Book Reflects on Overlooked Role of Aunts

The Complete Book of Aunts covers everything from aunts in literature and film, to remembrances from nieces and nephews who had unusual relationships with their aunts. Rupert Christiansen, co-author, speaks with NPR's Scott Simon.

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SCOTT SIMON, host:

In a recent opinion piece, Benazir Bhutto's niece denounced Auntie Benazir as a bit of a tyrant. Well, no one ever confused Benazir Bhutto with Aunt B from "Mayberry."

(Soundbite of show, "Mayberry R.F.D.")

Ms. FRANCES BAVIER (Actor): (As Beatrice "Aunt Bee" Taylor) Why, Opie, you haven't even touched your fried chicken, and I made it special for you.

SIMON: Can you imagine Auntie Benazir making fried chicken or a peach pie, or confusing her with Auntie Mame?

(Soundbite of movie, "Auntie Mame")

Ms. ROSALIND RUSSELL (Actor): (As Mame Dennis) But darling, I'm your Auntie May.

(Soundbite of laughter)

SIMON: "The Complete Book of Aunts" is a love letter to our father's sisters, our mother's sisters, those honorary aunts in our lives, maybe the neighbor or family friend we confide in whenever we want to sneak out of the house when we're supposed to be grounded or sneak back into the house when it's past curfew.

Rupert Christiansen co-wrote "The Complete Book of Aunts." He joins us from the studios of the BBC in London. Thanks very much for being with us.

Mr. RUPERT CHRISTIANSEN (Co-Author, "The Complete Book of Aunts"): It's a pleasure.

SIMON: As you note in this book, there's no aunt relationship, for example, among, I don't know, raccoons or caribou.

Mr. CHRISTIANSEN: There doesn't seem to be any aunt relationship among any animals except, oddly, elephants. In an elephant herd, if a mother dies, the other lady elephants will rally round and bring up the orphaned elephant cub.

SIMON: But save for elephants, we, human beings, seemed to have invented this relationship.

Mr. CHRISTIANSEN: You know, it's very odd, there aren't any aunts in the Bible, are there? I mean, any who played…

SIMON: Well - oh, if someone is called aunt? No, of course not.

Mr. CHRISTIANSEN: No. Some people think, in Britain anyway, there was a change in the marriage laws in the mid-18th century which gave young women far more control over who they married. And suddenly, these young women needed older women to get objective advice from.

SIMON: You write about some professional aunts who came into being right after the male stream of World War I in Great Britain when the class system was beginning to breakup.

Mr. CHRISTIANSEN: Well, it wasn't just the class system. Of course, there were an awful lot of women after the First World War who were left without the prospect of finding a husband. And therefore, for the first time, they needed work. And one of these women started up this business called the Universal Aunts. It was an agency where if you had a problem, you know, you rang them up. When they sold it, they sent a universal aunt around, of course, a lot of what was done was cleaning and looking after children, and that sort of thing. And that agency is still functioning today. In fact, it's very near where I live by chance, but they wouldn't let me in to look at their records. I was dying to look at all their archives, but they wouldn't let me in.

SIMON: I found myself very moved reading the story of John Lennon's aunt.

Mr. CHRISTIANSEN: The fascinating thing about that is - that she really was John Lennon's mother, wasn't she? I mean…

SIMON: This is Mimi, we should say.

Mr. CHRISTIANSEN: Mimi, yes. And his mummy, his real birth mother, in fact, became his aunt in the sense that she would come and visit John once every few weeks and take him out for the day and then deliver him back to Mimi who brought him up good and proper, I have to say. She was quite strict and stern, but he really adored her. And I think if you look through his troubled life, Mimi is really the one anchor in it.

SIMON: You divide the book in the chapters about heroic aunts, brand name aunts, and even X-rated aunts.

Mr. CHRISTIANSEN: Yes. Well, there is certainly a fantasy, if you look into pornographic literature, the men seem to have about seducing their aunts or indeed being seduced by their aunts.

SIMON: Delineate these different categories for us, if you could.

Mr. CHRISTIANSEN: Well, I think, you know, the most interesting category of all is the heroic aunt, those women who chose not to get married, actually, because they preferred to follow their own stars. And these very brave women chose to have the career with all the loneliness that that implies, but, of course, they continue to have material impulses. And, therefore, they often develop these very close, tender relationships with their sibling's children; that was very much my own experience and that was why I wanted to write this book because I had a wonderful aunt called Janet.

SIMON: Yes, you described Aunt Janet's funeral.

Mr. CHRISTIANSEN: I was standing at her graveside, and I thought I never thanked her properly for all that she did. She opened up all sorts of areas of literature and music, which, I think, otherwise, I would not have encountered so early in my life. She was a real enricher. And of course, the wonderful thing about an aunt is the normal parental rules slightly go by the board when an aunt is around. You know, you go to bed late. You can make slightly risque jokes. You know, it's pretty fun being an aunt, for God's sake. Much easier than being a mother, I think.

SIMON: You really did love her.

Mr. CHRISTIANSEN: I did. There was something slightly sad about Aunt Janet. You know, I think she was a disappointed person and she channeled an awful lot of her maternal feelings into myself and my sister.

SIMON: A point you make almost glancingly in modern China, of course, which has the restricted family policies, aunts are disappearing because of that, aren't they?

Mr. CHRISTIANSEN: They are. I mean, that's a rather chilling thought, isn't it? Within another generation, the aunt will be an unknown phenomenon in China, but of course, there are many cultures which don't seem to have aunts in as much as they don't seem to have a separate word for an aunt. And therefore, they didn't really sort of have the concept or the specific relationship aunt and nephew, niece.

SIMON: Mr. Christiansen, you know the publishing game in the U.S. and U.K. well enough to know that with the success of "The Book of Aunts," somebody is going to suggest you to the book of uncles.

Mr. CHRISTIANSEN: Oh, tell me about it. Every day, somebody says to me, when are you going to do the book of uncles? When are you going to do the book of cousins, nieces, nephews, great grandmothers, great aunts? Ho, ho, ho. Every time I have to smile and say, actually, I'm not.

SIMON: Mr. Christiansen, thanks very much for speaking with us.

Mr. CHRISTIANSEN: Thank you.

(Soundbite of song, "Mame")

Unidentified Man: (Singing) You coax the blues right out of the horn, Mame. You charm the husk right off of the corn, Mame.

SIMON: Rupert Christiansen is the co-author along with Beth Brophy of "The Complete Book of Aunts" published by Twelve.

(Soundbite of song, "Mame")

Unidentified Man and Unidentified Woman: (Singing) …to beat the band. The whole plantation's hummin' since you brought Dixie back to Dixie land. You make the cotton easy to pick, Mame.

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