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?]


. . .'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:

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:

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
. . .

      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.
  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:; Nonsense Songs:
  11. Ada Leverson, "Free Verse," The English Review, Vol. 29, December 1919, pp. 534-536.
  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.
  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.
  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.
  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 
  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.

Wednesday, December 22, 2021

Ada Leverson, part 2: Friendship with Oscar Wilde

Ada Esther Beddington Leverson (née Moses) by Elliott & Fry, albumen carte-de-visite, late 1880s. NPG x76184. Image source: National Portrait Gallery, London

A continuation of Ada Leverson, part 1: Edith and Bruce, the Little Ottleys.

I. Meeting Oscar Wilde

The photograph at the head of this post was taken when Ada Leverson was in her mid-20s and thoroughly disillusioned in her marriage. A few years later she began to write short occasional pieces, reviews, sketches and parodies. Much of this work was printed anonymously, and so not all of the pieces have been positively identified.

One would have a lasting effect on her life, however. "An Afternoon Party," published in Punch on 15 July 1893, parodied Oscar Wilde's The Picture of Dorian Gray (1891), Lady Windermere's Fan (1892), Salomé (1893), and A Woman of No Importance (1893). Wilde was delighted with the piece; he would later write Leverson, "Your sketch is brilliant, as your work always is. It is quite tragic for me to think how completely Dorian Gray has been understood on all sides!" [1]

Here is a small taste of "An Afternoon Party":

. . ."The room is full of celebrities. Do you see that tall woman in black, talking to the little old lady? That is Mrs. ARBUTHNOT—a woman of some importance—and the other is CHARLEY'S Aunt. The sporting-looking young man is Captain CODDINGTON, who is 'in town' for the season."

"And who are the two men, exactly alike, tall and dark, who are smoking gold-tipped cigarettes, and talking epigrams?" I asked. I like to know who people are, and the person in the silver domino seemed well-informed.

"Those are Lord ILLINGWORTH, and Lord HENRY WOTTON. They always say exactly the same things. They are awfully clever, and cynical.". . .

"Princess SALOMÉ!" announced the servant. A little murmur of surprise seemed to go round the room as the lovely Princess entered.

"What has she got on?" asked PORTIA.

"Oh, it's nothing," replied Mr. WALKER, London.

"I thought she was not received in English society," said Lady WINDERMERE, puritanically.

"I can assure you, my dears, that she would not be tolerated in Brazil, where the nuts come from," exclaimed CHARLEY'S Aunt.

"There's no harm in her. She's only a little peculiar. She is particularly fond of boar's head. It's nothing," said Mr. WALKER.

"The uninvitable in pursuit of the indigestible," murmured Lord ILLINGWORTH, as he lighted a cigarette. [2]

(For a key to the references in the parody, see note 2.)

Illustration of "An Afternoon Party" from Punch. Image source: Internet Archive

According to Osbert Sitwell, Ada's close friend in the final decade of her life, it was "An Afternoon Party" that brought about her introduction to Wilde:

[Ada] had first met Wilde, she told me, through an anonymous parody she had written of Dorian Gray. This skit had attracted his attention, and had amused him. He had written to the author, who had suggested a meeting, and when this took place Wilde had been amazed to find it was a woman who entered the room. [3]

Ada's daughter Violet Wyndham offers a different version of their first meeting:

It was in the year 1892 that Ada Leverson met Oscar Wilde for the first time; the occasion was a party given by the first Mrs. Oswald Crawfurd, whose husband, a diplomat, was an important literary figure of the day. [4]

The occasion of the Crawfurd's party may have been to celebrate the opening of Wilde's play Lady Windermere's Fan. If so, and if Ada attended the party and met Wilde there, it would place their first meeting in February 1892 rather than in 1893.

