Cecily Sidgwick biography - Chapter 1 - Family Background



Cecily Wilhelmina Sidgwick (née Ullmann) (1854-1934) was the daughter of a German Jewish merchant, David Ullmann, who was born in the Grand Duchy of Baden Heidelberg in 1816 and his wife, who was born Wilhelmina Auguste Haase, in 1822, in Hamburg. Her parents were married in Leeds in 1850, as, at that time, her mother’s father, Carl Wilhelm Haase, a merchant, was living there. David Ullmann, whose father, Max, was a lawyer, was then London based, but he is recorded as arriving in Hull from Frankfurt on 25th June 1838. The couple appear to have settled initially at 4 Highbury Grove, Islington and their first four children were born there - Cecily on 21st October 1854, Adele Florence in c.1857, Percy David in 1858 and Henry Edward in December 1859. At the time of the 1861 Census, they also had David Ullmann’s widowed mother living with them, and four English girls - two nurses for the children, a house servant and a cook. Cecily was not baptised until 12th May 1869, when she was fourteen, and, by that date, the family had moved to 68 Hilldrop Crescent, Camden Road. Her father was now being referred to as an East India merchant. Another brother, Walter, was born in 1861, but her brother, Henry, died in 1866, aged 6.


In Cecily’s book on Germany in the Peeps at Many Lands series, which was aimed at children, there seems little doubt that the girl called Lina Schmidt, whose London home and early visits to Germany she describes, is, in fact, herself. Accordingly, the Chapter called ‘Lina’s Home’ is worth reproducing almost in its entirety.


"Although Lina Schmidt had always lived in London, her parents were both German, and nearly all the people she knew were German. The men had come to England to make money, but when they wished to marry, they went back to Germany, and found German wives. These ladies brought their stores of linen and silver with them; sometimes they brought furniture, sometimes servants. But at any rate, they brought their German ways, and could help their husbands to forget that they were living in a foreign land. Lina’s mother and father always talked German to each other, so that, though the child had English nurses, her ear grew used to a second language without effort. Her father was from the Rhine, and he used to tell her enchanting stories about the old castles there, and the broad, winding river, and the hills covered with vineyards. He had turned a great piece of his garden into a little vineyard, and there the London sun ripened his grapes for him. Lina used to help him thin them in spring, and gather them in autumn, and though they were small they tasted better than any grapes in the world. Every morning, she would go for a little walk with her father before breakfast, and then she used to ask him questions about the beautiful country where he had spent his youth, and which she had never seen. He told her about the narrow crooked streets paved with cobblestones in the old part of town, and the broad, handsome new ones where the well-to-do people lived. He told her about the bathing and swimming in summer and the sleighing in winter, and the long walks through the forest that he used to take with other boys. She learned that the winters were colder and the summers hotter than in England, that the Rhine used to freeze so that people could hold fairs on it, and that when it thawed and suddenly flowed again, there was a noise like thunder along its banks. Then the spring came along in a hurry, and the woods were full of lily of the valley and anemones, and the storks came back to their nests.


But Lina’s mother, who was from Hamburg, said that none of the little Rhemish towns were as fair and stately as the big northern city where she had lived till she married, and she used to tell the little girl about the Alster, the great lake around which Hamburg is built, and which is always gay with sailing boats and steamers. She could remember a winter when that was frozen from end to end, and for six weeks the whole city turned out there to skate and amuse themselves. Sometimes her father and mother came to stay in London, and they remembered the great fire of 1842, when the whole of Hamburg was burnt to the ground. Lina’s grandmother told her how people stayed to the last in their houses, trying to save their property, and how they had to be driven out into the streets by soldiers when the flames came dangerously near. The old lady herself had been a young girl in 1842, and yet, after all these years, the terror and confusion of the time remained a vivid memory. She had run from her home, carrying her canary in its cage, and had saved nothing else from the general wreck.


