Cecily Sidgwick biography - Chapter 4 - Carbis Bay Days - Testing 'the Simple Life'




Edith Ellis' Moor Cottages, near Carbis Bay
Edith Ellis' Moor Cottages, near Carbis Bay



In his obituary of Cecily, Herbert Thomas indicated, rather vaguely, that, before moving to Lamorna, the Sidgwicks had "lived" for a time in Carbis Bay, St Ives. This perhaps connotes that they had settled in Carbis Bay for some time, but I think that it is more likely that they merely rented a cottage there for extended periods on a couple of occasions - probably during 1904-5.


In his Introduction to Edith Ellis’ collection of short stories, The Mine of Dreams (1925), fellow novelist, Charles Marriott, records how he had first met the Sidgwicks at ‘The Count House’, Carbis Bay, the home of Edith and her husband, Havelock Ellis, known best for his books on homosexuality. At the time, the Sidgwicks were staying in one of Edith’s Carbis Bay holiday cottages. Clearly, given the academic interests of the men and the literary interests of the women, one can see how the two couples might have become acquainted. However, they do not appear to have become close friends, for the Sidgwicks were not listed by Havelock Ellis as amongst the most interesting of the holiday cottage renters and they are not mentioned in any of the works on the Ellises. Nevertheless, Cecily referred to Edith as a genius, most probably in connection with her skills as an interior decorator, albeit she is also likely to have admired Edith’s tales of her Cornish neighbours, which displayed an understated sense of humour similar to Cecily’s own.


The best account of the Sidgwicks’ time in Carbis Bay is contained in a piece by Cecily called "As Easy as Anything", one of the sections of The Opinions of Angela, which were brought together in Odd Come Shorts in 1911, but which had previously been published in the Westminster Gazette. This relates to an extended summer stay in Edith Ellis’ holiday accommodation, ‘Moor Cottages’, which were situated just outside Carbis Bay, but Cecily also refers to a previous stay in the nearby village, most probably at Edith Ellis’ other holiday property, ‘Rose Cottage’, which was in Carbis Bay itself. Cecily indicated that they had "spent the winter" there and so this was likely to have been a stay of some months. However, apart from stating that they had had to take their milk overnight, as everyone slept in until 9 a.m. and the milkman arrived too late for breakfast, she gives no further details of this visit.


Havelock and Edith Ellis themselves later lived in ‘Moor Cottages’, after they had sold ‘The Count House’, and Havelock describes the properties in his autobiography, My Life (at p.251). "The two Moor cottages in a single building stood inland at an isolated and awkwardly situated spot behind the mine and off the road, only approached by rough paths. It was a beautifully peaceful place, with no houses in sight, facing the south, the grounds running down to a little streamlet near to a well...They were small plain ordinary labourers’ cottages containing altogether four small and four very small rooms. The two upper front rooms were the best and with the pleasantest outlook." Whilst, for this reason, the Ellises took one cottage each, the Sidgwicks housed the maid that they had brought down from Surbiton in one, whilst themselves enjoying the privacy of the other.


The holiday in ‘Moor Cottages’ was clearly testing the ground as to whether the Sidgwicks would enjoy a more tranquil, rural lifestyle. The piece, As Easy as Anything, starts,


"I have always hankered after the Simple Life, and had my own ideas about it. Most people, if you can judge by their descriptions, seem to think that you are not leading it unless you give up the comforts to which you are used. My idea, when Edward [i.e. Alfred] agreed to try it this year, was to give up the discomforts, such as high rent and rates, big coal and gas bills, expensive servants, and bores. You can easily make sure of casting all these things away except the bores. They might crop up anywhere, I suppose. But there are none here. My bores would not like the conditions. They would say there was nothing to do and not enough courses for dinner."