Both stories, of course, derive from Ada Leverson herself, and both are plausible. By 1891 Ada was engaged in a flirtatious correspondence with the Irish writer George Moore, although it appears she had not yet published anything. She asked Moore's advice about a "little story" she had written: ". . .you must tell me whether you think it very stupid. . .You cannot imagine how anxious I am about it, to see it in print, I believe I would give several years of my life. I don't care about money, it is only for the pleasure that I wish it so much." [5]

The Leverson's invitation to the Crawfurd's literary party in early 1892 might have come through their acquaintance with Moore. Supporting Sitwell's version of the meeting in 1893 is that the earliest published messages from Wilde to Ada are from that year or later. [6]

Whether they first met in 1892 or 1893, Ada's wit won her Wilde's enduring admiration and friendship. She went on to write at least three more Wilde parodies for Punch, including "The Minx.—A Poem in Prose," a parody of his poem The Sphinx (1894). [7]

Wilde took to calling her "Sphinx," perhaps a reference not to his rather lurid poem, but to Lord Henry's description of women in The Picture of Dorian Gray as "Sphinxes without secrets" (an echo of Wilde's short story "The Sphinx Without a Secret"). [8]

Oscar Wilde and Lord Alfred Bruce Douglas, by Gillman & Co, gelatin silver print, May 1893. NPG P1122. Image source: National Portrat Gallery

II. Wilde's trials and their aftermath

In the winter of 1895 Oscar Wilde was at the peak of his fame. He had two smash hits running in the West End at the same time. An Ideal Husband had opened on 3 January at the Haymarket Theatre, and would run for 124 performances. Just over a month later, on 14 February, The Importance of Being Earnest opened at St. James's Theatre. Despite a blinding snowstorm and a bitterly cold and windy night, the theater was packed.

Outside, a frost, inside, the very breath of success; perfumed atmosphere of gaiety, fashion, and, apparently, everlasting popularity. The author of the play was fertile, inventive, brilliant; and with such encouragement how could one realise that the gaiety was not to last, that his life was to become dark, cold, sinister as the atmosphere outside?. . .People as a rule do not object to a man deserving success, only to his getting it. [9]

That night the Marquess of Queensberry, the father of Wilde's lover Lord Alfred Douglas, attempted to enter the theater to disrupt the play. On being refused entry, he had left at the box office the bunch of vegetables he'd intended to throw at the stage. Four days later the Marquess went to Wilde's club and left his calling card, on which he'd scrawled "For Oscar Wilde, posing somdomite" [sodomite].

Exhibit A in Wilde's libel trial against the Marquess of Queensberry. Image source: Wikimedia Commons

Wilde unwisely decided to prosecute Queensberry for libel. That case failed, and evidence and witnesses produced by Queensberry's defense led swiftly to Wilde's own arrest and prosecutions for "gross indecency." Wilde's belongings were seized and auctioned to pay Queensberry's court costs, and he was left bankrupt. Now a ruined man, he had been the toast of London just a few weeks earlier.

During Wilde's trials in the spring of 1895 Ada and her husband remained his steadfast supporters. While Wilde, penniless and homeless, was out on bail awaiting his final trial in May, the Leversons invited him to stay in their house:

. . .I showed him his rooms, the nursery floor, which was almost a flat in itself, two big rooms, one small one, and a bathroom. My little boy was in the country at the time.

I asked him if he would like me to take away the toys in the room. "Please leave them," he said. So, in the presence of a rocking-horse, dolls' houses, golliwogs, a blue and white nursery dado with rabbits and other animals on it, the most serious and tragic matters were discussed. The poet leant his elbow on the American cloth of the nursery table, and talked over the coming trial with his solicitor.

While all our friends as well as the whole public were discussing Oscar, no one had any idea that he was under our roof. . .

He made certain rules in order to avoid any embarrassment for us. He never left the nursery floor till six o'clock. He had breakfast, luncheon and tea up there, and received all his loyal friends there. He never would discuss his troubles before me; such exaggerated delicacy seems to-day almost incredible. But every day at six he would come down dressed for dinner, and talk to me for a couple of hours in the drawing-room. [10]

At his final trial he was convicted and sentenced to two years' hard labor.

On Wilde's release from prison on 19 May 1897, Ada and Ernest were among the small group of friends who met him in London as he was on his way to the coast to sail for France. 

Very early one very cold May morning my husband, I and several other friends drove from our house in Deanery Street to meet Oscar at the house in Bloomsbury of the Rev. Stuart [Stewart] Headlam. The drawing-room was full of Burne-Jones and Rossetti pictures, Morris wallpaper and curtains, in fact an example of the decoration of the early 'eighties, very beautiful in its way, and very like the aesthetic rooms Oscar had once loved.

We all felt intensely nervous and embarrassed. We had the English fear of showing our feelings, and at the same time the human fear of not showing our feelings.

