Dame Ethel Smyth: Remembering a Pathbreaking Artist, Suffragette, and Lesbian – An Article by Christopher Wiley

Music lecturer and Smyth expert Dr Christopher Wiley reflects on the extraordinary life and work of a composer, memoirist, and onetime leading suffragette who enjoyed close friendships with, amongst others, Emmeline Pankhurst and Virginia Woolf.


The coming days see both the start of the UK’s annual LGBT History Month and a milestone anniversary for gender equality, the centenary of women receiving the vote nationally on 6 February 1918. It’s an ideal opportunity to reflect one of the most intriguing figures ever to have served in the ‘Votes for Women’ campaign, and the subject of my academic research: Dame Ethel Smyth.


The daughter of an army general, Smyth (1858–1944) determined at an early age to defy the conventions of the time by pursuing a career in music composition. Moving to Leipzig in 1877, she remained in Germany for over a decade until circumstances (partly related to the one man who was ever central to her personal life, the writer and philosopher Henry Brewster) compelled her to return to her home country.


By the close of the nineteenth century, Smyth had composed her Mass in D, the first of her six operas, and sundry orchestral, chamber, vocal, and keyboard music. In the early decades of the twentieth, she added to her work-list five more operas, a double concerto for violin and horn, her oratorio The Prison, more chamber music, and some of her best-known songs. Collectively, this is already an impressive achievement given the overwhelming prejudice she faced as a woman working within what was then a fiercely male-dominated profession.


Smyth’s operas were produced in Europe (Weimar, Berlin, Leipzig, Prague) as well as England (London, Birmingham, Bristol) and the US. She became the first female composer to have a work presented at New York City’s prestigious Metropolitan Opera, an accomplishment that remained unparalleled for over 100 years until Kaija Saariaho’s L’Amour de Loin was performed there as recently as December 2016. In 1922, she was awarded the DBE; she also received honorary doctorates from the Universities of Durham and Oxford.


What makes Smyth even more remarkable is that from the 1910s, she experienced hearing problems so severe that it affected her ability to maintain her career as a composer. But with characteristic resilience, rather than concede defeat she developed a parallel career instead. She reinvented herself as an author of memoirs, biographical essays, and polemics on the music profession and women’s place within it – and went on to publish ten books of prose writings in the last 25 years of an extraordinarily long and productive life.


Yet arguably her most important contribution to history lay neither in music nor literature, but politics. In September 1910, during the height of her success as a composer, she chanced to hear a speech delivered by the charismatic leader of the Women’s Social and Political Union, Emmeline Pankhurst. Becoming immediately enchanted by her, Smyth pledged two years’ dedicated service to the suffragette cause.


Smyth and Pankhurst (who were born within three months of each other) may or may not have been involved in a lesbian relationship. That much is essentially speculative, and hinges on circumstantial evidence such as a passing comment made two decades later in a letter from Virginia Woolf to her nephew Quentin Bell: ‘In strict confidence, Ethel used to love Emmeline – they shared a bed’ (3 December 1933). If correct, as Emily Hamer notes in her book Britannia’s Glory, this highlights the centrality of lesbianism to the political movement that won women the vote 100 years ago.


Incontrovertibly they developed a close and lasting friendship, one that – for whatever reason – caused Pankhurst’s daughters to view Smyth with suspicion. It was Smyth who harboured Pankhurst from the authorities at her home in Hook Heath, near Woking (just six miles away from my present location at the University of Surrey), between periods of imprisonment under the notorious ‘Cat and Mouse’ Act. A famous photograph shows Pankhurst, visibly weak from hunger striking, being arrested outside Smyth’s house in May 1913.


Smyth also taught Pankhurst how to throw stones to hit their target, in preparation for an orchestrated window-smashing campaign across London’s West End in March 1912 to protest Prime Minister Asquith’s prevarication over granting women the vote. They were both arrested, along with scores of other militant suffragettes, and detained in adjacent cells at Holloway Prison, London. According to Smyth’s biographer, Louise Collis, they were often able to take tea together as the sympathetic wardress ‘seemed to forget’ to separate them during lock-up.


Smyth’s political activity had important implications for her artistic output. At a time when the suffragette movement was in dire need of an anthem to call their own, Smyth responded with ‘The March of the Women’, which was formally presented to Pankhurst at a WSPU meeting in January 1911. As Canadian company Opera 5 commented in connection with their recent performance of two of Smyth’s operas as the double-bill Suffragette, ‘Not many composers can claim that their work directly affected the rights and freedoms of millions of people’. But this suggestion may certainly be made of Smyth.


Resonances of Smyth’s special relationship with Pankhurst are also to be found elsewhere in her music of the time. Rachel Lumsden has recently explored the personal and political significance of Smyth’s song, ‘Possession’, which the composer dedicated to Pankhurst. Elsewhere in Smyth’s vocal output, ‘On the Road’ was dedicated to her daughter Christabel, and incorporates a tongue-in-cheek quotation of ‘The March of the Women’ at its close.


‘The March of the Women’ also makes a surprise appearance in the Overture of Smyth’s opera The Boatswain’s Mate (1913–14), which she composed in Egypt shortly after she ceased her suffragette activity. It was a bold political statement, since the melody (which appears in the Overture alongside another of her suffrage songs, ‘1910’, a commemoration of the events of Black Friday that year) would have been very recognisable to audiences during Smyth’s day!


Leading exponent of the lesbian and gay musicology, Elizabeth Wood, has suggested that Smyth, who wrote the libretto for The Boatswain’s Mate (after a short story by W.W. Jacobs) as well as the music, may have even fashioned the opera’s feisty heroine, Mrs Waters, after Pankhurst herself. Unquestionably the lively correspondence they maintained throughout its composition provides many valuable insights into Smyth’s whole creative process.


For these reasons amongst others, The Boatswain’s Mate has sometimes been labelled a ‘feminist opera’ – a claim I am re-evaluating in my current research on the composer and her relationship to women’s suffrage. Another cornerstone of my scholarship concerns an enduring friendship that Smyth struck up later in her life with an artist of a younger generation, the novelist Virginia Woolf, who once wrote of Smyth that ‘An old woman of seventy one […] has fallen in love with me’ (letter to Quentin Bell, 14 May 1930).


Examining Smyth and Woolf in tandem tells us much about the challenges that Smyth faced in writing about her experiences as a woman and lesbian (full text here) through her autobiographical narrative, while not being directly upfront to the reader about her sexuality. Her prose, when read in the light of Woolf’s biographical and feminist theory as well as the correspondence between the two, reveals the differences between the contemporary disciplines of music and literature (full text here) for the women who worked professionally within them.


As somebody who has been researching Smyth for years, I’m delighted to be able to say that her charming music and captivating memoirs have been far from forgotten to history. In 1994, the 50th anniversary of her death was marked by a BBC Proms performance of her most ambitious opera, The Wreckers, the live recording of which is shortly to be re-released by Retrospect Opera. The Boatswain’s Mate received its first complete modern recording in 2016, also by Retrospect Opera, who plan to record Smyth’s neoclassical ‘dance-dream’ opera, Fête Galante, in the coming weeks.


Smyth is also to be commemorated by her home town in this year’s Celebrate Woking festival – ensuring that her fascinating story as a pathbreaking woman and lesbian will continue to inspire new generations.


Christopher Wiley