‘The Rector’s Daughterbelongs to the finest English tradition of novel writing. It is like a bitter Cranford… Mary Jocelyn’s ‘nothing’ is a full and rich state of being.’ Sylvia Lund, Time and Tide, 18 July 1924
When F.M. (Flora Macdonald) Mayor’s second novel, The Rector’s Daughter, was published by the Hogarth Press in 1924, the Woolfs were surprised to have a bestseller on their hands. ‘Lytton Strachey, my sister and Duncan Grant have all been reading it with great interest’, Virginia Woolf wrote. E.M. Forster described it as ‘a very great achievement’, and critics on both sides of the Atlantic praised it. The Rector’s Daughter was a runner-up for the 1925 ‘Prix Femina-Vie Heureuse’, a literary prize for a work ‘calculated to reveal to French readers the true spirit and character of England’ (Forster’s A Passage to India won that year instead). Then, for almost fifty years, F.M. Mayor’s novel was out of print and apparently forgotten, although reading it during the Blitz did give the English novelist Rosamond Lehmann some comfort: ‘In its quiet and personal way The Rector’s Daughter is a piece of history’, she wrote in 1941.
But it’s not exactly a neglected twentieth-century classic. After Penguin Books reissued it in their Modern Classics series in 1973, The Rector’s Daughter hasn’t been out of print for the last fifty years. In 1987 the new publishers on the block, Virago, took it over and reissued it in their own highly successful Virago Modern Classics series, with its distinctive bottle green spines, and it was reprinted in 1999, 2008 (twice) and 2009 (three times). The Rector’s Daughter has the rare distinction during the same period of being one the few novels that merited new editions as a Penguin Twentieth Century Classic (1992) and a Penguin Modern Classic (2001). Even so, in 2010 BBC Radio 4 ‘Book at Bedtime’ described it as ‘an unfairly neglected classic’ when it was read in ten episodes by Juliet Stevenson (it’s still available on BBC Sounds, and well worth listening to). In 2021 The Rector’s Daughter was reissued by Persephone Books in an elegant new edition with a biographical foreword by Flora’s great-niece, Victoria Gray, who in 1992 wrote a radio play based on the book with her late husband, the dramatist Simon Gray.
Yet, for all this, The Rector’s Daughter is still a novel that seems to exist just below the literary radar, much loved by its readers, but also, somehow, not widely read. Little has been written by scholars about this or F.M. Mayor’s other works, perhaps because she produced so few in her lifetime (a collection of her ghost stories, said to be admired by M.R. James, was published posthumously). Her two other novels, The Third Miss Symons (1913) and The Squire’s Daughter (1929), were also reissued by Virago Modern Classics in the 1980s. Sybil Oldfield’s Spinsters of this Parish: the life and times of F.M. Mayor and Mary Sheepshanks(Virago, 1984) is a well-researched dual biography that provides a fascinating social context for Mayor’s life and unsuccessful attempt to make a living as an actress. The chapter on her four years at Newnham College, Cambridge in the 1890s is particularly revealing, including the revelation that Mayor and her former tutor, Mary Bateson, remained close friends until Bateson’s early death in 1906.
Flora Mayor’s lifelong poor health made her unable to fulfil much of her literary promise, sadly. However, she was a successful author with a three-book contract with Constable when she died of pneumonia in 1932, aged fifty-nine. In a recent piece for The Times, the writer D.J. Taylor describes The Rector’s Daughter as ‘one of those curious novels in which a cauldron of suppressed emotion and unrequited love boils away behind a landscape in which, for all practical purposes, hardly anything happens’ and says that as a novelist, F.M. Mayor ranks with Jane Austen and George Eliot.
I would agree, and The Rector’s Daughter is Mayor’s masterpiece. My essay on it will be published in a forthcoming issue of Slightly Foxed.
