Cecily Sidgwick biography - Chapter 3 - Her Literary Work - An Overview

Frontispiece to 'A Woman with a Future'
Frontispiece to 'A Woman with a Future'

 

This Chapter comprises a brief overview of Cecily’s prolific literary output. I do not propose to discuss at length the novels that she published before she settled in Cornwall, but these included

 

(as Mrs Andrew Dean)

 

Isaac Eller’s Money, 1889, (T.Fisher Unwin)

 

Splendid Cousin, 1892, (T. Fisher Unwin)

 

Mrs Finch-Brassey, 1893, (Richard Bentley & Son)

 

Lesser’s Daughter, 1894, (T. Fisher Unwin)

 

The Grasshoppers, 1895, (Adam and Charles Black)

 

A Woman with a Future, 1895 (in serial form), 1896 (Adam and Charles Black)

 

Cousin Ivo, 1899, (Adam and Charles Black)

 

(as Mrs Alfred Sidgwick)

 

The Inner Shrine, 1900, (Harper & Bros)

 

Cynthia’s Way, 1901, (Edward Arnold)

 

The Thousand Eugenias and other stories, 1902, (Edward Arnold)

 

Beryl Stones, 1903, (Edward Arnold)

 

Scenes of Jewish Life, 1904, (Edward Arnold)

 

The Professor’s Legacy, 1905. (Edward Arnold)

 

During her life, Cecily Sidgwick produced over forty novels, mostly romances, but her first book, published in 1889 by T.Fisher Unwin, was a work of non-fiction about a celebrated German intellectual, Caroline Schlegel and Her Friends. According to one reviewer, this was "written with a vigour, style and power of imagination that stamped the author as a woman of no ordinary ability". Most of her novels prior to 1899 were published under the name ‘Mrs Andrew Dean’. I have not found any written explanation for this or any basis for the choice of pseudonym, but, as her first novel was published in the same year as her book on Caroline Schlegel, perhaps her publishers felt that it was important to draw a distinction between her output of slushy romantic novels and her serious works of non-fiction. By the mid-1890s, Mrs Alfred Sidgwick was being used on the title page of her novels alongside Mrs Andrew Dean and, after 1899, the pseudonym was dropped entirely, seemingly on a change of publisher. Again, publishers probably urged the use of Mrs Alfred Sidgwick, to make some use of her husband’s distinction, rather than Cecily Sidgwick, much as Edith Ellis wrote under the name Mrs Havelock Ellis.

 

Cecily indicated that she was very keen that the places depicted in her novels had variety, and that she did not use the same locality for two successive stories. This meant that she made each book "an excuse for a journey to pastures new" and contended that the constant travelling kept her young. However, throughout her life, German scenes and German characters played a significant role in her novels. This might suggest that she paid frequent return visits to her parents’ homeland, but a postcard from Alfred Sidgwick to Ella Naper, when Cecily and himself were in Baden-Baden in May 1929, comments that he is surprised how little he has forgotten his German, given that it was "19 years since our last visit and 32 years since we spent any length of time" (Naper archive). In the main, therefore, Cecily seems to have drawn upon her visits in her youth, during her honeymoon and in her early married life. She provided some clues as to these in her book Home Life in Germany (1908). For instance, at p.228, she mentioned that, when a girl, she stayed a winter in a South German Hotel, albeit not naming the location. She also stayed prior to her marriage with a couple of friends at a Bavarian forest village for a summer, not meeting any other English people (p.258). She also indicated (at p.229) that Alfred and herself spent a summer in a Thuringian inn that had never taken paying guests before, an area that she liked enormously and which features in a number of her novels. They also spent six months one summer in the Black Forest (p.269), an experience again utilised in her work. Naturally, she also visited a number of the major German cities, such as Berlin, Hamburg, Munich and Cologne, with her mother’s birth-place, Hamburg, featuring in a number of novels.

 

 