He came in, and at once he put us at our ease. He came in with the dignity of a king returning from exile. He came in talking, laughing, smoking a cigarette, with waved hair and a flower in his button-hole, and he looked markedly better, slighter, and younger than he had two years previously. His first words were, "Sphinx, how marvellous of you to know exactly the right hat to wear at seven o'clock in the morning to meet a friend who has been away!" [11]

The next day Wilde wrote her from his hotel in Dieppe:

Dear Sphinx,

I was so charmed with seeing you yesterday morning that I must write a line to tell you how sweet and good it was of you to be of the very first to greet me. When I think that Sphinxes are minions of the moon and that you got up early before dawn, I am filled with wonder and joy.

I often thought of you in the long black days and nights of my prison-life, and to find you just as wonderful and dear as ever was no surprise. The beautiful are always beautiful. [12]

A year later Ada visited Wilde in Paris, without Ernest, and she continued to correspond with him until his premature death in 1900. Ada memorialized their friendship in her second Ottley novel, Tenterhooks (1912), which features a character, Vincy, who is modelled on Wilde.

Violet Wyndham writes of the importance to Ada of Wilde's friendship,

He had been the catalyst necessary to the full development of her personality. With him she had known exciting fulfillment in the realm of the mind. Who was there to sparkle back at him better than herself? His appreciation was a gift that she treasured for a lifetime. It had polished the precious stone of her own talent. Perhaps, had she never known Wilde's admiration, she would not have had the confidence necessary for the writing of her novels. [13]

Next time: Ada Leverson, part 3: Love's Shadow
Last time: Ada Leverson, part 1: Edith and Bruce, the little Ottleys

  1. Ada Leverson, Letters to the Sphinx from Oscar Wilde, with Reminiscences of the Author, Duckworth, 1930, p. 52.
  2. [Ada Leverson,] "An Afternoon Party," Punch, or the London Charivari, Vol. 105, 15 July 1893, p. 13. A key to the references in the parody:
    • "Mrs. Arbuthnot—a woman of some importance": the main character in Wilde's play A Woman of No Importance (premiered 19 April 1893).
    • Charley's Aunt: the title character in the long-running farce by Brandon Thomas (London premiere 21 December 1892).
    • "Captain Coddington, who is 'in town' for the season": the main character in the musical In Town, book by James T. Tanner, music by F. Osmond Carr, lyrics by Adrian Ross (premiered 15 October 1892).
    • "the person in the silver domino" [mask]: a reference to the anonymously published volume of gossip and satire, The Silver Domino, or Side Whispers, Social and Literary (Lamley and Co., 1892), later revealed to have been written by Marie Corelli; it quickly went through multiple editions.
    • Lord Illingworth: the former lover of Mrs. Arbuthnot in A Woman of No Importance.
    • Lord Henry Wotton: the sybaritic aristocrat in Wilde's The Picture of Dorian Gray (published April 1891).
    • Princess Salomé: the title character of Wilde's play Salomé (published 1893).
    • Portia: a character in Shakespeare's The Merchant of Venice played by Ellen Terry in the June 1893 London production starring Henry Irving as Shylock. Wilde wrote a poem entitled "Portia" dedicated to Terry about her performance in the role.
    • "What has she got on?" / "Oh, it's nothing": a reference to Salomé's Dance of the Seven Veils.
    • Mr. Walker, London: a reference to J.M. Barrie's "farcical comedy" Walker, London (premiered 25 February 1892). "It's nothing" is the tag line of the character Jasper Phipps, played by the noted comic actor J.L. Toole.
    • Lady Windermere: the main character of Wilde's play Lady Windermere's Fan, A Play About a Good Woman (premiered 20 February 1892).
    • "Brazil, where the nuts come from": a line spoken by the title character in Charley's Aunt.
    • "fond of boar's head": that is, "bore's head"—that of Jokanaan (John the Baptist), which Salomé demands on a platter.
  3. Osbert Sitwell, Noble Essences: A Book of Characters (Little, Brown, 1950), pp. 154-155. If Wilde wrote to the anonymous author, it must have been through Punch.
  4. Violet Wyndham, The Sphinx and her Circle: A Biographical Sketch of Ada Leverson, 1862-1933, (André Deutsch, 1963), p. 24.
  5. Violet Wyndham, The Sphinx and her Circle, p. 22.
  6. Ada Leverson, Letters to the Sphinx, p. 50.
  7. "The Minx.—A Poem in Prose," Punch, or the London Charivari, Volume 107, 21 July 1894, p. 33; a parody of Oscar Wilde's The Sphinx (published 11 June 1894).
    The other two parodies:
    • "Overheard Fragment of A Dialogue," Punch, or the London Charivari, Volume 108, 12 January 1895, p. 24; a parody of Oscar Wilde's An Ideal Husband (premiered 3 January 1895).
    • "The Advisability of Not Being Brought up in a Handbag: A Trivial Tragedy for Wonderful People (Fragment found between the St. James's and Haymarket Theatres)," Punch, or the London Charivari, Volume 108, 2 March 1895, p. 107; a parody of Oscar Wilde's The Importance of Being Earnest, A Trivial Comedy for Serious People (premiered 14 February 1895).

