A life of the heart – E.M. Forster’s domestic biography

Slightly FoxedE.M. Forster’s novels continue to be read and loved around the world. However, his final full-length book, a biography of his great-aunt Marianne Thornton, has been largely overlooked by critics and forgotten by readers since its publication in 1956. That’s a shame, as it shows that Forster was a brilliant writer of nonfiction too. It connects themes familiar from his fiction – including a home loved and lost, forbidden passions, second chances – and its final section is the only published memoir he ever published of his own young life. I’m delighted that ‘Prayers Before Plenty’, my essay on this fascinating book, appears in Slightly Foxed this month. They have kindly given permission for me to reprint it here.

 

Prayers before Plenty       Ann Kennedy Smith

In 1953 the writer E. M. Forster, then aged 74, was sorting through old family papers and thinking about the past. He had recently moved back to King’s College, Cambridge, and the high-ceilinged spacious room where he sat was filled with treasured objects from his previous homes: shelves overflowing with books, framed family portraits on the walls and blue china plates neatly arranged on the mantelpiece. Letters gathered in a drift around his shabby William Morris armchair as he pored over his great-aunt Marianne Thornton’s diaries and recollections. She had died when he was 8, but it was thanks to the money she left him that as a young man he was able to study at King’s and later to travel to Italy. It was Marianne, more than anyone else, who had helped him to become a writer, and now he wanted to tell her story.

When Marianne Thornton, 17971887: A Domestic Biography was published three years later, it was greeted as a literary event. It had been five years since the appearance of Forster’s Two Cheers for Democracy, his collection of critical essays (see SF no. 44), and he had not published a novel since A Passage to India in 1924. Marianne Thornton was widely reviewed, for the most part warmly, although some critics confessed to feeling puzzled by its subject matter. Why, wondered the Spectator, did Forster want to cast his considerable charm on the Clapham Sect, that ‘particularly uncharming clan’? The New York Times critic admitted that only the writer of A Passage to India could have persuaded him to read ‘a conversation piece about English family life among the suburban dynasties’.

In the sixty years or so since Marianne Thornton’s first publication, it has been leafed through by biographers and scholars rather than read. I think this is a shame, and that this book deserves to be better known. In 2000 it was reissued as part of the Abinger edition, and in her introduction Evelyne Hanquart-Turner describes Marianne Thornton as a portrait of a modern Britain in the making, with illuminating glimpses of banking, Parliament and politics, the Church of England and the spread of popular education over nine decades of the nineteenth century. I would add that at a time when British identity is being much discussed, it is a book that seems more relevant than ever.

I discovered it in a King’s College archive, where I was working on a book project last summer. It was just before May Week, that con­fusingly named time in June when the students celebrate after their exams are over, and a marquee was being put up on the front court lawn. The sounds of heavy machinery and men working drifted in through the open window and made it hard to concentrate on hand­written letters, so I took down Marianne Thornton from the shelf and began to read. Within minutes I was transported back to another June day in 1806, and a horse-drawn carriage with election ribbons fluttering, going home to Battersea Rise, the house at the heart of this story.

Marianne was born in 1797, the eldest of nine children of Henry Thornton, a wealthy merchant banker and Member of Parliament, and his wife Mary Ann Sykes. Their home was Battersea Rise, an enlarged Queen Anne house on the north-west edge of Clapham Common in south London. The Thorntons belonged to the ‘Clapham Sect’, a close-knit group of friends that included William Wilberforce, Zachary Macaulay, Granville Sharp and James Stephen, who brought their combined influence, intellect and evangelical zeal to social reform. Their place of worship was Holy Trinity Church on the Common, presided over by the charismatic Reverend John Venn, and their social centre was Battersea Rise, where lively meetings were held in the oval library with a view of a magnificent tulip tree in the garden.

Battersea Rise was a perfect playground for Marianne and her younger siblings. ‘It satisfied in them that longing for a particular place, a home, which is common amongst our upper and middle classes,’ Forster observes: ‘some of them have transmitted that long­ing to their descendants, who have lived on into an age when it cannot be gratified.’ Writing this in his college rooms, he was think­ing of Rooksnest, the cottage in Hertfordshire where he had lived as a child and which he later commemorated in his novel Howards End. He had mourned its loss all his life; King’s College had provided him with somewhere to live, but it did not feel like home.