For a balanced view of the advantages and disadvantages of the German approach to ordinary life, when compared with that of the English, Cecily’s non-fiction work Home Life in Germany (1908) makes a fascinating read. This was principally an account of the role of women in German society. She aimed to record "all the insignificant trifles that make the common round of life" in a German home - "what they ate, what they wore, how they governed their homes, the relationship between husband and wife, parents and children, master and servant; in what way they fought the battle of life, how they feasted and how they mourned". Education, student capers, the plight of the poor, life in lodgings and at summer resorts were other topics covered. In general, she found a male dominated society, in which the average German thought that "woman was made for man, and that if she has board, lodging, and raiment, according to the means of her menfolk, she has all she can possibly ask of life" (p.65). However, she did come across some extreme feminists - some of whom contended that they could do without men entirely both in public and private life - but considered that the majority of their aims were unrealistic in a country where women still needed the express consent of the police to attend a political meeting. However, the book was more concerned with private life and described and rationalised German family life and the German way of running a household. Accordingly, she highlighted such matters, as the personal involvement of German women in the running of their kitchen, which resulted in their servants only being able to do as they were told and having no initiative. However, this also led Germans to believe that English women, who were almost barred from their kitchens by their servants, were incapable of economic household management. She pointed out what frustrated English travellers about life in Germany - in particular, the excessive rules and regulations and the petty tyranny of the police -, and what complaints Germans constantly raised about their experiences in England - bad food, poor lodgings and boring Sundays. She also drew attention to some of the extraordinary fancies that had taken root on a wide scale as to the decadence of certain English habits, and it is the attitudes of those individuals of both nationalities, who would not be turned from their blinkered prejudices, that she tended to use for effect in her novels. One particular target was the arrogant, teenage German female know-it-all, who delivered her strongly held opinions without hesitation and would not countenance any challenge to them. Whilst she was familiar with some English literature, "she does not care to see Shakespeare in London, because, as she tells you, the English know nothing about him. Besides, he could not sound as well in English as in German. She has read Carlyle, and is now reading Ruskin. She adores Byron, but does not know Keats, Shelley, or Rossetti. Tennyson she waves contemptuously away from her, not because she has read him, but because she has been taught that his poetry is ‘bourgeois.’" Examples of this type of German backfisch populate most of Cecily’s novels. 

 

 

One of her first major successes under the name Mrs Alfred Sidgwick was Cynthia’s Way (1901). This was very typical of her novels, as it featured a young English girl, albeit an heiress in disguise, acting as a governess to a bourgeois German family. Accordingly, it contained, inter alia, the opinions of a wide range of German characters on England and the English. It is interesting that, as early as 1901, Cecily had detected in Germany an obsession - indeed, a paranoia - about England, with many Germans seeking to run down the character, habits and literature of the English at every opportunity, and a few expressing the strong desire that England should be "annihilated". However, she had also picked up that there was a similar obsession about Germany in England. The newspapers were full of learned articles about, for instance, the efficiency of modern German factories and mines, the excellence of their road and rail network, the extent of their military might, and the quality of their educational system. It was a country often presented by the English press as "armed to the teeth, set wholly on material advancement, in a dangerously warlike mood, hustling us without scruple from our place in the world’s markets, a model of municipal government and enterprise, a land where vice, poverty, idleness, and dirt are all unknown." Cecily sought to exploit this interest and to lessen the awe or fear with which the Germans were regarded by using gentle mockery to poke fun at certain aspects of their daily lives. So, by way of example, she contended that their fashion sense was appalling, in that they wore the most inappropriate and badly designed garments in harsh colours; she mocked their obsession with embroidery and the ridiculous amount of linen that each household stored, each piece having the wife’s initials embroidered thereon; she contended that their houses were lacking soul and were laid out in rigid pre-set ways and packed with over-ornate furniture of great ugliness, and often contained unhealthy bedrooms that were little better than cupboards, as they had no external window to let in light and air; she indicated that Germans could only talk about food, an interest that was reflected in their waist-lines, and that their so-called sense of humour was risible. In her books, German mothers paid little loving attention to their offspring, who were obliged to live under an extremely harsh regime, leading to suicidal inclinations, but who flowered under the informal loving guidance of their English Governesses.

 

 

Whilst, in relation to Cynthia’s Way, The Spectator commented that most Germans depicted therein were "greedy, envious, snobbish and ridiculous", this is not really the impression that the book gives now, emphasizing again the paranoia that the English had about the Germans at that time and their pleasure at having pointed out defects in the self-appointed ‘super-race’. In the main, though, Cecily was an admirer of many aspects of ‘old’ Germany and enjoyed its towns and countryside and many of its traditions, and this is made clear in her novels. If she did pass an unfavourable comment, her touch, certainly before the War, was normally light and deft, and most of her German characters were fully rounded, believable personalities, albeit with the odd foible. Perhaps one per novel would display all the worst characteristics, and have such a distorted attitude to English history, literature or customs as to be laughable.

