Wednesday, January 12, 2022

In memoriam: Maria Ewing

Maria Ewing, January 1977. Photographer: Jack Mitchell. Image source: The Detroit News

Mezzo-soprano Maria Ewing has died at age 71. She had an acclaimed opera career performing roles such as Carmen, Salome, Mélisande, Poppea, and Dido, but I want to honor her for an earlier role.

When I was a teenager I watched, mesmerized, as she embodied the passionate 16-year-old page Cherubino in Jean-Pierre Ponelle's film version of Mozart's Le nozze di Figaro (The Marriage of Figaro), broadcast on my local PBS station. Cherubino's ardent behavior, confused feelings and obsession with sex were a mirror of my own; that he was portrayed by a beautiful woman (who, at 25, was not that much older than her character) was delightfully disconcerting. Her performance planted in me a seed of curiosity about opera; that it took almost two more decades to finally germinate and begin to develop is due solely to my own stupidity.

Maria Ewing's performance of Cherubino's "Voi che sapete" from Ponelle's film, with Mirella Freni as Susanna and Kiri Te Kanawa as the Countess, accompanied by the Wiener Philharmoniker conducted by Karl Böhm:

https://youtu.be/qtDQvKB4kvA?t=3538 [ends at 1:02:03]

Lorenzo Da Ponte's words:

Voi che sapete
che cosa è amor,
donne, vedete
s'io l'ho nel cor.
Donne, vedete
s'io l'ho nel cor.

Quello ch'io provo
vi ridirò,
è per me nuovo,
capir nol so.

Sento un affetto
pien di desir,
ch'ora è diletto,
ch'ora è martir.

Gelo e poi sento
l'alma avvampar,
e in un momento
torno a gelar.

Ricerco un bene
fuori di me,
non so chi'l tiene,
non so cos'è.

Sospiro e gemo
senza voler,
palpito e tremo
senza saper.

Non trovo pace
notte né dì,
ma pur mi piace
languir così.

Voi che sapete
che cosa è amor,
donne, vedete
s'io l'ho nel cor.
Donne, vedete
s'io l'ho nel cor.
You who know
what love is,
Ladies, see if it is
what I have in my heart.
Ladies, see if it is
what I have in my heart.

All that I feel
I will explain,
Since it is new to me,
I can't understand it.

I have a feeling
Full of desire,
Which is now delight,
Now suffering.

I freeze, then I feel
My soul is on fire,
And in the next moment
I turn again to ice.

I seek for a treasure
Outside of myself;
I know not who holds it
Nor what it is.

I sigh and I groan
Without wishing to,
I flutter and tremble
Without knowing why.

I find no peace
By night or day,
But still I like
to languish this way.

You who know
what love is,
Ladies, see if it is
what I have in my heart.
Ladies, see if it is
what I have in my heart.

Maria Ewing's comic expressions, yearning eyes, trembling lips and sheer adolescent ardor are simply adorable. She remains for me the definitive Cherubino.

In 1978 while performing as Dorabella in Mozart's Cosi fan tutte at Glyndebourne Festival Opera she met renowned director Peter Hall. Despite the two-decade gap in their ages they fell in love. After his divorce, in 1982 they married and their daughter Rebecca Hall was born. Hall, an actress and director, has written about her mother's mixed-race heritage. For more information about Maria Ewing's operatic career, please see The Guardian.

Saturday, January 8, 2022

Der Rosenkavalier at Garsington Opera

Miah Persson as the Marschallin and Hannah Hipp as Octavian at Garsington Opera. Photograph: Johan Persson. Image source: The Guardian/Observer

Staging Richard Strauss' and Hugo von Hofmannsthal's Der Rosenkavalier (The Rose-Bearer) is one of the most difficult tasks in opera. First you must cast four superb singers who are also excellent actors. And then you must put them onstage and stay out of the way.

Garsington Opera's 2021 production of Der Rosenkavalier is beautifully sung by an exceptional cast, and Strauss' score is ravishingly played in Eberhard Klokeby's reduced transcription by the Philharmonia Orchestra conducted by Jordan de Souza. Unfortunately, director Bruno Ravella fell at the second hurdle. Unable to resist the temptation to "improve" Hugo von Hofmannsthal's libretto, instead he makes staging choices that distract from the action and work against the drama.

A quick synopsis (you can skip the next three paragraphs if you're familiar with the opera): The libretto sets the opera in Vienna in the mid-18th century. Act I takes place in the boudoir of the Marschallin, the aristocratic wife of the Field Marshal. While her husband is away the Marschallin has spent the night with a young man half her age, the enraptured 17-year-old Octavian. As they are relaxing over a post-coital breakfast a distant relative of the Marschallin, the boorish Baron Ochs (which literally means "ox"), bursts in. Barely avoiding discovery, Octavian hides and hurriedly disguises himself as a chambermaid, "Mariandel." The deeply-in-debt Ochs has come to announce his betrothal to the young daughter of the rich merchant Faninal, and to ask the Marschallin to choose one of her relatives to present the traditional silver rose to his fiancée. He is distracted from his task by the pretty Mariandel, though, and while explaining his request to the Marschallin is simultaneously trying to arrange an assignation with the maid. The Marschallin, playing with fire, suggests her cousin Octavian as the rose-bearer.

The Presentation of the Rose: Madison Leonard as Sophie and Hannah Hipp as Octavian. Photograph: Johan Persson. Image source: Garsington Opera

In Act II, Octavian presents the silver rose to Faninal's 16-year-old daughter Sophie; as soon as the two young people set eyes on each other they fall in love. When Ochs arrives to sign the marriage contracts, Sophie is appalled by his crude behavior and refuses the marriage despite her father's threats. Octavian rises to her defense; swords are drawn and the Baron receives a scratch. After Octavian is forced to leave, the Baron receives a note from Mariandel asking to meet.

In Act III the Baron has arranged for an intimate dinner with Mariandel at a seedy inn, but of course it's a trap set by Octavian. Faninal, Sophie, and the Marschallin all arrive at the inn; Ochs, exposed and humiliated, flees. Sophie senses that there is a disturbingly intimate connection between Octavian and the Marschallin; Octavian is torn between the two women he loves; and the Marschallin recognizes that the time has come for her to give up Octavian.

Where does Ravella go wrong in staging this story? Let me count the ways.

Ravella and designer Gary McCann have changed the opera's roccoco 18th-century setting to the mid-century modern 1950s. This would be fine if there was a dramaturgical reason for the update. Instead, the main impetus for the change seems to be that it allows the Marschallin (Miah Persson) and Sophie (Madison Leonard) to be dressed in glamorous Dior "New Look"-style frocks instead of elaborate 18th-century gowns.

Madison Leonard as Sophie and Hannah Hipp as Octavian. Photograph: Julien Guidera. Image source: theartsdesk.com

But the 20th-century setting introduces a host of incongruities. Horses and carriages play essential roles in all three acts, for example. In Act I the Marschallin is alerted to the arrival of Baron Ochs (Derrick Ballard) by hearing his horse and carriage in the courtyard, and at the end of the act her servants tell her that Octavian (Hannah Hipp) has left by leaping onto his horse and riding away at a gallop. In Act II Octavian arrives at mansion of Herr von Faninal (Richard Burkhard) in a line of carriages, and when Ochs is wounded (or in this production, "wounded"), Faninal tells his servants to ride his ten carriage-horses to death to fetch a doctor. And in Act III, the Marschallin eases Faninal's distress by offering him a ride home in her carriage. Needless to say, none of this is very likely in 1950s Vienna.

