Cecily Sidgwick biography - Chapter 10 - Literary output during the Pre-War years in Cornwall

 

 

Novels published by Cecily Sidgwick between the time that she first visited Cornwall and the commencement of World War I include

 

The Kinsman, 1907 (Methuen and Co)

The Severins, 1909 (Methuen and Co)

The Lantern Bearers, 1910 (Methuen and Co)

Anthea’s Guest, 1911 (Methuen and Co)

Odd-Come-Shorts, 1911 (Mills & Boon)

Lamorna, 1912 (Methuen and Co)

The Street Called Straight, 1912

Below Stairs, 1913 (Methuen and Co)

Mr Sheringham and others, 1913 (MIlls & Boon)

 

However, somewhat surprisingly, apart from The Kinsman and The Severins, which has already been discussed, none of these featured Cornwall to any great extent.

 

The story in The Lantern Bearers was effectively that of Romeo and Juliet set in suburban Surbiton, whilst the title came from an essay by Robert Louis Stevenson. The idea may have occurred to Cecily as, in March 1907, she was one of a number of people who wrote a piece for the Evening News on the subject Which is the Greatest Love Story in Literature?. Cecily’s choice was Romeo and Juliet and a short story called On the Balcony, which was later reproduced in Mr Sheringham and Others (1913), seems to have been an initial attempt to place that classic love story in a modern setting. In the novel, the heroine’s father was squeezed out of a partnership in a firm, which owed its subsequent success to his enterprise, and, in middle age, he has sunk to the level of a poorly paid clerk. Not unnaturally, he holds an undying resentment against his former partner. However, his daughter, Helga, meets at a dance the son of such partner - they fall in love, marry secretly but then are separated, but in the end the two sets of parents are reconciled. The New Age (1910, Vol. 7) was not impressed, commenting, ""She is something worse than impertinent in taking Stevenson’s delightful phrase as title for this rubbishy story." However, the critic at The Spectator was always a fan of her work, commenting, "There are very few novelists living on whom one can count with greater certitude for a good story brilliantly told. Her style is a model of unaffected efficiency; alert, crisp, and without a trace of padding or preciosity. But this rigorous compression does not tend to obscurity, - every sentence is crystal clear and every word tells." He concluded, "To re-enact the drama of the Montagus and the Capulets on a suburban stage seems rather an unpromising venture, but everything depends on the telling, and Mrs. Sidgwick conducts her variations on an ancient theme with so much spirit, discretion, and wit that we close her volume with feelings of unmixed gratitude."

 

Despite the setting, Germans and Anglo-German relations still play a part in the story. Helga’s mother is German, and, in view of their dire poverty, she takes in a German lodger, who also falls in love with Helga. Whilst an upright character in many respects, he makes no secret of his desire to see England annexed to Germany. He was "an ardent patriot. He put his faith in airships, thought everything in England slack, and could not account for his country’s delay in seizing a wealthy and, by their own showing, a defenceless land. ‘One army corps would be enough,’ he often observed. ‘I have often conducted the whole operation with my uncle, the Major. It is as simple as flying.’ " However, she also pokes fun at Anglo-Germans, who never missed an opportunity of proclaiming assertively their "Inklish" patriotism, and spent the summer in "a monster red brick villa which they called a cottage". In contrast, though, she gave a delightful picture of the perfect Anglo-German entente that prevailed in Helga’s home, which may well have been based on the Sidgwick’s own home in Surbiton, as there are references to a nearby dairy farm:

 

"In her own home, she had never heard one nation set against the other, except in her mother’s half-serious objections to an English kitchen range and the English climate. She had been brought up to think more of the qualities the two great Teutonic races have in common than of the little social differences that keep them apart, and she was used to expect agreement where the great questions of life were concerned and disagreement about shoe-bags, spoons and forks, and sauces. Her views of the two races had been imperceptibly formed by lifelong experience, and though she knew that her father liked his peas boiled in water and her mother liked them stewed in stock, it had never occurred to her to aggrandize one parent at the other’s expense on this account. She liked her peas either way, and when she spoke of the poets she loved, some were English and some German. The only people who ever made her a partisan were the phobes on either side, but so far she had not met many."

