Autobiographical Sketches by Annie Besant

Produced by Jonathan Ingram, Richard Prairie and PG Distributed Proofreaders AUTOBIOGRAPHICAL SKETCHES. BY ANNIE BESANT 1885. AUTOBIOGRAPHICAL SKETCHES. I am so often asked for references to some pamphlet or journal in which may be found some outline of my life, and the enquiries are so often couched in terms of such real kindness, that I
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Produced by Jonathan Ingram, Richard Prairie and PG Distributed Proofreaders







I am so often asked for references to some pamphlet or journal in which may be found some outline of my life, and the enquiries are so often couched in terms of such real kindness, that I have resolved to pen a few brief autobiographical sketches, which may avail to satisfy friendly questioners, and to serve, in some measure, as defence against unfair attack.


On October 1st, 1847, I made my appearance in this “vale of tears”, “little Pheasantina”, as I was irreverently called by a giddy aunt, a pet sister of my mother’s. Just at that time my father and mother were staying within the boundaries of the City of London, so that I was born well “within the sound of Bow bells”.

Though born in London, however, full three quarters of my blood are Irish. My dear mother was a Morris–the spelling of the name having been changed from Maurice some five generations back–and I have often heard her tell a quaint story, illustrative of that family pride which is so common a feature of a decayed Irish family. She was one of a large family, and her father and mother, gay, handsome, and extravagant, had wasted merrily what remained to them of patrimony. I can remember her father well, for I was fourteen years of age when he died. A bent old man, with hair like driven snow, splendidly handsome in his old age, hot-tempered to passion at the lightest provocation, loving and wrath in quick succession. As the family grew larger and the moans grew smaller, many a pinch came on the household, and the parents were glad to accept the offer of a relative to take charge of Emily, the second daughter. A very proud old lady was this maiden aunt, and over the mantel-piece of her drawing-room ever hung a great diagram, a family tree, which mightily impressed the warm imagination of the delicate child she had taken in charge. It was a lengthy and well-grown family tree, tracing back the Morris family to the days of Charlemagne, and branching out from a stock of “the seven kings of France”. Was there ever yet a decayed. Irish family that did not trace itself back to some “kings”? and these “Milesian kings”–who had been expelled from France, doubtless for good reasons, and who had sailed across the sea and landed in fair Erin, and there had settled and robbed and fought–did more good 800 years after their death than they did, I expect, during their ill-spent lives, if they proved a source of gentle harmless pride to the old maiden lady who admired their names over her mantel-piece in the earlier half of the present century. And, indeed, they acted as a kind of moral thermometer, in a fashion that would much have astonished their ill-doing and barbarous selves. For my mother has told me how when she would commit some piece of childish naughtiness, her aunt would say, looking gravely over her spectacles at the small culprit: “Emily, your conduct is unworthy of the descendant of the seven kings of France.” And Emily, with her sweet grey Irish eyes, and her curling masses of raven-black hair, would cry in penitent shame over her unworthiness, with some vague idea that those royal, and to her very real ancestors, would despise her small sweet rosebud self, as wholly unworthy of their disreputable majesties. But that same maiden aunt trained the child right well, and I keep ever grateful memory of her, though I never knew her, for her share in forming the tenderest, sweetest, proudest, purest, noblest woman I have ever known. I have never met a woman more selflessly devoted to those she loved, more passionately contemptuous of all that was mean or base, more keenly sensitive on every question of honor, more iron in will, more sweet in tenderness, than the mother who made my girlhood sunny as dreamland, who guarded me until my marriage from every touch of pain that she could ward off, or could bear for me, who suffered more in every trouble that touched me in later life than I did myself, and who died in the little house I had taken for our new home in Norwood, worn out ere old age touched her, by sorrow, poverty and pain, in May, 1874.

Of my father my memory is less vivid, for he died when I was but five years old. He was of mixed race, English on his father’s side, Irish on his mother’s, and was born in Galway, and educated in Ireland; he took his degree at Dublin University, and walked the hospitals as a medical student. But after he had qualified as a medical man a good appointment was offered him by a relative in the City of London, and he never practised regularly as a doctor.

In the City his prospects were naturally promising; the elder branch of the Wood Family, to which he belonged, had for many generations been settled in Devonshire, farming their own land. When the eldest son William, my father, came of age, he joined with his father to cut off the entail, and the old acres were sold. Meanwhile members of other branches had entered commercial life, and had therein prospered exceedingly. One of them had become Lord Mayor of London, had vigorously supported the unhappy Queen Caroline, had paid the debts of the Duke of Kent, in order that that reputable individual might return to England with his Duchess, so that the future heir to the throne might be born on English soil; he had been rewarded with a baronetcy as a cheap method of paying his services. Another, my father’s first cousin once removed, a young barrister, had successfully pleaded a suit in which was concerned the huge fortune of a miserly relative, and had thus laid the foundations of a great success; he won for himself a vice-chancellorship and a knighthood, and then the Lord Chancellorship of England, with the barony of Hatherley. A third, a brother of the last, Western Wood, was doing good service in the House of Commons. A fourth, a cousin of the last two, had thrown himself with such spirit and energy into mining work, that he had accumulated a fortune. In fact all the scattered branches had made their several ways in the world, save that elder one to which my father belonged. That had vegetated on down in the country, and had grown poorer while the others grew richer. My father’s brothers had somewhat of a fight for life. One has prospered and is comfortable and well-to-do. The other led for years a rough and wandering life, and “came to grief” generally. Some years ago I heard of him as a store-keeper in Portsmouth dock-yard, occasionally boasting in feeble fashion that his cousin was Lord Chancellor of England, and not many months since I heard from him in South Africa, where he has secured some appointment in the Commissariat Department, not, I fear, of a very lucrative character.

Let us come back to Pheasantina, who, I am told, was a delicate and somewhat fractious infant, giving to both father and mother considerable cause for anxiety. Her first attempts at rising in the world were attended with disaster, for as she was lying in a cradle, with carved iron canopy, and was for a moment left by her nurse in full faith that she could not rise from the recumbent position, Miss Pheasantina determined to show that she was capable of unexpected independence, and made a vigorous struggle to assume that upright position which is the proud prerogative of man. In another moment the recumbent position was re-assumed, and the nurse returning found the baby’s face covered with blood, streaming from a severe wound on the forehead, the iron fretwork having proved harder than the baby’s head. The scar remains down to the present time, and gives me the valuable peculiarity of only wrinkling up one side of my forehead when I raise my eyebrows, a feat that I defy any of my readers to emulate. The heavy cut has, I suppose, so injured the muscles in that spot that they have lost the normal power of contraction.

My earliest personal recollections are of a house and garden that we lived in when I was three and four years of age, situated in Grove Road, St. John’s Wood. I can remember my mother hovering round the dinner-table to see that all was bright for the home-coming husband; my brother–two years older than myself–and I watching “for papa”; the loving welcome, the game of romps that always preceded the dinner of the elder folks. I can remember on the first of October, 1851, jumping up in my little cot, and shouting out triumphantly: “Papa! mamma! I am four years old!” and the grave demand of my brother, conscious of superior age, at dinner-time: “May not Annie have a knife to-day, as she is four years old?”

It was a sore grievance during that same year 1851, that I was not judged old enough to go to the Great Exhibition, and I have a faint memory of my brother consolingly bringing me home one of those folding pictured strips that are sold in the streets, on which were imaged glories that I longed only the more to see. Far-away, dusky, trivial memories, these. What a pity it is that a baby cannot notice, cannot observe, cannot remember, and so throw light on the fashion of the dawning of the external world on the human consciousness. If only we could remember how things looked when they were first imaged on the retinae; what we felt when first we became conscious of the outer world; what the feeling was as faces of father and mother grew out of the surrounding chaos and became familiar things, greeted with a smile, lost with a cry; if only memory would not become a mist when in later years we strive to throw our glances backward into the darkness of our infancy, what lessons we might learn to help our stumbling psychology, how many questions might be solved whose answers we are groping for in vain.


The next scene that stands out clearly against the background of the past is that of my father’s death-bed. The events which led to his death I know from my dear mother. He had never lost his fondness for the profession for which he had been trained, and having many medical friends, he would now and then accompany them on their hospital rounds, or share with them the labors of the dissecting room. It chanced that during the dissection of the body of a person who had died of rapid consumption, my father cut his finger against the edge of the breast-bone. The cut did not heal easily, and the finger became swollen and inflamed. “I would have that finger off, Wood, if I were you,” said one of the surgeons, a day or two afterwards, on seeing the state of the wound. But the others laughed at the suggestion, and my father, at first inclined to submit to the amputation, was persuaded to “leave Nature alone”.

About the middle of August, 1852, he got wet through, riding on the top of an omnibus, and the wetting resulted in a severe cold, which “settled on his chest”. One of the most eminent doctors of the day, as able as he was rough in manner, was called to see him. He examined him carefully, sounded his lungs, and left the room followed by my mother. “Well?” she asked, scarcely anxious as to the answer, save as it might worry her husband to be kept idly at home. “You must keep up his spirits”, was the thoughtless answer. “He is in a galloping consumption; you will not have him with you six weeks longer.” The wife staggered back, and fell like a stone on the floor. But love triumphed over agony, and half an hour later she was again at her husband’s side, never to leave it again for ten minutes at a time, night or day, till he was lying with closed eyes asleep in death.