From the first pages of the book it is plain that Marianne Thornton is as much about Forster as it is about his great-aunt. Threaded through the book are his wry observations, teasing out connections between past and present and poking gentle fun at his illustrious forebears. At times he is combative, reminding us that although the philanthropic Clapham Sect cared passionately about abolishing the slave trade, they were supremely complacent when it came to in-equality within their own society. ‘When the slavery was industrial they did nothing and had no thought of doing anything.’

But this is a domestic biography, Forster reminds us, and the Thorntons did home life exceedingly well. Adored friends such as William Wilberforce – ‘fragile, whimsical, inspired’ – and the intel­lectual ‘bishop in petticoats’ Hannah More regularly dropped in for dinner. ‘Prayers before plenty,’ Forster observes, ‘But plenty!’ Conver­sations around the table ranged from parliamentary politics to missionary work, from economics to education, and little Marianne was encouraged to take part. Her father taught her about finance and brought her along to his election hustings and George III’s opening of Parliament. Despite the constant fear of a French invasion there were long holidays at the seaside, ‘comparable with the jauntings of Jane Austen’ in their elaborate organization. Fear of Napoleon Bona­parte was the only cloud over this sunny childhood, and Marianne vividly pictured him striding into Battersea Rise and chopping down their beloved tulip tree. Nonsense, her young friend the future his-torian Thomas Babington Macaulay assured her: when ‘Old Boney’ came, he would simply stab all the children in their beds.

The world-changing historical events of 1815 were overshadowed for Marianne and her siblings by painful personal loss when both Thornton parents died within the year. Forster skips over the ‘super­abundance’ of long, pious letters from this period and instead describes 19-year-old Marianne’s first trip to France, where she and other British tourists flocked after Waterloo. There she fell in love with all things French, and this gave her, Forster is convinced, her Gallic insouciance towards class differences which lasted for the rest of her life.

Her brother Henry, three years younger, was more straitlaced, but brother and sister ran the Thornton family as a team. Together they fought to save the bank where he was a partner when it was hit by a financial crisis in 1825: told through Marianne’s recollections, the story is as exciting and dramatic as any novel. Henry coped less well when their younger sister Laura fell in love with a poor Irish clergy­man. ‘Money must marry money, as it had always done hitherto,’ Forster observes drily, and he cheers when, thanks to a particularly spiky letter from a bishop, love wins the day. Laura married the Reverend Charles Forster, and among their ten children brought up in a ‘happy insanitary’ rectory in Essex was Eddie, the future father of the writer.

Marianne remained unmarried and devoted herself to Battersea Rise and to Henry’s three children after he was widowed. The young Forsters often came to visit, and the garden was filled with the sounds of laughter and games. Even sensible Henry occasionally entertained the family with his favourite trick before setting off for work at the bank: after setting fire to a newspaper, he would place it on the seat of his leather armchair then sit down firmly to put the flames out. ‘The vision of that substantial extinguisher descending cheers me,’ Forster writes: ‘the sun comes into the library again, the trees wave freshly on the lawn, tiny cousins collide and jump . . .’

Then Henry fell in love with Emily, his unmarried sister-in-law, and everything changed. Their marriage was not sanctioned under existing British law (the Marriage Act of 1835 made it illegal for a man to marry the sister of his deceased wife) and the ensuing scandal broke the Thornton family apart. The law would remain unchanged until the twentieth century, and writing in Cambridge in the 1950s, when homosexual love was still outlawed in Britain, Forster’s anger flashes off the page. It was, he writes, ‘yet another example of the cruelty and stupidity of the English Law in matters of sex’. Victorian disapproval did what Bonaparte and the banking crisis had failed to do: it destroyed Battersea Rise.

Marianne Thornton immerses us in a lost nineteenth-century world and, as Forster asks, ‘Where else could we take such a plunge?’ It is an invitation to enjoyment, demonstrating Forster’s brilliance as a non-fiction writer and providing us with links to our personal, cultural and national past that otherwise would be lost. Marianne’s story unfolds against a rich historical background, from Georgian England to Queen Victoria’s Golden Jubilee, in which the Thorntons played an active role.

However, I think that this warm and engaging book is about more than British history and the decline and fall of an influential suburban dynasty. By choosing Marianne as his subject, and telling her story in the way that he does, Forster stresses the importance of personal relations, and the life of the heart and mind rather than public life. He connects his own story to his great-aunt’s, and the book’s delightful final section is both a memoir of his young life and a love letter to Rooksnest, his childhood home. ‘I took it to my heart,’ he writes, ‘and hoped, as Marianne had of Battersea Rise, that I should live and die there.’ It was not to be, but by writing his great-aunt’s story he was able to see that kindness and love were what mattered in the end, and to let go of the past. King’s College was his last home, and he was among friends there.