 

 

Coming from a Jewish family, Cecily was also well acquainted not only with Jewish customs and foibles, but also with the prejudices that they had to endure. Accordingly, Jews feature repeatedly in her novels as well and, in 1904, she published a group of short stories entitled Scenes of Jewish Life, which dealt mainly with the fortunes of well-to-do Jewish families in England and Germany, and compared the appalling social ostracism that the Jews suffered in Germany, even at that juncture, with their full acceptance into London society. For instance, in the story, The Powder Blue Baron, an attractive Jewish girl from London goes to stay with Jewish cousins in Germany. Although courted by the Baron of the title, he cuts her dead in a cafe, when she is with her cousins and he is with his army colleagues. When the Jewish girls are invited to a party by some friends they know at school, the Mayoress visits to say that, as no-one else will come to the party if they go, their invitation has to be rescinded. Even when this message has been delivered, she still asks for confirmation that the girls will not appear at the party, quoting as the basis for her concern the proverb, "Kick a Jew out of the door, and he comes in at the window"! The Spectator commented, "The snobbish social ostracism to which educated Jews are subjected in Germany makes one’s blood boil, yet Mrs. Sidgwick reveals by many convincing touches how the sufferers by their undignified acquiescence assist in perpetuating the evil."

 

The varied approaches of different nationalities to courtship was a regular feature in Cecily’s novels, and she wrote amusingly in Home Life in Germany (at p.81) about the manner in which marriages tended to be arranged amongst the Jewish community in Germany.

 

 

"A young merchant of Berlin thinks it is time to settle down, or perhaps wants a little capital to enlarge his business. He consults an uncle in Frankfurt. The uncle tells his old friend, the father of several daughters, that the most handsome, industrious, and accomplished man the world has ever seen, his own nephew, in fact, thinks of marriage, and that his conditions are this and that; he tells his nephew that the most beautiful and amiable creature in Germany, a brilliant musician, a fluent linguist, a devoted daughter, and a person of simple housewifely tastes, lives next door to him, the uncle. Except for the housewifely tastes, it sounds, and in fact is, rather like a courtship in the Arabian Nights so far. The prince hearing of the princess, and without having seen her, sets out to seek her hand. The young merchant pays a flying visit to Frankfurt, is presented to the most beautiful creature in Germany, finds her passable, has a talk to her father as business-like as a talk between two solicitors, proposes, is accepted, and at once becomes the most ardent lover the world has ever seen." (p.81)

 

Unsurprisingly, Cecily drew on the places in which she had lived for scenes in her novels. Accordingly, a number feature families living in the suburbs of London, such as Putney, Wimbledon and Surbiton, areas that she knew well. Several novels are partly based in Manchester, her first marital home, and in the lake district, where Alfred and herself enjoyed repeated holidays in the early years of their marriage. In works such as The Inner Shrine (1900), Ullswater is called Hallinwater, and Cecily demonstrates a considerable affinity for its fells and its various moods, even in inclement weather. Yorkshire and unspecified places in the North of England, and blunt Yorkshire relatives, also feature regularly. As already mentioned, her mother’s family were based in Leeds and her parents had friends in Scarborough. Alfred had been born and brought up in Skipton and his elder sister, Elizabeth Ann (b.c.1848, and known as ‘Annie’) married a Yorkshireman, Stephen Marshall. He, like his father, was a merchant and flax spinner, and he had been brought up at ‘Weetwood Hall’, Headingley, an imposing mansion that is now a hotel. His family were still living there at the time of the Sidgwicks’ marriage and, accordingly, this may be the large northern country house that features in some of her novels. Later in their marriage, Annie and Stephen lived at ‘Skelwith Fold’, Ambleside, which Cecily described as a quiet house "where you are shut away from the bothering world" (undated letter, probably 1930s, to Ella Naper from ‘Hannaford’, Poundsgate, Newton Abbot, itself such a quiet house). The Marshalls had two children Mary and Cordelia, with whom Alfred kept in contact, leaving them legacies under his will. At that time, Cordelia remained unmarried, but Mary had married one of the sons of his friend, Edwin England.

 

Cecily’s move to Cornwall in 1906-7 gave her a completely new range of subject matter. Instead of leading life in a comfortable suburb of a metropolis, she was now based five miles from the nearest shop, without any form of transport, and in a house with no electricity. Her neighbours, though, were an interesting amalgam. Unintentionally, she soon found herself in the midst of an art colony, so that the bohemian, or, in any rate, unconventional lifestyle of the artist could be incorporated into her stories. In addition to the true Cornish locals, with whom she dealt on a regular basis, not least as maids, there were some wealthy landowners with whom she could fraternise. Then, in the summer season, Cornwall was awash with tourists, and her own home became a magnet for her relations. With the popularity of Cornwall as a tourist destination, her amusing accounts of life there also had a wide market. Whilst keeping to her vow not to use the same locality in successive stories, one finds that Cornwall does feature as a setting for several full novels and also for odd sections of other stories, where the principal action takes place in Germany, Paris or elsewhere. In contrast to Edith Ellis, it takes her some time to attempt to write in the local vernacular and, accordingly, her principal characters tend to be outsiders down in Cornwall on holiday. She still travelled extensively to research other settings for her books and she pushed herself hard on these trips. For instance, on one visit to London, she saw seven plays in six days, perhaps suggesting that she drew on stage characters for inspiration as well as the people that she met and observed on her travels. 