I was lifted on to the bed to “say good-bye to dear Papa” on the day before his death, and I remember being frightened at his eyes which looked so large, and his voice which sounded so strange, as he made me promise always to be “a very good girl to darling Mamma, as Papa was going right away”. I remember insisting that “Papa should kiss Cherry”, a doll given me on my birthday, three days before, by his direction, and being removed, crying and struggling, from the room. He died on the following day, October 5th, and I do not think that my elder brother and I–who were staying at our maternal grandfather’s–went to the house again until the day of the funeral. With the death, my mother broke down, and when all was over they carried her senseless from the room. I remember hearing afterwards how, when she recovered her senses, she passionately insisted on being left alone, and locked herself into her room for the night; and how on the following morning her mother, at last persuading her to open the door, started back at the face she saw with the cry: “Good God! Emily! your hair is white!” It was even so; her hair, black, glossy and abundant, which, contrasting with her large grey eyes, had made her face so strangely attractive, had turned grey in that night of agony, and to me my mother’s face is ever framed in exquisite silver bands of hair as white as the driven unsullied snow.

I have heard that the love between my father and mother was a very beautiful thing, and it most certainly stamped her character for life. He was keenly intellectual, and splendidly educated; a mathematician and a good classical scholar, thoroughly master of French, German, Italian, Spanish, and Portuguese, with a smattering of Hebrew and Gaelic, the treasures of ancient and of modern literature were his daily household delight. Nothing pleased him so well as to sit with his wife, reading aloud to her while she worked; now translating from some foreign poet, now rolling forth melodiously the exquisite cadences of Queen Mab. Student of philosophy as he was, he was deeply and steadily sceptical; and a very religious relative has told me that he often drove her from the room by his light playful mockery of the tenets of the Christian faith. His mother and sister were strict Roman Catholics, and near the end forced a priest into his room, but the priest was promptly ejected by the wrath of the dying man, and by the almost fierce resolve of the wife that no messenger of the creed he detested should trouble her darling at the last.

This scepticism of his was not wholly shared by his wife, who held to the notion that women should be “religious,” while men might philosophise as they would; but it so deeply influenced her own intellectual life that she utterly rejected the most irrational dogmas of Christianity, such as eternal punishment, the vicarious atonement of Christ, the doctrine that faith is necessary to salvation, the equality of Christ with God, the infallibility of the Bible; she made morality of life, not orthodoxy of belief, her measure of “religion”; she was “a Christian”, in her own view of the matter, but it was a Christian of the school of Jowett, of Colenso, and of Stanley. The latter writer had for her, in after years, the very strongest fascination, and I am not sure that his “variegated use of words”, so fiercely condemned by Dr. Pusey, did not exactly suit her own turn of mind, which shrank back intellectually from the crude dogmas of orthodox Christianity, but clung poetically to the artistic side of religion, to its art and to its music, to the grandeur of its glorious fanes, and the solemnity of its stately ritual. She detested the meretricious show, the tinsel gaudiness, the bowing and genuflecting, the candles and the draperies, of Romanism, and of its pinchbeck imitator Ritualism; but I doubt whether she knew any keener pleasure than to sit in one of the carved stalls of Westminster Abbey, listening to the polished sweetness of Dean Stanley’s exquisite eloquence; or to the thunder of the organ mingled with the voices of the white-robed choristers, as the music rose and fell, as it pealed up to the arched roof and lost itself in the carven fretwork, or died away softly among the echoes of the chapels in which kings and saints and sages lay sleeping, enshrining in themselves the glories and the sorrows of the past.

To return to October, 1852. On the day of the funeral my elder brother and I were taken back to the house where my father lay dead, and while my brother went as chief mourner, poor little boy swamped in crape and miserable exceedingly, I sat in an upstairs room with my mother and her sisters; and still comes back to me her figure, seated on a sofa, with fixed white face and dull vacant eyes, counting the minutes till the funeral procession would have reached Kensal Green, and then following in mechanical fashion, prayer-book in hand, the service, stage by stage, until to my unspeakable terror, with the words, dully spoken, “It is all over”, she fell back fainting. And here comes a curious psychological problem which has often puzzled me. Some weeks later she resolved to go and see her husband’s grave. A relative who had been present at the funeral volunteered to guide her to the spot, but lost his way in that wilderness of graves. Another of the small party went off to find one of the officials and to enquire, and my mother said: “If you will take me to the chapel where the first part of the service was read, I will find the grave”. To humor her whim, he led her thither, and, looking round for a moment or two, she started from the chapel, followed the path along which the corpse had been borne, and was standing by the newly-made grave when the official arrived to point it out. Her own explanation was that she had seen all the service; what is certain is, that she had never been to Kensal Green before, and that she walked steadily to the grave from the chapel. Whether the spot had been carefully described to her, whether she had heard others talking of its position or not, we could never ascertain; she had no remembrance of any such description, and the matter always remained to us a problem. But after the lapse of years a hundred little things may have been forgotten which unconsciously served as guides at the time. She must have been, of course, at that time, in a state of abnormal nervous excitation, a state of which another proof was shortly afterwards given. The youngest of our little family was a boy about three years younger than myself, a very beautiful child, blue-eyed and golden haired–I have still a lock of his hair, of exquisite pale golden hue–and the little lad was passionately devoted to his father. He was always a delicate boy, and had I suppose, therefore, been specially petted, and he fretted continually for “papa”. It is probable that the consumptive taint had touched him, for he pined steadily away, with no marked disease, during the winter months. One morning my mother calmly stated: “Alf is going to die”. It was in vain that it was urged on her that with the spring strength would return to the child. “No”, she persisted. “He was lying asleep in my arms last night, and William came to me and said that he wanted Alf with him, but that I might keep the other two.” She had in her a strong strain of Celtic superstition, and thoroughly believed that this “vision”–a most natural dream under the circumstances–was a direct “warning”, and that her husband had come to her to tell her of her approaching loss. This belief was, in her eyes, thoroughly justified by the little fellow’s death in the following March, calling to the end for “Papa! papa!” My brother and I were allowed to see him just before he was placed in his coffin; I can see him still, so white and beautiful, with a black spot in the middle of the fair waxen forehead, and I remember the deadly cold which startled me when I was told to kiss my little brother. It was the first time that I had touched Death. That black spot made a curious impression on me, and long afterwards, asking what had caused it, I was told that at the moment after his death my mother had passionately kissed the baby brow. Pathetic thought, that the mother’s kiss of farewell should have been marked by the first sign of corruption on the child’s face.

And now began my mother’s time of struggle and of anxiety. Hitherto, since her marriage, she had known no money troubles, for her husband was earning a good income; he was apparently vigorous and well: no thought of anxiety clouded their future. When he died, he believed that he left his wife and children safe, at least, from pecuniary distress. It was not so. I know nothing of the details, but the outcome of all was that nothing was left for the widow and children, save a trifle of ready money. The resolve to which, my mother came was characteristic. Two of her husband’s relatives, Western and Sir William Wood, offered to educate her son at a good city school, and to start him in commercial life, using their great city influence to push him forward. But the young lad’s father and mother had talked of a different future for their eldest boy; he was to go to a public school, and then to the University, and was to enter one of the “learned professions”–to take orders, the mother wished; to go to the Bar, the father hoped. On his death-bed there was nothing more earnestly urged by my father than that Harry should receive the best possible education, and the widow was resolute to fulfil that last wish. In her eyes, a city school was not “the best possible education”, and the Irish pride rebelled against the idea of her son not being “a University man”. Many were the lectures poured out on the young widow’s head about her “foolish pride”, especially by the female members of the Wood family; and her persistence in her own way caused a considerable alienation between herself and them. But Western and William, though half-disapproving, remained her friends, and lent many a helping hand to her in her first difficult struggles. After much cogitation, she resolved that the boy should be educated at Harrow, where the fees are comparatively low to lads living in the town, and that he should go thence to Cambridge or to Oxford, as his tastes should direct. A bold scheme for a penniless widow, but carried out to the letter; for never dwelt in a delicate body a more resolute mind and will than that of my dear mother.

In a few months’ time–during which we lived, poorly enough, in Richmond Terrace, Clapham, close to her father and mother–to Harrow, then, she betook herself, into lodgings over a grocer’s shop, and set herself to look for a house. This grocer was a very pompous man, fond of long words, and patronised the young widow exceedingly, and one day my mother related with much amusement how he had told her that she was sure to get on if she worked hard. “Look at me!” he said swelling visibly with importance; “I was once a poor boy, without a penny of my own, and now I am a comfortable man, and have my submarine villa to go to every evening”. That “submarine villa” was an object of amusement when we passed it in our walks for many a long day. “There is Mr. —-‘s submarine villa”, some one would say, laughing: and I, too, used to laugh merrily, because my elders did, though my understanding of the difference between suburban and submarine was on a par with that of the honest grocer.

My mother had fortunately found a boy, whose parents were glad to place him in her charge, of about the age of her own son, to educate with him; and by this means she was able to pay for a tutor, to prepare the two boys for school. The tutor had a cork leg, which was a source of serious trouble to me, for it stuck out straight behind when we knelt down to family prayers–conduct which struck me as irreverent and unbecoming, but which I always felt a desire to imitate. After about a year, my mother found a house which she thought would suit her scheme, namely, to obtain permission from Dr. Vaughan, the then Head Master of Harrow, to take some boys into her house, and so gain means of education for her own son. Dr. Vaughan, who must have been won by the gentle, strong, little woman, from that time forth became her earnest friend and helper; and to the counsel and active assistance both of himself and of his wife, was due much of the success that crowned her toil. He made only one condition in granting the permission she asked, and that was, that she should also have in her house one of the masters of the school, so that the boys should not suffer from the want of a house-tutor. This condition, of course, she readily accepted, and the arrangement lasted for ten years, until after her son had left school for Cambridge.