Battersea Rise was swallowed up long ago, and the lawn on which the tulip tree once stood is now covered by houses and streets. Holy Trinity Church still stands on a corner of Clapham Common though, and I went there recently, carrying my copy of Marianne Thornton. With its high steeple surrounded by tall, waving trees, the church looks much as it did in the Thorntons’ time, and as I approached the imposing portico, the sound of south London traffic seemed to fade away. On an outside wall a stone plaque scarred by Second World War shrapnel commemorates the evangelical and abolitionist work of the Clapham Sect. Then, as I arrive, there is the human touch. A friendly notice on the porch welcomes rough sleepers, and inside a caretaker is boiling a kettle. On a far wall a small brass plaque to Marianne Thornton glints in the shadows.

Ann Kennedy Smith lives in Cambridge and is working on her first biography. She is not related to the Kennedy dynasty, so far as she knows.

© Ann Kennedy Smith, Slightly Foxed: The Real Reader’s Quarterly, Issue 58, Summer 2018.

This article first appeared in Slightly Foxed: The Real Reader’s Quarterly, Issue 58, Summer 2018.

The independent-minded quarterly that combines good looks, good writing and a personal approach, Slightly Foxed introduces its readers to books that are no longer new and fashionable but have lasting appeal. Good-humoured, unpretentious and a bit eccentric, it’s more like a well-read friend than a literary magazine. Single issues from £10; annual subscriptions from £40. For more information please visit www.foxedquarterly.com

 

 

 

 

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PS: Best of friends – a request

img_1916If you enjoy reading this blog, could I ask you, please, to forward a link to to a friend who might possibly be interested? I would love these Cambridge women to be out in the world more… thank you so much for reading and following, and for all of your thoughtful comments. Your support is very much appreciated.

Ann

Best of Friends: Fanny Prothero and Henry James

Non NPG Work - NPG Portrait Index

(C. W. Furse, 1898. Collection unknown; photograph © National Portrait Gallery, London)

She was, according to Henry James, “the minutest scrap of a little delicate black Celt that ever was – full of humour & humanity & curiosity & interrogation – too much interrogation”. In 1906 Fanny Prothero, 52, and her husband George Prothero, 58, the historian and editor of the Quarterly Review, took a weekend cottage in Rye in Sussex, close to where Henry James (63) lived in Lamb House. Although only part-time residents, both Protheros soon became part of James’s trusted innermost circle of friends there. However, it was with Fanny that he could talk most openly.

“James did like a yarn”, as the Irish writer John Banville wrote recently in the TLS.  “He was fortunate in having a large number of female friends who were lively, clever and inquisitive observers of the comédie humaine. It was mainly from these sharp-eyed and sharp-eared women, and most often at the dinner table, that he had many of the instances and ideas for stories that he recorded in his notebooks.” Sharp-eyed and sharp-eared as she was, Fanny Prothero was also excellent company. Over the next ten years James would write over a hundred letters to her, warmly addressing her as “Dearest Fanny” or “Best of Friends!” In 1912 he looked forward to inviting her to his new flat in Chelsea for tea “and perhaps another opium pill at (say) 4.30. Then there will be such tales to tell!”

Fanny was born Mary Francis Butcher in 1854, and grew up in County Meath, where her father was a Church of Ireland Bishop. Both of her brothers attended Trinity College in Cambridge and Fanny herself settled there in 1882 after her marriage to Prothero, a fellow of King’s College. (Caroline Jebb, who always denied being a matchmaker, was delighted to have introduced them). Fanny became good friends with Ida Darwin and in 1890 they were both invited to join the select discussion group, the Ladies’ Dining Society. In its early days at least, the group had strict rules about sticking to the set topic of the evening – champagne and personal conversations were forbidden – an approach that suited some more than others. “Fanny Prothero never really liked it,” the group’s organizer Louise Creighton recalled, ‘she at that time always wanted intimate talk with one person.”