 

Her next novel, Anthea’s Guest (1911), again included a German segment, as the main character, Anthea, a graceful and resolute orphan niece of a rich and amiable Lake District squire, goes to Berlin to study music and languages, staying with two elderly gentlewomen of good family but reduced means. However, the English girl, Lydia, that she rescues from a difficult position over there, causes havoc back in her uncle’s circle, with her flirtatious nature. It is the contrast between the outlook, behaviour and scruples of the two young women that is the key to the story, albeit, as always, there are plenty of minor characters, who add greatly to the interest and enjoyment of the novel, which, again won praise from The Spectator. "Her characters are for the most part normal people, who neither rise to heroic heights nor sink to abysmal depths, but they are presented with an unerring certainty of touch and a minimum of descriptive verbiage. They reveal themselves in action and speech; the editorial comment or moralizing is reduced to a minimum, but it is always incisive and illuminative. Then Mrs. Sidgwick has two strings to her bow. She knows England and she knows Germany, and makes effective and artistic use of the contrast of racial characteristics without partiality or prejudice." The story had initially appeared in serialised form in the Weekly Edition of The Times, and her earnings book notes payments from that paper of £125-13s in November 1909, and £42-16s-10d in April 1911. Then, in September that year, she received £278-10 for the novel from Methuen.  Her star was rising.

 

The phrase ‘Odd-Come-Shorts’ is an archaic one for odds and ends and was used by Cecily appropriately as the title of a compilation of short stories in 1911. This was put out by a new publisher, Mills & Boon, who later were to become synonymous with romantic fiction. Somewhat surprisingly, the principal story included was A Woman with a Future, which had not only been published in serial form in The Illustrated London News in the 1890s but also had been published as a separate book under the name Mrs Andrew Dean. Another piece, Jane and Peter, had appeared in The Tribune, whilst An Extravagant Woman had been published in The Jewish World. All three are typical, but not particularly exceptional, examples of her stories of mothers worrying about the romances of their children in the light of financial constraints. The final section of the book, however, was a series of articles taken from The Westminster Gazette, which were headed The Opinions of Angela. Even Herbert Thomas was at a loss to find anything of merit to write about these and, although I have drawn upon them as they do contain some biographical information of interest, the pieces in this section not only are generally rather limp, but do not hang together at all well. Owing to fees payable to the original publishers of the material, Cecily only received £90 for the book, but, as it involved no new work, she will have been happy to take the money.

 

One might imagine that her next novel, Lamorna (1912), had a Cornish setting, but the action principally takes place in London and Italy (Lake Garda, Rome and Naples), and the title merely referred to the name of the heroine. However, she did have some Cornish blood in her and an interest in art. Her father, Harry Trent, had thrown over his career to indulge his passion for painting, and, whilst working in Cornwall, had fallen in love with the daughter of a local farmer, called Penberthy. Having married against his family’s wishes, Harry and his wife had lived in poverty in a dilapidated Cornish cottage by a stream (the location of which is unspecified in this book, but, in a subsequent novel, is clearly ‘Oakhill’, Lamorna). However, Lamorna’s mother had died when she was very young and her father had also passed away when she was just ten. Since then, Lamorna had been looked after by her father’s sister, Ella Willoughby, in a big house in London, but, as she had seven children of her own, there were no funds to spare for Lamorna to pursue her own desire to become an artist, until, unexpectedly, Lamorna was left a sizeable legacy by her mother’s brother. However, the book, which was labelled in an Australian review, ‘The Story of a Sneak’, is more about the romantic adventures of Lamorna’s cousin, Pansy, one of Aunt Ella’s daughters, who opined ‘Its drab enough to be a girl. I would like to ride a rainbow - just once - even if I went to smash afterwards. I want a glorious hour.’ 

 

The novel, naturally, contains some sections dealing with art and art appreciation and these are treated in rather greater depth and with better understanding than in her previous work, which one would expect from increased fraternisation with artists. There is also a reference to Laura Knight, for one of Lamorna’s art colleagues, Jasper Knox, takes her to a room in the Royal Academy, "where crowds gathered day by day to see a woman’s picture of children bathing by a Cornish sea. "But that is genius," said Lamorna, when she had looked for a little while. "It’s work too," said Jasper. "That woman works. I know her." " Nevertheless, there is scope for traditional views on artists to be repeated. For instance, when Pansy’s father is asked what he means by an artistic temperament, he responds, "Trouble, my dear; trouble. Find me the artistic temperament and I’ll find you trouble." She also pokes fun at the over-the-top gushings of the self-appointed art conniosseur. Even though the Cornish element is not as great as anticipated, it is one of her best novels, with some fine descriptions of Italian scenery and sights, a range of interesting and believable characters and rising dramatic tension to the final denouement.

