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Click here for Dame Ethel Smyth's family background ... Image adapted from original chalk drawing by John Singer Sargent -- American painter  1901Dame Ethel Smyth (1858-1944) - composer and militant suffragette - was, according to Smyth of Barbavilla family historian, Stephen Penny, 'a celebrated descendant' of William Smyth of Ireland, descended from the Yorkshire Smyth line treated on this site. Click on the "Rosedale Spot" to access a comprehensive history of that lineage - written by American cousin, David Smyth, of the Hutchinson Smyth branch of the family.

Use the image of Dame Ethel Smyth to access a page which outlines her genealogy and family background. This page added with updtaed information, August 2003.

Dame Ethel Smyth - Public Persona

From a young age, Ethel Smyth was taught piano and music theory - very much valued as the 'ladylike accomplishments' of the day but a turning point came when she was about twelve years old. She heard a new governess, who had studied in Leipzig, playing Beethoven and she decided then and there that she wanted to become a composer. Her love for music developed into a passion but her family did not approve of the intensity of her interest and her father fought against her ambition. He made her give up all study of serious music. There followed a two year struggle - a protracted campaign during which she "went on strike" and ended up virtually confining herself to her room. She refused to attend meals, to be present at official or family functions and neither would she go to church of a Sunday. Eventually, her father did give in to her wishes but, for the Major General, this must have been his most difficult campaign. In 1877, at the age of nineteen, she was finally allowed to go to Leipzig to further her music education. In Leipzig, she met Brahms who did not take her music seriously, and she met Pyotry Tchaikovsky who encouraged her to find her own style. She also met Clara Schumann but she left the Leipzig Conservatorium of Music after only one year, feeling that she was not being taught properly and she began private study with Heinrich Herzogenberg.

In 1890 she made her début in England with her 'Seranade in D' at the Crystal Palace. She established her reputation with her 'Mass in D' which was performed at the Albert Hall. In 1903 her Der Wald became the first and only opera by a woman to be performed in New York's Metropolitan Opera.

Works such as her opera, The Wreckers, and her Mass in D were received with great acclaim at their début. However, she struggled for recognition as a composer - especially as a female composer in a male dominated profession - for most of her life. In all, she composed over two hundred works, ranging from operas to symphonies, concertos, dozens of lieder (German folk songs), orchestral songs, choruses, canticles, string quartets, comic short operas, and masses.

Dame Ethel's song, The March of the Women, was adopted and sung by suffragettes throughout London and, most famously - though away from public eyes and ears - at Holloway Prison in 1912. For a period of some two years, during which time she gave up music completely, Dame Ethel Smyth allied herself closely with the suffragette leader, Emmeline Pankhurst. Emmeline was born Emmeline Goulden, in Manchester. (Internet trawling has, from a vague recollection, seen the family name of Goulden associated with Smyth family in other contexts.) Emmeline Goulden Pankhurst

In 1879, Emmeline married Richard Pankhurst, author of Britain's first Women's-Suffrage Bill and the Married Women's Property Acts of 1870 and 1882. In 1889 she founded the Women's Franchise League, which, in 1894, secured for married women the right to vote in local elections. After holding municipal offices in Manchester, in 1903 she founded the Women's Social and Political Union. However, from 1912 she advocated a strategy of extreme militancy, mainly in the form of arson, and was arrested 12 times in one year. Dame Ethel Smyth spent several weeks in Holloway Prison with more than a hundred others - including Pankhurst - after this well-coordinated series of attacks on the homes of their anti-suffrage opponents. Ethel was imprisoned in March 1912 when she was arrested for smashing the windows of the Colonial Secretary. Windows had been smashed all over London in this 'campaign'. At Holloway, whilst the inmates were exercising one day - and singing her 'March of the Women' - she appeared at the window of her cell above them and could be seen wildly and gleefully conducting the singers with her toothbrush. Emmeline Pankhurst died in 1928 but she survived just long enough to hear that a bill had been passed to give voting rights to all women. She died a few weeks later

The words to Dame Ethel's song were written by Cicely Hammill - better known by her 'stage' name as Cicely Hamilton (1872-1952). She was an actress and playwright. Her father died when she was eighteen and she had to make her own way. She became a pupil teacher and then turned to acting. She found work with touring companies but it was impossible for her to make a living that way. She left the stage and began to write. After the publication of her first play she became interested in women's suffrage, joining the Women's Social and Political Union and then the Women's Freedom League. She helped to found the Women Writers' Suffrage League and produced propaganda for the cause - amongst other things, the words for Ethel's 'March of the Women'. She also wrote the play, 'How the Vote was Won'. Her best known book is 'Marriage As a Trade' (1909), which deals extensively with the inequity of womens' lack of economic and sexual independence within marriage - being seen and known only in relationship to a man.

From 1919 onwards, Dame Ethel devoted her time to writing books, mainly biographical material, but which body of work forms a rich and comprehensive social tapestry. She was at first mocked - but later encouraged - in her writing by Virginia Woolf. She had also been gently caricatured in E.F. Benson's 1893 novel Dodo - in the character of Edith Staines.

In connection with Dame Ethel's friendship with Virginia Woolf comes this anecdote pointed out by family historian, David Smyth and discovered in The Little, Brown Book of Anecdotes - Clifton Fadiman, General Editor 1985.

 Leonard and Virginia Woolf invited Dame Ethel, then quite elderly, to dinner at their house at Rodmell in Sussex.

"Dame Ethel bicycled the twenty miles from the village where she lived to Rodmell, dressed in rough tweeds. About two miles from her destination she decided that perhaps she was not suitably dressed for a dinner party. She thought that possibly corsets were required to smarten up her figure. Accordingly, she went into a village shop and asked for some corsets. There were none. Distressed, she looked round the shop and her eye lighted on a bird cage, which she purchased. About twenty minutes later, Virginia went into her garden to discover Dame Ethel in a state of undress in the shrubbery, struggling with the bird cage, which she was wrenching into the shape of corsets and forcing under her tweeds."

Adapted from "Under Full Sails: Dame Ethel Smyth" by Barbara Grier alias Dorothy Lyle.

"Ethel [Smyth] is much more famous for her writing and for her enormous capacity for good friendships than for her composing. Despite the essentially self-centered approach necessitated by this kind of writing, where I, I, I, is the major subject, she was able to remain fascinating at all times. She had the skill necessary to make the most minute and mundane recountings intelligent and interesting. Part of it, no doubt, is because she genuinely enjoyed living, and liked so many diverse people."

According to British Manuscript Commission records, Dame Ethel also corresponded often with Madame Lucie Barbier (1875-1963) who was a singer and pianist, closely involved with La Société des Concerts Français between 1907 and 1916.
In later life Dame Ethel was forced to give up her musical career because of increasing deafness but Dame Ethel Mary Smyth was a remarkable woman in many respects and became very much part of the artistic, creative, political and intellectual movements of her time. Besides her success as a composer - which, even in the modern era, is the subject of some debate - she was an advocate of free personal relationships. She developed associations (romantic and artistic) with many of the leading female writers of the era - several of whom were also associated with Kit (Clementina) Anstruther-Thomson, a maternal line cousin, treated elsewhere on this site. See Notes below.

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Edited from "Under Full Sails: Dame Ethel Smyth" by Barbara Grier alias Dorothy Lyle.

"From the start of her teen years, she [Dame Ethel Smyth] began her lifelong pattern of passionate friendships. She was quite sincerely loved by dozens of women (besides those she was actually in love with, or was loved by) and by a surprising number of men.

In 1878 [Leipzig] she became the pupil of Heinrich von Herzonberg. At the same time she became the lover of his wife, Lisl (Elizabeth). This relationship was to be the first of two that basically shaped her life. Lisl and Ethel were separated by a family argument, which had nothing to do with their personal relationship. Ethel never got over this disappointment, as is amply reflected in her enormously detailed autobiographical works. The sense of tragedy in this affair is multiplied by the fact that when there came a time that a reconciliation was possible, Lisl died before it could be accomplished. Brewster and Herzogenberg

For years after Lisl there were many women in Ethel's life. None of them mattered to her greatly, however, except perhaps one, the pale and lovely [artist] Julia Brewster. [plus Pauline Trevelyan and Winnaretta Singer] Julia was important in two ironic ways. While Ethel was courting Julia, Julia's husband, Henry Brewster, was busily pursuing Ethel.