Talking intimately was something that Fanny did very well, with both men and women. Horace Darwin, recovering from illness in 1889, told his sister Henrietta that “I honour a few ladies by allowing them to come and see me, the sprightly and vivacious Mrs Prothero and the gentle, charming and refined Mrs Sidgwick”. Fanny kept up her energetic nature well into her sixties, and when she became friends with Henry James she was useful to him in all sorts of practical ways – helping him to sort out furnishings for his London flat, finding him a reliable cook and popping into the kitchen at Lamb House to sit with her feet on a chair, chatting to his servants. “It was her way of keeping an eye on them,” James’s biographer Leon Edel writes – it seems likely that it was also because she was so interested in other people. She was as good at listening as she was at talking, although in 1913 Henry James confessed to his sister-in-law that Fanny’s vivid interest in what he was saying occasionally irritated him.

She has a tiresome little Irish habit (it gives at last on one’s nerves) of putting all her responses (equally), at first, in the form of interrogative surprise, so that one at first thinks one must repeat and insist on what one has said… It is her only vice!

When the First World War broke out in August 1914, both Henry James and Fanny (now Lady Prothero) threw themselves into charitable work for Belgian refugees and visiting wounded soldiers in hospital. By now, though, he was increasingly struck down by bouts of poor health, and Fanny became his devoted nurse. “She is as wonderful as ever in her indefatigability,” a grateful James told his niece Peggy on 1st December 1915. It was the last letter that he would ever write. The next morning, as he was dressing, his legs gave way beneath him and he fell to the floor. Although the doctor described it as a minor stroke, it seems that James had a premonition that his death was imminent. Later that day, he told Fanny that as he fell, he heard a voice distinctly say, “So here it is at last, the distinguished thing!” He knew that she would want to hear all about it: it was quite a tale to tell.

Ann Kennedy Smith, May 2018 (all rights reserved)

Sources: I am delighted that my entry on ‘ The Ladies Dining Society’ is now included in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (May 2018 update).

Henry James letters:  Dear munificent friends: Henry James’s letters to four women, ed. Susan E. Gunter (1999) 192, 228, 193; Horace Darwin, Cambridge University Library archives, Add. 9368.1.5204; Leon Edel, Henry James, A Life (1987); “So here it is at last…” Edith Wharton, A Backward Glance (1934)

Helen Gladstone, dutiful daughter

At about 20 minutes to 12 the body was brought out of the Chapel of St. Faith, through the Chapter-house vestibule, into the west cloister, and the procession was formed. The coffin was covered with a black velvet pall edged with white silk. On it were laid many wreaths of beautiful white flowers… (‘The funeral of Mr Darwin’, The Times, 27 April 1882)

Helen-Gladstone

On Wednesday 26 April 1882, thirty-two year old Helen Gladstone attended the funeral of Charles Darwin at Westminster Abbey. She went in the place of her father, Prime Minister William Gladstone, who was busy that day giving a speech on the Irish question, she told her friend Ida Darwin. It was true that this was a time of crisis for the government: increasing political violence in Ireland had led to secret negotiations that, two weeks later, would see the Irish nationalist leader Charles Stewart Parnell released early from Kilmainham Gaol. But there may have been other, more tactical reasons for Gladstone’s absence that day. As a leading light in the Church of England, it might have been seen as inappropriate for him to attend the funeral of a great naturalist whose theory of natural evolution had nothing to do with God.

“Rather a tall person, in black” was Helen Gladstone’s typically diffident description of herself, which, according to one former student of hers, was “not at all suggestive of that vivid and compelling personality with its alert and vigorous carriage and striking distinction of features and expression”. She was 28 when she moved to Cambridge to study at Newnham Hall (later Newnham College), the oldest of 25 students there. At first she worried that she was neglecting her “home duties” by choosing to study, but told herself that her presence in Cambridge would help to break down prejudices about women’s colleges. “The fact of a daughter of Papa… being sent here ought to have a good influence”, she wrote.

Gladstone himself was not in favour of higher education for women, but he made an exception in his youngest daughter’s case. Of all his seven surviving children, Helen was thought to resemble him most, and he often found his way into her thoughts and conversations: “certainly one could not be ten minutes in her company without knowing that he was her father”, a Newnham student commented years later.

Indeed I think one of the things that kept her such a very “unmarried” person was her ingrained attitude of daughter. This went beyond her earthly father, through to God.

Helen was deeply religious, and regularly attended services at Selwyn College – her family donated generously towards building the new chapel – as Newnham had no religious affiliation. She had intended only to stay in Cambridge for a year, but ended up studying for three years, and took the higher local examination in political economy. After finishing her studies she became secretary to the Principal, Nora Sidgwick, and in January 1882 she accepted the post of Vice-Principal of Newnham, with her father’s blessing.