The house she took is now, I am sorry to say, pulled down, and replaced by a hideous red-brick structure. It was very old and rambling, rose-covered in front, ivy-covered behind; it stood on the top of Harrow Hill, between the church and the school, and had once been the vicarage of the parish, but the vicar had left it because it was so far removed from the part of the village where all his work lay. The drawing-room opened by an old-fashioned half-window, half-door–which proved a constant source of grief to me, for whenever I had on a new frock I always tore it on the bolt as I flew through it–into a large garden which sloped down one side of the hill, and was filled with the most delightful old trees, fir and laurel, may, mulberry, hazel, apple, pear, and damson, not to mention currant and gooseberry bushes innumerable, and large strawberry beds spreading down the sunny slopes. There was not a tree there that I did not climb, and one, a widespreading Portugal laurel, was my private country house. I had there my bedroom and my sitting-rooms, my study, and my larder. The larder was supplied by the fruit-trees, from which I was free to pick as I would, and in the study I would sit for hours with some favorite book–Milton’s “Paradise Lost” the chief favorite of all. The birds must often have felt startled, when from the small swinging form perching on a branch, came out in childish tones the “Thrones, dominations, princedoms, virtues, powers”, of Milton’s stately and sonorous verse. I liked to personify Satan, and to declaim the grand speeches of the hero-rebel, and many a happy hour did I pass in Milton’s heaven and hell, with for companions Satan and “the Son”, Gabriel and Abdiel. Then there was a terrace running by the side of the churchyard, always dry in the wettest weather, and bordered by an old wooden fence, over which clambered roses of every shade; never was such a garden for roses as that of the Old Vicarage. At the end of the terrace was a little summer-house, and in this a trap-door in the fence, which swung open and displayed one of the fairest views in England. Sheer from your feet downwards went the hill, and then far below stretched the wooded country till your eye reached the towers of Windsor Castle, far away on the horizon. It was the view at which Byron was never tired of gazing, as he lay on the flat tombstone close by–Byron’s tomb, as it is still called–of which he wrote:

“Again I behold where for hours I have pondered, As reclining, at eve, on yon tombstone I lay, Or round the steep brow of the churchyard I wandered, To catch the last gleam of the sun’s setting ray.”

Reader mine, if ever you go to Harrow, ask permission to enter the old garden, and try the effect of that sudden burst of beauty, as you swing back the small trap-door at the terrace end.

Into this house we moved on my eighth birthday, and for eleven years it was “home” to me, left always with regret, returned to always with joy.

Almost immediately afterwards I left my mother for the first time; for one day, visiting a family who lived close by, I found a stranger sitting in the drawing-room, a lame lady with, a strong face, which softened marvellously as she smiled at the child who came dancing in; she called me to her presently, and took me on her lap and talked to me, and on the following day our friend came to see my mother, to ask if she would let me go away and be educated with this lady’s niece, coming home for the holidays regularly, but leaving my education in her hands. At first my mother would not hear of it, for she and I scarcely ever left each other; my love for her was an idolatry, hers for me a devotion. [A foolish little story, about which I was unmercifully teased for years, marked that absolute idolatry of her, which has not yet faded from my heart. In tenderest rallying one day of the child who trotted after her everywhere, content to sit, or stand, or wait, if only she might touch hand or dress of “mamma,” she said: “Little one (the name by which she always called me), if you cling to mamma in this way, I must really get a string and tie you to my apron, and how will you like that?” “O mamma darling,” came the fervent answer, “do let it be in a knot.” And, indeed, the tie of love between us was so tightly knotted that nothing ever loosened it till the sword of Death cut that which pain and trouble never availed to slacken in the slightest degree.] But it was urged upon her that the advantages of education offered were such as no money could purchase for me; that it would be a disadvantage for me to grow up in a houseful of boys–and, in truth, I was as good a cricketer and climber as the best of them–that my mother would soon be obliged to send me to school, unless she accepted an offer which gave me every advantage of school without its disadvantages. At last she yielded, and it was decided that Miss Marryat, on returning home, should take me with her.

Miss Marryat–the favorite sister of Captain Marryat, the famous novelist–was a maiden lady of large means. She had nursed her brother through the illness that ended in his death, and had been living with her mother at Wimbledon Park. On her mother’s death she looked round for work which would make her useful in the world, and finding that one of her brothers had a large family of girls, she offered to take charge of one of them, and to educate her thoroughly. Chancing to come to Harrow, my good fortune threw me in her way, and she took a fancy to me and thought she would like to teach two little girls rather than one. Hence her offer to my mother.

Miss Marryat had a perfect genius for teaching, and took in it the greatest delight. From time to time she added another child to our party, sometimes a boy, sometimes a girl. At first, with Amy Marryat and myself, there was a little boy, Walter Powys, son of a clergyman with a large family, and him she trained for some years, and then sent him on to school admirably prepared. She chose “her children”–as she loved to call us–in very definite fashion. Each must be gently born and gently trained, but in such position that the education freely given should be a relief and aid to a slender parental purse. It was her delight to seek out and aid those on whom poverty presses most heavily, when the need for education for the children weighs on the proud and the poor. “Auntie” we all called her, for she thought “Miss Marryat” seemed too cold and stiff. She taught us everything herself except music, and for this she had a master, practising us in composition, in recitation, in reading aloud English and French, and later, German, devoting herself to training us in the soundest, most thorough fashion. No words of mine can tell how much I owe her, not only of knowledge, bit of that love of knowledge which has remained with me ever since as a constant spur to study.

Her method of teaching may be of interest to some, who desire to train children with the least pain, and the most enjoyment to the little ones themselves. First, we never used a spelling-book–that torment of the small child–nor an English grammar. But we wrote letters, telling of the things we had seen in our walks, or told again some story we had read; these childish compositions she would read over with us, correcting all faults of spelling, of grammar, of style, of cadence; a clumsy sentence would be read aloud, that we might hear how unmusical it sounded; an error in observation or expression pointed out. Then, as the letters recorded what we had seen the day before, the faculty of observation was drawn out and trained. “Oh, dear! I have nothing to say!” would come from a small child, hanging over a slate. “Did you not go out for a walk yesterday?” Auntie would question. “Yes”, would be sighed out; “but there’s nothing to say about it”. “Nothing to say! And you walked in the lanes for an hour and saw nothing, little No-eyes? You must use your eyes better to-day.” Then there was a very favorite “lesson”, which proved an excellent way of teaching spelling. We used to write out lists of all the words we could think of, which sounded the same but were differently spelt. Thus: “key, quay,” “knight, night,” and so on; and great was the glory of the child who found the largest number. Our French lessons–as the German later–included reading from the very first. On the day on which we began German we began reading Schiller’s “Wilhelm Tell,” and the verbs given to us to copy out were those that had occurred in the reading. We learned much by heart, but always things that in themselves were worthy to be learned. We were never given the dry questions and answers which lazy teachers so much affect. We were taught history by one reading aloud while the others worked–the boys as well as the girls learning the use of the needle. “It’s like a girl to sew,” said a little fellow, indignantly, one day. “It is like a baby to have to run after a girl if you want a button sewn on,” quoth Auntie. Geography was learned by painting skeleton maps–an exercise much delighted in by small fingers–and by putting together puzzle maps, in which countries in the map of a continent, or counties in the map of a country, were always cut out in their proper shapes. I liked big empires in those days; there was a solid satisfaction in putting down Russia, and seeing what a large part of the map was filled up thereby.

The only grammar that we ever learned as grammar was the Latin, and that not until composition had made us familiar with the use of the rules therein given. Auntie had a great horror of children learning by rote things they did not understand, and then fancying they knew them. “What do you mean by that expression, Annie?” she would ask me. After feeble attempts to explain, I would answer: “Indeed, Auntie, I know in my own head, but I can’t explain”. “Then, indeed, Annie, you do not know in your own head, or you could explain, so that I might know in my own head.” And so a healthy habit was fostered of clearness of thought and of expression. The Latin grammar was used because it was more perfect than the modern grammars, and served as a solid foundation for modern languages.

Miss Marryat took a beautiful place, Fern Hill, near Charmouth, in Dorsetshire, on the borders of Devon, and there she lived for some five years, a centre of beneficence in the district. She started a Sunday-school, and a Bible-class after a while for the lads too old for the school, who clamored for admission to her class in it. She visited the poor, taking help wherever she went, and sending food from her own table to the sick. It was characteristic of her that she would never give “scraps” to the poor, but would have a basin brought in at dinner, and would cut the best slice to tempt the invalid appetite. Money she rarely, if ever, gave, but she would find a day’s work, or busy herself to seek permanent employment for anyone asking aid. Stern in rectitude herself, and iron to the fawning or the dishonest, her influence, whether she was feared or loved, was always for good. Of the strictest sect of the Evangelicals, she was an Evangelical. On the Sunday no books were allowed save the Bible or the “Sunday at Home”; but she would try to make the day bright by various little devices; by a walk with her in the garden; by the singing of hymns, always attractive to children; by telling us wonderful missionary stories of Moffat and Livingstone, whose adventures with savages and wild beasts were as exciting as any tale of Mayne Reid’s. We used to learn passages from the Bible and hymns for repetition; a favorite amusement was a “Bible puzzle”, such as a description of some Bible scene, which was to be recognised by the description. Then we taught in the Sunday-school, for Auntie would tell us that it was useless for us to learn if we did not try to help those who had no one to teach them. The Sunday-school lessons had to be carefully prepared on the Saturday, for we were always taught that work given to the poor should be work that cost something to the giver. This principle, regarded by her as an illustration of the text, “Shall I give unto the Lord my God that which has cost me nothing?” ran through all her precept and her practice. When in some public distress we children went to her crying, and asking whether we could not help the little children who were starving, her prompt reply was: “What will you give up for them?” And then she said that if we liked to give up the use of sugar, we might thus each save 6d. a week to give away. I doubt if a healthier lesson can be given to children than that of personal self-denial for the good of others.

