As the boy is proverbially father to the man, so is the girl mother to
Looking back, over thirteen years of exacting professional work,
beginning in 1896—the sad cause and necessity for which will be told
later—my destiny seems to have been that of a writer.
True, on my first coming out the stage was my girlish ambition.
Elsewhere I have told how, after the success and delirious delight
of the private theatricals given at home for me instead of a ball—at
my own request—there came a tempting offer to make my bow behind the
footlights. Breathless with excitement I rushed downstairs to tell my
father and receive his approval. He heard my story, looked very sad,
and declared it should never be with his consent: “Of all professions
for women he disliked most the stage, especially for one so young.”
My dream was shattered, but the longing to work remained: _Je l’ai dans
le sang_. Looking back now, difficult though it is to see one’s own
growth, there was doubtless the worker dimly trying to struggle out of
the enveloping husk of protecting conventionalities: something within
me wanting to find an outlet, a means of _self-expression_.
In girlhood one hates the conventionalities. For instance, how I chafed
at the care demanded in handling old family treasures and wished
the cut-glass decanters, the old Scotch silver salvers, the Italian
embroidered cushions, and all the other details of a refined home, at
the bottom of the sea. I used mentally to vow that when I had a home
of my own I would never have anything that cost more than sixpence,
and would wear it out and throw it away. I did not then realise that
little by little the love of beautiful things, fine workmanship, rich
colours, coupled with reverence for ancient family gods, was being
fostered within me.
Environment is of enormous importance in a child’s life. Heredity and
environment are three-fourths of character, the other fourth being left
to chance and circumstances; and character counts for more in the end
than any other asset in life. If we are born into a refined home, we
learn to hate vulgar things, we are not interested in vulgar people,
and, however poor we may become, that love of culture and good taste
never leaves us.
In spite of the tales and explanations that my father gave us about
beautiful things of art, or curios, it must be owned these wearied me.
But when the day for work came, some of them formed the nucleus and
inspiration of the half-dozen articles the grown woman turned out every
week for the Press.
The influence of that Harley-Street home was very strong. I left it
when young for a house of my own, but its atmosphere went with me.
After all, it is the woman who makes the home. A man may be clever,
brilliant, hard-working, a good son, a good father, and a good master,
but without a wife the result is a poor thing. It is the woman who
keeps the home together. It is the woman who is the pivot of life. Most
men are like great big children, and have to be mothered to the end of
To my mother I really owe any success I may have had. Encouragement
goes a long way, just as human sympathy is the very backbone of life.
It was she who encouraged, cheered, and often censured, for she was
a severe critic. It was she who helped my father during those awful
years of blindness, who wrote his scientific books from dictation,
before the days of secretaries and shorthand. It was she who learnt to
work the microscope to save his eyes. Later, it was she who corrected
my spelling and read my proofs. Never an originator herself, she
was always an initiator. She ran her home perfectly and—whether as
daughter, wife, or mother—never failed. Her personality dominated,
and her personality made the home. Only two homes in life have been
mine, and, roughly speaking, half has been spent in each; and yet few
people have had so many addresses. I might have been running away from
creditors, so many strange places have given me shelter in different
I was a lazy young beggar in those Harley-Street days. Books and
lessons had no particular fascination for me, and the only things
I cared about were riding daily in the Row with my father, hunting
occasionally, dancing, and painting. My education, after preparatory
schooling, was more earnestly taken in hand at Queen’s College,
Harley Street, but I was a very bad pupil, never did anything with
distinction, and the only lectures I really cared for were literature
and history, and the only occupations that appealed to me were drawing
and map-making; but I did actually win a prize for mathematics.
Lady Tree, who was my mentor, can vouch for my mediocrity, judging by a
letter just found, written by her shortly after a serious accident.
“WALPOLE HOUSE, THE MALL,
“_November 21st, 1906_.
“Thank you so much for your sweet letter. I am home and getting on
wonderfully well, though I dare say some weeks will go by before
I shall be fit to be seen. _You_ are a wonder with all your work
and energy. What fun your _Observer_ article was on Sunday. You
clever Ethel—and I used to think—how many years ago?—that you only
cared about the set of your lovely ‘pinafores’ over your black silk
dresses, with slim body and _tiny_ waist. What were you?—14-16, I
think, and _the_ most lovely figure I ever saw. _Most_ naughty and
inattentive and _vain_ (I feared), with very small feet in little
tiny smart shoes below the kilt of the black silk dress.
