The lady of the house, the former Ellen Forbes Russell, contributed her share of crotchets (along with wealth and social prestige) to the family mix. Shortly after her engagement to Ned Atkinson, she had a nervous breakdown and was sent away for a 'rest' that lasted two years. During that time, it seems, she was permitted neither visitors nor newspapers, lest they roil her fragile sensitivities. ... I find it extraordinarily touching that, without ever once seeing her while she was 'resting,' my great-grandfather waited. They were married soon after she came home.
The story goes that while she was recovering, my great-grandmother was told by her doctors never to read anything more serious than Trollope and to cover her nerve endings by eating chocolate. Apparently, she followed their prescription all too well. At the Big House, she spent much of the day on the piazza, a volume of Trollope in her lap and a Whitman's Sampler on the nearby table. Within a few years, she had read all sixty volumes of Trollope -- and weighed so much (family estimates run as high as three hundred pounds) that when she went to the doctor she had to stand on two scales. Elderly Wings Neckers tell me that when Ellen Atkinson came calling in her chauffeured Franklin limousine, she didn't get out of the car; the woman she was visiting would come out to sit with her. ... I assume she was sensitive about her weight, for though there are dozens of photos of her husband in the Big House, there is only one of her, taken long before her marriage. It hangs on the stairwell wall. Although the portrait is nearly life-sized, I paid it little notice until I was a teenager, when, newly aware of the opposite sex, I was drawn to this slim young woman, holding an open book, her raven hair parted in the middle and pulled back from her delicate face. I thought she was the most beautiful creature I had ever seen. I had no idea it was my great grandmother.
Her nerve endings must have been successfully protected, for Ellen Atkinson never had another breakdown. Indeed, she was, by all accounts, a strong, lively woman of unfaltering opinions, accustomed to getting her way. According to Aunt Mary, when she came across a book she considered inferior -- even if it came from the Bourne library -- she burned it in the fireplace. (She had a particular aversion to the 'modern novel'; as she put it, 'I don't want to read about the hero brushing his teeth.') ... Believing that reading on an empty stomach was harmful to the eyes, she had a tin of Ritz crackers placed in he room of anyone she suspected of opening a book before breakfast.