08 March 2014
Female pipings in Eden: Ethel Smyth's fight for women's rights
As today is International Women’s Day, it seems a good time to mention the British Library’s newly acquired letters of Dame Ethel Smyth (1858-1944), English composer, writer and indefatigable feminist campaigner.
Despite her father’s disapproval, Ethel Smyth set her heart on a career as a professional composer. She studied in Germany, where she got to know Brahms, Grieg and Clara Schumann, and on her return to England focused her energies on composing operas. But Smyth struggled to get her operas performed in Britain, at a time when it was unusual for women to take up composition as a career, and when women who did compose tended to produce small-scale pieces, such as songs for performance at home. Smyth had rather more success in Germany, where she had three operas premiered, including her most famous stage work, The Wreckers, a tale of 18th-century Cornish villagers luring ships onto rocks to plunder their cargo.
Throughout her life, Ethel Smyth fought for the rights of women. She met the suffragette Emmeline Pankhurst in 1910 and joined the campaign to gain women the vote. (Smyth’s song The March of the Women became an anthem for the suffrage movement.) She also campaigned for women to be allowed to play in professional orchestras. As late as 1933, in a book called Female Pipings in Eden, Smyth could report that in the ranks of the London Symphony Orchestra, the Philharmonic Orchestra, and Manchester’s Hallé Orchestra the only female to be seen was the occasional second harpist. At the BBC, which did admit women players, female cellists were banned. This, Smyth surmised, was because grasping a cello between the knees was considered unseemly.
Smyth made no secret of the fact that she was a lesbian, and she formed passionate relationships with several women. The letters newly acquired by the British Library were written to another professional woman, Agnes Ethel Conway, and to Agnes’s father, Martin Conway. Agnes Conway was an archaeologist and historian who undertook extensive research in the Middle East. She also travelled in Greece and Turkey and in 1917 published an illustrated book about her travels entitled A ride through the Balkans, on classic ground with a camera.
Smyth wrote about her own travels in 1925 in A Three-Legged Tour in Greece. Two years later, Martin Conway, an art historian and mountaineer, sent Smyth a copy of his daughter’s book, and Smyth wrote a series of enthusiastic letters to the Conways. Corresponding first with Martin Conway, Smyth revealed how enthralled she was with the book - despite being ‘in a bad knot of work’ and not having much time for reading. She then began writing to Agnes Conway, and in these letters there are some glimpses of Ethel Smyth’s strong personality.
In the first letter, Smyth reports that she would have loved to have been an archaeologist, despite having made gibes at the profession as represented by men! There is also a note of asperity: she emphatically points out that a view of the sea described in Conway’s book would really not have been possible from that particular spot. Later there are references to Smyth’s ill-health (she started losing her hearing in her fifties); she writes of taking a cure in Breconshire, and of time wasted on her ‘vile body’. Plans were made for Smyth and Conway to meet, though Smyth writes in haste on 1 Nov 1927 of trying to finish a ‘job o’work’ – probably her concerto for violin and horn. Oh, and she continued to dispute the veracity of Conway’s description of that sea view.