Cecily continued, "When we first settled into the cottages for our summer holiday, our meals really were on my mind for a day or two, because none of the tradespeople and none of the fish and fruit hawkers would turn off the main road through the village and come across the moor to us." However, their maid soon found out how things were done, and they organised their supplies easily enough, taking advantage of produce grown locally. Soon Cecily was telling Alfred, "How we shall hate it when we have to go back to the complex life. At home, the chickens are bony, and the vegetables stale, and the cream ream. As for the milk, there are more things in it than the District Council dreams of. We have food for the gods here."


They ate in the kitchen "as Simple Lifers should, and nothing was ever so comfortable. It is not a sordid kitchen - all oil-cloth, grease and sooty pans. Our kitchen has brown rafters, white paint, and lemon-coloured walls. There are shelves for crockery, and amber-coloured cloths on the tables. On one side of the fireplace, there is a curious old chair built in with the woodwork of the wall. The window has a broad seat and lattice panes. Although it is high summer, the air on this wind-swept common is so fresh and stirring that we never find the kitchen fire unbearable, as I supposed we should." The maid found plenty of flowers locally to pick and set on the kitchen table - some days honeysuckle and mauve scabious, other times poppies or foxgloves.


Despite the favourable climate for gardening, there were no flowers in the two gardens except for "clover and dahlias...the genius who furnished the cottages and let them to us has no time for fancy gardening." However, "We are content, for our ragged gardens seem part of the common, and, indeed, are only separated from it by an untrimmed hedge of waving green that crowns and hides an ancient low stone wall."


The peace and tranquillity of the spot appealed greatly to them. "No other house is near. At night, the silence is so unbroken that it is worth while to lie awake in it, to remember nights in cities, and to thank your stars that you are here. By day, in the north-east room, you can hear nothing but bumble-bees and larks. Some crows come and caw on one of our chimney pots in the early morning, and rouse our fox-terrier to fury.. The experience of weeks has not taught him that he will never reach the birds by trying to get up the chimney."


After six weeks, the experiment was deemed a great success - the Simple Life was "As Easy as Anything", assuming one had a maid to help one along.


The first of Cecily’s novels that contains scenes in Cornwall was The Kinsman, which was published in early 1907 and so must have been written in 1906, if not earlier. However, this novel is of primary importance for other reasons, for it appears to have been Cecily’s big breakthrough. When I heard that a file of old newspaper reviews of Cecily’s books had been discovered in the roof space of her old home in Lamorna, I anticipated that the reviews would cover all of her published work. In fact, the seventy or more reviews contained in the file (now held by Penlee House Gallery, Penzance) relate solely to this single novel, The Kinsman, and, almost without exception, they are exceedingly complimentary, despite the fact that it was recognised that the plot verged on farce.


Two second cousins, one, Roger Blois, a sophisticated and wealthy man just arrived from Australia, and the other Bert Gammage, a lazy Cockney, who has just lost his job as a London clerk, meet on Coffin Bay beach in Cornwall under the cliff top ruins of ther former ancestral home, which has been destroyed by landslips, and discover that, despite their very different upbringings, they look almost identical physically. When Bert believes that his Australian cousin, who has come over to England to claim an inheritance from head of the family, Colonel Blois, has been drowned after foolishly insisting on swimming in the dangerous currents of the aptly named Coffin Bay, he decides to impersonate him and attempt to claim the inheritance. His crass efforts to operate in polite society leave his hosts appalled, but they put his behaviour down to his colonial background rather than suspecting an imposter. Whilst Roger did survive his dip, he was badly injured and, even when he had recovered, he had great difficulty in persuading the simple locals of the truth of his story and, at one juncture, was in danger of being committed to an asylum. However, eventually, all ends happily, with the Colonel’s daughter, Pamela Blois, who was in danger of losing her inheritance, marrying the Australian cousin, and even Bert, after due chastisement, finding love and some financial security.