Daily, when our lessons were over, we had plenty of fun; long walks and rides, rides on a lively pony, who found small children most amusing, and on which the coachman taught us to stick firmly, whatever his eccentricities of the moment; delightful all-day picnics in the lovely country round Charmouth, Auntie our merriest playfellow. Never was a healthier home, physically and mentally, made for young things than in that quiet village. And then the delight of the holidays! The pride of my mother at the good report of her darling’s progress, and the renewal of acquaintance with every nook and corner in the dear old house and garden.


The strong and intense Evangelicalism of Miss Marryat colored the whole of my early religious thought. I was naturally enthusiastic and fanciful, and was apt to throw myself strongly into the current of the emotional life around me, and hence I easily reflected the stern and narrow creed which ruled over my daily life. It was to me a matter of the most intense regret that Christians did not go about as in the “Pilgrim’s Progress”, armed to do battle with Apollyon and Giant Despair, or fight through a whole long day against thronging foes, until night brought victory and release. It would have been so easy, I used to think, to do tangible battle of that sort, so much easier than to learn lessons, and keep one’s temper, and mend one’s stockings. Quick to learn, my lessons of Bible and Prayer Book gave me no trouble, and I repeated page after page with little labor and much credit. I remember being praised for my love of the Bible, because I had learned by heart all the epistle of St. James’s, while, as a matter of fact, the desire to distinguish myself was a far more impelling motive than any love of “the holy book;” the dignified cadences pleased my ear, and were swiftly caught and reproduced, and I was proud of the easy fashion in which I mastered and recited page after page. Another source of “carnal pride”–little suspected, I fear, by my dear instructress–was found in the often-recurring prayer meetings. In these the children were called on to take a part, and we were bidden pray aloud; this proceeding was naturally a sore trial, and being endued with an inordinate amount of “false pride”–the fear of appearing ridiculous, _i.e._, with self conceit–it was a great trouble when the summons came: “Annie dear, will you speak to our Lord”. But the plunge once made, and the trembling voice steadied, enthusiasm and facility for cadenced speech always swallowed up the nervous “fear of breaking down”, and I fear me that the prevailing thought was more often that God must think I prayed very nicely, than that I was a “miserable sinner”, asking “pardon for the sake of Jesus Christ”. The sense of sin, the contrition for man’s fallen state, which are required by Evangelicalism, can never be truly felt by any child; but whenever a sensitive, dreamy, and enthusiastic child comes under strong Evangelistic influence, it is sure to manifest “signs of saving grace”. As far as I can judge now, the total effect of the Calvinistic training was to make me somewhat morbid, but this tendency was counteracted by the healthier tone of my mother’s thought, and the natural gay buoyancy of my nature rose swiftly whenever the pressure of the teaching that I was “a child of sin”, and could “not naturally please God”, was removed.

In the spring of 1861, Miss Marryat announced her intention of going abroad, and asked my dear mother to let me accompany her. A little nephew whom she had adopted was suffering from cataract, and she desired to place him under the care of the famous Duesseldorf oculist. Amy Marryat had been recalled home soon after the death of her mother, who had died in giving birth to the child adopted by Miss Marryat, and named at her desire after her favorite brother Frederick (Captain Marryat). Her place had been taken by a girl a few months older than myself, Emma Mann, one of the daughters of a clergyman who had married a Miss Stanley, closely related, indeed if I remember rightly, a sister of the Miss Mary Stanley who did such noble work in nursing in the Crimea.

For some months we had been diligently studying German, for Miss Marryat thought it wise that we should know a language fairly well before we visited the country of which it was the native tongue. We had been trained also to talk French daily during dinner, so we were not quite “helpless foreigners” when we steamed away from St. Catherine’s Docks, and found ourselves on the following day in Antwerp, amid what seemed to us a very Babel of conflicting tongues. Alas for our carefully spoken French, articulated laboriously. We were lost in that swirl of disputing luggage-porters, and could not understand a word! But Miss Marryat was quite equal to the occasion, being by no means new to travelling, and her French stood the test triumphantly, and steered us safely to a hotel. On the morrow we started again through Aix-la-Chapelle to Bonn, the town which lies on the borders of the exquisite scenery of which the Siebengebirge and Rolandseck serve as the magic portal. Our experiences in Bonn were not wholly satisfactory. Dear Auntie was a maiden lady, looking on all young men as wolves to be kept far from her growing lambs. Bonn was a university town, and there was a mania just then prevailing there for all things English. Emma was a plump, rosy, fair-haired typical English maiden, full of frolic and harmless fun; I a very slight, pale, black-haired girl, alternating between wild fun and extreme pensiveness. In the boarding-house to which we went at first–the “Chateau du Rhin”, a beautiful place overhanging the broad blue Rhine–there chanced to be staying the two sons of the late Duke of Hamilton, the Marquis of Douglas and Lord Charles, with their tutor. They had the whole drawing-room floor: we a sitting-room on the ground floor and bedrooms above. The lads discovered that Miss Marryat did not like her “children” to be on speaking terms with any of the “male sect”. Here was a fine source of amusement. They would make their horses caracole on the gravel in front of our window; they would be just starting for their ride as we went for walk or drive, and would salute us with doffed hat and low bow; they would waylay us on our way downstairs with demure “Good morning”; they would go to church and post themselves so that they could survey our pew, and Lord Charles–who possessed the power of moving at will the whole skin of the scalp–would wriggle his hair up and down till we were choking with laughter, to our own imminent risk. After a month of this, Auntie was literally driven out of the pretty _Chateau_, and took refuge in a girls’ school, much to our disgust, but still she was not allowed to be at rest. Mischievous students would pursue us wherever we went; sentimental Germans, with gashed cheeks, would whisper complimentary phrases as we passed; mere boyish nonsense of most harmless kind, but the rather stern English lady thought it “not proper”, and after three months of Bonn we were sent home for the holidays, somewhat in disgrace. But we had some lovely excursions during those months; such clambering up mountains, such rows on the swift-flowing Rhine, such wanderings in exquisite valleys. I have a long picture-gallery to retire into when I want to think of something fair, in recalling the moon as it silvered the Rhine at the foot of Drachenfels, or the soft mist-veiled island where dwelt the lady who is consecrated for ever by Roland’s love.

A couple of months later we rejoined Miss Marryat in Paris, where we spent seven happy workful months. On Wednesdays and Saturdays we were free from lessons, and many a long afternoon was passed in the galleries of the Louvre, till we became familiar with the masterpieces of art gathered there from all lands. I doubt if there was a beautiful church in Paris that we did not visit during those weekly wanderings; that of St. Germain de l’Auxerrois was my favorite–the church whose bell gave the signal for the massacre of St. Bartholomew–for it contained such marvellous stained glass, deepest purest glory of color that I had ever seen. The solemn beauty of Notre Dame, the somewhat gaudy magnificence of La Sainte Chapelle, the stateliness of La Madeleine, the impressive gloom of St. Roch, were all familiar to us. Other delights were found in mingling with the bright crowds which passed along the Champs Elysees and sauntered in the Bois de Boulogne, in strolling in the garden of the Tuileries, in climbing to the top of every monument whence view of Paris could be gained. The Empire was then in its heyday of glitter, and we much enjoyed seeing the brilliant escort of the imperial carriage, with plumes and gold and silver dancing and glistening in the sunlight, while in the carriage sat the exquisitely lovely empress with the little boy beside her, touching his cap shyly, but with something of her own grace, in answer to a greeting–the boy who was thought to be born to an imperial crown, but whose brief career was to find an ending from the spears of savages in a quarrel in which he had no concern.

In the spring of 1862 it chanced that the Bishop of Ohio visited Paris, and Mr. Forbes, then English chaplain at the Church of the Rue d’Aguesseau, arranged to have a confirmation. As said above, I was under deep “religious impressions”, and, in fact, with the exception of that little aberration in Germany, I was decidedly a pious girl. I looked on theatres (never having been to one) as traps set by Satan for the destruction of foolish souls; I was quite determined never to go to a ball, and was prepared to “suffer for conscience sake”–little prig that I was–if I was desired to go to one. I was consequently quite prepared to take upon myself the vows made in my name at my baptism, and to renounce the world, the flesh, and the devil, with a heartiness and sincerity only equalled by my profound ignorance of the things I so readily resigned. That confirmation was to me a very solemn matter; the careful preparation, the prolonged prayers, the wondering awe as to the “sevenfold gifts of the Spirit”, which were to be given by “the laying on of hands”, all tended to excitement. I could scarcely control myself as I knelt at the altar rails, and felt as though the gentle touch of the aged Bishop, which fluttered for an instant on my bowed head, were the very touch of the wing of that “Holy Spirit, heavenly Dove”, whose presence had been so earnestly invoked. Is there anything easier, I wonder, than to make a young and sensitive girl “intensely religious”.