[ She first met Henry 'Harry' Brewster - a philosopher and writer - in Florence in 1882. It is said that he was the man with whom she had her only heterosexual experience. They became collaborators and he wrote some of her librettos. Lisl (Elizabeth Brewster) was his sister and the wife of her private teacher, Heinrich. ]

A list of the men and women who were extraordinarily fond of Ethel would, or could, be endless. Ethel, in her many biographically formed memoirs, always carefully separates these people into categories. The men are lumped together as a species apart. Women are divided into two groups, friends and lovers. There was little overlapping of the latter two groups. There is also a small group of women that Ethel thought of as friends, but that clearly wished Ethel were more than friendly. Among her friends were Lady [Mary] Ponsonby, The Empress Eugénie (who was enormously fond of Ethel), Sir George Henschel, Virginia Woolf (Ethel was passionately in love with her, but there is no evidence that this was returned). V. Sackville-West and her husband, Edward, who once lovingly described her as having the profile of Wagner and Frederick the Great at the same time.

The pattern of her emotional relationships is, in one way, amazing. Though she was briefly attached to perhaps thirty women in her lifetime (on a passionate level), she had only two major affairs. The first, [Lisl] when she was twenty years old and the object of her affections was much older. The next time she fell in love with any real seriousness was in 1919, when she was sixty-one years old. The object of this romance was Dr. Edith Anna Oenone Somerville - the famous lady of the Somerville and Ross writing team. By this time, 1919, Martin Ross (Violet Florence Martin), Dr. Somerville's lover from 1886 until 1915, had been dead three years and over. For many years, these two Ediths were to trade endearments and insults, publicly and privately, and to remain very close. There is no question that this was a physically unconsummated affair (unlike Ethel's early affairs) both because of the age of the ladies and Dr. Somerville's known views on the "grosser" aspects of passion. At the same time, in 1919, Dame Ethel began to publish what was to become a fantastic amount of autobiographical writing. Vita Sackville-West

In addition to her traveling, her writing, her music and composing, she carried on a voluminous correspondence with, literally, dozens of people over long periods of time. It was said that her letters ran to at least 1000 words apiece and often they were 4000 words long. V. Sackville-West commented that if her correspondence were to be printed in its entirety, it would rival the Encyclopedia Britannica in bulk.

Dame Smyth lived until 1944, and apparently enjoyed every minute of her long life. This is very clear in her own writings. She had unhappy moments, but the overall picture is a bright and useful one. She wrote good and bad music, excellent books, made many good friends, virtually no enemies - she disliked, or did not approve of, some people, and was not above "savaging" them in person or in print (She blasted Vernon Lee for not admitting her Lesbianism to herself - in print) - and lived every hour until her death at age eighty-six. If there were a heaven, she'd be, no doubt, in charge of organizational details."

Dame Ethel's biographer - Miss Christopher St. John - completed the biography at the age of 80+. After Miss John's obituary appeared in The Times newspaper in 1967, Vita Sackville-West was moved to write to the paper and had this to say:
"Something should be added to your obituary notice of Christopher St. John, in your issue of October 25, for she was in the grand tradition of English eccentrics.  One could both tease and please her by calling her a Shakespeare character.  Roaring rumbuctious at moments who will ever forget her great laugh as her unwieldy frame rocked with amusement? - she yet possessed the most delicate perception of poetry and delight in all forms of beauty and nature.  Of course, she was not always easy to deal with; eccentrics seldom are.  But much was forgiven her, because she gave such wealth in return.

Her courage should also be set on record. Few people of her age, then over 80 would have the pluck and determination to resume writing the biography of Dame Ethel Smyth after a serious illness and weeks in the hospital.  Your obituary does not mention this book, chosen as the Book of the Month by the Book Society, yet she completed it and it was published by Messrs. Longmans Green & Co. in 1958.  Not content with this truly gallant effort, and hampered as always by physical adversity, she then embarked on a fresh work connected with Ellen Terry, which illness once more interrupted, and which she never had time to complete."

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