Twelve of the biographies and memoirs I have enjoyed reading and reviewing in 2021.Thank you for reading the blog this year, and wishing you a very Happy New Year for 2022.
Burning Man: The Ascent of D. H. Lawrence (Bloomsbury, 2021) by Frances Wilson is a picaresque and immersive biography that paints a brilliant cinematographic picture of a decade of D.H. Lawrence’s life, from 1915 to 1925. (I wrote about the book, and Lawrence’s women friends and supporters, in my blogpost here). I also enjoyed re-reading Frances Wilson’s passionate and brilliant early biography, The Ballad of Dorothy Wordsworth (Faber), reissued in a beautiful paperback edition earlier this year. It’s timely as Dorothy Wordsworth was born 250 years ago this month, and a recent Guardian editorial celebrated her life and writing as a ‘rare achievement’, not just for inspiring her famous brother’s poems, but as a first-rate nature writer in her own right.
Dorothy Wordsworth was a great walker in her younger days and walked for miles in the Lake District, Scotland and mainland Europe. I enjoyed Windswept: Walking in the footsteps of remarkable womenby Annabel Abbs (Two Roads Books) a powerful memoir-biography about how walking in nature changed the lives and inspired the writing of writers including Nan Shepherd, Simone de Beauvoir, Gwen John and the author herself. Another book about women who travelled far from home is Undreamed Shores(Granta) by Frances Larson. ‘They went from the periphery into the unknown’, Larson writes, ‘and I doubt that any of them felt fully at home in England again.’ It’s a compelling group biography tracing the lives of five pioneering anthropologists who were among the first to study anthropology at Oxford University. My TLS review is here. I also loved Emily Midorikawa’s Out of the Shadows: six visionary Victorian women in search of a public voice (Counterpoint Press, 2021), a beautifully written, absorbing group biography that offers new insights into how six enterprising women succeeded in making spiritualism the means of gaining power, money and influence. More on this book, and the American Caroline Jebb’s trenchant views of the Cambridge University spiritualists of the 1870s, in my blogpost here.
Ding Dong! Avon Calling! by Katina Manko (OUP, 2021) is a well-written and perceptive American business history that takes seriously the ambitions and achievements of Avon Inc.’s vast, all-female network of saleswomen from the late nineteenth century to the present day. Avon celebrated these women as entrepreneurs, while systematically excluding them from the company’s senior management. I wrote about it for the 24 September TLShere. I highly recommendMother of Invention: How Good Ideas Get Ignored In An Economy Built For Menby the Swedish economist Katrine Marçal (Harper Collins). Wittily translated by Alex Fleming, Marçal’s book is a fresh and highly readable account of how women’s brilliant ideas (from the wheelie suitcase to bra technology for spacesuits) have been overlooked through history until men decided to make these ideas their own, at a cost to the world’s economy. Kathleen Dixon Donnelly’s multi-volume series Such Friends: The Literary 1920s presents colourful, diary-like snippets, skilfully woven together, from the daily lives of writers, poets and artists of the Irish Literary Renaissance, the Bloomsbury Group, the Americans in Paris, and the Algonquin Round Table in New York. There are excerpts on her ‘Such Friends’ blog here.
