (and some not so young) filled the benches, and most sat the examinations. In the Tercentenary Year of the Edinburgh University (1884) Bella Millar took second place and a prize, with a First Class Honours Certificate, under the Professorship of the brilliant David Masson.'3 In those days women were barred from taking a degree.

Her adopted daughter, Mary, was less flattering. 'The attraction, from the start, on Fred's [Truby's] side was mental rather than physical. Bella had no claim to physical beauty. Her stature was too short, her brown hair too thin and her forehead too protruding. She was, moreover, a victim of rickets which manifested itself in her slightly bowed legs and retarded physical development. But her wit was quick, her temper even, her disposition sweetness itself and her mental capacity extraordinary.'4 Notwithstanding the strong bond between daughter Mary and her adoptive father Truby it is apparent that Mary didn't enjoy quite the same relationship with Bella. She never forgave Truby and Bella for prohibiting any communication with her birth mother. In a more charitable moment, she credits Bella with being 'gentle, never cross. She never tried to curb Truby's enthusiasm. She was a meek wife, content to let him have his way.'5 In her oral history, recorded in her eighties, Mary observed that she page break page break page break page break page 145 never really accepted Bella as her mother, and I have always suspected elements of competition for Truby's attention.

Bella was Truby's soul-mate — intelligent, well read, quiet, devoted and placid. She too was hampered by ill-health. Was she a perfect match for the diminutive, quick-tempered, mercurial Truby? She was possibly his equal intellectually, and even at four feet ten inches, she was hardly dwarfed by him. (Comparatively, she would have towered over Queen Victoria.) Bella appeared content to play second fiddle, coping with Truby's absent-mindedness and disorganisation, steering him gently back on course.

Bella was a better than average landscape painter. Buried deep in the Hocken Library's Plunket files are examples of her watercolours that suggest she should have painted more.

History will always accord the success of Plunket to Sir Truby. Those who knew her would have it that Bella deserved at least as much applause for her role as minder, journalist, keeper of records, organiser, secretary, translator, friend and companion.

Bella is widely credited with much of the writing of the 'Hygeia' newspaper columns that Truby used to communicate with the mothers of New Zealand. Radio had yet to make its impact, and the power of the newspaper was dominant. The weekly 'Our Babies' column began in the Otago Daily Times in 1908, and was eventually syndicated in more than fifty newspapers throughout the country. Hygeia was the Greek goddess of health, daughter of Asclepius, god of medicine. To Hygeia is ascribed the power 'to take responsibility for our lives and take charge of our health'. The original columns were written by Truby King himself, while Bella is credited with the later columns. It is likely that she acted as secretary, editor, respondent and co-ordinator, with Truby providing input and editorial purview.

Public response was immediate, and by the end of the first year, 700 letters had been written to Hygeia. When a point was to be emphasised, Hygeia would fall back on answers to fictitious correspondents. 'Anxious Mother from the North Island' was frequently dispensed homely advice. Replete with nicely structured page 146 summaries and conclusions, Hygeia was a self-instruction course for worried mothers.

No topic was considered sacrosanct by Hygeia. As well as practical advice on colic, bedwetting, prevention of diarrhoea and bathing of baby, the column would not shirk advice on 'the unspeakable dummy', 'the high ideals of wifehood', 'cottage gardening' and control of the bladder. Pandering to xenophobia, Hygeia would occasionally tell us 'what London is thinking'. Many of Truby King's pet topics were well ventilated in the column: overfeeding, the care of teeth, the need for fresh air, constipation and regularity of bowel movements, not to mention regularity of feeding and weighing. Two Hygeia columns are reproduced in Appendix Three.

Truby would undoubtedly have had a strong editorial input to the Hygeia columns, but it is very likely that Bella was responsible for their production. Certainly she churned them out while Truby was away in England in 1918-19, but it's likely that the editorial oversight of Truby wouldn't have been too far removed. Her willingness to take a back seat, playing a supportive role to the dominant and assertive Truby was undoubtedly the key to his success, and perhaps a tribute to her skilful role within their partnership. Without Bella to pick up the pieces, provide the continuity and locate the missing parts of the whole, it is unlikely that the man would ever have succeeded as he did.