“You will think my brain has gone the way of my jaw (indeed,
it _was_ cracked a little as a matter of fact); but I am only
remembering. Tell me, if you have time, dear, to write to me again,
all sorts of _goodish_ novels to read. I mean that I find I can
devour _now_ what I called trash a month ago.
“It is lovely to be at home here, with the babies and Viola,
and Herbert sparing as much time as he can from his _Anthony_
rehearsals. He, like everybody else, has been an angel to me, and
my heart is _too_ full of gratitude to everybody for all the love
and tenderness they have shown.
“What a long letter, but it will show you how well I am, dear. Thank
you again and again for writing.
“With love always,
Later on my school education was finished in Germany, where my mother
had many old friends, among whom was the great chemist, Baron von
Liebig, my godfather. How oddly, as years roll by, friends meet and
part and meet again, like coloured silks in a plaited skein. One of my
school-fellows in Germany, for instance, came from Finland, and, later
on, it was the fact of meeting her again that brought about my visit to
“Suomi,” described in _Through Finland in Carts_.
Another of my companions became engaged to one of Sweden’s most famous
artists, Carl Gustav Hellqvist, though at that time he was not known
so well as later. He only spoke Swedish and French, and Julie Thiersch
spoke German and English. Therefore many little translations were done
by myself at that delightful country home of Maler Thiersch, on the
shores of the König See, in Bavaria. Many sweet little sentences had to
be deciphered by me, although the language of the eyes is so powerful
that the actual proposal was accomplished through music (of which they
were both passionately fond) and rapturous glances, in which he, at any
What a delightful, fair, rough-and-tumble, jolly boyish man Hellqvist
then was. Later, gold medals were showered at his feet, and many
distinctions came to him while he painted those wonderful historical
pictures which are now in the Museum at Stockholm.
But, alas! a few years of happy married life ended in an early death.
Other German girl companions are now married to Dr. Adolf Harnack, the
famous theologian, and Professor Hans von Delbruck, Under-Secretary of
State for Germany.
Of amusement there was no lack at home, for from the age of seven,
I rode every morning with my father in Hyde Park, and kept up the
practice with my husband after my marriage. Then there was skating on
ice or rinks, croquet or tennis. There was also amusement of another
kind. A delightful old Scotch gentleman used to come and tune the piano
on Harley Street. One day he told me he was going on to tune one for an
entertainment for the blind in the East End.
“Why don’t you come and recite to them?” he asked.
I was fifteen or sixteen at the time and bursting with pride over
having won a prize for repeating Gray’s _Elegy_. That is a long time
ago, but from then till now I have gone two or three times a year as
girl, wife, or widow, to entertain those poor afflicted people—the
The Somers Town club, which began in a small way and now numbers over
eight hundred members, is the work of one woman. Mrs. Starey has
accomplished a great mission. Besides her clothing club, coal club,
and employment bureau, she provides an entertainment every Thursday
night for these sightless sufferers to whom she has devoted her life.
And as there are fifty-two Thursdays in a year, and it takes five or
six performers for each entertainment, one can glean some idea of the
labour entailed; but beyond all this, no outsider can realize what
her life and sympathy have done for these sufferers. As a girl my
interest was aroused in these people by the old piano tuner, and years
afterwards I went on to their work Committee—just one instance among
many, showing how first impressions and environment influence one’s
At “our shop” for the _Society for Promotion of the Welfare of the
Blind_, on Tottenham Court Road, they sell mats, brushes, chairs,
re-make mattresses, and even undertake shorthand notes and typewriting
with nimble fingers and blind eyes.
I danced hard, painted, and accomplished a good deal of needlework
for my father’s hospitals, or my own person. One Bugaboo haunted me,
however, and that was music. I sang a little and played a little, both
very badly, but my parents insisted on me struggling on. When I first
met Alec Tweedie, shortly after my coming out, I heard him say, “There
is only one thing in the world that would induce me to marry, and that
is a thoroughly musical girl.” He had a beautiful voice and sang a
great deal—but he married me!
Perhaps those music lessons made me appreciative later, but they were
an awful waste of time and money.
Again, painting was another likely channel for my energies, for at that
time I used to show my pictures at the women’s exhibitions; yes, and
sell them too. But writing must have been ordained for me by the stars.
A year or two before my actual coming out my parents took me to supper
one Sunday night at the house of Nicholas Trübner (the publisher), in
Upper Hamilton Terrace, his only child being about my own age. Charles
Godfrey Leland, Bret Harte, Miss Braddon, and others were there.
On this particular occasion I sat next that famous writer of gipsy
lore, Charles Godfrey Leland. He was an old friend of my father, and
often came to Harley Street, so I knew him well. He chaffed me about
being so grown up, and told me tales of some gipsy wanderings he had
just made, when suddenly he exclaimed:
“Let me see your hand.”
Leland was a firm believer in palmistry, which lore he had picked up
from the gipsies. For a long time, as it seemed to me, he was silent.
“Most remarkable, the most remarkable hand I have ever seen in anyone
so young. My dear, you must write, or paint, or sing, or do something
with that hand.”
Up to that moment I had certainly never thought of doing anything but
lessons or enjoying myself.
He took out his pocket-book and made some notes, then he insisted upon
the others looking at what he called “the character, originality, and
talent” depicted in my hand.
He was so long about it that I grew tired, and at last exclaimed:
“I shall charge you if you lecture them about me any more.”
“And I’ll pay,” he said; “I’ll send you a Breitmann Ballad all to
And he did. Naturally proud of being so honored in verse, its heroine
was nevertheless shy, and never, never showed her poetic trophy for
fear of being thought conceited.
[Illustration: HANS BREITMANN’S BALLAD TO THE AUTHOR WHEN]
[Illustration: A GIRL—SET TO MUSIC BY ADOLPH MANN]
Years afterwards—in 1908—Mrs. E. K. Pennell wrote the _Life_ of
her uncle, Charles Godfrey Leland, and there, to my surprise,
reproduced my hidden ballad, a copy of which she had found amongst
the writer’s papers. Sydney Low, in his critique of the book in the
_Standard_, said this poem “was one of the best Leland ever wrote.”
Leland intended it to be his last Breitmann Ballad, but I believe he
wrote another later.
I dink de sonn’ hafe perisht in all dis winter rain,
I never dink der Breitmann vould efer sing again;
De sonne vant no candle nor any Erdenlicht,
Vot _you_ vant mit a poem? bist selber ganz Gedicht.
For like a Paar of Ballads are de augen in your head,
(I petter call dem bullets vot shoot de Herzen dead).
And ash like a ripplin’ rifer efery poem ought to pe,
So all your form is flowin’ in perfect harmony.
I hear de epigramme in your sehr piquant replies,
I hear de sonnets soundin’ ven your accents fall and rise,
And if I look upon you, vote’er I feel or see,
De voice and form and motion is all one melody.
Du bist die Ideale of efery mortal ding,
Ven poets reach de perfect—dey need no longer sing
Das Beste sei das Letzte—de last is pest indeed!
Brich Herz und Laut! zusammen—dies ist mein letztes Lied!
Leland was an enormous man, with a long, shaggy beard. He came from
Pennsylvania, where he was born in 1824, but lived the greater part of
his life on this side of the water. He was full of good stories: knew
Oliver Wendell Holmes, Talleyrand, J. R. Lowell, Emerson, and others of
that ilk. Our sympathy lay, however, in his love of the gipsies (about
whom he wrote so much that to his friends he was known as “The Rye”),
also in his affection for and knowledge of Germany, so that when I came
back from that country a first-class chatterbox in the Teuton tongue,
and ready to shake school-days from my feet, he wrote me that I “looked
like a gipsy and talked German like a _backfish_.”
Those were the days of his waning as a literary star in London life,
a firmament in which he had shone for long. His Breitmann Ballads
were an unexpected hit. They made the journalist famous. The author
became known as “H. B.” on both sides of the water. History relates
that cigars were called after them, they were the rage. Germany was
indignant; France ecstatic.
Lying by me is a letter I received from “Hans Breitmann.” It displays
his unvarying kindness and helpfulness towards younger people, always
wanting to be doing something to employ their energetic mind and body.
I had evidently made some proposal to him, and he says:
“Short biographical sketches, as they are almost invariably given,
are the veriest nutshells filled with ashes that literature yields.
As regards to accuracy, you cannot obtain it by interviewing. It
does not happen that once in twenty times—if ever—that the most
practiced reporter succeeds in getting and giving even an average
idea of a life. I have sat for this kind of portrait more than
once. I once gave a professional collector of anecdotes _six_—and
when they appeared in his book he had missed the point of _five_.
“The best I can do for you will be to write you a brief sketch
of my rather varied and peculiar life—which I will do whenever
you want to go to work on me. It is rather characteristic of the
Briton that he or she does not invariably distinguish accurately in
conversation what is printable from what is not. Once in talking
with Frank Buckland about animals I mingled many Munchausenisms and
‘awful crammers’ with true accounts of our American fauna, etc.