In this production Octavian is dressed as some sort of military-school cadet, and carries a sword. But that doesn't explain why Ochs is also carrying a sword when he goes to Faninal's mansion. In the 18th century, of course, aristocratic men often carried swords, especially at formal occasions, but by the 1950s swords were hardly ever worn except with ceremonial military, diplomatic or scholarly uniforms. Ochs has no military rank and is certainly no diplomat or scholar. He has to carry a sword, though, because Octavian would not draw his against an unarmed member of his own class.

Finally, Sophie has been in a convent while her sight-unseen marriage to Baron Ochs has been arranged by her father. It's a straightforward deal: the Baron gets the young, beautiful Sophie, plus Faninal's money to pay his enormous debts; Faninal and his descendants achieve high social standing. But is this plausible in 1950s Austria? Rich businessmen already had high social standing: they were seen as leading the "economic miracle" that was pulling Austria out of postwar immiseration and famine. At the same time, the status of the Austrian nobility had been significantly diminished. Noble titles had been abolished in the aftermath of World War I, and one scholar has written that World War II left Austria with "a social structure largely free of the quasifeudal shackles of the powerful old conservative order." [1] (By the way, according to Hofmannsthal's libretto Faninal has gotten rich by supplying the army, but for a decade after World War II Austria was occupied by U.S., British, French, and Soviet forces, and essentially didn't have its own military.) In short, Ravella's staging doesn't engage in any way but the most superficial with what would have been the actual circumstances of the characters in the time period he's chosen.

Worse, though, than the multiple anachronisms introduced by Ravella's choice of period is his mishandling of the stage action. Ochs is far too clownish, signalled by his mass of unruly red hair, superabundant Victorian-style whiskers, and loud suits. In his memoirs Strauss himself wrote of the Baron, "Most basses have presented him as a disgusting vulgar monster with a repellent mask and proletarian manners. . . This is quite wrong: Ochs must be a rustic Don Juan of 35, who is after all a nobleman, if a rather boorish one, and who knows how to conduct himself decently." [2] This Ochs is simply a buffoon, which flattens the character.

Colin Judson as Valzacchi, Derrick Ballard as Baron Ochs, and Kitty Whately as Annina. Photograph: Johan Persson. Image source: Garsington Opera

Ravella's revisionism renders the Marschallin's private moment at the end of Act I less poignant. We've learned that, like Sophie, the Marschallin as a young woman was brought straight from a convent and "thrust into an unwelcome and cruel marriage to a rough, unloved, middle-aged nobleman," the Field Marshal. [3] This memory leads her to reflect on the passage of time and its inexorable cruelty. Traditionally as the curtain closes the Marschallin gazes into a mirror with deep melancholy and then slowly lowers it or turns away. In this production the Marschallin sprinkles a bit of perfume onto a handkerchief and inhales the scent, smiling wistfully. The perfume is likely attar of roses, a drop of which (we'll learn in Act II) is placed in the center of the silver rose presented to the brides of the aristocracy. But if she is remembering her betrothal to the Field Marshal, why would she smile, even wistfully, at the memories evoked by the scent of roses?

Other dramatic moments small and large are similarly undermined, especially in Act II. The Presentation of the Rose is underwhelming: when Octavian arrives to present the rose he is alone, despite the line of carriages in which he and his retinue have supposedly arrived. During the love duet between Octavian and Sophie, a Cupid figure appears and lounges about onstage. The Cupid first makes an appearance in Act I as a sort of substitute for Mohammed, the Marschallin's young African servant. This choice could have worked, but introducing Cupid during the Presentation of the Rose is ham-handed and pulls our focus away from the lovers. The music itself, with its sensuously intertwined voices, tells us that they're falling in love.

The music tells us, but perhaps due to pandemic protocols the singers remain far apart and generally look at the audience rather than one another, undercutting the sense of their dawning mutual passion. The need to maintain proper pandemic distance is also perhaps the reason why the Baron and Octavian don't cross swords (the Baron doesn't even draw his) before the Baron is "wounded" by Octavian and cries out "Murder!" And speaking of pulling focus, the milling about of Faninal's army of servants is often distracting, as is the frequent rearrangement of the furniture over the course of the act. McCann has dressed Ochs's servants in a motley array of costumes, some rudely rustic. For such an occasion even impoverished barons would dress their servants in matching (if well-worn) livery. And why does Ochs bring his own (drunken, lecherous) priest? Surely he and Sophie are going to be married on Faninal's schilling in St. Stephen's Cathedral with the archbishop presiding.

Another mis-step occurs in the Act III inn scene, where "Mariandel" is far too bold and sexually aggressive with the Baron. The Baron is taken aback, but why? He's invited her there to seduce her, after all. This also begs the question of what Mariandel/Octavian would do if the Baron responded eagerly to her/his provocations, as he well might, and it contradicts the character Mariandel must assume in front of the police sergeant as an innocent young woman being drawn into the sexual snare of a powerful and unscrupulous man.

I don't want to be too hard on this production. Even if Ravella's direction is often misconceived, it's remarkable that a small house such as Garsington (full capacity 600 seats) was able to mount a staging of this demanding work with international-level performers onstage and in the pit.

Miah Persson as the Marschallin. Photograph: Johan Persson. Image source: Garsington Opera

This was the first assumption of the role of the Marschallin by Miah Persson, who earlier in her career was a famous Sophie (I saw her in that role in the 2007 San Francisco Opera production, with Joyce DiDonato as her Octavian). Persson has personal glamour to spare and looks smashing in the 1950s-era costumes. Her portrayal, though beautifully sung, doesn't yet quite convey the inwardness and vulnerability of my favorite Marschallin, Gwyneth Jones. But those additional dimensions of the character may develop over time, and in this production their absence may be largely the fault of her director.

This is also the first time Hannah Hipp sings Octavian. She may not quite match Brigitte Fassbaender's early-Elvis charisma in the role, or Elīna Garanča's uncanny impersonation of a 17-year-old boy, but she is convincingly ardent in Act I, giving voice to waves of emotions Octavian hasn't yet learned to control (or at least conceal). In Acts II and III, it's true, the sparks that are supposed to fly between Octavian and Sophie seem more like embers, but the two singers' expression of passion is not helped by pandemic distancing protocols or their director.

Hannah Hipp as Octavian and Madison Leonard as Sophie. Photograph: Johan Persson. Image source: Garsington Opera

Madison Leonard is wonderful in her role debut as Sophie. She is convincingly girlish in both looks and manner, but has the vocal resources needed for the role's spectacular high notes. And her sorrowful realization in Act III that she is not Octavian's first love was most touching. I will be following her career with great interest.