My favourite literary memoir this year was Marina Warner’s evocative Inventory of a Life Mislaid: An Unreliable Memoir (Harper Collins; published as Esmond and Ilia: An Unreliable Memoir in the USA). It’s a richly detailed, sharp and sympathetic memoir, beautifully illustrated by Sophie Herxheimer, that uses treasured mementoes to connect family secrets to Britain’s colonial past, and offers insights into how Warner became a writer. My review is in the 26 March TLShere; I also wrote about Warner’s Cambridge connections in my March blogpost, ‘The Cambridge bookshop’. In November 2021 there was a welcome reissue by Faber of Virginia Cowles’s Looking For Trouble, a wonderfully fresh and vivid memoir of this remarkable, but nowadays little-known, woman war correspondent. A bestseller when it was first published in 1941, Looking For Trouble showcases Cowles’s great courage and ability to write, no matter what dangerous situation she found herself in. She is one of the six women wartime reporters featured in Judith Mackrell’s new group biography Going With The Boys(Pan Macmillan; published in the USA The Correspondents: Six Women Writers on the Front Lines of World War II), an entertaining and well-researched book highlighting the lives and work of Martha Gellhorn, Clare Hollingworth, Helen Kirkpatrick, Sigrid Schultz and Lee Miller. Mackrell, a Guardian journalist, is the guest in the latest ‘Lost Ladies of Lit’ podcast, a wonderful series about ‘forgotten’ women writers which I can thoroughly recommend (I was honoured to be a ‘Lost Ladies’ guest myself in April this year, discussing Amy Levy’s Reuben Sachs).
Last, but certainly not least, is Constance Ruzich’s International Poetry of The First World War (Bloomsbury Academic; forthcoming in paperback in April 2022). As I noted in my previous blogpost, it’s an anthology that draws together a diverse range of often overlooked poetic voices, revealing a more complex picture of the First World War and its aftermath. I particularly valued the careful research that went into the biographical notes accompanying each poem, revealing the personal stories of women and men, combatants and noncombatants and those for and against the war. There is more on Ruzich’s blog ‘Behind Their Lines’, here: and it would be wonderful if, in future years, there might be a film or play about the early jazz musician, bandleader and war hero, Lieut. James Rees Europe, pictured below.
Earlier this year Wilson appeared on BBC Radio 4’s Start The Week to discuss her book, and told Andrew Marr how wary she felt as a feminist about defending Lawrence, whose reputation as a writer has never recovered since the American Kate Millett attacked his patriarchal attitudes to women in her 1970 book,Sexual Politics. Frances Wilson is the author of award-winning biographies of Dorothy Wordsworth, Thomas de Quincey and Bruce Ismay, the surviving captain of the Titanic, but she admits that Lawrence is probably her most contentious and complex subject so far.
In her introduction to Burning Man Wilson describes how she’d been a fan of Lawrence’s novels ever since her student days, but had kept it a secret. ‘When I was growing up in the 1980s, my mother wouldn’t have his books in the house’, she writes, ‘and my (female) tutor at university wouldn’t teach him’. In the 21st century D.H. Lawrence is still seen as a writer that feminists tend to keep at arm’s length. ‘Even as I began this biography and thus outed myself as a Lawrentian, I found myself apologising for being so, especially to women’, Wilson tells us. ‘And yet, in his lifetime, it was Lawrence’s female friends and readers who defended him.’
Wilson decided that this ‘cancelled writer’ needed to be examined from a 21st-century feminist perspective. Burning Man avoids the familiar critical emphasis on what Wilson calls his ‘superbly imperfect’ novels, which do not contain his genius, she believes. She directs our attention instead to his unexplored wealth of nonfiction writing, including travel essays, literary criticism and his Memoir of Maurice Magnus, ‘the best single piece of writing, as writing as Lawrence himself put it, that he had ever done’.
Burning Man does justice to Lawrence’s nonfiction and other less well known work. It’s a picaresque, immersive exercise in biography that darts back and forth in time to paint a brilliantly colourful picture of a decade in the lives of Lawrence and his wife Frieda. Wilson sees the influence of Dante’s The Divine Comedy as influencing their peripatetic existence from 1915 to 1925: ‘Lawrence structured his life –‘that piece of supreme art’, as he called it – around Dante’s great poem in the way that James Joyce structured Ulysses around The Odyssey.’
Lawrence certainly produced some remarkable work during this time, from the 1915 publication of The Rainbow (after being banned in Bow Street for obscenity, 1,011 remaining copies of the novel were burned by a hangman) to his Studies in Classic American Literature (1923) completed during the three tumultuous years that the Lawrences spent with the writer and influential patron Mabel Dodge Luhan in Taos, New Mexico, before their return to Europe in 1925.