      This parody contains a passage that daringly seems to refer to homosexuality:

      • Dorian. To be really modern one should have no soul. To be really mediæval one should have no cigarettes. To be really Greek——
      • [The Duke of Berwick rises in a marked manner, and leaves the garden.
      • Cicely (writes in her diary, and then reads aloud dreamily). "The Duke of Berwick rose in a marked manner, and left the garden. The weather continues charming.". . . .
  8. "Sphinxes without secrets": Oscar Wilde, The Picture of Dorian Gray (Ward Lock & Co., 1891), Ch. XVII. "The Sphinx Without a Secret": published in Lord Arthur Savile's Crime and Other Stories (James R. Osgood, McIlvaine and Co., 1891).
  9. Ada Leverson, Letters to the Sphinx, pp. 26 & 29.
  10. Ada Leverson, Letters to the Sphinx, pp. 37-38. Golliwogs, I've just learned, were rag dolls based on the character Golliwogg in the children's books of Florence Kate Upton; today this character is seen as embodying racist stereotypes. A dado, according to the Shorter Oxford English Dictionary, is a protective moulding around the lower part of an interior wall. American cloth is what Americans call oilcloth.
  11. Ada Leverson, Letters to the Sphinx, pp. 44-45.
  12. Violet Wyndham, The Sphinx and her Circle, p. 59.
  13. Violet Wyndham, The Sphinx and her Circle, p. 61.

Sunday, December 19, 2021

Ada Leverson, part 1: Edith and Bruce, the little Ottleys

When I spotted the Virago Modern Classic edition of Ada Leverson's three-novel collection The Little Ottleys at my local library book sale, I hesitated. I feared that I would find her stories of social and emotional dilemmas among the Edwardian privileged classes, who are depicted in all their insularity and entitlement, to be more annoying than amusing.

I needn't have worried: her portrait of the marital constraints that male vanity and obtuseness place on intelligent and deeply-feeling women is quietly devastating.

I. Edith and Bruce

The opening scene from Love's Shadow (1908), the first of the three novels, perfectly encapsulates the dynamic of the central relationship in The Little Ottleys:

'There's only one thing I must really implore you, Edith,' said Bruce anxiously. 'Don't make me late at the office!'

'Certainly not, Bruce,' answered Edith sedately. She was seated opposite her husband at breakfast in a very new, very small, very white flat in Knightsbridge—exactly like thousands of other new, small, white flats. She was young and pretty, but not obvious. One might suppose that she was more subtle than was shown by her usual expression, which was merely cheerful and intelligent.

'Now I have to write that letter before I go,' Bruce exclaimed, starting up and looking at her reproachfully. 'Why didn't I write it last night?'

Edith hadn't the slightest idea, as she had heard nothing of the letter before, but, in the course of three years, she had learnt that it saved time to accept trifling injustices. So she looked guilty and a little remorseful. He magnanimously forgave her, and began to write the letter at a neat white writing-table.

'How many g's are there in "Raggett"?' he asked suspiciously.

She didn't answer, apparently overtaken by a sudden fit of absence of mind.

'Only one, of course. How absurd you are!' said her husband, laughing, as he finished the letter and came back to the table.

She poured out more coffee.

'It's a curious thing,' he went on in a tone of impartial regret, 'that, with all the fuss about modern culture and higher education nowadays, girls are not even taught to spell!'