Bella herself gives the biographer little encouragement. Her diaries recording trips through the country with Truby are mere factual recordings of dates, times and events. Archival information dealing with Bella is more sparse than one might have expected. The only written evidence available are letters from Japan, written to her friend 'My Dearest C, Charlotte Beswick, matron of Seacliff. On Truby's instruction, Miss Beswick retained Bella's letters, which provide a commentary of the six-month tour of the Orient. In her biography, Mary King reproduced more than a dozen letters which show Bella to be a recorder of events without giving away much of her personality or innermost feelings.

Little else is written of Bella. Phillipa Mein Smith, in The Book of New Zealand Women, is generous in her assessment:

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On all their travels she performed the role of tour manager; she knew that without her Truby King was soon hopelessly muddled. She travelled the length of the country with her husband on an official tour in 1912, answering innumerable letters and keeping him organised. She also wrote reports on his behalf, both on this tour and when at home. In 1913 she accompanied Truby King to England and helped him measure babies in London's slums in an effort to show that his feeding tables were better than those of an English rival, Dr Eric Pritchard, and that his schedules conformed to the laws of nature. In Europe, she acted as Truby King's interpreter and translated mothercraft pamphlets for him to read. As his personal secretary she spent much of her life answering his voluminous correspondence, writing individual replies to mothers and nurses who wrote from around the world; she would follow him round the house with a pencil, jotting down the points that he dictated, gently bringing him back to the subject when he side-tracked himself.

As Truby King's wife, Bella was expected to support her husband's quests, but, as a tertiary-educated woman was able to put people at ease. She played a crucial management role in her own right, as a link and liaison between her husband and the Plunket Society headquarters in Dunedin and the nurses and philanthropic women in local Plunket Society branches. It was Bella who wrote out the lists of instructions for nurses. These, like her newspaper columns, were checked by Truby King. Matrons of mothercraft homes and Plunket and Karitane nurses in New Zealand and overseas wrote to Bella for advice because they knew that Truby King was often too busy: and Bella was their friend. Bella King helped make her husband famous; in this partnership the joint contribution exceeded the sum of their individual effort.

In his dedication in Feeding and Care of Baby Truby King paid the following tribute to his wife: 'To the memory of a gracious little lady — my wife — without whose constant help and encouragement this book would never have been written.' His letters home, from his regular overseas sojourns always began 'My dearest wifie'. There is, however, no evidence of spontaneous affection, and this may well page 148
Bella King.

Bella King.

have been the extent of his warmth. It remains a paradox that a couple without children of their own could play such a role in the foundation of Plunket. Mary King advances Bella's rickets as the reason for Truby and Bella being childless, but this is unsatisfactory. Truby's mother had rickets, a widespread condition of vitamin deficiency of the time, the consequence of which was bone formation without the necessary calcium or phosphorus uptake. It did not deter Truby's mother and many other Victorian women from having large families. There remains to me a degree of contradiction in Truby and Bella's ability to influence the Plunket organisation without themselves ever directly experiencing consanguineous parenting.

Bella died in January 1927 at the age of sixty-six, following a long illness. At her request she was buried in Porirua cemetery close to her great friend, Mrs Hassell. Truby had a friend photograph her grave and sent a print, together with a tiny spray of flowers, to every page 149 Plunket nurse in New Zealand. This was a particularly touching gesture, as Bella would have met every nurse personally on her travels with Truby around the country. The gesture was widely appreciated. Eventually, on Truby's decease, Bella's remains were disinterred and reburied with Truby in the Melrose mausoleum.

Plunket researcher Lynne Giddings comments that 'the extent of the contribution made by his wife Bella to the [Plunket] society's success is now better recognised, though she herself may have accepted her relative invisibility as proper for a wife of her time.'

Only the Otago Daily Times bothered with an obituary, noting her work as Hygeia 'who for many years had been the guide and helper of thousands of mothers who read her articles in the press, was wonderful and beyond praise in its wise and balanced information about the health and welfare of children'.6 The Plunket Society also honoured Bella posthumously with the announcement, shortly after her death, of the Lady King Scholarship, funded by public subscription and a government grant. The first recipient was Helen Easterfield, who as Dr Helen Deem became medical director of Plunket services.

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1 King, Truby King — The Man, p. 44.

2 Ibid., p. 48.

3 Ibid., p. 49.

4 Ibid., p. 48.

5 Mary King White, oral history, ATL AB879, 1992.

6 Obituary, Otago Daily Times, 17 January 1927.