We celebrate this week the 150th anniversary of the birth of Kathleen ffrench (1864 - 1938).
A strong woman for her time, she would have been able to relate to women today who struggle to make their place. She was born into a Russian/Irish family and was torn between one culture and the other, always seeking to find her roots.
At a young age she inherited vast properties from her grandparents in the region of Simbirsk along the Volga River in Russia. Somehow she managed to keep it all going, with the help of a manager and servants although she was sometimes scathing about her workers:
...The Manager from Polynaskaya is a crook, while the one from Epiphanovka is on the contrary very honest and hardworking, but too old to manage everything. The foreman is a madman who should be tied up, and Shoenberg - he is a scoundrel, who should be hanged...
Her careful storage of family papers and letters enables us to have a glimpse into her daily life and those around her. They unveil a passion for life, a sad love story and an enormous commitment to helping others through her medical training at the war front working for the Red Cross.
Always in debt, she balanced one debt off another and many times went to money lenders to beg for renewal of her loan.
...I have been in such a difficult position lately, there has been no money even to buy provisions. Now things are better because we are selling potatoes and we are getting a bit of money every day. We had to borrow 500 rubles to pay Masha, and another 500 for the housekeeper. All this on top of the thousands of rubles borrowed for the running of the farm. No wonder I am grumpy at times...
However, she managed to travel frequently to visit her Irish father in exotic places in Europe "flitting from castle to castle, singing and dancing", a break from her creditors, banks and lawyers.
During the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution the Red Army took over her properties and destroyed a great deal of her beautiful possessions, works of art that had been in her family for generations.
...I cannot hold out much longer, the Bolsheviki are like a pack of hounds attacking me...
The surviving family art and furniture are in the museum in Simbirsk. She was imprisoned along with many other aristocrats firstly in Simbirsk and later in Moscow. Released into the street one day she wrote a heartfelt letter to her Irish relations:
...I am in a position that would have filled St Francis of Assisi with delight, a brown dress, battered shoes and someone else's pocket handkerchief...
She was not welcomed at her family home in Galway in the west of Ireland and retreated by cargo boat to China, where she ended up in Harbin. Her body eventually was returned to Ireland where she was placed beside her father in the extravagant mausoleum at Monivea that she had built for him.
150th Anniversary of Kathleen ffrench's birth