 For me, it is the least satisfactory of Cecily’s stories, but, in its day, it was clearly found highly amusing, with a number of different aspects of the writing being praised. Whilst it was widely recognised that the basic plot was a hackneyed one, which bore similarities to H.G.Wells’ Kipps and The Wheels of Chance, it was felt that Cecily had handled it in a novel and fresh manner. For instance, the Oxford Chronicle commented,


"The central idea - the almost exact resemblance of one man to another - is old enough, but Mrs Sidgwick has put her two Dromios into a series of novel and startling situations, and has worked out her ingenious plot with great skill. Of course, in such a tale, the probabilities are always being greatly strained, but the comedy is never allowed to drop into mere knockabout farce and a certain vraisemblance is maintained even in the most extravagant situations." (22/2/1907)


A number of reviews found the portrayal of Bert Gammage and his Cockney friends different, illuminating and clever, and were impressed that Cecily had managed to represent him as a victim of circumstances, rather than as an out-and-out rogue. His faux pas, as he attempted to operate in a society of people to whose standards of behaviour he was completely unable to conform, provoked much mirth. The Daily Telegraph concluded,


"This is a most entertaining and ingenious book, one of the best of its kind we have ever read. Nobody who enjoys fresh humour and vivacious life and character should miss the merriment which it will certainly evoke in everyone who reads it." (27/2/1907)


The book contained eight illustrations by Charles Edmund Brock (1870-1938), which were also felt to be excellent, even resulting in the book getting a mention in the Burlington Magazine.


Reviewers were agreed that the story would translate capitally on to the stage. I have not found any evidence that this occurred, but it was made into a silent comedy film in 1919. This was directed by Henry Edwards, who also took the principal roles of the two identical cousins, with James Carew as Colonel Blois and Chrissie White as his daughter, Pamela Blois.


The file discovered in the roof void also contains not only a letter from fellow novelist, Alice Perrin (1867-1934), describing the novel as "the most refreshing book that I have read for a very long time", but also one from A.M.S. Methuen, the head of the well-known publishing house, Methuen and Co, which had produced it, which read,


"I have been through rather a severe operation which I am glad to say has been successful, and I have employed much of my enforced leisure in reading your new book. ‘The Kinsman’ has delighted me; it is full of high spirits, wit, and humour, and, as a story, it carries one along easily to the end. The characters strike me as being excellent, and I have every hope that the public may like the book as much as its publisher does. We have already induced some of the libraries and booksellers to take our view and they have already ordered more copies than they took altogether of your last book. So you will see that we are determined to ‘push’ you." (Letter dated 5/2/1907 - Penlee House Gallery - Sidgwick letter archive).


Clearly, from the number of reviews, Methuen did push the novel and probably made quite a bit of money from it. Cecily may not have benefitted overmuch to begin with, but, in a couple of years, the advances that she was getting had more than doubled.


Somewhat surprisingly, Cecily does not state specifically in the book that places such as Rockmouth, Trevalla, Trimaton and Coffin Bay are in Cornwall. However, reviewers had no doubt that action took place in Cornwall and Herbert Thomas, in his review in The Cornishman, mentioned that he had initially been sent a copy of the book as it was of local interest. Coffin Bay was said to be bounded on the east by a dangerous headland, known as The Devil’s Neck, and there was another large headland on the other side of the bay. Coffin Rock in the bay was a big pointed rock sticking out of the sea, with a lot of little rocks nearby. "The cliff was as gay as a garden with valerian, gorse, and broom, and the sea-thrift spread like a sunset from rock to rock until the pink sheen of it met the surf of the breakers that came rolling into the bay." Trevalla was a village close to Coffin Bay, with Trevalla Hill nearby, and was backed by moorland. The nearest church was at Trimaton and the parson there was Squire Bolitho, who was labelled "scranny", interpreted as "daft - stone deaf - nearly ninety"! The Bolitho family, of course, are local notables in West Penwith, and it is strange that Cecily used their precise name, particularly in such an uncomplimentary fashion. Rockmouth, which was a walkable distance away from Trevalla along the cliff path, was the nearest town and had a railway station, one major hotel, The Swan, and a Fair on Whit-Monday. Again, it was backed by moorland. I did initially wonder if ‘Coffin Bay’ had links to Dead Man’s Cove, near Gwithian, which does feature a pointed rock, and that the name of the headland ‘The Devil’s Neck’ was inspired by nearby Hell’s Mouth. However, the area does not really match all the descriptions given and the discovery that there is, in fact, a Coffin Rock, close to ‘Boskenna’, in a bay flanked by Merthen Point on one side and Cribbs Head on the other, makes that area more likely. The nearest habitations to this rock would be Treverven House and Farm and Trevedran, and the nearest church-town, St Buryan. Rockmouth would therefore be Penzance. This would suggest that, during her time in Carbis Bay, Cecily discovered the Lamorna area. With the Ellises having fallen in love in Lamorna and with Charles Marriott having lived in ‘Flagstaff Cottage’, Lamorna, in 1901-2, one can easily imagine how, over dinner at ‘The Count House’, the attractions of Lamorna might have been discussed.