When the grandparents came to Lina’s home, they thought they were staying in an English household, but it was really more like a German one. The family used to sit morning, noon and night in a comfortable sitting room, in which there was a huge polished walnut cupboard that had been sent to Lina’s mother from Hamburg, and was always called ‘the German cupboard’. The cloths on the tables were all handsomely embroidered, and had been sent over on birthdays or at Christmas by various aunts and cousins. Even the newspapers were kept in an embroidered case, and if the fire scorched you, there was a large screen standing in a walnut frame and representing a scene from a Uhland ballad worked in coloured beads. All the books in the room were German, and so were the family portraits in ebony frames. All the people who visited at the house were Germans, and they came mostly on Sundays. The married ones paid calls, and the young unmarried men, who thought London a sad place on Sundays, were glad to stay to dinner. Mrs Schmidt kept a German cook, and was able to offer her country-folk the dishes they liked best."


Accordingly, despite being brought up in London, Cecily will have been heavily influenced by the Germanic attitudes of her parents and their friends. She gives the impression of being very fond of her father, in particular. As her family were also  Jewish, their circle may well have been even more restricted to German Jews. Cecily’s only exposure to English customs and attitudes will have been from her English nurses, who may have proved significant influences, and her time at school. 


In the next chapter in the Peeps at Many Lands book, entitled ‘A Visit to Germany’, Cecily describes a holiday that ‘Lina’ took with her parents to Germany, when aged ten. She suggests that this was her first visit, for she was fascinated how the Germans that she saw were different from people she had seen in London. She also indicates that, in previous years, her family had holidayed at the sea-side, most probably in Yorkshire at places such as Scarborough and Filey, given the family’s connections there. They stopped at Cologne to break their journey before taking a steamer down the Rhine, passing Bonn, the old Castle of Drachenfels and the strong fortress of Ehrenbreitstein, the city of Coblentz, the Lorelei rock and Bingen. They left the steamer at Eltville, as her mother had been ordered to take the waters at Schwalbach, a famous bathing place. There, they took lodgings and she saw a vast range of nationalities who had flocked to the Spa, many rather queer looking and some clearly very ill. The children that she played with included Americans, French, Russian and Romanian, but there was one particular family - a large German woman and her nephew and niece - with whom they got on particularly well, and when the trip came to an end, they agreed to holiday together next year in Bavaria, where her father hoped to do some fishing.


Thereafter, holidays in Germany are likely to have become more regular, not only to link up with such new-found friends, but also to visit relatives of her parents, for it is quite clear from the extent to which German scenes appear in her work that she must have spent appreciable periods there. It is also possible that she might have spent some time as a Governess in Germany, as books, such as Cynthia’s Way and The Purple Jar, feature an English girl, with few qualifications other than a love of children and literature, working for a German family. Certainly, the special effort made by Germans at Christmas was a regular feature in her novels.


Cecily’s father, David, died on 20th December 1874 in Heidelberg and one of his executors was a Scarborough resident, Edward Wurtzburg, a Jewish merchant from Hamburg who had been in Yorkshire since at least 1828. Presumably, therefore, they had become good friends, leading to frequent return visits to Yorkshire, which may explain why Scarborough features quite often in Cecily’s novels. David Ullmann’s personal effects were £12,000. Her mother then seems to have moved to 16 St Martin’s Crescent, Regent’s Park, but died on 10th October 1878 whilst on a visit to Denmark. Both her parents, therefore, died away from home and before their sixtieth birthdays. Shortly afterwards, on 12th February 1879, Cecily’s sister, Adele, married in Hamburg Max Maas, the son of Gustav Maas of Mannheim. In her book Home Life In Germany (1908), Cecily describes a stay with a German family on the Rhine with whom she had recently become connected through marriage. Having clearly made an impression at the marriage, she was asked to stay on not just for a few days but for the best part of two months. This was over a harsh period of weather, so that she was able to go skating on the Rhine each day. As Mannheim is on the Rhine and as she refers to the town knowledgeably in her book on Germany, her sister’s nuptials may have been the wedding that she was referring to.