 

T.Fisher Unwin were the first publishers of both her fiction and non-fiction works, but in the late 1890s, she had a spell with Adam and Charles Black and then,, in the early 1900s, with Edward Arnold. The notebook listing, for tax purposes, her literary earnings from January 1899 until the date of her death makes interesting reading. In the period from 1899 until 1909, her earnings normally range between £120 and £180, with 1907 being a good year bringing in over £243 but 1908 only producing £105. As Cecily admitted, one of the reasons for moving to Cornwall was to save money, as their finances were tight. The situation, though, appears to have been transformed after her move to Methuen & Co and the success of her first novel featuring a Cornish setting, The Kinsman (1907), as principal payments for her novels from publishers increased from figures of £100-£150 to £275-£350. From 1910 onwards, her annual earnings rarely fell much below £400 and tended to be in the £400-£600 range, but exceptional years were 1914 (£624), 1918 (£787), 1919 (reflecting payment for the film rights to The Kinsman, £1395), 1920 (£885), 1921 (£689) and 1928 (£756). From 1918, her most regular publisher was W. Collins Sons & Co Ltd.

 

The notebook also gives some indication of the publications for which Cecily wrote articles or short stories, as her income each year was also boosted by a number of small sums for these. In the years up to 1908, there are regular payments from The Westminster Gazette, probably principally for the series called The Opinions of Angela. There are also regular payments from Academy Reviews (1905-7), and The Daily Mail (1907-9) and a few sums from The Evening News (1907), The Standard and the Oxford Magazine (1904). There were also a number of one-off larger payments for short stories from Woman at Home (1901, 1902, 1904), The Sphere (1900, 1902), The Jewish World (1907), Cornhill Magazine (1904), and The Tribune (1905-7). Other publications for whom she wrote short stories were The Illustrated London News, Pall Mall Magazine, The Sketch, The Daily Chronicle and Temple Bar, and quite a number of these stories were later reproduced in collections such as Scenes of Jewish Life (1904), Odd Come Shorts (1911) and Mr Sheringham and Others (1913). In the 1920s, she also wrote regularly for Good Housekeeping.

 

Cecily’s books became popular worldwide, with reviews being published in papers in America, Australia and South Africa amongst other countries. For instance, Cynthia’s Way was universally praised in America. The New York Commercial Advertiser commented, "This is an amusing, clever book, full of humorous scenes, a satirical understanding of the lighter sides of character, done with a light touch and much taste", whilst other reviews praised its sparkling dialogue, its artistic handling, and its originality. Herbert Thomas, the Editor of The Cornishman, who was a great admirer of her as both a person and a writer and who reviewed most of her new work at great length, summarised the attractions of her novels in his obituary of her, "Mrs Sidgwick’s sense of human nature, like her industry, never flagged, and her touch, whether in describing people, scenes or the problems of the day, was deft and certain....[Her] characters were often no ‘angels’, but they were human in their foibles, passions, idiosyncracies and habits. She could depict the Bohemian, the Socialist, the worldy and intriguing, the audacious, the social climbers, the absent-minded folk, with all their racial peculiarities and interesting environments. Sometimes, she brought a German frau to Cornwall on holiday; or took you to the homes of imaginary relatives in Germany and you could enjoy the ‘quiet’ narrative more than many a ‘thriller’ or sex-problem story by a modern aspirant to ‘best seller’ position. Many who read one of her stories wanted to read all the others, and her popularity was so solid that the demands of the publishers were perhaps too exacting, and she was reluctant to refuse to meet their wishes." Nevertheless, despite the volume of books that she had produced, he considered that their quality had remained consistently high. He also mentioned that she was a delightful personality, who never posed or gave the impression of being a literary notable, and she was much loved in the Lamorna community.

 

 

Front cover illustration by Allen Stewart for her book on Germany in the 'Peeps at many Lands' series
Front cover illustration by Allen Stewart for her book on Germany in the 'Peeps at many Lands' series