 

Cecily liked to reward her regular readers, with references to characters from previous novels. Accordingly, a musical event, which took place in Jasper’s studio, featured the German musician, Christian Witt and his English wife, whose romance had featured in The Professor’s Legacy (1905), and Michael Severin and his wife, and his married sister, Clotilda Crewe, whose romances had featured in The Severins (1909). In similar fashion, Jasper and Lamorna, who marry at the end of the novel, were to be central characters in her later story, In Other Days (1915), which was largely set in Cornwall and which features the artistic communtiy in Lamorna in more detail than any of her other works.

 

Other works published in 1912 were The Street Called Straight, about which I can find no information, and a reprint of The Inner Shrine, which had been published anonymously in 1907 and had received good reviews. 

 

Whatever the defects of Odd Come Shorts (1911), the new market for Cecily’s tales made it sufficient of a success for Mills & Boon that they returned to Cecily in 1913 with a proposal for a further book of short stories, which came out under the title Mr Sheringham and Others. It contained sixteen pieces and, in the main, these were much shorter stories and slight sketches, written for papers and magazines, such as The Daily Chronicle, The Woman at Home, The Illustrated London News, and The Westminster Gazette. A slightly longer piece was Laura and Trudi, which had appeared previously in The Cornhill Magazine, and which featured a young woman who gave up her inheritance to provide a dowry for her love-struck sister. However, the bulk of the book was taken up with the story, Mr Sheringham, which was actually a re-writing of the melodrama of The Thousand Eugenias (1902). It is amongst Cecily’s best pieces, as it combines one of her typical romantic tales, with a crime story set in the murky world of financial profiteering in Paris. This is not the only time that shady Parisian financiers are involved in Cecily’s stories and one wonders whether she gained glimpses of this sphere from her stockbroking relatives.

 

Whilst the other stories in the collection are slight, a number were written in Cornwall and do contain some comments of interest. Mention has been made elsewhere of Easter Holidays, which describes the enthusiasm of her nephews for ‘Vellensagia’, and of The House Sensible, which relates to the plans for ‘Trewoofe Orchard’. Travelling Companions is another from the series in The Westminster Gazette called The Opinions of Angela, and so features Alfred and Cecily as Edward and Angela. This is interesting firstly, as it suggests that their first Cornish sojourn may have been a winter spent in Falmouth - a town, it may be recalled, that was the birthplace of a fellow lodger at the time of the 1881 Census. Cecily indicates that Alfred, for health reasons, had been ordered to the South of France, but that they had not got further than Falmouth, where Alfred pondered at length over a Continental Bradshaw as to where they might go. However, finding that the Falmouth air did the trick, they stayed there the whole winter and never made it across to France. The story is also of interest, as it indicates that Cecily insisted, on one occasion, that they rent out ‘Vellensagia’ for six months, so as to enable them to have an extended stay in Rome. It was clearly this Italian trip that was used by Cecily in her novel, Lamorna, but quite why she felt it necessary to be away so long is not made clear. Perhaps she felt that it was imperative, with her new-found popularity, to widen the scope of her subject matter, or perhaps there were family matters concerning her sister, Adele, who appears to have been based in Rome for a while, that warranted a lengthy sojourn. However, she does make it clear that Alfred was not too pleased, having complained before about being removed from "his happy home" and his beloved white foxgloves for just a week. The story merely relates to the first stage of their journey, namely to Munich, where Alfred’s enthusiasm for models of mining equipment, old steam engines, chariots and sedan chairs in the Deutches Museum left Cecily cold. She also details some of his packing eccentricities and indicates that he once walked out in the first act of an Ibsen play.

 

Another story in the collection, Coronation Day in Our Parish, records the discussions leading up to the celebration of King George V’s Coronation in 1911. Colonel Paynter had donated two guineas towards a free tea for the children of the Parish, but, being loyal to the throne, the villagers wanted to celebrate the occasion in style, with sports and fireworks and a bonfire and a feast, but there was concern that the money would not stretch far enough. Unsurprisingly, the committee of thirty men and thirty women, which included the Sidgwicks, spent hours arguing over what should be cut out. In the end, their neighbour, a farmer, whom she called Hiram Polglaze and whom she described as "one of those shrewd, knowledgeable men who help you to believe that the country can’t be going to the dogs while there are enough of his kind in it", solved the conundrum by stating that they should do everything, with everyone contributing to any shortfall. His motion was carried unanimously and they all had a terrific time.