She met Charles and Emma Darwin for the first time less than two years previously, introduced by Horace, Darwin’s youngest son. He and his wife Ida had moved to Cambridge after their marriage in January and were both active supporters of the new college at Newnham. When Charles and Emma came to Cambridge in August 1880 on their first visit to see Horace and Ida, they were introduced to their new friend Helen Gladstone. They all got on famously, so much so that Helen was invited to the Darwins’ family home in Kent the following summer. She was a little nervous at the prospect of being a guest at Down House, and asked Ida, who was also going to be there, to take her under her wing. They all met up again in Cambridge in October that year.

Charles Darwin’s death six months later came as a shock, and Helen grieved for the family. Her attendance at his funeral in Westminster Abbey was a more sincere expression of sorrow than her father’s would have been. Darwin was buried in the north aisle of the nave of the Abbey, not far from Isaac Newton, and the Times reported a long list of the names of distinguished, and mostly male, guests. Ida Darwin stayed at Down House to comfort Emma, who could not bring herself to attend the grand occasion.

In 1886 Helen was offered the post of Principal of the new Royal Holloway College for women in London. William Gladstone was deeply proud of his daughter’s achievements despite his continuing opposition to the “invasion” of women students at Oxford. He wrote her a heartfelt letter urging her to accept the position.

Your life has a distinct purpose. After all we have heard and seen, there can be no doubt that you have upon you the marks of a distinct vocation. The call is from on high and I really do not think you have a right to overlook, or not to follow the marks of it…

Helen was touched by her father’s tribute to her work as a God-given vocation, but, after much thought, she decided that her “home duties” were more important and that the work at Holloway would be too demanding. She stayed on as Vice-Principal of Newnham for another ten years.

In 1896, before she gave up her job to take care of her ageing parents at Hawarden, she asked her father to sign an official memorial calling for women to be granted degrees “in some form” at Cambridge University. There is no evidence that Gladstone ever signed it, but in any case the memorial was heavily defeated, and it would be another fifty years before women were admitted to degrees at Cambridge. For Helen Gladstone, it was perhaps enough to feel she could expect her father’s support.

© Ann Kennedy Smith, 26 April 2018

Photograph of Helen Gladstone by Barraud; reproduced with permission of the National Portrait Gallery, London.

Sources Oxford Dictionary of National Biography; Anne Isba, Gladstone and Women (Hambledon Continuum, 2006);Newnham College Roll ‘Letter’ Jan 1926; Janet Browne, Charles Darwin: The Power of Place (Pimlico, 2002); Emma Darwin’s diaries 242:44-7 and Ida Darwin’s Papers (Cambridge University Library); BBC Witness (9 mins, accessed 25/4/18). With thanks to CUL Manuscripts; Anne Thomson, Newnham College archivist; Elizabeth Stratton, Selwyn College archivist.

 

Overlooked lives

Now that spring seems to be edging slightly closer, I decided to write a brief round-up of some recent books, articles and blogs that throw new light on lives that have been gathering dust in the corners of history. The title is borrowed from the recent initiative by the New York Times that addresses the issue of ‘missing entries’ from the thousands of obituaries it has published since 1851. “The vast majority chronicled the lives of men, mostly white ones; even in the last two years, just over one in five of our subjects were female,” it admits. In its new ‘Overlooked’ section the paper promises to feature the lives of remarkable women that should have been acknowledged long ago. Entries to date include (amazingly) the writer Charlotte Brontë, the pioneering anti-lynching reporter Ida B. Wells, and Mary Ewing Outerbridge, the woman who introduced tennis to America in 1874. Readers are invited to nominate candidates whose lives and achievements should be written about here. It is certainly better late than never, and it would be wonderful if the London Times and others followed suit.

Illuminating books: One Cambridge woman whose achievements have been overlooked on this side of the pond is Mary Paley Marshall. In the 1870s she and her husband Alfred Marshall helped to establish the economics department of the newly founded University of Bristol, with Mary taking on the bulk of the teaching workload. She was an inspirational figure for the women students there (as well as in Cambridge, before and after her marriage), and I am very pleased that she features in The Women Who Built Bristol 1184-2018 by Jane Duffus.