My mother came over for the confirmation and for the “first communion” on Easter Sunday, and we had a delightful fortnight together, returning home after we had wandered hand-in-hand over all my favorite haunts. The summer of 1862 was spent with Miss Marryat at Sidmouth, and, wise woman that she was, she now carefully directed our studies with a view to our coming enfranchisement from the “school-room.” More and more were we trained to work alone; our leading-strings were slackened, so that we never felt them save when we blundered; and I remember that when I once complained, in loving fashion, that she was “teaching me so little”, she told me that I was getting old enough to be trusted to work by myself, and that I must not expect to “have Auntie for a crutch all through life”. And I venture to say that this gentle withdrawal of constant supervision and teaching was one of the wisest and kindest things that this noble-hearted woman ever did for us. It is the usual custom to keep girls in the school-room until they “come out”; then, suddenly, they are left to their own devices, and, bewildered by their unaccustomed freedom, they waste time that might be priceless for their intellectual growth. Lately, the opening of universities to women has removed this danger for the more ambitious; but at the time of which I am writing no one dreamed of the changes soon to be made in the direction of the “higher education of women”.

During the winter of 1862-1863 Miss Marryat was in London, and for a few months I remained there with her, attending the admirable French classes of M. Roche. In the spring I returned home to Harrow, going up each week to the classes; and when these were over, Auntie told me that she thought all she could usefully do was done, and that it was time that I should try my wings alone. So well, however, had she succeeded in her aims, that my emancipation from the school-room was but the starting-point of more eager study, though now the study turned into the lines of thought towards which my personal tendencies most attracted me. German I continued to read with a master, and music, under the marvellously able teaching of Mr. John Farmer, musical director of Harrow School, took up much of my time. My dear mother had a passion for music, and Beethoven and Bach were her favorite composers. There was scarcely a sonata of Beethoven’s that I did not learn, scarcely a fugue of Bach’s that I did not master. Mendelssohn’s “Lieder” gave a lighter recreation, and many a happy evening did we spend, my mother and I, over the stately strains of the blind Titan, and the sweet melodies of the German wordless orator. Musical “At Homes”, too, were favorite amusements at Harrow, and at these my facile fingers made me a welcome guest.

A very pleasant place was Harrow to a light-hearted serious-brained girl. The picked men of the Schools of Oxford and Cambridge came there as junior masters, so that one’s partners at ball and croquet and archery could talk as well as flirt. Never girl had, I venture to say, a brighter girlhood than mine. Every morning and much of the afternoon spent in eager earnest study: evenings in merry party or quiet home-life, one as delightful as the other. Archery and croquet had in me a most devoted disciple, and the “pomps and vanities” of the ballroom found the happiest of votaries. My darling mother certainly “spoiled” me, so far as were concerned all the small roughnesses of life. She never allowed a trouble of any kind to touch me, and cared only that all worries should fall on her, all joys on me. I know now what I never dreamed then, that her life was one of serious anxiety. The heavy burden of my brother’s school and college-life pressed on her constantly, and her need of money was often serious. A lawyer whom she trusted absolutely cheated her systematically, using for his own purposes the remittances she made for payment of liabilities, thus keeping upon her a constant drain. Yet for me all that was wanted was ever there. Was it a ball to which we were going? I need never think of what I would wear till the time for dressing arrived, and there laid out ready for me was all I wanted, every detail complete from top to toe. No hand but hers must dress my hair, which, loosed, fell in dense curly masses nearly to my knees; no hand but hers must fasten dress and deck with flowers, and if I sometimes would coaxingly ask if I might not help by sewing in laces, or by doing some trifle in aid, she would kiss me and bid me run to my books or my play, telling me that her only pleasure in life was caring for her “treasure”. Alas! how lightly we take the self-denying labor that makes life so easy, ere yet we have known what life means when the protecting mother-wing is withdrawn. So guarded and shielded had been my childhood and youth from every touch of pain and anxiety that love could bear for me, that I never dreamed that life might be a heavy burden, save as I saw it in the poor I was sent to help; all the joy of those happy years I took, not ungratefully I hope, but certainly with as glad unconsciousness of anything rare in it as I took the sunlight. Passionate love, indeed, I gave to my darling, but I never knew all I owed her till I passed out of her tender guardianship, till I left my mother’s home. Is such training wise? I am not sure. It makes the ordinary roughnesses of life come with so stunning a shock, when one goes out into the world, that one is apt to question whether some earlier initiation into life’s sterner mysteries would not be wiser for the young. Yet it is a fair thing to have that joyous youth to look back upon, and at least it is a treasury of memory that no thief can steal in the struggles of later life.

During those happy years my brain was given plenty of exercise. I used to keep a list of the books I read, so that I might not neglect my work; and finding a “Library of the Fathers” on the shelves, I selected that for one _piece de resistance_. Soon those strange mystic writers won over me a great fascination, and I threw myself ardently into a study of the question: “Where is now the Catholic Church?”. I read Pusey, and Liddon, and Keble, with many another of that school, and many of the seventeenth century English divines. I began to fast–to the intense disapproval of my mother, who cared for my health far more than for all the Fathers the Church could boast of–to use the sign of the cross, to go to weekly communion. Indeed, the contrast I found between my early Evangelical training and the doctrines of the Primitive Christian Church would have driven me over to Rome, had it not been for the proofs afforded by Pusey and his co-workers, that the English Church might be Catholic although non-Roman. But for them I should most certainly have joined the Papal Communion; for if the Church of the early centuries be compared with Rome and with Geneva, there is no doubt that Rome shows marks of primitive Christianity of which Geneva is entirely devoid. I became content when I found that the practices and doctrines of the Anglican Church could be knitted on to those of the martyrs and confessors of the early Church, for it had not yet struck me that the early Church might itself be challenged. To me, at that time, the authority of Jesus was supreme and unassailable; his apostles were his infallible messengers; Clement of Rome, Polycarp, and Barnabas, these were the very pupils of the apostles themselves. I never dreamed of forgeries, of pious frauds, of writings falsely ascribed to venerated names. Nor do I now regret that so it was; for, without belief, the study of the early Fathers would be an intolerable weariness; and that old reading of mine has served me well in many of my later controversies with Christians, who knew the literature of their Church less well than I.

To this ecclesiastical reading was added some study of stray scientific works, but the number of these that came in my way was very limited. The atmosphere surrounding me was literary rather than scientific. I remember reading a translation of Plato that gave me great delight, and being rather annoyed by the insatiable questionings of Socrates. Lord Derby’s translation of the Iliad also charmed me with its stateliness and melody, and Dante was another favorite study. Wordsworth and Cowper I much disliked, and into the same category went all the 17th and 18th century “poets,” though I read them conscientiously through. Southey fascinated me with his wealth of Oriental fancies, while Spencer was a favorite book, put beside Milton and Dante. My novel reading was extremely limited; indeed the “three volume novel” was a forbidden fruit. My mother regarded these ordinary love-stories as unhealthy reading for a young girl, and gave me Scott and Kingsley, but not Miss Braddon or Mrs. Henry Wood. Nor would she take me to the theatre, though we went to really good concerts. She had a horror of sentimentality in girls, and loved to see them bright and gay, and above all things absolutely ignorant of all evil things and of premature love-dreams. Happy, healthy and workful were those too brief years.


My grandfather’s house, No. 8, Albert Square, Clapham Road, was a second home from my earliest childhood.

That house, with its little strip of garden at the back, will always remain dear and sacred to me. I can see now the two almond trees, so rich in blossom every spring, so barren in fruit every autumn; the large spreading tufts of true Irish shamrock, brought from Ireland, and lovingly planted in the new grey London house, amid the smoke; the little nooks at the far end, wherein I would sit cosily out of sight reading a favorite book. Inside it was but a commonplace London house, only one room, perhaps, differing from any one that might have been found in any other house in the square. That was my grandfather’s “work-room”, where he had a lathe fitted up, for he had a passion and a genius for inventive work in machinery. He took out patents for all sorts of ingenious contrivances, but always lost money. His favorite invention was of a “railway chair”, for joining the ends of rails together, and in the ultimate success of this he believed to his death. It was (and is) used on several lines, and was found to answer splendidly, but the old man never derived any profit from his invention. The fact was he had no money, and those who had took it up and utilised it, and kept all the profit for themselves. There were several cases in which his patents dropped, and then others took up his inventions, and made a commercial success thereof.

A strange man altogether was that grandfather of mine, whom I can only remember as a grand-looking old man, with snow-white hair and piercing hawk’s eyes. The merriest of wild Irishmen was he in his youth, and I have often wished that his biography had been written, if only as a picture of Dublin society at the time. He had an exquisite voice, and one night he and some of his wild comrades went out singing through the streets as beggars. Pennies, sixpences, shillings, and even half-crowns came showering down in recompense of street music of such unusual excellence; then the young scamps, ashamed of their gains, poured them all into the hat of a cripple they met, who must have thought that all the blessed saints were out that night in the Irish capital. On another occasion he went to the wake of an old woman who had been bent nearly double by rheumatism, and had been duly “laid out”, and tied down firmly, so as to keep the body straight in the recumbent position. He hid under the bed, and when the whisky was flowing freely, and the orgie was at its height, he cut the ropes with a sharp knife, and the old woman suddenly sat up in bed, frightening the revellers out of their wits, and, luckily for my grandfather, out of the room. Many such tales would he tell, with quaint Irish humor, in his later days. He died, from a third stroke of paralysis, in 1862.