'Yes, isn't it? But even if I had been taught, it might not have been much use. I might just not have been taught to spell "Raggett". It's a name, isn't it?'

'It's a very well-known name,' said Bruce.

'I daresay it is, but I don't know it. Would you like to see the boy before you go?'

'What a question! I always like to see the boy. But you know perfectly well I haven't time this morning.'

'Very well, dear. You can see him this afternoon.'

'Why do you say that? You know I'm going golfing with Goldthorpe! It really is hard, Edith, when a man has to work so much that he has scarcely any time for his wife and child.'

She looked sympathetic.

'What are you doing today?' he asked.

'Hyacinth's coming to fetch me for a drive in the motor.'

His face brightened. He said kindly, 'I am so glad, darling, that you have such a delightful friend—when I can't be with you. I admire Hyacinth very much, in every way. She seems devoted to you, too, which is really very nice of her. What I mean to say is, that in her position she might know anybody. You see my point?'


'How did you meet her originally?'

'We were school-friends.'

'She's such a lovely creature; I wonder she doesn't marry.'

'Yes, but she has to find someone else whom she thinks a lovely creature, too.'

'Edith, dear.'

'Yes, Bruce.'

'I wish you wouldn't snap me up like that. Oh, I know you don't mean it, but it's growing on you, rather.'

She tried to look serious, and said gently, 'Is it, really? I am sorry.'

'You don't mind me telling you of it, do you?'

'Not at all. I'm afraid you will be late, Bruce.'

He started up and hurried away, reminding Edith that dinner was to be at eight. They parted with affectionate smiles.

When he had gone down in the lift, Edith took an inextensive walk through the entire flat, going into each room, and looking at herself in every looking-glass. She appeared to like herself best in the dining-room mirror, for she returned, stared into it rather gravely for some little time, and then said to herself: 'Yes, I'm beginning to look bored.' [1]

As well she might, chained for life to the insufferable Bruce.

II. Ada and Ernest

According to Sally Beauman's introduction to The Little Ottleys, at 19 Ada Beddington married businessman Ernest Leverson against her parents' wishes. He was at least a decade older than Ada. Perhaps at first acquaintance he seemed charming; or perhaps for a lively, clever, pleasure-loving young woman he simply promised an escape from the confines of her family home. After their marriage, writes Beauman, Ada quickly learned that Ernest was "a compulsive gambler, and incautious investor, and a philanderer," whose "ward" was really his illegitimate daughter from a previous liaison. The fatuous, self-absorbed, and self-pitying Bruce Ottley is widely assumed to be based on Ernest. And Edith, with her quick perception, calm good sense, and subtle humor, is often seen as a self-portrait of Ada.

III. One is not enough

I had intended this post to be a review of all three novels in The Little Ottleys. But in the process of researching and writing it I learned that Ada Leverson was much more than a keenly witty novelist. It soon became clear that a single post couldn't do her justice. So over the next several posts I will explore her remarkable life, times and work, including her friendship with Oscar Wilde, her loyalty during and after his trials, the increasing strains on her marriage (and its ultimate dissolution), and her discovery of her gifts as a novelist. I hope you'll enjoy accompanying me on that journey.

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

  1. Ada Leverson, The Little Ottleys: Love's Shadow (Virago/Dial, 1983), Ch. I. Quote from Sally Beauman's introduction, p. x. Full text of Love's Shadow available at Project Gutenberg:

Saturday, December 4, 2021

Favorites of 2021: Streamed performances

Soprano Mary Bevan. Photo: Victoria Cadisch

In this second year of the pandemic, streaming enabled us to see concerts happening across the country or across the world at a time of our choosing; return to a specific moment in a concert if we were interrupted, or rewatch it in its entirety; or pause to get up and pour refills of our adult beverages. Of course it's not the same as an in-person performance: the view is better, while the sound doesn't compare. But for much of the past year streaming has been the only possible experience, and it definitely has its own advantages. Many thanks to the relative who gave us a gift subscription to Boston Baroque, which inaugurated our streaming explorations.

