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Marriage to Arthur Tolkien
Mabel Suffield grew up in Birmingham. In March 1891 she sailed from England to meet and marry her fiancé and marry in South Africa after an engagement of three years. Her father, John Suffield, had not allowed her to marry until she turned twenty-one. After arriving in South Africa she travelled to Bloemfontein with her husband.
Hilary was a healthy child who flourished in the Bloemfontein climate, but his elder brother had more difficulty. Teething upset him badly and made him feverish, and a doctor was constantly called in, tiring Mabel. The heat was doing a great deal of harm to Ronald’s health, but Arthur did not want to return to England.
In November 1894, Mabel took the boys to Cape Town and made preparations to sail to England, while Arthur agreed to come and join them in England when his job allowed. They set sail in April 1895. However, before Arthur could join them, he contracted rheumatic fever and died after suffering a severe haemorrhage on 15 February 1896.:17-24
Raising Two Sons
Arthur had only amassed a modest sum of capital and it would not bring Mabel an income of more than thirty shillings a week, scarcely sufficient to maintain herself and two children even at the lowest standard of living.
In summer of 1896 when Mabel found a house in Sarehole, 5 Gracewell, cheap enough for herself and the children to live independently. It was a semi-detached brick cottage at the end of a row.
When at Sarehole, Mabel began to teach her two sons writing, reading, languages, art and botany. She realized that her son Ronald had a special aptitude for language. She began to teach him French. He liked this much less, preferring the sounds of Latin and English. She also tried to arouse his curiosity in playing the piano, but without success. He took more interest in words than music.:25-30
Conversion to Catholicism
Christianity became an increasingly important part in Mabel Tolkien’s life after her husband’s death, and at first each Sunday she took the boys on a long walk to a High Anglican church. In May of 1900, Mabel, along with her sister, May Incledon (née Suffield), were accepted into the Catholic Faith.
Their family was greatly upset by this. Their father, John Suffield, had been brought up at a Methodist school, and was now a Unitarian. He was outraged that his daughter would become Catholic. May’s husband, Walter Incledon, considered himself to be a pillar of his local Anglican church, and did not wish May to associate with the Catholic Church. When May returned to Birmingham he forbade her to enter a Catholic church again and she obeyed him.
Walter Incledon had provided a little financial help for Mabel Tolkien since Arthur’s death, but now refused. Mabel faced hostility from Walter and from other members of her family, as well as the Tolkiens, many of whom were Baptists and strongly opposed to Catholicism. But she stood by her new faith, and against opposition she began to instruct Ronald and Hilary in the Catholic religion.:31-2
Life in Moseley and Edgbaston
That same year, the family moved to Moseley, conveniently situated on the tram route to Tolkien’s new school. A Tolkien uncle who was uncharacteristically well-disposed towards Mabel paid the fees, which then amounted to twelve pounds per annum.
But Mabel, still not satisfied, moved the family again, to Edgbaston, where they found a house near the Birmingham Oratory, a large church in the suburb of Edgbaston that was looked after by a community of priests. What was more, attached to the Oratory and under the direction of its clergy was the Grammar School of St Philip, where the fees were lower than Tolkien’s previous school and where her sons could receive a Catholic education. There, the family met Father Francis Xavier Morgan, the parish priest. In him Mabel soon found not only a sympathetic priest but a valuable friend. He soon became an indispensable part of the Tolkien household. In Edgbaston, she started to teach her boys again, but soon Tolkien started to attend St Philips, and Mabel was left only with Hilary.
Soon Ronald had outpaced his class-mates, and Mabel realised that St Philip’s could not provide the education that he needed. So she removed him, and once again undertook his tuition herself: with much success, for some months later he won a Foundation Scholarship to King Edward’s and returned there in the autumn of 1903.:32-5
The New Year of 1904 did not begin well. Ronald and Hilary were confined to bed with measles followed by whooping- cough, and in Hilary’s case by pneumonia. The additional strain of nursing them proved too much for their mother, and as she feared it proved ‘impossible to go on’. By April 1904 she was in hospital, and her condition was diagnosed as diabetes.
Insulin treatment was not yet available for diabetic patients, and there was much anxiety over Mabel’s condition, but by the summer she had recovered sufficiently to be discharged from hospital. She was given a cottage to recuperate in by the Oratory. The boys went to live with her there during the summer holidays, but went back to school in Birmingham in the autumn.
Mabel was buried in the Catholic churchyard at Bromsgrove, and Fr Francis provided a cross for her headstone – the same design of stone cross as was used for the Catholic clergy in the Rednal cemetery. She left £800 of invested capital, and appointed Fr Francis as guardian to John and Hilary.:36-9
Mabel’s death had a profound impact on her son’s faith. Years later, Tolkien wrote, “My own dear mother was a martyr indeed, and it is not to everybody that God grants so easy a way to His great gifts as He did to Hilary and myself, giving us a mother who killed herself with labour and trouble to ensure us keeping the faith.”:39