The Morrises were a very “clannish” family, and my grandfather’s house was the London centre. All the family gathered there on each Christmastide, and on Christmas day was always held high festival. For long my brother and I were the only grandchildren within reach, and were naturally made much of. The two sons were out in India, married, with young families. The youngest daughter was much away from home, and a second was living in Constantinople, but three others lived with their father and mother. Bessie, the eldest of the whole family, was a woman of rigid honor and conscientiousness, but poverty and the struggle to keep out of debt had soured her, and “Aunt Bessie” was an object of dread, not of love. One story of her early life will best tell her character. She was engaged to a young clergyman, and one day when Bessie was at church he preached a sermon taken without acknowledgment from some old divine. The girl’s keen sense of honor was shocked at the deception, and she broke off her engagement, but remained unmarried for the rest of her life. “Careful and troubled about many things” was poor Aunt Bessie, and I remember being rather shocked one day at hearing her express her sympathy with Martha, when her sister left her to serve alone, and at her saying: “I doubt very much whether Jesus would have liked it if Martha had been lying about on the floor as well as Mary, and there had been no supper. But there! it’s always those who do the work who are scolded, because they have not time to be as sweet and nice as those who do nothing.” Nor could she ever approve of the treatment of the laborers in the parable, when those who “had borne the burden and heat of the day” received but the same wage as those that had worked but one hour. “It was not just”, she would say doggedly. A sad life was hers, for she repelled all sympathy, and yet later I had reason to believe that she half broke her heart because none loved her well. She was ever gloomy, unsympathising, carping, but she worked herself to death for those whose love she chillily repulsed. She worked till, denying herself every comfort, she literally dropped. One morning, when she got out of bed, she fell, and crawling into bed again, quietly said she could do no more; lay there for some months, suffering horribly with unvarying patience; and died, rejoicing that at last she would have “rest”.

Two other “Aunties” were my playfellows, and I their pet. Minnie, a brilliant pianiste, earned a precarious livelihood by teaching music. The long fasts, the facing of all weathers, the weary rides in omnibuses with soaked feet, broke down at last a splendid constitution, and after some three years of torture, commencing with a sharp attack of English cholera, she died the year before my marriage. But during my girlhood she was the gayest and merriest of my friends, her natural buoyancy re-asserting itself whenever she could escape from her musical tread-mill. Great was my delight when she joined my mother and myself for our spring or summer trips, and when at my favorite St. Leonards–at the far unfashionable end, right away from the gay watering-place folk–we settled down for four or five happy weeks of sea and country, and when Minnie and I scampered over the country on horseback, merry as children set free from school. My other favorite auntie was of a quieter type, a soft pretty loving little woman. “Co” we called her, for she was “such a cosy little thing”, her father used to say. She was my mother’s favorite sister, her “child”, she would name her, because “Co” was so much her junior, and when she was a young girl the little child had been her charge. “Always take care of little Co”, was one of my mother’s dying charges to me, and fortunately “little Co” has–though the only one of my relatives who has done so–clung to me through change of faith, and through social ostracism. Her love for me, and her full belief that, however she differed from me, I meant right, have never varied, have never been shaken. She is intensely religious–as will be seen in the later story, wherein her life was much woven with mine–but however much “darling Annie’s” views or actions might shock her, it is “darling Annie” through it all; “You are so good” she said to me the last time I saw her, looking up at me with all her heart in her eyes; “anyone so good as you must come to our dear Lord at last!” As though any, save a brute, could be aught but good to “little Co”.

On the Christmas following my eighteenth birthday, a little Mission Church in which Minnie was much interested, was opened near Albert Square. My High Church enthusiasm was in full bloom, and the services in this little Mission Church were “high”, whereas those in all the neighboring churches were “low”. A Mr. Hoare, an intensely earnest man, was working there in most devoted fashion, and was glad to welcome any aid; we decorated his church, worked ornaments for it, and thought we were serving God when we were really amusing ourselves in a small place where our help was over-estimated, and where the clergy, very likely unconsciously, flattered us for our devotion. Among those who helped to carry on the services there, was a young undermaster of Stockwell Grammar School, the rev. Frank Besant, a Cambridge man, who had passed as 28th wrangler in his year, and who had just taken orders. At Easter we were again at Albert Square, and devoted much time to the little church, decking it on Easter Eve with soft yellow tufts of primrose blossom, and taking much delight in the unbounded admiration bestowed on the dainty spring blossoms by the poor who crowded in. I made a lovely white cross for the super-altar with camelias and azaleas and white geraniums, but after all it was not really as spring-like, as suitable for a “Resurrection”, as the simple sweet wild flowers, still dewy from their nests in field and glade and lane.

That Easter was memorable to me for another cause. It saw waked and smothered my first doubt. That some people did doubt the historical accuracy of the Bible I knew, for one or two of the Harrow masters were friends of Colenso, the heretic Bishop of Natal, but fresh from my Patristic studies, I looked on heretics with blind horror, possibly the stronger from its very vagueness, and its ignorance of what it feared. My mother objected to my reading controversial books which dealt with the points at issue between Christianity and Freethought, and I did not care for her favorite Stanley, who might have widened my views, regarding him (on the word of Pusey) as “unsound in the faith once delivered to the saints”. I had read Pusey’s book on “Daniel the prophet”, and, knowing nothing of the criticisms he attacked, I felt triumphant at his convincing demonstrations of their error, and felt sure that none but the wilfully blind could fail to see how weak were the arguments of the heretic writers. That stately preface of his was one of my favorite pieces of reading, and his dignified defence against all novelties of “that which must be old because it is eternal, and must be unchangeable because it is true”, at once charmed and satisfied me. The delightful vagueness of Stanley, which just suited my mother’s broad views, because it _was_ vague and beautiful, was denounced by Pusey–not unwarrantably– as that “variegated use of words which destroys all definiteness of meaning”. When she would bid me not be uncharitable to those with whom I differed in matters of religion, I would answer in his words, that “charity to error is treason to truth”, and that to speak out the truth unwaveringly as it was revealed, was alone “loyalty to God and charity to the souls of men”.

Judge, then, of my terror at my own results when I found myself betrayed into writing down some contradictions from the Bible. With that poetic dreaming which is one of the charms of Catholicism, whether English or Roman, I threw myself back into the time of the first century as the “Holy Week” of 1866 approached. In order to facilitate the realisation of those last sacred days of God incarnate on earth, working out man’s salvation, I resolved to write a brief history of that week, compiled from the four gospels, meaning then to try and realise each day the occurrences that had happened on the corresponding date in A.D. 33, and so to follow those “blessed feet” step by step, till they were

“… nailed for our advantage to the bitter cross.”

With the fearlessness which springs from ignorance I sat down to my task. My method was as follows:

MATTHEW. | MARK. | LUKE. | JOHN. | | |
Rode into | Rode into | Rode into | Rode into Jerusalem. | Jerusalem. | Jerusalem. | Jerusalem. Spoke Purified the | Returned to | Purified the | in the Temple. Temple. Returned | Bethany. | Temple. Note: | to Bethany. | | “Taught daily | | | in the Temple”. |
| | |
Cursed the fig | Cursed the fig | Like Matthew. | tree. Taught in | tree. Purified | | the Temple, and | the Temple. | | spake many | Went out of | | parables. No | city. | |
breaks shown, | | | but the fig tree | | |
(xxi., 19) did | | | not wither till | | |
Tuesday (see | | | Mark). | | |
| | |
All chaps, xxi., | Saw fig tree | Discourses. No | 20, xxii.-xxv., | withered up. | date shown. | spoken on Tues- | Then discourses.| | day, for xxvi., 2 | | |
gives Passover as | | | “after two days”. | | |
| | |
Blank. | | |
(Possibly remained in Bethany; the alabaster box of ointment.) | | |
Preparation of | Same as Matt. | Same as Matt. | Discourses with Passover. Eating | | | disciples, but of Passover, | | | _before_ the and institution | | | Passover. Washes of the Holy Eu- | | | the disciples’ charist. Gesthse- | | | feet. Nothing said mane. Betrayal | | | of Holy Eucharist, by Judas. Led | | | nor of agony in captive to Caia- | | | Gethsemane. phas. Denied by | | | Malchus’ ear. St. Peter. | | | Led captive to | | | Annas first. Then | | | to Caiaphas. Denied | | | by St. Peter. | | |
Led to Pilate. | As Matthew, | Led to Pilate. | Taken to Pilate. Judas hangs | but hour of | Sent to Herod. | Jews would not himself. Tried. | crucifixion | Sent back to | enter, that they Condemned to | given, 9 a.m. | Pilate. Rest as | might eat the death. Scourged | | in Matthew; but | Passover. and mocked. | | _one_ male- | Scourged by Pi- Led to cruci- | | factor repents. | late before con- fixion. Darkness | | | demnation, and from 12 to 3. | | | mocked. Shown by Died at 3. | | | Pilate to Jews | | | at 12.

At this point I broke down. I had been getting more and more uneasy and distressed as I went on, but when I found that the Jews would not go into the judgment hall lest they should be defiled, because they desired to eat the passover, having previously seen that Jesus had actually eaten the passover with his disciples the evening before; when after writing down that he was crucified at 9 a.m., and that there was darkness over all the land from 12 to 3 p.m., I found that three hours after he was crucified he was standing in the judgment hall, and that at the very hour at which the miraculous darkness covered the earth; when I saw that I was writing a discord instead of a harmony, I threw down my pen and shut up my Bible. The shock of doubt was, however only momentary. I quickly recognised it as a temptation of the devil, and I shrank back horror-stricken and penitent for the momentary lapse of faith. I saw that these apparent contradictions were really a test of faith, and that there would be no credit in believing a thing in which there were no difficulties. _Credo quia impossibile_; I repeated Tertullian’s words at first doggedly, at last triumphantly. I fasted as penance for my involuntary sin of unbelief. I remembered that the Bible must not be carelessly read, and that St. Peter had warned us that there were in it “some things hard to be understood, which they that are unlearned and unstable wrest unto their own destruction”. I shuddered at the “destruction” to the edge of which my unlucky “harmony” had drawn me, and resolved that I would never again venture on a task for which I was so evidently unfitted. Thus the first doubt was caused, and though swiftly trampled down, it had none the less raised its head. It was stifled, not answered, for all my religious training had led me to regard a doubt as a sin to be repented of, not examined. And it left in my mind the dangerous feeling that there were some things into which it was safer not to enquire too closely; things which must be accepted on faith, and not too narrowly scrutinised. The awful threat: “He that believeth not shall be damned,” sounded in my ears, and, like the angel with the flaming sword, barred the path of all too curious enquiry.


The spring ripened into summer in uneventful fashion, so far as I was concerned, the smooth current of my life flowing on untroubled, hard reading and merry play filling the happy days. I learned later that two or three offers of marriage reached my mother for me; but she answered to each: “She is too young. I will not have her troubled.” Of love-dreams I had absolutely none, partly, I expect, from the absence of fiery novels from my reading, partly because my whole dream-tendencies were absorbed by religion, and all my fancies ran towards a “religious life”. I longed to spend my time in worshipping Jesus, and was, as far as my inner life was concerned, absorbed in that passionate love of “the Savior” which, among emotional Catholics, really is the human passion of love transferred to an ideal–for women to Jesus, for men to the Virgin Mary. In order to show that I am not here exaggerating, I subjoin a few of the prayers in which I found daily delight, and I do this in order to show how an emotional girl may be attracted by these so-called devotional exercises.

“O crucified Love, raise in me fresh ardors of love and consolation, that it may henceforth be the greatest torment I can endure ever to offend Thee; that it may be my greatest delight to please Thee.”

“Let the remembrance of Thy death, O Lord Jesu, make me to desire and pant after Thee, that I may delight in Thy gracious presence.”

“O most sweet Jesu Christ, I, unworthy sinner, yet redeemed by Thy precious blood…. Thine I am and will be, in life and in death.”

“O Jesu, beloved, fairer than the sons of men, draw me after Thee with the cords of Thy love.”

“Blessed are Thou, O most merciful God, who didst vouchsafe to espouse me to the heavenly Bridegroom in the waters of baptism, and hast imparted Thy body and blood as a new gift of espousal and the meet consummation of Thy love.”

“O most sweet Lord Jesu, transfix the affections of my inmost soul with that most joyous and most healthful wound of Thy love, with true, serene, most holy, apostolic charity; that my soul may ever languish and melt with entire love and longing for Thee. Let it desire Thee and faint for Thy courts; long to be dissolved and be with Thee.”

“Oh, that I could embrace Thee with that most burning love of angels.”

“Let Him kiss me with the kisses of His mouth; for Thy love is better than wine. Draw me, we will run after Thee. The king hath brought me into his chambers…. Let my soul, O Lord, feel the sweetness of Thy presence. May it taste how sweet Thou art…. May the sweet and burning power of Thy love, I beseech Thee, absorb my soul.”

To my dear mother this type of religious thought was revolting. But then, she was a woman who had been a wife and a devoted one, while I was a child awaking into womanhood, with emotions and passions dawning and not understood, emotions and passions which craved satisfaction, and found it in this “Ideal Man”. Thousands of girls in England are to-day in exactly this mental phase, and it is a phase full of danger. In America it is avoided by a frank, open, unsentimental companionship between boys and girls, between young men and young women. In England, where this wisely free comradeship is regarded as “improper”, the perfectly harmless and natural sexual feeling is either dwarfed or forced, and so we have “prudishness” and “fastness”. The sweeter and more loving natures become prudes; the more shallow as well as the more high-spirited and merry natures become flirts. Often, as in my own case, the merry side finds its satisfaction in amusements that demand active physical exercise, while the loving side finds its joy in religious expansion, in which the idealised figure of Jesus becomes the object of passion, and the life of the nun becomes the ideal life, as being dedicated to that one devotion. To the girl, of course, this devotion is all that is most holy, most noble, most pure. But analysing it now, after it has long been a thing of the past, I cannot but regard it as a mere natural outlet for the dawning feelings of womanhood, certain to be the more intense and earnest as the nature is deep and loving.

One very practical and mischievous result of this religious feeling is the idealisation of all clergymen, as being the special messengers of, and the special means of communication with, the “Most High”. The priest is surrounded by the halo of Deity. The power that holds the keys of heaven and of hell becomes the object of reverence and of awe. Far more lofty than any title bestowed by earthly monarch is that patent of nobility straight from the hand of the “King of kings”, which seems to give to the mortal something of the authority of the immortal, to crown the head of the priest with the diadem which belongs to those who are “kings and priests unto God”. Swayed by these feelings, the position of a clergyman’s wife seems second only to that of the nun, and has therefore a wonderful attractiveness, an attractiveness in which the particular clergyman affected plays a very subordinate part; it is the “sacred office”, the nearness to “holy things”, the consecration involved, which seem to make the wife a nearer worshipper than those who do not partake in the immediate “services of the altar”–it is all these that shed a glamor over the clerical life which attracts most those who are most apt to self-devotion, most swayed by imagination. I know how incomprehensible this will seem to many of my readers, but it is a fact none the less, and the saddest pity of it is that the glamor is most over those whose brains are quick and responsive to all forms of noble emotions, all suggestions of personal self-sacrifice; and if such later rise to the higher emotions whose shadows have attracted them, and to that higher self-sacrifice whose whispers reached them in their early youth, then the false prophet’s veil is raised, and the life is either wrecked, or through storm-wind and surge of battling billows, with loss of mast and sail, is steered by firm hand into the port of a higher creed.

My mother, Minnie, and I passed the summer holidays at St. Leonards, and many a merry gallop had we over our favorite fields, I on a favorite black mare, Gipsy Queen, as full of life and spirits as I was myself, who danced gaily over ditch and hedge, thinking little of my weight, for I rode barely eight stone. At the end of those, our last free summer holidays, we returned as usual to Harrow, and shortly afterwards I went to Switzerland with some dear friends of ours named Roberts.

Everyone about Manchester will remember Mr. Roberts, the solicitor, the “poor man’s lawyer”. Close friend of Ernest Jones, and hand-in-hand with him through all his struggles, Mr. Roberts was always ready to fight a poor man’s battle for him without fee, and to champion any worker unfairly dealt with. He worked hard in the agitation which saved women from working in the mines, and I have heard him tell how he had seen them toiling, naked to the waist, with short petticoats barely reaching to their knees, rough, foul-tongued, brutalised out of all womanly decency and grace; and how he had seen little children working there too, babies of three and four set to watch a door, and falling asleep at their work to be roused by curse and kick to the unfair toil. The old man’s eye would begin to flash and his voice to rise as he told of these horrors, and then his face would soften as he added that, after it was all over and the slavery was put an end to, as he went through a coal-district the women standing at their doors would lift up their children to see “Lawyer Roberts” go by, and would bid “God bless him” for what he had done. This dear old man was my first tutor in Radicalism, and I was an apt pupil. I had taken no interest in politics, but had unconsciously reflected more or less the decorous Whiggism which had always surrounded me. I regarded “the poor” as folk to be educated, looked after, charitably dealt with, and always treated with most perfect courtesy, the courtesy being due from me, as a lady, to all equally, whether they were rich or poor. But to Mr. Roberts “the poor” were the working-bees, the wealth producers, with a right to self-rule, not to looking after, with a right to justice, not to charity, and he preached his doctrines to me, in season and out of season. “What do you think of John Bright?” he demanded of me one day. “I have never thought of him at all,” I answered lightly. “Isn’t he a rather rough sort of man, who goes about making rows?” “There, I thought so,” he broke out fiercely. “That’s just what they say. I believe some of you fine ladies would not go to heaven if you had to rub shoulders with John Bright, the noblest man God ever gave to the cause of the poor.” And then he launched out into stories of John Bright’s work and John Bright’s eloquence, and showed me the changes that work and eloquence had made in the daily lives of the people.

With Mr. Roberts, his wife, and two daughters, I went to Switzerland as the autumn drew near. It would be of little interest to tell how we went to Chamounix and worshipped Mont Blanc, how we crossed the Mer de Glace and the Mauvais Pas, how we visited the Monastery of St. Bernard (I losing my heart to the beautiful dogs), how we went by steamer down the lake of Thun, how we gazed at the Jungfrau and saw the exquisite Staubbach, how we visited Lausanne, and Berne, and Geneva, how we stood beside the wounded Lion, and shuddered in the dungeon of Chillon, how we walked distances we never should have attempted in England, how we younger ones lost ourselves on a Sunday afternoon, after ascending a mountain, and returned footsore and weary, to meet a party going out to seek us with lanterns and ropes. All these things have been so often described that I will not add one more description to the list, nor dwell on that strange feeling of awe, of wonder, of delight, that everyone must have felt, when the glory of the peaks clad in “everlasting snow” is for the first time seen against the azure sky on the horizon, and you whisper to yourself, half breathless: “The Alps! The Alps!”

