On Ida Darwin’s friendship as a young woman with the governess Lily Whichelo and an aspiring architect, Edward Forster.
Ida Darwin was born Emma Cecilia Farrer in London in 1854: she was always known as Ida. Her father Thomas (later Lord) Farrer was a wealthy and influential civil servant whose interest in plant breeding led to his friendship with the great scientist Charles Darwin. Her mother Frances (née Erskine) was a gifted singer who died when Ida was fifteen. Four years later, in 1874, Lily Whichelo came to work for the Farrer family as a ‘nursery governess’, teaching Ida’s younger brother Noel. Lily, 19, came from a large, lower-middle-class family in London. After her drawing master father died, she had been taken under the wing of a wealthy, unmarried woman called Marianne Thornton who attended the same church, Holy Trinity on Clapham Common, as her family. Thanks to Marianne, Lily had spent a year at an expensive finishing school in Brighton, where she gained social assurance and the chance to be a governess in well-connected circles.
Lily was a charming and intelligent young woman, and she was welcomed into the Farrers’ social circles. She and Ida became close friends, sharing a lively interest in books, music (Lily played the piano; Ida sang, like her mother) and the current debates about feminism and women’s access to higher education. They were the same age, although because Ida was three months older, Lily jokingly called her ‘Grandmother’ and asked her for advice. The Farrers divided their time between their mansion overlooking Hyde Park and their country house at Abinger in Surrey, and Lily went with them, apart from occasional visits home to her mother’s boarding house in West Kensington. Marianne’s nephew Edward Forster was a family friend and a frequent visitor to Abinger Hall. Eddie was a bright, ambitious young trainee architect who worked for Arthur Blomfield in London and had a biting, sardonic wit. He, Ida and Lily spent much time together: walking over the hills on the Abinger estate, sitting by the fire after dinner, talking and making each other laugh.
In June 1876 Lily left her position at the Farrers. Noel would be going away to Eton soon, and she had decided to become a daily governess in London and live, not at home with her mother and younger siblings, but independently in lodgings in Clapham. Ida knew that Lily took the profession of being a governess seriously, and valued her independence, something that Ida herself may well have envied. Her higher social position meant that she was expected to live at home until she married, and could not pursue a career or attend one of the new women’s colleges in Oxford and Cambridge as she longed to do.
In September Lily started teaching for two London families, the Rollers and the Knowles, travelling back to her mother’s house each day for lunch. She asked Ida for advice about how she should teach girls of different ages together, help them with their appalling French and which textbooks she should buy to correct their lack of knowledge. Lily did not get on well with her first landlady, so was persuaded by her friend Maimie Synnot, the widow of Marianne Thornton’s nephew Inglis, to come and live with her in her spacious terraced house on the new Lillieshall Road in Clapham. Maimie was kind, gentle and devoutly religious and Lily was very fond of her. They spent their evenings together playing the piano, sewing bonnets for ‘paupers’ and discussing Temperance matters, Lily told Ida. A life of good works, governessing, and sisterly sainthood seemed assured.
Their evenings were more lively when Eddie Forster came to call. He had recently qualified as an architect and was drawing up plans for his first commission, a cottage for his sister Laura on the Farrer estate at Abinger. He had been close to his cousin Inglis, and he presented Maimie with a house-warming gift: an ornately carved, tall oak mantelpiece that combined the then fashionable Victorian ‘Gothic revival’ style with ideas Eddie had borrowed from the churches he had visited and sketched on his frequent visits to Italy. In November Eddie and Lily called on Ida at the Farrers’ house overlooking Hyde Park to tell her that they had become engaged. Lily was incandescent with happiness and Ida was delighted at the prospect of seeing her friend more often now that she would be the wife of someone from a higher social class. Lily and Eddie married in London in January 1877, before setting off on what would turn out to be a rather unhappy honeymoon on a bitterly cold and windswept Isle of Wight.
On their wedding certificate under ‘rank or profession’, where Eddie has put ‘architect’ Lily has left hers blank. No longer being a governess was an indication of Lily’s enhanced social status as a married woman, but it also marked the end of something: her precious and long-held independence.
By Ann Kennedy Smith (all rights reserved)
There is a photograph of the mantelpiece in my article ‘Room with a view’ about the mantelpiece and E.M. Forster in the Times Literary Supplement, 28 July 2017. For more about Lily, see the King’s College, Cambridge archive: