- Gabriela Cunninghame Graham: Deception and Achievement in the 1890s
The funeral of Gabriela, wife of Robert Bontine Cunninghame Graham, took place on 19 September 1906 in the chancel of the ruined church of the Priory of Inchmahome, where the remains of her husband's aristocratic ancestors lay, on the island of the Lake of Menteith, Perthshire. The dead woman had been one of the literary characters of the 1890s: a friend of Wilde, Yeats, Shaw and Keir Hardie, giving lectures on socialism and mysticism, writing a major biography of Saint Teresa and contributing to The Yellow Book. Newspaper reports said: "It was fitting that the gentle lady should sleep in the historic little island in the placid waters of the Lake of Menteith.… She was the daughter of Don Francisco José de la Balmondière, Chili [sic], and her sympathies were largely Spanish. Nevertheless she showed an abiding interest in all that appertained to the welfare of the district of Menteith, where she was greatly loved, and where she received many spontaneous tokens of admiration and regard." She was described as "a woman possessing the highest accomplishments and a keen and penetrating intellect which overcame every difficulty that a language foreign to her could present."1
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Cunninghame Graham, her husband, was a charismatic figure, the first openly socialist Member of Parliament, as a Liberal member for North-West Lanarckshire from 1886 to 1892. He opposed racism, imperialism and campaigned for universal suffrage, free secular education and the eight-hour day; and he fought on behalf of exploited workers in the docks and the chain-making industry. His wife witnessed him being clubbed to the ground by police during the "bloody Sunday" demonstration of 13 November 1887 for the right of free assembly. At his subsequent trial for illegal assembly she issued "At Home" cards giving their address as "Bow Street Police Court."2 He was later a leading proponent [End Page 251] of Home Rule for Scotland, president of the Scottish Home Rule Association, and eventually of the Scottish National Party.
The romantic first meeting of this celebrity couple was well known when they were alive and has been frequently retold in biographies of Cunninghame Graham and in such books about the nineties as Katherine Lyon Mix's A Study in Yellow. There she writes that "no Yellow Book contributor could boast a more romantic history than she" and describes a riding accident in which Cunninghame Graham nearly knocked over his future wife: "After dismounting to apologise, he fell in love with the beautiful dark-haired girl. His excuses merged into an impetuous courtship and after a few secret meetings, Gabriele [sic], unhappy in her convent school, eloped with him to England."3
Cunninghame Graham's friend A. F. Tschiffely gives what became the definitive account of this meeting in Paris, taken from Cunninghame Graham himself, who chose Tschiffely as his biographer: "One day he rode a horse which gave him a certain amount of trouble, and when the animal suddenly began to prance about wildly, it nearly knocked over a young lady who happened to be near. Don Roberto immediately dismounted to apologise, and, being somewhat embarrassed, he inadvertently spoke to her in Spanish. To his surprise and delight she answered in the same language, and then, for a while, the two chatted and arranged to meet again next day. As this was a case of love at first sight, things happened quickly." He notes that she was born in Chile of a French father and a Spanish mother who had come to Paris at twelve where her aunt had put her in a convent.4
Herbert Faulkner West, another friend and an earlier biographer, merely noted that at "the age of twenty-seven, in 1879, Cunninghame Graham married a Chilean lady, a Roman Catholic, Gabriela, the daughter of Don Francisco José de la Balmondière."5 What is verifiable is that they were married at the London registry office on 24 October 1878 with no relatives present. His profession was given as "gentleman." She was named...