Derrick Ballard sings the role of Baron Ochs quite well; he does not bark or bluster his way through, and is lacking only the role's very lowest notes (which for comic effect are written to be almost impossible for anyone to reach). He does everything asked of him by Ravella, and is not to blame for the director's and designer's misconception of the character as nothing more than a loutish bumpkin. But that characterization neutralizes the threat he represents to the Marschallin in Act III once he figures out who "Mariandel" really is and what Octavian was doing in the Marschallin's bedroom so early in the morning. Without that threat, Ochs' dismissal comes too easily.

A final word about Jordan de Souza's conducting of the Philharmonia Orchestra. Der Rosenkavalier is a long opera that can bog down at points (particularly in the first half of Act III). De Souza shapes each act's long dramatic arc beautifully, while allowing details in the score to emerge without calling undue attention to themselves or halting the flow. And he achieves such a full, lush Straussian sound with the Philharmonia that unless it had been mentioned in the program I would not have realized that they were employing Eberhard Klokeby's reduced transcription of the score for mid-sized orchestra (likely another pandemic concession). De Souza and the musicians and singers he leads provide a very assured performance of Strauss's sublime music.

So there are many musical and visual reasons to enjoy this production, and I would urge curious readers to explore it for themselves. Garsington Opera and OperaVision are generously making it available for free through April 30, 2022; production details and a video link can be found on the Garsington Opera website. A trailer for the production:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=H6JsN7BmJp4

More posts on Der Rosenkavalier:

  • Glyndebourne: The 2018 Glyndebourne revival of Richard Jones' production set in pre-WWI Vienna.
  • The Marschallin's farewell: Der Rosenkavalier at the Met: A review of the DVD of Renée Fleming in her final appearance as the Marschallin, partnered with Elīna Garanča in her final appearance as Octavian, in Robert Carsen's problematic 2017 production at the Metropolitan Opera.
  • The Rosenkavalier Trio: A review of Michael Reynolds' book Creating Der Rosenkavalier: From Chevalier to Cavalier (Boydell Press, 2016), which details the important contributions of Count Harry Kessler to Hugo von Hofmannsthal's libretto, including a hitherto unsuspected source.
  • Opera Guide 3: Der Rosenkavalier: A brief history and synopsis of the opera, with recording recommendations.

  1. Radomír Luža, Austro-German Relations in the Anschluss Era (Princeton University Press, 1975), quoted in Harry Ritter, "Grasping Toward Austria: The Anschluss - Book Review" (1979). History Faculty and Staff Publications 27. https://cedar.wwu.edu/history_facpubs/27.
  2. Richard Strauss, Recollections and Reflections (Boosey & Hawkes, 1953), a translation of Betrachtungen und Erinnerungen (Atlantis Verlag, 1949) by L.J. Lawrence, pp. 160-161. The translation I quote is from a different source that I haven't been able to identify.
  3. Norman Del Mar, Richard Strauss: A critical commentary on his life and works, Vol. 1 (Barrie and Rockliff, 1962), Ch. IX, excerpted in Alan Jefferson, Richard Strauss: Der Rosenkavalier (Cambridge Opera Handbooks, 1985), p. 41.

Friday, December 31, 2021

Ada Leverson, part 5: Love at Second Sight

Ada Leverson, date unknown. Frontispiece, Violet Wyndham, The Sphinx and Her Circle (Vanguard, 1963)

I. Love at Second Sight (1916)

As the title suggests, the final novel Ada Leverson's The Little Ottleys involves recapitulation: the return of the central love triangle from the second novel in the series, Tenterhooks, involving Edith Ottley, her husband Bruce, and the dashing and sympathetic Aylmer Ross. But although the characters meet again after three years and find themselves in a similar dilemma, they have been changed by their earlier experiences and the intervening time. At least, Edith and Aylmer have; Bruce remains as fatuous as ever (if not more so).

But much else has changed, as well:

The dinner was bright and gay from the very beginning, even before the first glass of champagne. It began with an optimistic view of the war, then, dropping the grave subject, they talked of people, theatres, books, and general gossip. [1]

"An optimistic view of the war": the novel seems to take place in the latter half of 1915, which is about as late as it would have been possible to continue to hold an optimistic view of the Great War. Bruce has been rejected from military service because of his "neurotic heart" and has remained at home, only to fall prey to fears of Zeppelin raids (London was first bombed on the night of 31 May 1915):

Bruce hated the war; but he didn't hate it for the sake of other people so much as for his own. . .He had great fear of losing his money, a great terror of Zeppelins; he gave way to his nerves instead of trying to control them. Edith knew his greatest wish would have been, had it been possible, to get right away from everything and go and live in Spain or America, or somewhere where he could hear no more about the war. . .that Bruce should feel like that did seem to Edith a little—contemptible. [2]

Love at Second Sight has a double meaning: it not only suggests a second chance at love, but characters who possess clairvoyance or foreknowledge. The character who claims these abilities is Madame Eglantine Frabelle, the rich, middle-aged widow of a French wine merchant who has come to England in order, we suspect, to escape wartime austerities and dangers in France.

Edith had not had the faintest idea of asking Madame Frabelle to stay at her very small house in Sloane Street, for which invitation, indeed, there seemed no possible need or occasion. Yet she found herself asking her visitor to stay for a few days until a house or a hotel should be found; and Bruce, who detested guests in the house, seconded the invitation with warmth and enthusiasm. . .Madame Frabelle accepted the invitation as a matter of course, made use of it as a matter of convenience, and had remained ever since, showing no sign of leaving. [3]

Madame Frabelle tells Edith, "I think I've a touch of second sight," and indeed, Bruce and Edith both come to depend on her intuition:

'She's a very clever woman,' said Bruce. 'I'm always interested when I hear what she has to say about people. I don't mind telling you that I'm nearly always guided by it.'

'So am I,' said Edith.

Indeed Edith did sincerely regard her opinion as very valuable. She found her so invariably wrong that she was quite a useful guide. She was never quite sure of her own judgement until Madame Frabelle had contradicted it. [4]

But there is a kind of second sight operating in the novel. Edith herself has sudden insights that will turn out to be prescient:

It flashed across Edith what an immense bond of sympathy it was between Bruce and Madame Frabelle that neither of them was burdened with the slightest sense of humour. [5]

And Edith is not the only one. Her friend and confidant, the composer Tito Landi, also immediately spots the affinity between Madame Frabelle and Bruce:

'Tiens, ma chère Edith, tu ne vois pas quelque chose?'
[My dear Edith, don’t you see something?]

'What?'

. . .'Elle. La Mère Frabelle,' he laughed to himself. 'Elle est folle de ton mari!'
[She. Mother Frabelle. She's crazy about your husband!] [6]

II. Tito Landi, Paolo Tosti and the Beddingtons

Tito Landi is based on the composer Paolo Tosti, a family friend of the Beddingtons and later the Leversons. Ada's mother Zillah Beddington was an accomplished amateur pianist and invited many composers to her salons.

Ada Leverson's mother Zillah Beddington (née Simon) by Elliott & Fry. Albumen carte-de-visite, 1880s. NPG x76185. Image source: National Portrait Gallery, London.

