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  • The Letters of Ethel Smyth to Edith Somerville, 1918–1921:A Chronicle of Desire
  • Sean O'Toole (bio)

Now I find myself building on the hope, or rather the fact, that you will write about your friend as long as you can hold a pen, though I know much water must flow under the bridge till many things can be said.

—Ethel Smyth to Edith Somerville1

We both gave ourselves away in our letters to a rather deplorable extent.

—Edith Somerville to Christopher St. John2

Dame Ethel Smyth (1858–1944), the English composer and suffragette, wrote 470 letters comprising over 2,000 pages to Edith Œ. Somerville (1858–1949), the Irish writer and half of the celebrated late Victorian literary collaboration known as Somerville and Ross, over the twenty-six years of their correspondence. Somerville almost certainly matched Smyth's output, although her letters from the relationship's intense and decisive first phase have unfortunately been destroyed. The thousands of remaining pages, including 297 letters from Somerville to Smyth dating from 1921, tell a story of an intimate and lasting relationship that developed following the painful loss of Somerville's "friend," her second cousin, coauthor, and life companion, Martin Ross (Violet Martin, 1862–1915). The intimate nature of Somerville's relationships with both Martin and Smyth has long been the subject of critical speculation, generating conflicting biographical [End Page 253] accounts: Maurice Collis's 1968 book paints the portrait of a lesbian, if a crudely stereotypical one, whereas Gifford Lewis's homophobic 1985 and 2005 books go to great lengths to defend Somerville against "the moral reprehensibility of homosexuality" and the "willful misreading" of contemporary understandings of homosexuality back into past relationships between women who did "not understand that this was possible."3 Given the polarized nature of these accounts and the relative dearth of overt expressions of same-sex desire between women in late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century Britain—in contrast with the copious archives of male same-sex desire—the record of Smyth's bold pursuit of Somerville in her letters to her between 1918 and 1921 is especially striking.

This correspondence remains unpublished and is largely unknown, however. In the existing biographies and histories of the period, Smyth's more scandalous extramarital encounters have tended to command more attention. These encounters included, for example, the Austrian aristocrat Elisabeth "Lisl" von Herzogenberg, piano pupil of Johannes Brahms and wife of Smyth's composition tutor at Leipzig; Henry "Harry" Brewster, the French American aesthete and husband of Lisl's older sister; the famous suffragette Mrs. Emmeline Pankhurst; Lady Mary Ponsonby, wife of Queen Victoria's private secretary; and Virginia Woolf, twenty-four years Smyth's junior, who ultimately resisted her pursuit, memorably likening it to "being caught by a giant crab."4 On the other end of the spectrum, widely acknowledged lesbian life partnerships also populate the received history. [End Page 254] Exemplary are the now-iconic "Ladies of Llangollen," Eleanor Butler and Sarah Ponsonby, two upper-class Irish women who broke with their families and eloped to Wales in 1778, causing much scandal and fascination, including in Somerville herself.5 Because these illicit relationships flouted existing norms and were in some way acknowledged by one or more of the participants, they left traces of documentary evidence that are often hard to come by in the history of homosexuality, particularly when it comes to lesbian relationships.

In contrast to the treatment of these extramarital affairs and life partnerships, Smyth's decades-long relationship with Somerville has received scant attention. This neglect stems at least partly from Somerville's lower profile, her isolation in rural Cork, and her embrace of the traditional matriarchal role within her distinguished Anglo-Irish family. Compounding the underestimation, the temperature of the relationship cooled after a difficult trip to Sicily in 1920, the women never lived together, and their letters have remained private. There is also the difficulty of accessing and deciphering long-buried handwritten letters as opposed to readily available biographies and other published accounts, including no fewer than ten volumes of Smyth's memoirs.6 As Amanda Harris notes, the tendency to favor carefully crafted published memoirs over...


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