Cecily did not manage to obtain probate of her mother’s estate until 20th February 1880 and, at this time, she was living at 42 Maitland Park Crescent, Haverstock Hill. However, at the time of the 1881 Census, she is recorded as a lodger at 38 Leamington Villas, Paddington, with Henry Homes, a commercial traveller, who had a wife and four daughters. Cecily was merely described as an ‘annuitant’, indicating that she was receiving some income as a result of her parents’ deaths. Accordingly, there is no clear indication that she was writing or studying at this juncture, albeit other lodgers included Carneth (? Kenneth) Read, an author and lecturer, aged 33, who had been born in Falmouth, and William Oliver, a law student, aged 26.


In 1882, Cecily suffered another bereavement in the family, again abroad, when her younger brother, Walter, died (and was buried) in the French art colony of Grez-sur-Loing, aged only 21. He was a budding artist, who had just had a work Autumn Evening receive favourable notices when hung at the Salon. A portrait of him by the American painter, Kenyon Cox, which was thought to demonstrate a discipleship of Bastien Lepage, was hung at the Fine Art Society in August that year. This is inscribed ‘To my friend Ullmann 1880’ and has been handled recently by the Cooley Gallery, Old Lyme. There is no record of Walter having exhibited in England and his 1882 Salon success was his sole exhibit there. Accordingly, even before her move to Cornwall, Cecily had had some experience of the ways of art students, who often feature in her novels, albeit they tend to be fairly disreputable with radical views. The death of her parents abroad, followed so closely by her sister’s marriage and her brother’s death, also abroad, must have made this a very trying time for Cecily and will have brought her and her brother, Percy, even closer.


The only reference that I have found to Cecily’s education is an article in a Lincolnshire paper in 1893, which records that Cecily was educated at College Hall, Byng Place, London. However, it appears as if this only came into being as female accommodation for the University of London in 1882. Nevertheless, the same article indicated that she soon developed a facility of composition that resulted in her having articles accepted by magazines before her marriage in 1883. Some indication that she actually commenced her studies during her parents’ lifetime, as one would imagine, given her age, is contained in her novel, The Grasshoppers (1895), as it would appear that one of the principal characters, Mrs Frere, is at least partially based on her mother. She introduced her as follows, "Mrs Frere was a German. Twenty-five years ago she had arrived in England with no fortune but her good looks, her foreign tongue, and a pretty touch on the piano." (p.2) She later confirmed that she came from Hamburg and that, initially on her arrival in England, she acted as a governess to the children of a wealthy merchant for a while, before marrying the junior partner in his firm. However, her views on her daughters, Hilary (Cecily) and Nell (Adele), were old fashioned - her sole objective was to ensure that they married well, for she considered that "marriage and motherhood ought to be the end and aim of a woman’s life" (p.2). The novel commenced,


"When Hilary Frere first expressed a wish to go to College her mother wept. Mrs Frere had not trained her daughter to walk in such a path as this. She had never seen any of the Women’s Colleges, nor had she ever known a person who lived in one, nor was she in the habit of reading anything more about them than the chance paragraphs that appear in the daily papers and the fashion books. Nevertheless, like many others of her generation, she cherished a lively dislike of these institutions. The very name of one still sends an unpleasing thrill through the frames of many respectable and otherwise intelligent persons. It conjures up a vision of womanhood with the graces left out. It suggests an aggressive creature, brimful of the knowledge to be gained from text-books, and lacking the modesty that recognises a yet wider, deeper knowledge in other people."