IMG_5346Other promising new books I hope to read soon include The Century Girls, which celebrates the lives of six extraordinary women who were born in 1918 or before. They have all been interviewed by the book’s author, Tessa Dunlop, and together they tell the story of the past hundred years of British history from their own unique perspective. I am particularly looking forward to finding out more about the life of Joyce Reynolds, the Cambridge classicist who still works at Newnham College, and Ann Baer (née Sidgwick) whose great-uncle Henry Sidgwick did so much to promote women’s education at Cambridge – not least co-founding Newnham College itself.

In February I attended a day of talks about British and Irish women’s suffrage at Murray Edwards College, Cambridge. One of the most engaging speakers was the author Jane Robinson, who spoke with passion about the women from all backgrounds who took part in the Great Suffrage Pilgrimage of 1913. She can be heard on Radio 4’s ‘Start the Week’ here. The thousands of non-violent suffragists (male as well as female) have largely been forgotten about in the history of Irish and British women’s suffrage, so I’m delighted that her new book Hearts and Minds throws light on those overlooked lives. The Irish suffragist Mary Ward, a largely self-taught governess who became one of the first Cambridge women students, was one of the leaders of the 1913 Pilgrimage at the age of sixty-two.

lady sybilThe retired publisher Simon Boyd, one of this blog’s followers, became fascinated by his grandmother’s wartime exploits after discovering a battered old travelling trunk in a back room containing letters and diaries covering much of her life. His new book Lady Sybil: Empire, War and Revolution tells the story of how during the First World War she travelled to Russia to help to set up a British Red Cross hospital in Petrograd.

Blogs of others: Letters and diaries are not the only way of uncovering stories of the past. Another reader kindly drew my attention to this fascinating National Archives post by Sally Hughes about how objects as diverse as shopping lists, a scold’s bridle and dinosaur fossils can offer valuable insights when researching ‘unknown’ women’s lives. The British Library blog ‘Untold Lives’ is another very interesting and varied blog based on materials held in their collection. I have also enjoyed a wonderful new blog about (lesser known as well as famous) poets’ houses – many of them are in Cambridge – by John Clegg, a poet and bookseller at the London Review Bookshop. He has some requests for information here.

Reviews news: I recently wrote about two mothers of famous writers who have been not so much overlooked, as rather unfairly dismissed: May Beckett and Eva Larkin. My essay-review in the Dublin Review of Books was also featured on Arts and Letters Daily. Although Freud is hardly a forgotten figure, many of the people who first championed his writings after the First World War in Cambridge are. My take on an excellent new book, Freud in Cambridge, was published last week in the Times Literary Supplement; there is a snippet here. For repeating Lytton Strachey’s joke, I must apologize to Queen Victoria – a woman whose life was certainly anything but overlooked.

 

Copyright Ann Kennedy Smith 6 April 2018

 

A Secret Sisterhood: the friendship of women writers

‘Here’s the truth: friendships between women are often the deepest and most profound love stories, but they are often discussed as if they are ancillary, “bonus” relationships to the truly important ones’ writes Emily Rapp. ‘Women’s friendships outlast jobs, parents, husbands, boyfriends, lovers, and sometimes children.’ To celebrate women’s friendships in Women’s History Month 2018, I am republishing my review of A Secret Sisterhood by Emily Midorikawa and Emma Claire Sweeney, now available in paperback.

What is it about women’s friendships that makes them inherently suspect? “The men think us incapable of real friendship, you know,” says the flighty Isabella Thorpe to Catherine Morland in Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey. As it happens, the men are proved right in the case of Isabella. However, Catherine forms a lasting connection with Eleanor Tilney, and her gradual realization of this friendship’s importance brings its own problems when it comes to writing a letter to her friend. ‘The strength of these feelings, however, was far from assisting her pen,’ the narrator notes, ‘never had it been harder for her to write than in addressing Eleanor Tilney.’

Secret Sisterhood image.jpg

Letters between friends feature largely in A Secret Sisterhood, a sparkling book (just out in paperback) by Emily Midorikawa and Emma Claire Sweeney, who are friends and writers as well as teachers at New York University’s London campus. The value that both place on their long-standing friendship as writers made them curious about why, as they put it, ‘misleading myths of isolation’ have grown up around women writers of the past. Why do we celebrate the riotous friendships of male writers and poets, but see women as solitary and secluded figures? In four separate, page-turning stories, Midorikawa and Sweeney energetically sweep away the dusty myths and throw light on real-life literary collaborations: Jane Austen and her niece’s governess Anne Sharp, an amateur playwright; Charlotte Brontë and her childhood friend, the radical novelist Mary Taylor; George Eliot and the American author of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Harriet Beecher Stowe; Virginia Woolf and the short-story writer Katherine Mansfield.