Two streamed concert series in particular showed how it could, and should, be done: keep the cost of tickets closer to that of a movie than an in-person concert, give viewers not a specific time or only one night but rather several days or weeks over which they can view the event, and make the technical side as straightforward as possible. Boston Baroque, the Voces8 Live from London Festivals, and the Boston Early Music Festival continue to get it right, providing models for how artists, companies and audiences can benefit from the streaming format.


Voces8: Live from London Festivals

Live from London is a series of hybrid online/in-person festivals of (chiefly) vocal groups and singers. Among the many participating groups and singers this year were I Fagiolini, the King's Singers, Stile Antico, and Dame Emma Kirkby. Each program included at least one collaboration with members of Voces8, the festival organizers and hosts. While the three concerts listed below were highlights, every program we saw was filled with wonderful music. The Live from London Christmas 2021 festival is now underway.

Johann Sebastian Bach: Mass in B Minor
Carolyn Sampson (soprano), Iestyn Davies (countertenor), Jeremy Budd (tenor), Matthew Brook (bass-baritone), and VOCES8, with the Academy of Ancient Music, Rachel Podger, guest leader; Barnaby Smith, conductor. Premiered 4 April 2021.

Performed on Easter Sunday, Bach's monumental Mass in B Minor offered solace and uplift after a pandemic year of separation, isolation and loss.

All Shall Be Well
ORA Singers with Zeb Soanes; Suzi Digby, artistic director. Premiered 11 July 2021.

In 1349 the Black Death arrived in Norwich, England, about 120 miles (200 km) northeast of London, and may have killed half the population; the plague returned periodically over the next four decades. The anchoress later known as Julian of Norwich, who was six years old at the first appearance of the plague, and who over the course of her life witnessed mass death and social disruption, nevertheless would write, "All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well."

Inspired by Julian's affirmation, Suzi Digby and ORA Singers juxtaposed Renaissance works with contemporary pieces inspired by them, interspersed with texts read by BBC presenter Zeb Soanes that spanned the centuries in between.

Roxanna Panufnik's "Kyrie after Byrd," a reflection on the "Kyrie" of William Byrd's Mass for 5 Voices, commissioned and performed by ORA Singers directed by Suzi Digby:

Kyrie eleison.
Christe eleison.
Kyrie eleison.
Lord, have mercy.
Christ, have mercy.
Lord, have mercy.

George Frideric Handel: Heroes and Heroines (arias and duets)
Mary Bevan (soprano) and Barnaby Smith (countertenor and artistic director of Voces8) with the Illyria Consort, Bojan Čičić, director. Premiered 8 August 2021.

This program presented arias and duets ranging from Handel's very first oratorio, Il trionfo del Tempo e del Disinganno (The Triumph of Time and Disillusionment, 1707) to his last, Jephtha (1751), and included three of his greatest operas: Rinaldo (1711), Giulio Cesare in Egitto (Julius Caesar in Egypt, 1724), and Rodelinda (1725). The selection functioned as a kind of "Handel's greatest hits," but with music this ravishing no more overarching theme or specific focus was necessary. Bevan has an immensely pleasing soprano with a hint of darker color that was showcased in her more pensive or plaintive arias, and which blended beautifully with Voces8 director Barnaby Smith's countertenor in the duets.

"Tu del Ciel ministro eletto" from Il trionfo:

Tu del Ciel ministro eletto
non vedrai più nel mio petto
voglia infida, o vano ardor.

E se vissi ingrata a Dio
tu custode del cor mio
a lui porta il nuovo cor.
You, the chosen minister of Heaven,
shall see no more in my heart
a faithless wish or vain passion.

And though I lived without offering thanks to God,
may you, my heart's guardian,
bring to Him a new heart.

Boston Early Music Festival and Festival Fringe

The Boston Early Music Festival has been presented every other year (with one exception) since 1981. BEMF also offers an annual concert season; the BEMF 2021-22 season is currently ongoing, and is highly recommended.

As with Live from London, we enjoyed every concert we saw as a part of the 2021 Boston Early Music Festival and Festival Fringe. I selected the following three concerts as favorites, though, because their programs seemed especially thoughtful.

Perpetual Night: 17th-century Ayres and Songs
Lucile Richardot (mezzo-soprano) with Ensemble Correspondances, Sébastian Daucé, director. Premiered 24 April 2021.