Wilson refers to this final version of the Studiesin Classic American Literature as the ‘Mabel’ edition, ‘not least because we have Mabel Dodge to thank for the book that is itself a classic of American literature.’ This made me interested in the other professional female writers who became D.H. Lawrence’s friends and supporters during his lifetime. After Lawrence’s death in 1930 of tuberculosis at the age of 44 there was glut of books about him including Lorenzo in Taos (1932) by Dodge Luhan and Frieda Lawrence’s memoir ‘Not I, But the Wind…’ (1934), which Newsweek calculated was the 17th book to appear since his death. But the most controversial, in these early years, was a biography of DH Lawrence called The Savage Pilgrimage, published in 1932. Its author, Catharine Carswell, was accused of libel by Lawrence’s on-off friend, the writer and critic John Middleton Murry. So her book was withdrawn from bookshops, while copies of Middleton Murry’s own memoir of Lawrence continued to sell briskly.
D.H. Lawrence’s friendship with the Scottish journalist Carswell began after she wrote a glowing review of his novel The White Peacock (1911) in the Glasgow Herald. After praising The Rainbow (or rather, failing to condemn it completely), she lost her job at the Herald but their friendship continued, and they exchanged manuscripts of their works in progress. Their admiration was mutual and frank: he gave her advice on her many drafts of her first novel, Open the Door! and she told him not to steal one of her character’s names for Women in Love. ‘I think you are the only woman I have met,’ Lawrence told her, ‘who is so intrinsically detached, so essentially separate and isolated, as to be a real writer or artist or recorder.’ As back-handed a compliment as this might seem, Carswell’s novel won the Melrose prize in 1920 and became a bestseller. (There’s an excellent Paris Review article about it by Emma Garman here.)
The American poet H.D. (Hilda Doolittle) and Lawrence had a more complicated connection. She was the groundbreaking Imagist poet whom Lawrence ‘feared and wondered over’ before they met, yet as soon as they started corresponding, he was giving her advice to ‘kick over your tiresome house of life’. In 1917 she was generous enough to lend the homeless Lawrences her rooms in Mecklenburgh Square: ‘the young woman tossed the rooms to them, and food and fuel, with a wild free hand,’ D.H. Lawrence later wrote in Kangaroo (1923). It took many years for H.D. to shake off Lawrence’s shadow over on her writing life, a process she describes in her novel, Bid Me to Live (1960). Francesca Wade’s chapter in her book Square Haunting (2020) is excellent on H.D.’s time in London – see my review for the TLShere.
The writer and literary critic Rebecca West’s friendship with Lawrence was more straightforward. They met in Florence in 1921, and she recalled him as ‘one of the most polite people I have ever met’ who was writing ‘about the state of his own soul at that moment’. When Lawrence died in 1930, West wrote a passionate tribute to him as a counterblast to the negative obituaries, although she was not blind to his faults. Lawrence was a great writer and a genius, she maintained. ‘But every genius is apt to be pretty much of an ass at times.’
The crime writer Dorothy L. Sayers also recognized Lawrence’s (mostly) good side. In her 1938 essay ‘Are Women Human?’ (published in Unpopular Opinions, Victor Gollancz, 1946) she writes: ‘The late D.H. Lawrence, who certainly cannot be accused of underrating the importance of sex and talked a good deal of nonsense on the subject, was yet occasionally visited with shattering glimpses of the obvious.’ She goes on to quote his words in Assorted Articles (1930): ‘Man is willing to accept woman as an equal, as a man in skirts, as an angel, a baby-face, a machine […] the one thing he won’t accept her as is a human being, a real human being of the feminine sex.’