Fortunately he sent me a _proof_ of his report! I almost—gasped—to
think that any mortal man _could_ swallow and digest such stories
as he had put down as facts. Had they been published he would have
appeared as the greatest fool and I as the grandest humbug—yea,
as the ‘Champion Fraud’ of the age. I believe that he was
seriously angered. Now the American knows the scum from the soup
in conversation. I never dreamed that any human being out of an
idiot asylum or a theological seminary could have believed in such
‘yarns’ as the great naturalist noted.
“I will do myself, however, the pleasure of interviewing you when I
get a little relief from the work which at present prevents me from
interviewing even my tailor.
“CHARLES G. LELAND.”
Leland was a most talented man, if one may use the word, for talent
itself is generally undefinable even through a magnifying glass.
[Illustration: AUTHOR’S HAND]
Later, Adolph Mann, the composer, wished to set Leland’s charming words
to music, and the accompanying ballad in 1908 was the result.
Sir Charles Santley thought so highly of it, “that he much regretted
that the public would not let him sing any new things or he would have
rendered it himself,” but, as he sadly remarked, “I am never allowed to
sing anything but the old songs,” and at seventy two, when he retired,
he was still “singing the old songs.”
That is the worst part of being a celebrity. The moment a man makes
a name in any particular line, whether singing a song, acting a
particular style or part, painting a certain type of tree, scenes
of snow or what not—along that line he has to go for evermore, for
the public to consider anything else from that particular person an
imposition. People do not naturally become groovy. It is the public
that makes them so.
The next development of Leland’s palmist theory, which begun in my
youth, took place some years later, when a man arrived one day asking
permission to make an impression of my hand. If I remember correctly,
it was for a series of magazine articles upon the resemblance between
the hands of persons occupied in the same professions. He showed
impressions of the hands of many well known folks, and it was strange
to see how inventive minds, like Sir Hiram Maxim, that delightful man
of leonine appearance, had blunted tips to their fingers. That artistic
and musical people should have long and tapering fingers was not
surprising, but he pointed out other characteristics. Smearing a sheet
of white paper with smoke, he pressed the palm of my hand on it, ran
round the fingers with a pencil, and the trick was done. Anything more
hideous or like a murderer’s fist one has seldom seen, but the lines
were there as distinctly as those of prisoners’ fingers when their
impressions are taken for purposes of identification.
This discovery, that the lines of the human thumb do not change from
cradle to grave—was one of the brilliant achievements of Sir Francis
Galton (the founder of Eugenics). I remember the great kindly,
soft-voiced scientist in my father’s house speaking enthusiastically
of Darwin—who was his relative—and his work. He was as determined to
improve the race as Darwin was to prove its origin.
Sir Francis Galton was one of the kindest old gentlemen. Benevolence,
goodness, and sympathy were written large all over his face. It was his
very sympathy with mankind that made him wish to better the lot of the
degenerate, while preventing their marriage, and improve the condition
of the unsound. He even went so far as to wish rich folk to gather
about them fine, sturdy young couples, to protect them and look after
their children for the good of the race. He saw that the human race is
deteriorating, while different breeds of animals are improving under
The tiny seeds of the environment of youth are what blossom and ripen
in later years. And here, again, my childish environment bore ultimate
fruit. As a child I met Galton, and as a woman I went on to the Council
of the Eugenic Society of England.
Yes, I had a good time, a really lovely girlhood, and when the days of
worry came I could look back with pleasure to those happy years. The
remembrance helped me—but I missed the old life.
It doesn’t matter being born poor, that is no crime, and we cannot miss
what we never had; but the poverty which robs of the luxuries—that use
has really made necessaries—of existence is a cruel, rasping kind of
poverty, that irritates like a gall on a horse’s back until one learns
the philosophy of life. Luxury is merely a little more self-indulgence
than one is accustomed to. Prolonged luxury becomes habit. The
well-born can do without cream, but they cannot do without clean linen.
Those girlhood days were bright and happy. I had no cares, just a
rollicking time in a refined and cultured home, with lots of young men
ready to amuse me, and after all these years I am proud to say girl
friends of my school days, and even of the kindergarten, are still
constant visitors at my home. As I write a beautiful white azalea
stands before me, an offering from a woman, who sent it with a note,
saying, “It was so kind of you to let me come and see you after nearly
thirty years, and so charming to find you so little changed from my
school-playmate, in spite of all you have done since we met. Accept
this flower with gratitude and affection from a friend of your early
These are the pretty little things that make life pleasant.