Programs of 17th century English songs often focus on a few major figures such as John Blow and Henry Purcell. While of course they are included here, one of the many excellences of this concert is that Richardot and Ensemble Correspondances director Sébastian Daucé have constructed a varied program that also includes less often performed music by composers such as John Banister, Robert Johnson, and William Lawes, as well as songs for both solo singer and vocal ensemble. Richardot has a striking voice with an especially rich lower range, and the accompaniments and instrumental pieces are sensitively performed. This program has also been released as an album on Harmonia Mundi, is available on YouTube or your favorite audio streaming service.

"Care-charming Sleep" by Robert Johnson:

Care-charming Sleep, thou easer of all woes,
Brother to Death, sweetly thyself dispose
On this afflicted prince; fall like a cloud
In gentle showers; give nothing that is loud
Or painful to his slumbers; easy, sweet,
And as a purling stream, thou son of Night,
Pass by his troubled senses; sing his pain,
Like hollow murmuring wind or silver rain;
Into this prince gently, oh gently slide,
And kiss him into slumbers like a bride.

Jean Richafort: A Requiem for Josquin
Cinquecento: Terry Wey (countertenor), Tore Tom Denys and Achim Schulz (tenor), Tim Scott Whiteley (baritone), Ulfried Staber (bass), with Bernd Oliver Fröhlich (tenor). Premiered 8 June 2021.

Filmed in the Vienna Imperial Chapel and marking the 500th anniversary of the death of the composer Josquin Desprez, this illuminating program by the all-male vocal group Cinquecento is filled with gorgeous polyphony. A 16th-century document names Jean Richafort as one of the numerous 'students' of Josquin, probably meaning that he took Josquin's music as a model for his own. This program illustrates that process by presenting Richafort's haunting six-voice Requiem in memory of Josquin along with the music by Josquin that is quoted in the Requiem. This program has also been released as an album on Hyperion.

Requiem æternam dona eis, Domine,
et lux perpetua luceat eis.

Circumdederunt me gemitus mortis,
dolores inferni circumdederunt me:

Te decet hymnus Deus, in Sion,
et tibi reddetur votum in Jerusalem:
exaudi orationem meam;
ad te omnis caro veniet.

Circumdederunt me gemitus mortis.
Give them eternal rest, O Lord,
and let perpetual light shine upon them.

Laments of death surround me,
pains of Hell surround me.

A hymn befits you, O God, in Zion,
and the vow will be repaid to you in Jerusalem:
hear my prayer;
all flesh will come to you.

Laments of death surround me.

New World Polyphony: Treasures from the Cathedral of Mexico City
Byrd Ensemble: Margaret Obenza, Danielle Reutter-Harrah, Ruth Schauble (soprano); Sarra Sharif, Joshua Haberman, Willimark Obenza (alto); Orrin Doyle, Sam Faustine (tenor); David Hoffman, Jared White (bass). Markdavin Obenza, director. Premiered 16 June 2021.

A well-conceived program of works drawn from a single source, the two choirbooks dated 1717 from the Cathedral of Mexico City. The concert opens with compositions by the Old World composers Palestrina, Victoria, and Lobo. The second half introduces works by the 17th- and 18th-century Mexican composers Antonio Rodriguez de Mata, Antonio de Salazar, and Manuel de Sumaya, who were trained in, continued and extended the tradition established by the earlier composers.

Markdavin Obenza selected the program (along with Margaret Obenza), directed the accomplished performances of these beautiful and moving works, and acts as our engaging and informative host. He also directed the concert video itself: amazingly, all of the performers recorded their parts separately and were seamlessly combined by Obenza to make it appear as though they were singing together in the beautiful setting of Trinity Parish Church in Seattle.

"Adjuva nos Deus" by Manuel de Sumaya:

Adjuva nos, Deus, salutaris noster,
propter gloriam nominis tui.
Domine, libera nos,
et propitius esto peccatis nostris
propter nomen tuum.
Help us, O God of our salvation,
for the glory of your name.
O Lord, deliver us,
and forgive us our sins
for your name’s sake.

The full 45-minute-long program can be viewed on YouTube.

Cal Performances

In Spring 2021, while the UC Berkeley campus was still closed, Cal Performances made concerts available as live or recorded streams. Oddly, given the summer and fall surge in cases due to the delta and now omicron variants, it has not offered that option for performances in its 2021-22 season. For the safety of artists and audiences, I hope that decision will soon be reconsidered.