It might be going too far to describe D.H. Lawrence as a feminist, but I think that these women writers have something in common with Frances Wilson. ‘Being loyal to Lawrence, especially as a woman, has always required some sort of explanation,’ she tells us. By revealing a lesser-known Lawrence through his lesser-known works, Burning Man provides something of that explanation.
I was delighted to be asked to write a guest post this month for the excellent Neglected Books website (‘where forgotten books are remembered’). My article about two ‘forgotten’ but beautifully written books – allowing us to experience the lived experience of women at Cambridge during the late Victorian era – is republished below, with kind permission of Neglected Books.
It’s not hard to think of fiction set in Cambridge, from E.M. Forster’s Maurice (written in 1913-14, published posthumously in 1971) to Dusty Answer (1927) by Rosamund Lehmann and, more recently, Laura Barnett’s The Versions of Us (2015). But I’m convinced that well-written nonfiction can bring an authentic story to light as beautifully as a novel. During my research into Cambridge’s first women students, university wives and college tutors I’ve discovered there’s nothing like hearing their own voices in the form of memoirs and biographies based on their letters and diaries. Here I focus on two of these books.
Mary Paley Marshall’s memoir What I remember was published by Cambridge University Press, 1947. It’s a slim volume – only 50 pages long – with a jaunty introduction by the historian G.M. Trevelyan who writes:
If people who knew not the Victorians will absent themselves from the felicity of generalising about them for a while, and read this short book, they can then return to the game refreshed and instructed.
What I remember begins, as many good stories do, with a happy childhood. Mary’s was spent in a rose-covered country rectory, where her father Reverend Thomas Paley encouraged his daughters’ education: ‘We had a father who took part in work and play and who was interested in electricity and photography’, she recalls. She moved to Cambridge in 1871 as one of the University’s earliest women students and one of the ‘first five’ at Newnham College; Girton College had begun two years previously. The idea that unmarried women could live apart from their parents and attend lectures was, as Paley Marshall said herself, ‘an outrageous proceeding’ at the time.
Soon after she arrived in Cambridge, she became fascinated by Political Economy because of Alfred Marshall’s lectures. He was ‘a great preacher’ who spoke passionately about the need for women’s equality in education and quoted from George Eliot’s Mill on the Floss. With his encouragement, Mary was one of the first two women to sit for the University’s final year exams in 1874 and she became Newnham’s first residential lecturer.
By the mid-1870s the Pre-Raphaelite era of colour in dress and house decoration had dawned all over England. As Florence Ada Keynes later wrote: ‘Newnham caught the fever. We trailed about in clinging robes of peacock blue, terra-cotta red, sage green or orange, feeling very brave and thoroughly enjoying the sensation it caused’ (By-ways of Cambridge History, Cambridge: W. Heffer & Sons, 1956, first published 1947). The college room that Mary studied and slept in was, like those of her students, papered in William Morris designs and hung with Burne-Jones prints. At the age of twenty-five she was that rare thing in Victorian times, an unmarried woman who lived independently from her parents and earned a good income doing a job she loved.
Then she and Alfred Marshall married and accepted posts at the newly founded University College, Bristol, where they taught and together published a textbook called The Economics of Industry (1879). Their working marriage seemed the ideal of an intellectual partnership that Mary had dreamed of, and What I Remember describes the happy years the Marshalls spent in Sicily and in Oxford before returning in 1885 to Cambridge. Alfred was made a Professor and published The Principles of Economics (1890) and Mary returned to her post at Newnham, where her inspiring teaching would have a great influence on one student: Winnie Seebohm.
But do not be misled into thinking that because it is history it has nothing to do with you. 1885 is yesterday. It is probably tomorrow too.
The prize-winning biographer of Elizabeth Bowen, Edith Sitwell and Leonard Woolf, among others, Glendinning took as her first subject her Victorian great-aunt Winnie Seebohm, but the book is no less powerful for Seebohm’s obscurity. A Suppressed Cry was not much noticed when it was published in 1969 and it disappeared from view until it was reissued by Virago in 1995, with a new introduction by the author.