According to Mosco Carner,

Tosti had settled in London about 1880 and became much sought after as a singing-teacher. He was music master to the Royal Family and one of his favourite pupils was Sybil Seligman, who is said to have had a contralto voice of exceptional beauty. [7]

Sybil Beddington Seligman was one of Ada's three younger sisters, all of whom probably took singing lessons from Tosti. Evelyn, the second Beddington daughter, "had a beautiful singing voice"; and "one or two of [Tosti's] songs were dedicated to her younger sister Violet," later Violet Schiff. The one exception to the singing Beddington sisters seems to have been Ada, who as she grew up "drew away from her mother's world of music." Not entirely, however: after her marriage to Ernest Leverson, Ada remained close to Tosti, who was a frequent visitor and performer at her home. [8]

Sir Francesco Paolo Tosti by Carlo de Marchi, Milano. Image source: Wikimedia Commons.

In Love at Second Sight there is a description of Landi performing at a dinner party which must draw on Ada's memories of Tosti:

With a laugh he got up, to loud applause, and went to the little white enamelled piano. There, with a long cigar in his mouth, he struck a few notes, and at once magnetised his audience. The mere touch of his fingers on the piano thrilled everyone present.

He sang a composition of his own, which even the piano-organ had never succeeded in making hackneyed, 'Adieu, Hiver,' and melodious as only Italian music can be. Blue beams flashed from his eyes; he seemed in a dream. Suddenly in the most impassioned part, which he was singing in a composer's voice, that is, hardly any voice, but with perfect art, he caught Madame Frabelle's eye, and gave her a solemn wink. She burst out laughing. He then went on singing with sentiment and grace.

All the women present imagined that he was making love to them, while each man felt that he, personally, was making love to his ideal woman. Such was the effect of Landi's music. It made the most material, even the most unmusical, remember some little romance, some tendresse, some sentiment of the past; Landi seemed to get at the soft spot in everybody's heart. All the audience looked dreamy. Edith was thinking of Aylmer Ross. Where was he now? Would she ever see him again? Had she been wise to throw away her happiness like that? [9]

The song Landi performs, "Adieu, Hiver" (Good-bye, winter), seems to be a fictionalized reference to Tosti's "Good-Bye"/"Addio," whose first verse in Italian concludes, "Estate, addio!" (Summer, good-bye!). Both its English and Italian versions became staples of drawing-room performances and later were frequently recorded. Among the singers who recorded the Italian version were Nellie Melba and Enrico Caruso; Emma Eames and John McCormack (and Deanna Durbin in the movie Because of Him (1946)) were among those who recorded the English version. Here is a modern performance of "Good-Bye" by the Australian-Italian tenor Aldo di Toro:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GtfM-JRtRZQ

"Good-Bye"
Music: Paolo Tosti
Words: George John Whyte-Melville
Falling leaf and fading tree,
Lines of white in a sullen sea,
Shadows rising on you and me;
Shadows rising on you and me;
The swallows are making them ready to fly,
Wheeling out on a windy sky.
Good-bye Summer! Good-bye! Good-bye!
Good-bye Summer! Good-bye! Good-bye!

Hush! a voice from the far away!
"Listen and learn," it seems to say,
"All the tomorrows shall be as today."
"All the tomorrows shall be as today."
The cord is frayed, the cruse is dry,
The link must break, and the lamp must die—
Good-bye to Hope! Good-bye! Good-bye!
Good-bye to Hope! Good-bye! Good-bye!

What are we waiting for? Oh, my heart!
Kiss me straight on the brows! And part
Again, again! my heart! my heart!
What are we waiting for, you and I?
A pleading look, a stifled cry.
Good-bye, forever! Good-bye, forever!
Good-bye! Good-bye, good-bye!

If this sounds overwrought to our ears, it must have sounded very different to an audience who were sending their sons, husbands and sweethearts off to the trenches.

It is from those trenches that, unbeknownst to Edith, Aylmer has returned wounded; he is in his London house and is being nursed through a slow convalescence before he can rejoin his unit at the front. The stage is set for Edith and Aylmer's reunion and the reawakening of their mutual love.

Edith then faces the same crisis as in Tenterhooks: to break up her marriage and embrace the passion Aylmer offers, or to avoid scandal, remain faithful to Bruce, and live without love. But circumstances have changed: the war has brought home to Edith the uncertainty of the future and has made the opportunities of present happiness more precious. And Aylmer's wounding has forced her to recognize how deeply she still feels for him. As it turns out, others are also feeling the sense of recklessness inspired by the war. . .

III. After 1916

Portrait of Madame Josette Gris by Juan Gris, 1916. Image source: Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofia

Love at Second Sight, published in the year Ada Leverson turned 54, was to be her last novel. It may be that she felt that the story of Edith and Bruce Ottley had reached its natural conclusion. Perhaps she also felt that the memories of her marriage and its crises had been exhaustively mined for her fiction.

But there is an additional possibility, which is that she may have felt estranged from the artistic currents and aesthetic sensibilities of the 1910s and 1920s. Characters based on prominent figures from the movements of the 1890s would run the risk of seeming dated, passé.

A conversation in Love at Second Sight may suggest something of Leverson's perspective:

'I should so very much like to know,' [Arthur Coniston] said, 'what your view is of the attitude to life of the Post-Impressionists.'

Aylmer smiled. He said: 'I think their attitude to life, as you call it, is best expressed in some of Lear's Nonsense Rhymes: "His Aunt Jobiska said, 'Everyone knows that a pobble is better without his toes.'"'

Archie looked up in smiling recognition of these lines, and Edith laughed.

'Excuse me, but I don't quite follow you,' said young Coniston gravely.

'Why, don't you see? Of course, Lear is the spirit they express. A portrait by a post-Impressionist is sure to be "A Dong with a luminous nose." And don't you remember, "The owl and the pussycat went to sea in a beautiful pea-green boat"? Wouldn't a boat painted by a Post-Impressionist be pea-green?'

'Perfectly. I see that. But—why the pobble without its toes?'

'Why, the sculptor always surrenders colour, and the painted form. Each has to give up something for the limitation of art. But the more modern artist gives up much more—likeness, beauty, a few features here and there—a limb now and then.' [10]

It wasn't only contemporary visual art that she satirized. In 1919 she published a short sketch in The English Review entitled "Free Verse" that parodied modernist poetry:

"My dear old thing, you're out of date. Now, look at this."

Aubrey handed George a typed manuscript.

"This is a gem—a perfect, flawless poem, by one of the new chaps. Vers Libre, you know. Pull yourself together."

George read:

"INTENTION.
I.
I think of going to Eastbourne,
   I must get some new clothes before I go
      To Eastbourne.
   I may get a green jumper.
      Or some beads,
   Or any old thing
. . .

II.
      I know the Vicar slightly.
   He may be nice to me and call on Sunday.
      If he does I shall certainly
   Say cheerio to the Blighter
. . ."

"But isn't that. . ."

"How can you laugh, you ass? Don't you feel the quality of it? You don't imagine rhyme is necessary for a poem? Or sentimental slosh?"

"Of course not. I've heard of blank verse all right. But isn't this. . ."

"Don't you see the stylistic radiance of the thing? How the fellow has left out all the unessential?. . ."

"Oh, you mean about who the Vicar is and why he's likely to call. Rather, yes. I see that."

"Oh, you're hopeless. You don't understand."

"It doesn't seem obscure exactly."

"No. It's simple. Naive. That's its beauty. But you'll have to live with the thing a bit."

"Shall I?" said George.

. . ."Don't you see, George, the standard's changed—I mean in literature—and the chaps who were being made much of when you were here last are back numbers now? They don't exist."

. . ."What about those other fellows you told me about last time? Fellows who panted to knock you into the middle of next week?"

"Futurists? Passés."

"Now, look here. You've told me all about who's dead. Is there anyone alive?"

"Rather. Shoals and shoals. Not only new people. There's a man called Eliot. He's great. He counts."

"Ah, yes. George Eliot. . ." [11]

Over the next two years Leverson would go on to publish a short story, and a final dialogue featuring Aubrey and George, in The English Review. Poking fun at modernism was not calculated to endear her to the post-war generation, but she formed friendships with the Sitwell siblings Osbert, Edith, and Sacheverell, and urged the publication of their writings. 

Ironically for someone who viewed modernist poetry as a source of humor, her last magazine piece, published in January 1926, appeared in T.S. Eliot's The Criterion. Bringing her writing career full circle, it was called "The Last First Night," and was a reminiscence of the opening night of Oscar Wilde's The Importance of Being Earnest on 14 February 1895:

What a rippling, glittering, chattering crowd was that!. . .Whoever still lives who was present on that night will remember the continual ripple of laughter from the very first moment, the excitement, the strange almost hysterical joy with which was received this 'Trivial Comedy for Serious People.'. . .[Wilde] was on this evening at the zenith of his careless, genial career, beaming and filled with that euphoria that was curiously characteristic of him when he was not in actual grief or pain." [12]

Grief and pain would soon come; for more details, please see Ada Leverson, part 2: Friendship with Oscar Wilde.

"The Last First Night" became the central section of her final book, Letters to the Sphinx from Oscar Wilde, with Reminiscences of the Author, a slim volume of only 65 pages featuring her memories of Wilde followed by a brief selection of his correspondence with her. Of the first and only edition only 275 copies were printed; 25 were presentation copies, and 250 were sold. 

Fortunately my library purchased one, and although it has seen some rough wear—the spine is beginning to separate from the back cover, the blue cloth of the cover is soiled, wrinkled and water-stained, and the ring where someone used the book as a coaster for their tea- or coffee cup is visible—the contents are still as crisply readable as the day it was published in 1930. Including, to my surprise and delight, the signature of Ada Leverson herself:

Ada Leverson died at the age of 70 on 30 August 1933. Her novels will likely never find a wide readership, but they will continue to be rediscovered for their keen wit, their picture of the predicaments of even privileged women who find themselves caught in incompatible marriages, and their glimpse into the brilliant Edwardian literary and artistic circles whose era was coming to an end.

Other posts in this series:


  1. Ada Leverson, Love at Second Sight (Grant Richards, 1916), Ch. V.
  2. Love at Second Sight, Ch. XXVII.
  3. Love at Second Sight, Ch. II.
  4. Love at Second Sight, Ch. IX.
  5. Love at Second Sight, Ch. III.
  6. Love at Second Sight, Ch. V.
  7. Mosco Carner, Puccini: A Critical Biography, Second Edition (Holmes & Meier, 1974), p. 148. Carner reports that it was at Tosti's London home in October 1905 that Sybil first met Giacomo Puccini. "She was passionately fond of opera, paid frequent visits to Italy, spoke fluent Italian and kept open house for visiting Italian artists." Puccini was then at the peak of his fame as the composer of Manon Lescaut (1893), La bohème (1896), Tosca (1900) and Madama Butterfly (1905), which had just received its London première in July 1905. Sybil and Puccini quickly embarked on a love affair that "with the years developed into one of the few genuine friendships which Puccini was able to form; it lasted to his death" (pp. 148-149).
  8. Violet Wyndham, The Sphinx and Her Circle: A Biographical Sketch of Ada Leverson, 1862-1933 (Vanguard, 1963), pp. 16 & 33. Violet Beddington would receive a proposal from the composer Arthur Sullivan (of Gilbert and Sullivan) in 1896 when she was 22 and he was 54; she gently declined the offer. He wrote out a copy of his song "My Dearest Heart" for her. See David Usher, "In Search of Miss Violet," Cornell Savoyards Blog, 29 November 2012. https://cornellsavoyardsblog.blogspot.com/p/in-search-of-miss-violet.html
  9. Love at Second Sight, Ch. V.
  10. Love at Second Sight, Ch. XI. "His Aunt Jobiska said, 'Everyone knows that a pobble is better without his toes'": The actual lines are "And she said, 'It's a fact the whole world knows, / That Pobbles are happier without their toes.'" Edward Lear, Laughable Lyrics:
    A Fourth Book of Nonsense Poems, Songs, Botany, Music, etc.
    (Robert John Bush, 1877). "A Dong with a luminous nose": Edward Lear, Laughable Lyrics. "The Owl and the Pussycat": Edward Lear, Nonsense songs, stories, botany, and alphabets (Robert John Bush, 1871). Laughable Lyrics: https://gutenberg.org/ebooks/13649; Nonsense Songs: https://gutenberg.org/ebooks/13647
  11. Ada Leverson, "Free Verse," The English Review, Vol. 29, December 1919, pp. 534-536. https://archive.org/details/sim_english-review-uk_1919-12_29/page/534/mode/2up?q=leverson&view=theater
  12. Ada Leverson, Letters to the Sphinx from Oscar Wilde, with Reminiscences of the Author (Duckworth, 1930), pp. 27, 30, 32.

Tuesday, December 28, 2021

Ada Leverson, part 4: Tenterhooks

Ada Leverson, ca. 1890s. Image source: Beside Every Man

I. The question of infidelity

Ada Leverson's daughter Violet Wyndham writes that in the late 1880s, Ada became disillusioned in her marriage:

She had made the discovery that she was never to know the happiness of living with someone with whom she was in love; that the rest of her life would have to be a compromise. The episode which had brought home this sad fact to Ada had occurred in Monte Carlo where Ernest had displayed the shallowness of his interest in her by spending all afternoons and most nights at the Casino. To be left quite alone in a place whose very name is a symbol of pleasure would have been a depressing experience for any lively young woman. . .As it dawned upon Ada that her marriage had been a mistake, she became overwhelmed with loneliness.

It was in this vulnerable mood that William, 4th Earl of Desart, a handsome man and a poet, was introduced to her. He had stepped off a beautiful yacht, [and was] also unhappy and in need of consolation. They fell in love. That he was a good deal older than Ada [who was in her late twenties] did not detract from his charm for her. Ernest saw no harm in his wife sailing away on a week's cruise with another man. He preferred to remain near the Casino. [1]

Like many another complaisant husband, Ernest Leverson seems to have been happy for another man to take on his affective (and possibly conjugal) responsibilities. The handsome, rich, artistic Lord Desart was far from the final admirer to present Ada with a dilemma: to remain physically faithful to her husband and avoid scandal, or yield to her attraction and risk becoming notorious.

