The Power of the Matriarch

In every great dynasty lies at the heart of it a woman, an oracle of wisdom, grace and esteemed character, if you look past the man at the front she’s there, seamlessly woven into the fabric of the family.

When the men of England were away at war, perhaps that allowed a 20-year old Alice Diamond to take centre stage and rise up and become a queen to The Forty Elephants in 1916. An all female criminal girl gang, her reimagined family and her at the head, this is the matriarch redefined where the woman is ruthless, punchy and all powerful.

Around the same time, some miles North, and of similar ilk to Alice, though a diamond already refined from the rough, there was an Aunt Polly Gray heading the family business whilst the Peaky Blinders boys were fighting for their country for it was the women who stepped in to fill those perfectly sized shoes left behind by their men. You can’t help but wonder if the creation of the character Polly was inspired by the likes of Diamond.

If you thought Peaky Blinders was centred around Brummy gangster men pulling all the strings then you haven’t been paying attention. Even the great Tommy Shelby himself the voice and front of the notorious gang and later to become a political spokesman sought his counsel from none other than good Aunt Polly. 

Always there’s, seeing, watching and listening is the omnipotent  ‘Pol’. We learn very explicitly early on at the power she wields when one day, Thomas, consumed with his own quiet troubles goes to seek her out, and finds her in the church praying for the lost boys of war, “speak, God and Aunt Polly are listening”, she says, and so Thomas the war hero and revered hard man  absolves himself of the troubles weighing heavy on his heart. He may not say it, but it is for Pol to tell him what he should do, and no one else.

Let us place aside the more traditional Mrs Bennett with her well-kept house and mild manners for it has no place in this domain. Polly holds a gun against the temple of her nephew Jon when we first meet her, teaching him a lesson for leaving his gun lying around the house where it was picked up by the idle hands of Jon’s youngest brother. Her lessons are not gentle, she has a brutality laced with a kindness to keep her family in check and would pull that trigger without hesitation should the occasion come calling, and inevitably we find later on that it did.

Much credit for Polly’s tenacity must be given to the late and great Helen McCrory who possessed a gift to electrify every fibre of her character on screen, Helen brought with her that gutsy and flamboyant yet unspoken screen presence, mastered by few in her field, may she rest in peace. 

Always there etched into the existence of the family is the matriarch. You may not see her, you may not hear her but like God himself she knows everything about you. Mighty she goes, and more piercing than a metal bullet, like the good old Aunt Polly, she goes out with a bang.

By Alicia Jones

Alicia previously studied film and now works freelance in TV drama production. You can follow her on Instagram and Twitter.