 

Finally, the story Emma is an account of the life of the maid that came down from Surbiton to live with the Sidgwicks at ‘Vellensagia’ before marrying "uncommonly well" locally. She also features in None-Go-By and Storms and Teacups, when, after her marriage, she comes back to help out in a crisis. In the short story, she is described as one of eighteen children, of whom only six survived infancy. Her father had been a bailiff on a large country estate for many years, but lost his job, when his employer died. An attempt to run a village shop had proved disastrous, and her parents had then kept poultry, but were beset by defaulting hoteliers. Despite being poverty stricken, they had nevertheless brought her up well in a loving household. She had started in service at fourteen, but, at the age of sixteen, had insisted on moving to London. There, she was starved and bullied and cruelly over-worked in the household of a drunken bank manager. Dismissed because her sister had stayed with her one night, she then took a place as "maid-of-all-work" with a family of thirteen. In other posts, she was again over-worked or starved, often having to survive on raw onion. Then, she came to work for the Sidgwicks in Surbiton, and her thin white face became rosier and she began to be able to save. Having joined them in Cornwall, she attracted the attention of a well-off local tradesman and married him. In None-Go-By, he is recorded as the baker.

 

Emma seems to be based on Julia Storey, who was born in Skeyton, Norfolk in 1876, her father then being described as an agricultural labourer. In 1891, she is living with her parents in Trunch, Norfolk, whilst by 1901, she was a servant in the Richmond home of a lithographer. In 1911, she is recorded as the Sidgwicks’ servant at ‘Vellensagia’. Then, in 1912, she married, in Penzance, John Mann, who is not a baker, but a dairyman, who lived at 19 Redinnick Terrace, Penzance and was still in business there in 1939. As Cecily hoped, she seems to have been "happy ever after".

 

As with a number of her short stories, Emma was the seed of a full length novel, Below Stairs (1913), in which Julia Storey’s childhood and experience as a servant are incorporated in greater detail. However, even the critic at The Spectator was muted in his enthusiasm for this story. 

 

"While... we are unable to guarantee for Mrs. Sidgwick’s new novel the popularity she has achieved with many of her earlier ventures, it is at least a matter for satisfaction that the task of describing the adventures of a modern servant girl should have been essayed by a writer at once so competent and so sympathetic. Priscilla Day’s experience of mistresses was chequered in the extreme, and while she met with kindness in humble households, she encountered meanness, lack of consideration, and even tyranny, at the hands of those far higher in the social scale. The hardships and dangers of the domestic drudge are not extenuated ; and if there is one lesson above all others that emerges from these pages, it is the value of a decent upbringing and a good example. Towards the close of the story Priscilla acts as the good genius of a pair of well-born lovers, and the venue is shifted, so to speak, from the basement to the ground and first floors. But the action throughout the greater part of the book takes place in the kitchen, the scullery or the servants’ hall. And it cannot be denied that the fidelity of the recital impairs its attractiveness. Priscilla herself has a certain daintiness and distinction, but her associates are for the most part sly and squalid. The story, in fine, comes as near being dull as a story by Mrs. Sidgwick can, and it introduces us to a larger proportion of actively disagreeable people than we like. Still, no good eluitelaine should miss reading a book which throws a good deal of dry light on the problems of domestic service, and is, for the rest, written in Mrs. Sidgwick’s admirably crisp and incisive style." 

 

This critique is not unfair, but, whilst members of polite society at the time might not have enjoyed reading about the lives of servants, particularly as their peers often did not emerge with much credit, the story now should interest the social historian. Cecily highlights how servants were nearly always made to work in cold, dark, damp, poorly ventilated basements and to sleep in tiny, shared, draughty attic bedrooms, with the minimum of furniture. They worked long hours and the bad employers showed no concern for their health or happiness, allowing them insufficient time off for some external social activity with family or friends. Many were treated little better than slaves and were underfed. However, in the story, not all servants were as deserving as the heroine. Some stole, some tried on and damaged their mistresses’ clothes, some took other liberties, as they knew their mistress was having an affair and would not want them to tell her husband, and some were militant feminists, seeking the vote and the overthrow of the aristocracy. Cecily also records the attitude of other members of the working classes to ‘skivvies’, leading men to break off with pretty domestics, as soon as they learnt of their position. Accordingly, in addition to learning more about Julia Storey, there is much of interest for the present day reader.