"Moreover, Mrs Frere feared that a collegiate life would have the same effect on a girl as a vow of celibacy. It would lead her to dress in a disagreeably conspicuous fashion. She would cut her hair short, take to spectacles, and burn her modish gowns; and it would fill her with the distrust of men and marriage that is fashionalbe amongst the glorified spinsters of to-day." (p.1-2) 


Hilary was different from her sister, who "had a fancy for modern languages", danced well, made the most of her pretty voice, played the banjo and did some decorative painting. (p.4) Hilary was more academically inclined and had done well at school. "But when Hilary left school her mother did not see why she should trouble any further about the pursuit of knowledge. A few singing lessons, a fancy for watercolours, the translation of I Promessi Sposi, or even a course or two of scientific lectures - such last touches to a girl’s education Mrs Frere could understand; but it vexed her to see the child light up over a volume of Ruskin, and yawn in the dressmaker’s parlour. And why did she work at Greek and mathematics? In these days, when eligible husbands are few and far between, it behoves a girl to be careful lest she should frighten one away. Moreover, the Greek characters might injure her eyes; and if she spent her mornings indoors ‘doing mathematics’, she would certainly lose her complexion." (p.5)


Hilary’s first term at College gave Mrs Frere some pretext for telling her husband "I told you so", for she came home full of new tastes and opinions. She now considered fashionable gowns vulgar and had adopted an unflattering hair-style. She was bored by most company and thought her father’s prosperous business friends "dull, common-place and respectably corrupt". "On all the great questions of the day her opinions were feverishly decided." However, "There was never any telling what Hilary would swear at or swear by next." However, term by term, the little crop of affectations "changed a little, and generally for the better" (p.6-8).


Accordingly, it would appear that Cecily’s desire to attend a Woman’s College may well have met some resistance at home from her mother, whilst her account of Hilary’s initial response to College life might recognise ruefully some of the faults that she herself displayed. Hilary’s time at College was brought to an abrupt end after her first year by the death of her father, and this too may reflect Cecily’s own situation. This possibility is given some support by the storyline of The Grasshoppers, which, whilst predominantly fiction, has some echoes of what is known about the Ullmann family in the 1870s and it is clear from subsequent novels that Cecily did incorporate the experiences of herself, her family and friends into her stories.


Mrs Frere is presented as a kindly woman, who is a devoted wife and loving mother, but, whilst contending that she managed her household in an economical manner, she was, in truth, extravagant. Cecily commented, "Hamburg people stew their hams in champagne, baste their venison with cream and butter, and stuff their poultry with truffles" (p.20). The local florist also did a roaring trade with her. Finance, therefore, was the sole bone of contention between husband and wife, and Mr Frere, whose income as a merchant, was unpredictable, constantly found his expenditure exceeding his income. The stress caused by this resulted in his early death, at a particularly impecunious time, so that Mrs Frere and her two daughters were left to live off the proceeds of a small insurance policy. Given that David Ullmann’s personal effects on death were some £12,000, this was clearly not Cecily’s own financial scenario. However, Mrs Frere decides on her husband’s death to return to the city of her birth, Hamburg, where she expected to link up again with friends from her youth. As she insisted on her daughters accompanying her, this put an end to Hilary’s time at College.


In Hamburg, Mrs Frere is disappointed that many of her old childhood friends have died, moved away or show little interest in someone, who has become Anglicized in certain respects. Cecily comments, "Hamburg society is provincially exclusive. It does not welcome foreigners....It is the centre of the world...It considers Paris frivolous, London dreary, and Berlin impertinent. Hamburg is never uneasy about itself." (p.187-8) Mrs Frere’s girls, who cannot cook, have no house management skills and cannot embroider, are considered typical examples of the much despised useless English female, and find it impossible to get any form of employment. Their fashion sense is deplored, and their behaviour, particularly their insistence on acting independently, considered scandalous. To escape from the home of the dreadful aunt with whom they are forced to live, one girl, Nell, marries a much older, wealthy German. Her marriage, though, was quickly followed by Mrs Frere’s death, at which juncture, Hilary returned to England, and is forced to live in a garret until married by a long-term friend.


Whilst the following is pure conjecture, it is possible that, following Cecily’s father’s death, which occurred in Germany, her mother decided to spend some time back in her home town of Hamburg and that Cecily and Adele accompanied her, thus ending Cecily’s initial period of study. As Cecily later writes about an English girl acting as a governess in Hamburg, this may be the period when she took on this role. This conjecture is supported by the fact that Cecily’s sister, Adele, later married in Hamburg, shortly after her mother’s death.