Claudio Monteverdi: Madrigals of Love and War
La Capella Reial de Catalunya and Le Concert des Nations, Jordi Savall, director. Premiered 3 June 2021.

In this concert Jordi Savall revisited Monteverdi's Eighth Book of Madrigals, Madrigali guerrieri, et amorosi (Madrigals of war and love, 1638). Savall recorded excerpts from this collection in 1995 with his wife, the soprano Montserrat Figueras, and La Capella Reial de Catalunya; that album is now a classic. His interpretation of this glorious music has not changed greatly in the intervening years, nor is there any reason for it to do so.

Since video of the concert is no longer available, in its place I offer an excerpt from the 1995 album. "Lamento della ninfa" (Lament of the nymph), sung by the late Montserrat Figueras accompanied by La Capella Reial de Catalunya:

"Amor," dicea,
il ciel mirando il piè fermò

"dove, dov'è la fé
che 'l traditor giurò?"

Miserella. . .

"Fa che ritorni il mio
amor com'ei pur fu,
o tu m'ancidi, ch'io
non mi tormenti più."

Miserella, ah più no,
tanto gel soffrir non può

"Non vo' più ch'ei sospiri
se non lontan da me,
no, no, che i suoi martiri
più non dirammi, affé!"

Miserella, ah più no. . .

"Perché di lui mi struggo
tutt'orgoglioso sta,
che sì, che sì se 'l fuggo
ancor mi pregherà?"

Miserella, ah più no. . .

"Se ciglio ha più sereno
colei che 'l mio non è,
già non rinchiude in seno
Amor si bella fé."

Miserella, ah più no,
tanto gel soffrir non può

"Né mai si dolci baci
da quella bocca havrai,
né più soavi; ah, taci,
taci, che troppo il sai."
"O Love," she begged,
gazing heavenward, rooted to the earth
"What happened to the vow of faithfulness
that the traitor swore?"

Unhappy girl. . .

"Let my love return to me
as he was before.
Or kill me, so that
I no longer bear this torment."

The poor girl, ah, no more
can she suffer so much coldness

"No more will I listen to his sighs,
Unless he is so far from me,
That he cannot say the things
That torture me."

The poor girl, ah, no more, no. . .

"The more I destroy myself for him,
The more satisfied he becomes.
But if I were to flee,
Would he then come begging?"

The poor girl, ah, no more, no. . .

"That woman’s eyes
May be more limpid than mine,
But within my breast, O Love,
Lives a faithfulness more fair."

The poor girl, ah, no more
can she suffer so much coldness

"And that woman’s mouth will never
Give him kisses as soft nor
as sweet as mine! Hush!
What good does it do to say more?"


Boston Lyric Opera

Philip Glass: The Fall of the House of Usher
Chelsea Basler (soprano), Jesse Darden (tenor), Daniel Belcher (baritone), Christon Carney (tenor), Jorgeandrés Camargo (bass), with a special appearance by Sheila Vand. Boston Lyric Opera Orchestra, David Angus, conductor.

When the pandemic hit many opera companies delved into their archives and provided videos of past performances. In some cases (Glyndebourne) this was done extremely well, and in some cases (the Metropolitan Opera and San Francisco Opera) it was done poorly.

But a few companies took the pandemic as a creative opportunity. Boston Lyric Opera was one. When the planned stage production of Philip Glass and Arthur Yorinks' The Fall of the House of Usher was cancelled, BLO commissioned a film version involving hand-drawn and stop-motion animation as well as a live framing narration featuring actress Sheila Vand and a montage of found footage.

The strongest element of this mélange is the hand-drawn story of Luna, a child refugee who, together with her mother, is fleeing violence in Central America and trying to make it to the United States, an imagined place of safety. Luna's story and the found footage bring home, as it were, the United States' continuing history of racism, exclusion, fear, exploitation, environmental destruction, and injustice: the Return of the American Repressed, the sinister twin of the American Dream.

The weakest element of the whole is Arthur Yorinks' clunky libretto for the opera, which misrepresents Poe's Gothic horror story as a therapeutic narrative. The libretto regularly jarred this viewer out of Poe's doom-laden world, and is the reason this project is an honorable mention rather than a favorite.

Other Favorites of 2021: