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Dame Ethel Smyth

Under Full Sails: Dame Ethel Smyth by Barbara Grier alias Dorothy Lyle [from Lesbian Lives, Reproduced with permission by the author] Today, when we think in terms of militant homosexuals, we tend to consider a very short historical period. After all, we believe, no one really dared to admit her homosexuality in the past- or else she was damned, if not destroyed. It isn't true. There have been many women who were very open about their orientation, and the nature of their personal relationships who did not suffer any kind of public censure. Oddly enough, many of these women were adults in the closing years of the Victorian era, and in the early years of this century. We know about them today because of the fame they achieved- not the notoriety. One of these was Dame Ethel Mary Smyth, minor composer, militant suffragist and advocate of free personal relationships, and major memoirist. Dame Ethel was born April 23, 1858, at Sidcup in Surrey. She was brought up there, and in the close by village of Frimley. Her father was Major General J. H. Smyth, C.B., and she was the fourth child in a family of eight (six of them female). Her family background was solid, respectable, stuffy, filled with clergymen, soldiers, minor politicians, etc. Her childhood reflects the expected history of a dominant personality in a mildly repressive atmosphere. She was a headstrong tomboy, bossed her siblings shamelessly, never showed any interest whatever in males, and absorbed education as rapidly as it was made available to her. Her love for music developed early, but her family did not approve of the intensity of her interest. After suitable education and preparation, she was formally introduced into society. From the start of her teen years, she began her lifelong pattern of passionate friendships. She must have had a very compelling personality, for despite her many accomplishments from her very early years until her death, she is best remembered today for her famous friendships. She was quite sincerely loved by dozens of women (besides those she was actually in love with, or was loved by) and by a surprising number of men. Her father bitterly fought against her desire to become a composer. He even wished her to give up all study of serious music, but after a rather unpleasant two year period, he finally gave in to her wishes, and in 1877, she was allowed to go to Leipzig to further her musical education. In 1878 she became the pupil of Heinrich von Herzonberg). At the same time she became the lover of his wife, Lisl (Elizabeth von Herzonberg). This relationship was to be the first of two that basically shaped her life. Lisl and Ethel were separated by a family argument, which had nothing to do with their personal relationship. Ethel never got over this disappointment, as is amply reflected in her enormously detailed autobiographical works. The sense of tragedy in this affair is multiplied by the fact that when there came a time that a reconciliation was possible, Lisl died before it could be accomplished. For years after Lisl there were many women in Ethel's life. None of them mattered to her greatly, however, except perhaps one, the pale and lovely Julia Brewster. Julia was important in two ironic ways. While Ethel was courting Julia, Julia's husband, Henry Brewster was busily pursuing Ethel. A list of the men and women who were extraordinarily fond of Ethel would, or could, be endless. Ethel, in her many biographically formed memoirs, always carefully separates these people into categories. The men are lumped together as a species apart. Women are divided into two groups, friends and lovers. There was little overlapping of the latter two groups. There is also a small group of women that Ethel thought of as friends, but that clearly wished Ethel were more than friendly. Among her friends were Lady Ponsonby [not the same as Sarah Ponsonby], The Empress Eugenie (who was enormously fond of Ethel), Sir George Henschel, Virginia Woolf (Ethel was passionately in love with her, but there is not evidence that this was returned). V. Sackville-West and her husband, Edward who once lovingly described her as having the profile of Wagner and Frederick the Great at the same time. She was a social person, a traveling person. She was busy with her many friendships and the obligations entailed by her wide circle of intimates. Still she found time to compose over two hundred works, ranging from operas through symphonies, concertos, dozens of lieder (German folk songs), orchestral songs, choruses, canticles, string quartets, comic short operas, and masses. When women's rights became a burning issue, she allied herself with the Pankhurst women, and became a militant suffragist. She carried on a particularly strident battle in trying to get her works judged on a sexually impartial basis. She did not succeed. However, this is an artistic battle that is not yet settled today. The pattern of her emotional relationships is, in one way, amazing. Though se was briefly attached to perhaps thirty women in her lifetime (on a passionate level), she had only two major affairs. The first, as I have recorded, began when she was twenty years old and the object of her affections was much older. The next time she fell in love with any real seriousness was in 1919, when she was sixty-one years old. The object of this romance was Dr. Edith Anna Oenone Somerville- the famous lady of the Somerville and Ross writing team. By this time, 1919, Martin Ross (Violet Florence Martin), Dr. Somerville's lover from 1886 until 1915, had been dead three years and over. For many years, these two Ediths were to trade endearments and insults, publicly and privately, and to remain very close. There is no question that this was a physically unconsummated affair (unlike Ethel's early affairs) both because of the age of the ladies and Dr. Somerville's known views on the "grosser" aspects of passion. At the same time, in 1919, Dame Ethel began to publish what was to become a fantastic amount of autobiographical writing. A full list of her works is in the bibliography at the end of this article, and to fully appreciate the amazing lady, they must all be read. Ironically, Ethel is much more famous for her writing and for her enormous capacity for good friendships than for her composing. Despite the essentially self-centered approach necessitated by this kind of writing, where I, I, I, is the major subject, she was able to remain fascinating at all times. She had the skill necessary to make the most minute and mundane recountings intelligent and interesting. Part of it, no doubt, is because she genuinely enjoyed living, and liked so many diverse people. On the other hand, she disliked, or did not approve of, some people, and was not about "savaging" them in person or in print (She blasted Vernon Lee for not admitting her Lesbianism to herself- in print.) In addition to her traveling, her writing, her music and composing, she carried on a voluminous correspondence with, literally, dozens of people over long periods of time. It was said that her letters ran to at least 1000 words apiece and often they were 4000 words long. V. Sackville-West commented that if her correspondence were to be printed in its entirety, it would rival the Encyclopedia Britannica in bulk. Dame Smyth lived until 1944, and apparently enjoyed every minute of her long life. This is very clear in her own writings. She had unhappy moments, but the overall picture is a bright and useful one. She wrote good and bad music, excellent books, made many good friends, virtually no enemies and lived every hour until her death at age eighty-six. If there were a heaven, she'd be, no doubt, in charge of organizational details. Bibliography Autobiography works in chronological order. Dame Ethel Mary Smyth. Impressions That Remained. London: Longman's, Green, 1919, 1920 (2 v.) N.Y.: Knopf, 1920, N.Y.: Knopf, 1946 (1 v.) Dame Ethel Mary Smyth. Streaks of Life. London: Longman's, Green, 1921. N.Y.: Knopf, 1922. Dame Ethel Mary Smyth. At Time When On. London: Longman's, Green, 1935. N.Y.: Knopf, 1936. Dame Ethel Mary Smyth. What Happened Next. London: Longman's, Green, 1940. N.Y.: Knopf, 1941. (In addition to these four most important titles, she wrote many others with supplemental interest. These are: A Three Legged Tour In Greece, 1927; A Final Burning of Boats, 1928; Female Pipings in Eden, 1933; Beecham and Pharaoh, 1935; and Inordinate Affection, 1936) Major Additional Sources: Margaret Isabel Cole, (Postgate), Women of Today, London and N.Y.: Thomas Nelson and Sons, 1938. Maurice Collis, Somerille and Ross. London: Faber and Faber, 1968. Christopher Marie St. John. Ethel Smyth, A Biography. London and N.Y.: Longman's, Green, 1959.