The issue at the heart of A Suppressed Cry is how a young woman from a close-knit Hertfordshire family rebelled against their loving claims on her and achieved her ambition to study at Cambridge. The Seebohms were linked to other Quaker clans in what Glendinning describes as ‘a tight genealogical spiral’ with banking and scholarly connections. Winnie’s father was the economic historian Frederic Seebohm, and she grew up with her siblings and invalid mother in an idyllic house called the Hermitage in rural Hitchin. Despite her obvious intelligence, Winnie was expected to be a ‘good daughter’, contented with flower-arranging and visiting her Quaker relations until a suitable husband was found for her. But she decided that ‘no woman (it is not my business to consider a man’s life) has any excuse for living a life that is not worth living’.
So, in 1885, at the age of 22, she took the gruelling Cambridge entrance exams and won a place at Newnham. A Suppressed Cry reproduces some of the touching letters and diary entries she wrote there. Winnie was thrilled with her college room, her new friends and the freedom to spend her days reading books and writing essays. She adored her tutors, particularly Mary Paley Marshall, who taught Political Economy ‘from a philanthropic woman’s point of view’. ‘She is a Princess Ida,’ Winnie told her sister, thinking of the heroine of Tennyson’s poem The Princess who founded a university for women.
She wears a flowing dark green cloth robe with dark brown fur round the bottom (not on the very edge) – she has dark brown hair which goes back in a great wave and is very loosely pinned up behind –very deep-set large eyes, a straight nose – a face that one likes to watch. Then she is enthusiastic and simple. She speaks fluently and earnestly with her head thrown back a little and her hands generally clasped or resting on her desk. She looks oftenest at the ceiling but every now and then straight at you.
Winnie wanted to become a teacher just like the marvellous Mrs Marshall, but her time as a student was heartbreakingly brief. After just six weeks at Cambridge, she fell ill and was brought back to the Hermitage to be nursed by her family. ‘How queer it looks to see everybody so leisurely here!’ Winnie wrote to her classmate Lina Bronner, confessing how she longed to return to Cambridge. ‘I imagine you lingering on dear Clare Bridge, and King’s spires will be looking grey and sharp against the sky.’
Her kindly tutor Mary Paley Marshall also wrote to her. She was the only woman Winnie knew who seemed to have it all, combining fulfilling academic work with her role as a wife. ‘If she is the woman of the future, I am sure the world will do very well,’ Winnie wrote in her diary. It was one of the last things she wrote. She died after a severe asthma attack – though she may also have had undiagnosed anorexia – just a few weeks later. Expected from childhood to suppress her ambitions and put others’ needs first, Seebohm was, in Glendinning’s memorable description, ‘left stranded on the shores of the nineteenth century’.
Mary Paley Marshall’s married life was far from the ideal that Winnie perceived. In the early 1880s Alfred turned against the idea of women at Cambridge: ‘it is not likely that men will go on marrying, if they are to have competitors as wives’ he told LSE founder Beatrice Webb. He insisted that The Economics of Industry, the book he and Mary wrote together, should be pulped and in 1897 he voted against women being awarded Cambridge degrees. But unlike poor Winnie, Mary was a survivor and she had the final word. After Alfred’s death in 1924 she co-founded Cambridge University’s Marshall Library, and worked there for nearly twenty years; her portrait now hangs above the library staircase opposite his.
What was left out of (or ‘forgotten’) in Mary Paley Marshall’s memoir What I remember is at least as interesting as what was put in; and the cheering counterbalance to Winnie Seebohm’s sad story is the continuing success of Newnham, which celebrates 150 years as a women’s college this year.
In October 1908 two young English suffragists fresh out of Newnham College Cambridge travelled across America by train to try to galvanize support for the women’s vote. Few people shared their enthusiasm, but they found an unlikely ally in the philosopher and psychologist William James.