Considering the fame of Austen, Brontë, Eliot and Woolf, it is surprising, to say the least, that these notable literary collaborations have not been examined in any depth until now. Paradoxically, their iconic status may be partly responsible. As Margaret Atwood comments in her illuminating preface, after people become famous, ‘their images tend to congeal. They become engravings of themselves’. Nowhere is this more evident than in the case of Jane Austen, whose descendants were keen to preserve a carefully curated image of her as a ‘genteel’ spinster who was indifferent to the literary success which came her way. Midorikawa and Sweeney show her actively cultivating a friendship with Anne Sharp, her niece’s governess, whose critical judgment was so valued by Austen that she sent her a presentation copy of Emma, rather than give it to her brother. However, because of the class differences involved, this important literary friendship was ‘actively whitewashed’ by Austen’s family in the official version of her life, and most of their correspondence was destroyed.

By contrast, Elizabeth Gaskell sought out the recollections of the independent-minded Mary Taylor, Charlotte Brontë’s lifelong friend, to use in her biography of the writer. Taylor was an adventurous traveller who had continued to correspond with Brontë after moving to New Zealand, and in her letters encouraged her to make her novels more political. After Brontë’s early death in 1855, Taylor wanted to ignite public outrage at how her friend’s genius was stifled by society’s expectations, but in her Life Gaskell had to stage-manage her subject’s image and present her as a saintly, patient figure, “a lesson in duty and self reliance” as George Henry Lewes approvingly put it. This did not reflect the politicised and fiercely ambitious woman Mary Taylor knew, and she ended up pouring her feelings into a feminist novel, Miss Miles, that was published in 1890, and was a passionate protest against the life Charlotte Brontë and other dutiful daughters were expected to live.

George Eliot and Harriet Beecher Stowe never met, but the two most celebrated living female authors established a warm friendship through an eleven-year long correspondence. They had striking differences of opinion at times – such as Beecher Stowe’s enthusiastic conviction that she was able to talk to Charlotte Brontë beyond the grave – but the more sceptical George Eliot nevertheless appreciated the American’s honest critique of her work. It was ‘a hand stretched forth’ across the Atlantic by one woman writer to another.

Virginia Woolf was, Katherine Mansfield wrote, “the only woman with whom I long to talk work. There will never be another.” The friendship which sprang up between them in 1917 was subject to occasional rivalries and misunderstandings as the two ambitious women competed to be the leading fiction writer of their time. “Damn Katherine!,” wrote Woolf after E.M. Forster had praised them both equally, “why can’t I be the only woman who knows how to write?” However, Midorikawa and Sweeney argue that theirs was a healthy rivalry, and Woolf’s envy of Mansfield’s skill as a writer pushed her to find experimental new forms for her own novels.

Through their own considerable skill as writers, Midorikawa and Sweeney immerse us in the very different worlds these women inhabited: it as if we had stepped into an elegant drawing room at Godmersham Park, climbed a windy hill in New Zealand or squeezed ourselves into a cramped bedsit in bohemian Chelsea. The four separate stories vividly illustrate how difficult it was for women to make their voices heard, from the precarious existence of the single governess to the ever-present domestic responsibilities of the married woman. Each had to deal with society’s expectations of what a woman should be. For Austen, Brontë, Eliot and Woolf, it was their friendship with another women who wrote (in some cases the only other woman writer they knew) that sustained them through difficult times and inspired them to fresh creativity. This warm, engaging and highly readable book shows how important these friendships were in their development as writers.

© Ann Kennedy Smith, 3 March 2018

Isy’s travels: Baroness Eliza von Hügel (1840-1931)

Anatole_von_Hügel_plaqueIn 1913 Cambridge University’s Museum of Archeology and Anthropology opened the doors to its beautiful new building on Downing Street. It is still there today, with over a million artefacts telling ‘countless astonishing stories’ of human civilisation. When the original museum was founded in 1884 its largest collection was 1,500 objects from Fiji, many collected by the man who became the museum’s first curator, Anatole Von Hügel, a Scottish-Austrian Baron of the Holy Roman Empire. A new field-based approach to anthropology was fast developing in the late nineteenth century, with new, ever more far-flung expeditions bringing back objects, photographs and information for close study. The museum’s collection soon outgrew its original Cambridge premises, and Von Hügel turned his energies to raising funds for a new building. His wife, Baroness Eliza von Hügel assisted him in this, and in 1910 she laid the museum’s foundation stone.