It's not known which alternative Ada chose. However, two decades later she presented the fictional Edith Ottley with a similar dilemma.

I. Tenterhooks (1912)

Frontispiece after J.D. Fergusson from the first edition of Tenterhooks (Grant Richards, 1912). Image source: Hathi Trust

The second novel in The Little Ottleys series turns on the question of whether Edith will indulge in a passionate affair with a handsome older man, Aylmer Ross. Leverson is very frank about Edith and Aylmer's "unacknowledged but very strong mutual physical attraction." [2]

Aylmer is everything Edith's husband Bruce isn't: he's thoughtful, places Edith's needs and desires above his own (most of the time), and has tastes that correspond to Edith's. He's also (as we would say today) emotionally present, while Bruce, if he ever was in love (at least, in his fashion) with Edith, has, after eight years of marriage, become inattentive—except when he is being petty.

Early on in Tenterhooks Edith is described in flattering terms as "a beauty of a particularly troubling type" with "a reposeful grace and a decided attraction for both men and women." [3] But as the novel unfolds she is portrayed as less of a paragon than in Love's Shadow. Without losing sympathy for her, we see more of her foibles, and in particular, her tendency to view others as instruments for the realization of her own needs.

She takes advantage of her devoted former school-friend, Grace Bennett, whom she sends scurrying about the town on errands because she imagines that Grace "had nothing to do, and adored commissions." [4] The children have a governess, "sweet, gentle Miss Townsend," who models her clothes and manner after Edith: ". . .vaguely Edith wondered if [Miss Townsend] would ever have a love affair, ever marry. She hoped so, but (selfishly) not till Archie went to Eton." [5] Selfishly, indeed: Archie is six or seven years old; boys enter Eton at age 13, when Miss Townsend will likely be approaching her 30s.

We also learn that "Edith had a high opinion of her own strength of will. When she appeared weak it was on some subject about which she was indifferent. She took a great pride in her own self-poise; her self-control. . ." [6] But when Aylmer confesses his love to her and then goes abroad for three months to try to free himself from his attraction, Edith summons him back after only six weeks. She writes him,

You told me to ask you when I wanted you—ask you anything I wanted. Well, I want to see you. I miss you too much. You arrived in Paris last night. Let me knew when you can come. I want you. [7]

So much for self-control. Edith doesn't intend this letter to be read as a declaration of love for him, but her self-knowledge is also flawed:

She thought she had a soft, tender admiration for him, that he had a charm for her; that she admired him. But she had not the slightest idea that on her side there was anything that could disturb her in any way. And so that his sentiment, which she had found to be rather infectious, should never carry her away, she meant only to see him now and then; to meet again and be friends. [8]

In other words, she wants to be able to treat Aylmer like a "tame cat"—enjoying his devotion but keeping him always at a respectable distance. "It is human to play with what one loves," the narrator tells us, but it is also cruel. [9]

To be fair to Edith, she does have male friends whose admiration for her she is successful in managing, mainly because they are occupied with easier conquests. Chief among these admirers is Vincy, a character based on Oscar Wilde and possibly two other members of his circle, Reggie Temple and Reggie Turner. [10]

Vincy was her confidant, her friend. She could tell him everything, and she did, and he confided in her and told her all except one side of his life, of which she was aware, but to which she never referred. This was his secret romance with a certain girl artist of whom he never spoke, although Edith knew that some day he would tell her about that also. [11]

The side of Vincy's life that is "lived in shadow" is his affair with the improbably-named art student Mavis Argles, who has a mass of Pre-Raphaelite red hair.

"Yes or No?" by John Everett Millais, 1871. Image source: Yale University Art Gallery

Before we learn Mavis's name, Leverson is careful to refer to her, twice, as a "girl artist," to ensure that the reader doesn't misconstrue Vincy's resemblance to Wilde as implying that they share similar erotic tastes. In case we are in any doubt, Vincy and Mavis are the actors in the novel's rather shocking (for its mere existence) sex scene:

'What a frightfully bright light there is in the room,' Vincy said. He got up and drew the blind down. He came back to her.

'Your hair's coming down,' he remarked.

'I'm sorry,' she said. 'But at the back it generally is.'

'Don't move—let me do it.'

Pretending to arrange it, he took all the hairpins out, and the cloud of dark red hair fell down on her shoulders.

'I like your hair, Mavis.'

*            *            *            *            *

'It seems too awful I should have been with you such a long time this afternoon,' she exclaimed. [12]

Vincy, it turns out, is not the only one having an affair. One sunny afternoon Edith goes walking in Kensington Gardens and finds herself musing about "how fortunate she was in Miss Townsend; what a nice girl she was, what a good friend to her and the children":

What made her think of Miss Townsend? Some way off was a girl, with her back to Edith, walking with a man. Her figure was like Miss Townsend's, and she wore a dress like the one copied from Edith's. Edith walked more quickly, it was the retired part of the gardens on the way towards the Bayswater Road. The two figures turned down a flowery path. . .It was Miss Townsend! She had turned her face. Edith was surprised, was interested, and walked on a few steps. She had not seen the man clearly. Then they both sat down on a seat. He took her hand. She left it in his. There was something familiar in his figure and clothes, and Edith saw his face.

Yes, it was Bruce.

Edith turned round and went home. [13]

It seems that Miss Townsend has been modelling herself on Edith all too closely.

Postcard of George Frampton's Peter Pan statue (1912) and the Long Water in Kensington Gardens, looking north toward "the retired part of the gardens on the way towards the Bayswater Road." Image source: The Library Time Machine

In Bruce's infidelity—and, we and Edith will discover, not only with Miss Townsend—Edith has the perfect justification and motive for her own. Leverson leaves us in suspense about what action Edith will take until the final pages, and her ultimate decision is one that will not satisfy all readers.

Tenterhooks is the best of the three novels that make up The Little Ottleys. It is more tightly constructed than Love in the Shadows, places Edith and her dilemmas firmly at the center of the action, and allows us greater access to the inner worlds of its characters. It is also the darkest of the three, featuring themes of unrequited love, adultery, and abandonment. Love's Shadow can read like a drawing-room comedy; Tenterhooks shows us characters who are buffeted, and sometimes upended, by the unexpected strength of their feelings.

Perhaps Ada Leverson had second thoughts about the fates of the characters in Tenterhooks, because she brought the central triangle of Edith, Bruce and Aylmer back in the final novel of The Little Ottleys—which will be the subject of the next post.

Next time: Ada Leverson, part 5: Love at Second Sight
Last time: Ada Leverson, part 3: Love's Shadow


  1. Violet Wyndham, The Sphinx and her Circle: A Biographical Sketch of Ada Leverson, 1862-1933 (André Deutsch, 1963), p. 20-21.
  2. Ada Leverson, Tenterhooks (Grant Richards, 1912), Ch. X. https://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/10021
  3. Ada Leverson, Tenterhooks, Ch. III.
  4. Tenterhooks, Ch. X.
  5. Tenterhooks, Ch. XIX.
  6. Tenterhooks, Ch. XVIII.
  7. Tenterhooks, Ch. XVII.
  8. Tenterhooks, Ch. XVIII.
  9. Tenterhooks, Ch. XVIII.
  10. Violet Wyndham, The Sphinx and her Circle, p. 37. 
  11. Tenterhooks, Ch. X.
  12. Tenterhooks, Ch. XV.
  13. Tenterhooks, Ch. XIX.