Ray Strachey (née Costelloe) later became one of the most influential figures in the fight for British women’s suffrage and employment rights in the first half of the twentieth century, and now a biography by Jennifer Holmes, A Working Woman: the Remarkable Life of Ray Strachey(Troubadour, 2019), traces her extraordinary journey.
Ray Strachey (she was officially named Rachel, but always known as Ray) was born in London in 1887, the first child of Frank Costelloe, an ambitious Irish barrister-journalist, and Mary Pearsall Smith, a Quaker from Philadelphia. Mary’s evangelical parents moved to England soon after their daughter’s marriage, which they never approved of. Ray’s sister Karin was born two years later, but the Costelloes’ marriage was unhappy, and Mary wanted to pursue her studies in art. She moved to Italy to live with, and later marry, the art historian Bernard Berenson.
Ray and Karin were brought up by their father Frank, who had ambitions to become a Liberal MP but died of cancer when Ray was twelve. Their Quaker grandmother Hannah Whitall Smith took over the girls’ care, along with their aunt Alys, who had married Bertrand Russell in 1894 (see NPG photo here). ‘Uncle Bertrand’ gave the teenage Ray weekly tutorials, which was a ‘terrifying, but elucidating’ experience, she recalled. But with his help, she passed the Cambridge entrance examination and began her studies in mathematics at Newnham College in 1905.
Her friend and fellow Newnham student Ellie Rendel, the granddaughter of suffrage pioneer Lady Strachey, introduced her to the campaign to obtain the vote for British women. Ellie and Ray became ‘suffrage mad’, holding suffrage meetings and founding the Newnham’s first suffrage society. By 1908 three-quarters of the college had joined it, and their group merged with its counterpart at Girton College to become the Cambridge University Women’s Society for Women’s Suffrage. Instead of studying for their final examinations, Ray and Ellie spent hours stuffing envelopes and writing letters to former students, appealing for funds for the suffrage cause. Ray scraped through her exams and was placed last in the Newnham contingent that year, but she didn’t mind too much: ‘knowledge isn’t the only point of education’, she felt.
On 13 June 1908 Ray and Ellie rounded up 300 university supporters and proceeded through London carrying a pale blue silk banner designed by Mary Lowndes and hand-sewn by Newnham and Girton women with daisies and irises and the motto ‘Better is Wisdom than Weapons of War’. (This beautiful banner has been carefully preserved by Newnham College, where it is kept in a wooden case that is only opened on special occasions) There were several suffrage gatherings in London that summer, including a national ‘Women’s Day’ on 21 June, when a third of a million people packed into Hyde Park for a demonstration organized by the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU), the increasingly militant organization led by the Pankhursts. ‘We were in a howling mob of hooligans, & it was great fun’ Ray wrote. She almost ‘lost her heart’ to the suffragettes (‘so repulsive as well as so fine!’), but followed her head and stayed loyal to Millicent Garrett Fawcett and the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies (NUWSS), who believed in peaceful, constitutional campaigning.
That July Ray and Ellie joined three other women and spent a month touring Britain in a horse-drawn caravan promoting ‘the cause’. They sold badges, distributed literature, wrote and delivered speeches, shopped, cooked and camped out in farmers’ fields. They encountered persistent rain in the Lake District, intense heat in Scotland and occasionally outright hostility, and local newspaper reporters were intrigued by the young women’s dedication to the suffragist cause. Ray’s speaking style captivated her listeners, including her aunt Alys Russell, who attended their final meeting in Oxford that summer. She described her niece as wearing ‘a butcher’s apron which she had borrowed to hide her torn and filthy dress, with bare sunburnt arms and a battered straw hat on the back of her head’. People were inclined to laugh at Ray’s appearance, Alys observed, ‘but she spoke so well, developing her theme with such clear logic, lightening her enthusiasm with so much humour, that she ended amidst hearty cheers from the crowd.’
