Friday, 22 January 2016

Mrs Gordon Smythies - a Woman Ripe for Rediscovery

Acquitted (1870) by Mrs. Gordon Smythies opens with a most heart-wrenching dedication by the author to John Hastings Esq M.D. Overflowing with Victorian sentimentality and pathos it nevertheless impresses with a feeling of true sorrow and a sense of loss, and reveals something of the author’s emotional state. 

The dedication is dated 10th May 1870, four years after Smythies’ daughter died of consumption in 1866, a disease associated with pale and weak young women slowly drifting towards death. Smythies thanks John Hastings for he care he gave to her daughter:

“But through your genius and your untiring care, the last year of that dear spotless life was one of freedom from pain and bodily discomfort, and one of mental peace and happiness; and when at last that pure and pious spirit was summoned to its reward and to its rest, she passed away so calmly and as painlessly as a fair and spotless lily, the flower that she so truly resembled.” (Acquitted, Dedication.) 

The dedication seems fully aware of its own customary sentimentality. It adheres to the expected form and style of writing appropriate to the subject matter, but through the flowery language and passionate expressions of emotion, it still conveys genuine sorrow of a mother who has lost her child and dearest companion. In this dedication Mrs Gordon Smythies shows herself able to use Victorian melodramatic excess to convey real emotion. This alone makes her an interesting author to study.

Like Mary Elizabeth Braddon, Mrs Gordon Smythies was a strong and determined Victorian woman, who single-handedly supported an extensive family with the power of her pen. Smythies has been called the “most popular and prolific of Victorian novelists” who “has been so undeservedly and so completely forgotten.” (Summers, p359). She does not even have a Wikipedia page to her name. 

Smythies’ writing may not have the range and power of Braddon’s work. Perhaps she does not deserve the level of admiration and scholarly interest that Braddon has received in the last decade. Nevertheless, Mrs Gordon Smythies’ novels and life are worthy of our attention. She was a brave and resourceful woman, and above all, she was an extremely popular mid-Victorian novelist. Most reference works that include an entry for Smythies seem to use Nigel Cross’s The Common Writer: Life in the 19th-Century Grub Street. (Cambridge UP, 1985 (see pp.189-191) as their source, repeating the same facts Cross gives and quoting him.

Harriet Maria Gordon was born in Margate in 1813.  Her second novel Cousin Geoffrey, published in 1840, was good enough for her thereafter to be called ‘the author of Cousin Geoffrey’ on the fly-leaves of her later novels, including Acquitted, published thirty years later. In 1842, with four novels under her belt, she married Reverend William Yorick Smythies. They had five children together, one of them died in infancy. By the 1850s Mrs Smythies’ career was established and she made an income by the standard Victorian route to publication: serialized novels in magazines, which were then also published as three-decker novels. She wrote for Cassell’s Family Magazine, the London Journal, and the Ladies’ Treasury.

The plots of her novels all seem to involve romance, courtship and marriage in a domestic setting of family life, and, as Nigel Cross remarks, all have titles that “are nicely calculated to assure their readers that they are getting more of the same.” They include Matchmaker (1842); Breach of Promise (1845); A Warning to Wives (1848); Bride Elect (1852); Courtship and Wedlock (1853); Married for Love (1857), A Lovers’ Quarrel (1858); True to the Last (1862); Guilty or Not Guilty (1864) and Faithful Woman (1865). Smythies wrote at least twenty-two novels and two long poems and she was known as the Queen of the Domestic Novel. Despite all the happy endings in her novels, unfortunately, Mrs Smythies herself was not lucky in love and her personal life was troubled.

The Rev. Yorick Smythies lost the family’s income in a financial disaster involving litigation. After this, Mrs Smythies left him to take lodgings in London with her children and her mother, and from then on supported her dependants through writing fiction. She was a close friend of Bulwer Lytton who admired her work as “always characterised by the moral and religious tone which may be expected from the wife of a clergyman.” (Cross, p191).

In 1945 Montague Summers championed Mrs Smythies in an article published Modern Language Notes and gives us more gossip about Mrs Smythies’ life. (Summers, Montague. “Mrs Gordon Smythies” in Modern Language Notes, Vol. LX, June 1945, Nr 6, pp359-364) Mr Yorick Smythies, according to Summers, was very much against his wife’s novel-writing: “A poem might be approved, and a novel or two (if anonymous) tolerated, but so rapid a succession of romances was not to be endures.” (Summers, p362). The friendship with Bulwer Lytton was another problem for the Reverend, who “insisted that the intimacy should cease, upon which Mrs Smythies at some date about 1862 left …” (Ibid.). Whether the relationship with Bulwer Lytton was anything more than a friendship and whether it played any part in the collapse of Smythies’ marriage, remain to be discovered.

In the decade after her daughter’s death in 1866, Mrs Smythies lost two of her other children, only one son survived, and all her siblings. She struggled financially and received some assistance from The Royal Literary Fund. “Her own death in 1883 went unnoticed.” (Cross, p191). A final word from Montague Summers: “The Rev. William Yorick Smythies, who was then sixty-seven years old, honoured the memory of his beautiful and accomplished wife by remarrying less than three months after her decease.” (Summers, p364).

In the dedication that opens Acquitted Mrs Smythies states that the writing of the novel was begun before her daughter’s death, sometime before 1866. It was put aside for at least four years, and then picked up and completed for publication in 1870. Will there be any trace of the author’s grief in the text?

Mrs Smythies did publish other novels in the intervening period. Idols of Clay received a scathing review in the Spectator 22 June 1867: “this novel is without exception the silliest that we have ever had the privilege of reading. It seems to have been pieced together out of a number of old "Minerva Press" volumes …” (p23). This may well be close to the truth, as Mrs Smythies was compelled to produce fiction - no matter of what quality - to support herself and her family. The review goes on to describe the woeful contents: “Angels of beauty, demons of darkness, models of strength, secret passages, returned convicts, resurrectionist men in league with sextons, marchionesses buried alive, passing for ghosts, and forbidding the marriage of marquises,” (Ibid.) all of which sounds rather good to me. Mrs Gordon Smythies is a significant Victorian popular author who has been largely ignored and deserves a close look.

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