Friday, December 24, 2021

Ada Leverson, part 3: Love's Shadow

Ada Leverson, ca. 1890s. Image source: Thornfield Hall: A Book Blog

A continuation of Ada Leverson, part 2: Friendship with Oscar Wilde

I. The separation

In the late 1890s and early 1900s Ada Leverson's marriage was under greater than usual strain. While Ada had remained a loyal friend to Oscar Wilde during and after his trials and conviction, her husband Ernest had quarreled with Wilde over money. Wilde thought, apparently without foundation, that Ernest was cheating him.

Ernest was also named as a co-respondent in a divorce case that received coverage in the newspapers. In her biography of her mother, Violet Wyndham reports that Ada had an abhorrence of notoriety. Ada wrote to George Moore, "I am not afraid of death but I am of scandal, of which I have a special horror. The idea of being talked about is one of which I have a weak terror." Nonetheless, when Ernest's infidelity was publicly exposed, "The Sphinx forgave her husband and appeared with him in public, as conspicuously as possible, the day after the case was reported." [1]

A final break came in 1902. Ernest, an inveterate gambler and spendthrift, lost virtually all of his money in a risky investment. Wyndham writes that "his father agreed to settle his debts and to give him a fresh start in the timber business in Canada." From evidence in the last two novels in The Little Ottleys, this decision was made rather precipitously. Ernest's daughter from a previous relationship went with him, but "there was no question of Ada and her little daughter accompanying him." [2] Despite Ernest's abandonment, Ada—perhaps because of her aversion to scandal—did not divorce him.

To earn money Ada turned to newspaper work. Beginning with the 28 June 1903 issue she wrote a women's column for The Referee: The Unique Sunday Journal under the pseudonym "Elaine." The Referee's motto was Founded in 1877 by Pendragon! Pendragon, of course, is a reference to King Arthur, and all of the contributors to The Referee adopted Arthurian pseudonyms. Ada's chosen pen name probably alludes to Elaine of Astolat, who nurses Lancelot back to health after he is wounded in a tournament, but is abandoned by him and dies of a broken heart. Elaine is the subject of Tennyson's poem and Waterhouse's painting The Lady of Shalott. [3]

"The Lady of Shalott" by John William Waterhouse, 1888. Image source: Tate Gallery

It may be a measure of Ada's desperation that she agreed to write a women's column, as most domestic subjects bored her. As Edith Ottley is described in Tenterhooks, the second volume of The Little Ottleys: "She had dreadfully little to say to the average woman, except to a few intimate friends, and frankly preferred the society of the average man." [4] Ada devoted her energies to writing weekly columns under headings such as "Conventional Conversation," "Advice to Lovers," "The Art of Listening," and "Baby Parties." As Wyndham writes of Ada,

It is a curious fact that she rarely enjoyed the company of women, disliking the subjects that absorbed them—with the exception of affairs of the heart, in which she was always interested—yet she was able successfully to carry out her undertaking for several years. [5]

Just over two years, in fact. In all she wrote 113 columns totalling over 150,000 words. Her final column appeared on 20 August 1905. [6]

After she stopped writing for The Referee, with the encouragement of publisher and longtime friend Grant Richards she devoted herself to writing a novel. The Twelfth Hour was issued by Richards in 1907, and was well-received. Love's Shadow, the first novel featuring the Ottleys, followed the next year. Four more novels were to follow: The Limit (1911), Tenterhooks (1912), Bird of Paradise (1914), and Love at Second Sight (1916), the third volume of The Little Ottleys and Leverson's final novel.

II. Love's Shadow

Title page of the first edition of Love's Shadow. Image source: Internet Archive

Each of Ada Leverson's three Little Ottleys novels centers on a different love problem. The first novel in the series, Love's Shadow, is concerned with which handsome, well-off suitor the young, beautiful, rich, orphaned Hyacinth Verney will marry. (Somehow the choice of remaining single is never seriously considered.)

While this may not seem to be the most compelling dilemma on which to base a 50,000-word novel, the book's epigraph, from Shakespeare's The Merry Wives of Windsor, suggests how the perversities of desire will complicate this otherwise straightforward plot:

  • Love like a shadow flies
  • When substance love pursues;
  • Pursuing that that flies,
  • And flying what pursues. [7]

For some time Cecil Reeve has been in love with Eugenia Raymond, a 44-year-old widow, although it's clear that she doesn't return his feelings. Eugenia rebuffs Cecil's proposal of marriage by saying, "I'm ten years older than you. Old enough to be your mother!" [8] Instead, Eugenia directs his attention to Hyacinth Verney.

Frontispiece by G.C. Wilmshurst from the first edition of Love's Shadow. Image source: Internet Archive

Hyacinth is the ward of Sir Charles Cannon, the married man Eugenia has been hopelessly in love with for years. Sir Charles is half in love with his ward, while Hyacinth ultimately settles her affections on Cecil—only to discover (and become jealous of) his feelings for Eugenia. Hyacinth's companion, Anne Yeo, tries to comfort her by explaining the situation, with only partial success: 

'He's attached to her, fond of her. She's utterly indifferent about him, so he's piqued. So he thinks that's being in love.'

'Then why does he try to deceive me and flirt with me at all?'

'He doesn't. You really attract him; you're suited to him physically and socially, perhaps mentally too. The suitability is so obvious that he doesn't like it. It's his feeling for you that he fights against, and especially because he sees you care for him.'

'I was horrid enough to him today! I told him never to call here again.'

'To show your indifference?'

'I made him understand that I wanted no more of his silly flirtation,' said Hyacinth, still tearful.

'If you really made him think that, everything will be all right.'

'Really, Anne, you're clever. I think I shall take your advice.'

Anne gave a queer laugh.

'I didn't know I'd given any, but I will. Whatever he does now, leave him alone!. . .he'll get tired in the end of her indifference and remember you,' added Anne sardonically.

'Then he'll find I've forgotten him. Oh, why am I so unhappy?' [9]

"Love's Shadow" by Anthony Frederick Augustus Sandys, 1867. Image source: Wikimedia Commons

Love's Shadow is rather bold for its time in suggesting powerful attractions between women:

Hyacinth Verney was the romance of Edith's life. She also provided a good deal of romance in the lives of several other people. . .She had such an extraordinary natural gift for making people of both sexes fond of her, that it would have been difficult to say which, of all the persons who loved her, showed the most intense devotion in the most immoderate way. [10]

Anne is one of those who is immoderately devoted to Hyacinth; she is described as Edith's "unacknowledged rival in Hyacinth's affections":

With a rather wooden face, high cheek-bones, a tall, thin figure, and no expression, Anne might have been any age; but she was not. She made every effort to look quite forty so as to appear more suitable as a chaperone, but was in reality barely thirty. She was thinking, as she often thought, that Hyacinth looked too romantic for everyday life. [11]

Anne also gets many of the best lines. "The little Ottleys" is Anne's term for Edith and Bruce, and is both her attempt to diminish her rival and to remind Hyacinth of their relative social positions. With her face and figure lacking softness, her penchant for masculine attire (her favorite outfit is a mackintosh, heavy boots, driving-gloves, and an "eternal golf-cap"), and her frank admiration for "Hyacinth's graceful figure," Anne's self-presentation and, it's hinted, her erotic inclinations are those of what might have been called in Leverson's time "the third sex." [12]

But Anne puts her own feelings aside when Hyacinth's relationship with Cecil is threatened by her suspicions of his continuing attachment to Eugenia. Anne goes to Eugenia to try to set everything right:

'I—well, you know I'm devoted to Hyacinth. At first I was almost selfishly glad about this. I could have got her back. We could have gone away together. But I can't see her miserable. She has such a mania for Cecil Reeve! Isn't it extraordinary?'