Ray’s mother, Mary Berenson, now an established art expert, was less impressed. She longed for her daughter to embrace culture, not politics, and decided that she should spend a year at the prestigious Bryn Mawr women’s college near Philadelphia. Ellie Rendel won a scholarship and accompanied her friend to America, where they found an ally in Bryn Mawr’s President M. Carey Thomas, who was keen to promote the suffrage cause among American college women.
Carey Thomas took Ray and Ellie along with her to a suffrage convention in New York, where Ray’s speech about English suffragism so impressed Rev. Dr Anna Howard Shaw, the President of the National American Women Suffrage Association, that she immediately invited the two young women to accompany her to Colorado, one of the few states that had given women the vote. Morale was low in the American women’s movement and Shaw was convinced that a fresh approach was needed. Ray and Ellie would help her to ‘preach the cause’ in the states they passed through on the way there and back, including Indiana, Tennessee and Kentucky.
At first it was an exciting adventure, and in her article for the Denver Daily News, Strachey described how wonderful it was to see women voting: ‘To us women who are struggling so hard on the right of suffrage, and who are willing to go to prison for our convictions, it seems marvellous that the Colorado women can take their voting for granted as much as they accept their right to go on a shopping trip or attend a musicale.’ But the truth was that, although their speeches went down well, the more of America she saw, the more despondent Strachey became about the point of promoting suffrage. ‘They are not awake enough here’, she told her grandmother, ‘all the meetings are drawing-room ones, and consist of the converted.’
A subdued Strachey and Rendel returned to their studies at Bryn Mawr in 1909, where their speeches to their fellow students were met with a lukewarm reception: ‘here was another subject to be learnt, another field of exploration to explore’. Then, on a trip to Boston in February 1909, they met 67-year-old William James. The subject of women’s suffrage came up, and was discussed in the familiar drawing-room manner, when suddenly the distinguished philosopher ‘burst out’ with a speech that Ray described in a letter to her family.
“How you must despise us all”, he said, “you two, who come all burning & snapping with your cause – with the whole thing rushing through you like electricity – & you find us everywhere – dull, uninterested, unenthusiastic, superficial, scoffing & frivolous about it – just a great lump of unenlightened and commonplace humanity who won’t take this serious thing seriously.”
He told them he was going to sign their petition ‘just for your sake… just to let you know that your enthusiasm does not meet with no response.’ Ray felt that she could have kissed him for his unexpected kindness.
There was a long way to go before women would achieve equal suffrage in the UK and the USA, but as Jennifer Holmes writes, Ray Strachey’s youthful American journey allowed her ‘to observe a suffrage movement from the outside, to hone the speaking skills which a suffrage activist needed, and to refine her ideas of what she wanted to do with her life.’
After marrying the civil servant Oliver Strachey in 1911 Ray thought she would be fulfilled by marriage and motherhood, but by 1913 she was back in the suffrage fray, giving a speech while being pelted with mud and insults by the crowd. She described the experience as ‘very exciting, but nasty & dirty, & all due to mismanagement’ and so she threw herself into organizing the NUWSS’s wartime campaign, as well as placing women in war work ‘& trying to see that they don’t ruin the whole labour market by taking low wages’.
‘If we get the vote now,’ her aunt Alys Russell wrote in 1918, ‘it will be entirely due to her, because even Mrs Fawcett can’t do much without Ray’s driving energy.’ Among her many achievements, Strachey was responsible for the removal of the iron grille in front of the Ladies’ Gallery in the House of Commons, co-founded the Society of Woman Welders, wrote a history of the women’s movement called The Cause (1928), and her photograph appears on the plinth of Gillian Wearing’s statue of Millicent Garrett Fawcett in Parliament Square. A Working Woman is an illuminating, extensively researched and well written biography, that is a fitting testament to Ray Strachey’s contribution to the fight for a more equal society.