The time spent in Carbis Bay itself was used by Cecily in her novel, The Severins (1909), as this features Carbis Bay (Carbay), Lelant (Sarnen) and Hayle (Penleven), whilst one of the leading characters is called Mr St Erth.


The Severin family comprised a widowed mother of foreign stock, with five diverse children. One, Selma, is an art student, who has striking looks but little talent, and spouts idealistic nonsense. She returns from a spell in Paris, having been badly used by her foreign revolutionary companions, with her social status in tatters. In general, it is agreed that artists are an untrustworthy bunch! Whilst the story is principally set in London, the Severins take a cottage, with a bay window, in Carbis Bay for six weeks in the summer, as is their wont. They go down to the beach most mornings, hiring tents and bathing machines, and, on one occasion, allow the unruly youngster, Bob, to have a donkey ride, with disastrous consequences, for, using a home-made goad, he gets the donkey to charge along the beach, damaging tents and causing elegant Edwardian ladies to tumble in alarm off their deckchairs! On another occasion, he nearly drowns, but is saved by a black retriever. They sail out to Godrevy, walk the flower-carpeted cliff path to Lelant, taking in the breakers rolling in shallow, crested waves upon the vast expanse of Hayle sands, backed by the Towans, and meet others who have come for the golf at the West Cornwall Golf Club. However, the final chapter, in which the central character, Michael Severin, finally gets his girl, takes place in an enchanted valley above ‘Rosemorran Cove’ in West Cornwall - clearly Lamorna.


"It was spring in the valley. The grassy paths, overgrown here and there by furze and bramble, were drier now than they had been for months past. In the old deserted orchards, the primroses were in flower, in the marshy plains, the wild iris sent up its young green reeds, the banks and dilapidated hedgerows were putting forth new growth that would soon hide the winter debris. But the glory of the valley was the golden flower of the gorse and the bridal white of the blackthorn. In the sun the gorse filled the air with its hot, sweet scent, and glowed itself like sunshine; while the delicate spray of the thorn lay near it everywhere, great stretches of lacy white near fragrant vivid gold."


Whilst their enjoyment of their time at ‘Moor Cottages’ in Carbis Bay persuaded the Sidgwicks that they could adapt to the Simple Life, when they finally decided to take the plunge and settle in Cornwall for good, they opted for the greater tranquility of the Lamorna area. Charles Marriott claimed responsibility for finding them their home, ‘Vellensagia’, nestling in a dip on a back road from Lamorna to St Buryan, which they rented from his former landlord, Colonel Paynter. According to her short story, Easter Holidays, which was included in the 1913 collection Mr Sheringham and Others, the Sidgwicks moved to ‘Vellensagia’ in March 1906, for she records how, within two weeks, they were joined for the Easter Holidays by her eldest nephew, Dick Ullmann (b. September 1894), then aged 11. This is considerably earlier than normally thought.


C.E. Brock illustration from 'The Kinsman' showing the two cousins meeting for the first time on Coffin Bay beach
C.E. Brock illustration from 'The Kinsman' showing the two cousins meeting for the first time on Coffin Bay beach