'Most extraordinary,' replied Eugenia emphatically.

'And since she's got him, she may as well be happy with him,' Anne added.

. . .'I'm afraid you're not happy, Miss Yeo?' said Eugenia impulsively.

'I don't know that I am, particularly. But does it matter? We can't all be happy.' [13]

Indeed. Marriage is a particularly uncertain means of obtaining happiness, Love's Shadow suggests. Probably the couple in the book that are most suited to one another are the middle-aged Eugenia and the man she finally marries, Lord Selsey, Cecil's uncle. They clearly have a companionate, rather than passionate, union, as Lord Selsey explains to a questioning Cecil:

'So you fell in love with her at first sight?'

'Oh no, I didn't. I'm not in love with her now. But I think she's beautiful. I mean she has a beautiful soul—she has atmosphere, she has something that I need. I could live in the same house with her in perfect harmony for ever. . .Of course, she's not a bit in love with me either. But she likes me awfully, and I persuaded her. It was all done by argument.' [14]

"Perfect harmony for ever" remains elusive for the other couples in the novel. Sir Charles Cannon made a "suitable match" with a woman with whom he is incompatible in virtually every way:

Lady Cannon had a very exalted opinion of her own charms, virtues, brilliant gifts, and, above all, of her sound sense. Fortunately for her, she had married a man of extraordinary amiability, who had always taken every possible precaution to prevent her discovering that in this opinion she was practically alone in the world.

Having become engaged to her through a slight misunderstanding in a country house, Sir Charles had not had the courage to explain away the mistake. He decided to make the best of it, and did so the more easily as it was one of those so-called suitable matches that the friends and acquaintances of both parties approve of and desire far more than the parties concerned. A sensible woman was surely required at Redlands and in the London house, especially as Sir Charles had been left guardian and trustee to a pretty little heiress.

It had taken him a very short time to find out that the reputation for sound sense was, like most traditions, founded on a myth, and that if his wife's vanity was only equalled by her egotism, her most remarkable characteristic was her excessive silliness. But she loved him, and he kept his discovery to himself. [15]

Just in case we needed more evidence of her faults, Lady Cannon has a scene in the novel where an implicit parallel is drawn between her and the officious Lady Catherine de Bourgh in Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice:

Hyacinth's eyes flashed.

'Are you engaged?' asked Lady Cannon.

'I must decline to answer. I recognise no right that you or anyone else has to ask me such a question.'

Lady Cannon rose indignantly, leaving her coffee untouched. [16]

Edith and Bruce Ottley, the continuing characters whose marriage will be observed over the course of the series' three novels, reverse the gender dynamic of the Cannons: she is the sensible one, while he is oblivious both of his own failings and others' perception of them. As Hyacinth says to Anne, "How bored she must get with her little Foreign Office clerk! The way he takes his authority as a husband seriously is pathetic. He hasn't the faintest idea the girl is cleverer than he is." [17]

Finally—mild spoiler alert, although the greatest pleasures of Love's Shadow don't lie in the unfolding of its plot—Cecil Reeve begins his marriage to Hyacinth by taking her for granted. In some ways Cecil is an incipient Bruce Ottley; but he is partly redeemed by having the glimmering of self-awareness that will forever elude Bruce:

At half-past seven that evening Cecil turned the key in the door and went into the house. It was the first time he had ever come home with a feeling of uneasiness and dread; a sensation at once of fear and of boredom. Until now he had always known that he would receive a delighted welcome, all sweetness and affection. He had always had the delicious incense of worshipping admiration swung before him in the perfumed atmosphere of love and peace. Had he held all this too cheaply? Had he accepted the devotion a little pontifically and condescendingly? Had he been behaving like a pompous ass? [18]

Ummm. . .yes?

Next time: Ada Leverson, part 4: Tenterhooks
Last time: Ada Leverson, part 2: Friendship with Oscar Wilde


  1. Violet Wyndham, The Sphinx and her Circle: A Biographical Sketch of Ada Leverson, 1862-1933 (André Deutsch, 1963), p. 23 and p. 60.
  2. Violet Wyndham, The Sphinx and her Circle, p. 63.
  3. There is another Elaine in the Arthurian legends: Elaine of Corbenic, who tricks Lancelot into bed by appearing in the guise of Guinevere, and as a result of their union gives birth to Galahad. It seems less likely that Ada was thinking of Elaine of Corbenic when choosing her pseudonym.
  4. Ada Leverson, Tenterhooks (Grant Richards, 1912), Ch. III. https://gutenberg.org/ebooks/10021
  5. Violet Wyndham, The Sphinx and her Circle, p. 64.
  6. Charles Burkhart, Ada Leverson (Twayne Publishers, 1973), p. 79.
  7. William Shakespeare, The Merry Wives of Windsor, Act II, Scene ii.
  8. Ada Leverson, Love's Shadow (Grant Richards, 1908), Ch. V. https://gutenberg.org/ebooks/9786
  9. Ada Leverson, Love's Shadow, Ch. X.
  10. Ada Leverson, Love's Shadow, Ch. I.
  11. Ada Leverson, Love's Shadow, Ch. I.
  12. The term was coined in the later 19th century. As John Ryle writes, "Until the mid-nineteenth century, in the moral and legal discourse of Europe and North America, homosexual behaviour had been represented either as a recurrent [criminal] vice or an episode in a process of hereditary degeneration." In the second half of the century medical investigators began to formulate the conception of homosexuality as a stable (though still problematized) identity. See John Ryle, "A Uranian Among Edwardians" [review of Edward Carpenter's Selected Writings, Volume 1, expanded and annotated], The Times Literary Supplement, 25 January 1985, or on his website at https://johnryle.com/?article=a-uranian-among-edwardians#anchor5 
  13. Ada Leverson, Love's Shadow, Ch. XXXIV.
  14. Ada Leverson, Love's Shadow, Ch. XIX.
  15. Ada Leverson, Love's Shadow, Ch. IV.
  16. Ada Leverson, Love's Shadow, Ch. XIV. The parallel is to the confrontation between Elizabeth Bennet and Lady Catherine, Darcy's aunt, in Vol. III Chapter XIV/Chapter 56.
  17. Ada Leverson, Love's Shadow, Ch. I.
  18. Ada Leverson, Love's Shadow, Ch. XXXIX.