Eliza von Hügel, more often known as ‘Isy’, was born Eliza Margaret Froude in 1840, the daughter of the engineer and naval architect William Froude F.R.S and his wife Catherine (nee Holdsworth). Isy’s uncle J.A. Froude was a historian who became the friend and biographer of Carlisle and she was brought up in Cockington, near Torquay in Devon.  She was 35 when she agreed to marry the 21-year old Anatole Von Hügel, who had moved to Torquay when his father, the Austrian Count Karl Von Hügel, an army officer, diplomat, explorer and plant hunter, retired there in 1867. Anatole and Isy’s shared faith partly explains their decision to marry despite the fourteen-year age gap: Isy and her mother had converted to Roman Catholicism in the late 1850s and were close friends with Cardinal Newman.

As a couple they had more than religious convictions in common. Isy’s mother’s family, the Holdsworths, were traders and collectors in their own right and a number of Polynesian items from Captain Cook’s voyages were gifted to the Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology by Arthur Holdsworth, Isy’s cousin. Soon after Isy and Anatole became engaged in 1875, he went abroad for the sake of his health. He chose Fiji originally because of his ornithological interests, but soon realized that because the islands had recently become a British colony, much of its indigenous culture would be lost if he and his fellow explorers did not record and preserve as much of it as they could. He did not return to England for three years, but he and Isy exchanged long letters.

In 1880 they married and moved to Cambridge, where Anatole took up his post as museum curator, the first Catholic to hold a university position at Cambridge. They lived in Croft Cottage on Barton Road and built a chapel at Croft Cottage for Catholic worship soon after they moved to the house, and together they were one of the university’s first ‘power couples’, campaigning to change university rules to admit the first Catholic undergraduates to Cambridge. In 1893 Eliza became the first president of the Children of Mary, a nationwide Catholic teaching organisation, and Croft Cottage was also a social centre for Anatole’s university colleagues and for Isy’s own intellectual discussion groups. These included her friends from the newly founded women’s colleges at Newnham and Girton, and the twelve women who belonged to the Ladies’ Dining Society.

But Isy was not content to pursue her interests in Cambridge alone. After donating much of her own money to found the Museum of Archeology and Anthropology and laying the foundation stone in 1910 she decided that she wanted to discover the world for herself, and in 1912, at the age of fifty-two, she travelled with her niece Mary Froude to Morocco and the Canary Islands. The Museum still contains items from her independent travels, including, as listed in the catalogue, ‘a cowbell made by the last of the descendants of a family made in 1911 at Guimar, Tenerife by the last of the descendants of a family in whom the hereditary right was vested of making cattle bells for the entire group of islands’.

What was Eliza von Hügel like? After she died in 1931, the anonymous writer of her obituary in The Tablet obituary described her as ‘bright to the last’.

Minute in stature and delicately made, she was something of an elf; and her mind flitted here and there —though almost always alighting on a serious topic—like an elf earnestly engaged on good work.

We haven’t yet been able to trace a photograph or painting of Isy, and her contribution to public life has not been fully acknowledged. Like the other women in her circle including Ida Darwin, Mary  Paley Marshall and Louise Creighton,Eliza von Hügel worked unpaid for many years to improve living conditions for others. In September 1914 she launched her own independent campaign to house Belgian refugees in Cambridge, using her own funds and undiminished energies to ensure that families were able to stay together safely for the duration of the war.

By Ann Kennedy Smith and Carolyn Ferguson, with thanks to the Museum of Archeology and Anthropology for access to their special collections

Sources: Eliza von Hügel obituary, The Tablet, 26 December 1931; Museum of Archeology and Anthropology website (accessed 31.12.2017); Hügel Homes for Belgian refugees: Cambridge 1914-19 A. von Hügel (Cambridge, 1920)

Postscript: Eliza von Hügel was one of the group of women who came to Cambridge as Victorian brides and came into their own in later life as activists in their own right. 2018 marks 100 years since the first women obtained the vote in the UK, and all over the country women’s historical contributions will be recognized in campaigns such as ‘Behind Every Great City’. Over the past year and a half I have highlighted the stories of just a few of the women who made a difference in Cambridge, and in 2018 I hope to take up a new challenge which I will let you know more about soon. Meanwhile, have a very Happy New Year and thank you very much for reading this blog.  AKS