During that autumn I became engaged to the Rev. Frank Besant, giving up with a sigh of regret my dreams of the “religious life”, and substituting for them the work which would have to be done as the wife of a priest, laboring ever in the church and among the poor. A queer view, some people may think, for a girl to take of married life, but it was the natural result of my living the life of the Early Church, of my enthusiasm for religious work. To me a priest was a half-angelic creature, whose whole life was consecrated to heaven; all that was deepest and truest in my nature chafed against my useless days, longed for work, yearned to devote itself, as I had read women saints had done, to the service of the church and the poor, to the battling against sin and misery. “You will have more opportunity for doing good as a clergyman’s wife than as anything else,” was one of the pleas urged on my reluctance. My ignorance of all that marriage meant was as profound as though I had been a child of four, and my knowledge of the world was absolutely _nil_. My darling mother meant all that was happiest for me when she shielded me from all knowledge of sorrow and of sin, when she guarded me from the smallest idea of the marriage relation, keeping me ignorant as a baby till I left her home a wife. But looking back now on all, I deliberately say that no more fatal blunder can be made than to train a girl to womanhood in ignorance of all life’s duties and burdens, and then to let her face them for the first time away from all the old associations, the old helps, the old refuge on the mother’s breast. That “perfect innocence” maybe very beautiful, but it is a perilous possession, and Eve should have the knowledge of good and of evil ere she wanders forth from the paradise of a mother’s love. When a word is never spoken to a girl that is not a caress; when necessary rebuke comes in tone of tenderest reproach; when “You have grieved me” has been the heaviest penalty for a youthful fault; when no anxiety has ever been allowed to trouble the young heart–then, when the hothouse flower is transplanted, and rough winds blow on it, it droops and fades.

The spring and summer of 1867 passed over with little of incident, save one. We quitted Harrow, and the wrench was great. My brother had left school, and had gone to Cambridge; the master, who had lived with us for so long, had married and had gone to a house of his own; my mother thought that as she was growing older, the burden of management was becoming too heavy, and she desired to seek an easier life. She had saved money enough to pay for my brother’s college career, and she determined to invest the rest of her savings in a house in St. Leonard’s, where she might live for part of the year, letting the house during the season. She accordingly took and furnished a house in Warrior Square, and we moved thither, saying farewell to the dear Old Vicarage, and the friends loved for so many happy years.

At the end of the summer, my mother and I went down to Manchester, to pay a long visit to the Roberts’s; a very pleasant time we passed there, a large part of mine being spent on horseback, either leaping over a bar in the meadow, or scouring the country far and wide. A grave break, however, came in our mirth. The Fenian troubles were then at their height. On September 11th, Colonel Kelly and Captain Deasy, two Fenian leaders, were arrested in Manchester, and the Irish population was at once thrown into a terrible ferment. On the 18th, the police van containing them was returning from the Court to the County Gaol at Salford, and as it reached the railway arch which crosses the Hyde Road at Bellevue, a man sprang out, shot one of the horses, and thus stopped the van. In a moment it was surrounded by a small band, armed with revolvers and with crowbars, and the crowbars were wrenching at the locked door. A reinforcement of police was approaching, and there was no time to be lost. The rescuers called to Brett, a sergeant of police who was in charge inside the van, to pass the keys out, and, on his refusal, there was a cry: “Blow off the lock!”. The muzzle of a revolver was placed against the lock, and the revolver was discharged. Unhappily, poor Brett had stooped down to try and see through the keyhole what was going on outside, and the bullet, fired to blow open the lock, entered his head, and he fell dying on the floor. The rescuers rushed in, and one Allen, a lad of seventeen, opened the doors of the compartments in which were Kelly and Deasy, and hurriedly pulled them out. Two or three of the band, gathering round them, carried them off across the fields to a place of safety, while the rest gallantly threw themselves between their rescued friends and the strong body of police which charged down after the fugitives. With their revolvers pointed, they kept back the police, until they saw that the two Fenian leaders were beyond all chance of capture, and then they scattered, flying in all directions. Young William Allen, whose one thought had been for his chiefs, was the earliest victim. As he fled, he raised his hand and fired his revolver straight in the air; he had been ready to use it in defence of others, he would not shed blood for himself. Disarmed by his own act, he was set upon by the police, brutally struck down, kicked and stoned by his pursuers, and then, bruised and bleeding, he was dragged off to gaol, to meet there some of his comrades in much the same plight. The whole city of Manchester went mad over the story, and the fiercest race-passions at once blazed out into flame; it became dangerous for an Irish workman to be alone in a group of Englishmen, for an Englishman to venture into the Irish quarter of the city. The friends of the arrested Irishmen went straight to “Lawyer Roberts”, and begged his aid, and he threw himself heart and soul into their defence. He soon found that the man who had fired the fatal shot was safe out of the way, having left Manchester at once, and he trusted that it would at least be possible to save his clients from the death-penalty. A Special Commission was issued, with Mr. Justice Blackburn at its head. “They are going to send that hanging judge,” groaned Mr. Roberts when he heard it, and we felt there was small chance of escape for the prisoners. He struggled hard to have the _venue_ of the trial changed, protesting that in the state of excitement in which Manchester was, there was no chance of obtaining an impartial jury. But the cry for blood and for revenge was ringing through the air, and of fairness and impartiality there was no chance. On the 25th of October, the prisoners were actually brought up before the magistrates _in irons_, and Mr. Ernest Jones, the counsel briefed to defend them, after a vain protest against the monstrous outrage, threw down his brief and quitted the Court. The trial was hurried on, and on October 29th, Allen, Larkin, Gould (O’Brien), Maguire, and Condon, stood before their judges.

We drove up to the court; the streets were barricaded; soldiers were under arms; every approach was crowded by surging throngs. At last, our carriage was stopped in the midst of excited Irishmen, and fists were shaken in the window, curses levelled at the “d—-d English who were going to see the boys murdered”. For a moment things were uncomfortable, for we were five women of helpless type. Then I bethought myself that we were unknown, and, like the saucy girl I was, I leant forward and touched the nearest fist. “Friends, these are Mr. Roberts’ wife and daughters.” “Roberts! Lawyer Roberts! God bless Roberts. Let his carriage through.” And all the scowling faces became smile-wreathen, and cheers sounded out for curses, and a road was cleared for us to the steps.

Very sad was that trial. On the first day Mr. Roberts got himself into trouble which threatened to be serious. He had briefed Mr. Digby Seymour, Q.C. as leader, with Mr. Ernest Jones, for the defence, and he did not think that the jurymen proposed were challenged as they should be. We knew that many whose names were called were men who had proclaimed their hostility to the Irish, and despite the wrath of Judge Blackburn, Mr. Roberts would jump up and challenge them. In vain he threatened to commit the sturdy solicitor. “These men’s lives are at stake, my lord,” he said indignantly. At last the officers of the court were sharply told: “Remove that man,” but as they advanced reluctantly–for all poor men loved and honored him–Judge Blackburn changed his mind and let him remain. At last the jury was empanelled, containing one man who had loudly proclaimed that he “didn’t care what the evidence was, he would hang every d—-d Irishman of the lot”. In fact, the verdict was a foregone conclusion. The most disreputable evidence was admitted; the suppositions of women of lowest character were accepted as conclusive; the _alibi_ for Maguire– clearly proved, and afterwards accepted by the Crown, a free pardon being issued on the strength of it–was rejected with dogged obstinacy; how premeditated was the result may be guessed from the fact that I saw–with what shuddering horror may be estimated–some official in the room behind the judges’ chairs, quietly preparing the black caps before the verdict had been given. The verdict of “Guilty” was repeated in each of the five cases, and the prisoners were asked by the presiding judge if they had anything to say why sentence should not be passed on them. Allen spoke briefly and bravely; he had not fired a shot, but he had helped to free Kelly and Deasy; he was willing to die for Ireland. The others followed in turn, Maguire protesting his innocence, and Condon declaring also that he was not present (he also was reprieved). Then the sentence of death was passed, and “God save Ireland”! rang out in five clear voices in answer from the dock.

We had a sad scene that night; the young girl to whom poor Allen was engaged was heartbroken at her lover’s doom, and bitter were her cries to “save my William!”. No protests, no pleas, however, availed to mitigate the doom, and on November 23rd, Allen, Larkin, and O’Brien were hanged outside Salford gaol. Had they striven for freedom in Italy, England would have honored them as heroes; here she buried them as common murderers in quicklime in the prison yard.

I have found, with a keen sense of pleasure, that Mr. Bradlaugh and myself were in 1867 to some extent co-workers, although we knew not of each other’s existence, and although he was doing much, and I only giving such poor sympathy as a young girl might, who was only just awakening to the duty of political work. I read in the _National Reformer_ for November 24, 1867, that in the preceding week, he was pleading on Clerkenwell Green for these men’s lives:

“According to the evidence at the trial, Deasy and Kelly were illegally arrested. They had been arrested for vagrancy of which no evidence was given, and apparently remanded for felony without a shadow of justification. He had yet to learn that in England the same state of things existed as in Ireland; he had yet to learn that an illegal arrest was sufficient ground to detain any of the citizens of any country in the prisons of this one. If he were illegally held, he was justified in using enough force to procure his release. Wearing a policeman’s coat gave no authority when the officer exceeded his jurisdiction. He had argued this before Lord Chief Justice Erle in the Court of Common Pleas, and that learned judge did not venture to contradict the argument which he submitted. There was another reason why they should spare these men, although he hardly expected the Government to listen, because the Government sent down one of the judges who was predetermined to convict the prisoners; it was that the offence was purely a political one. The death of Brett was a sad mischance, but no one who read the evidence could regard the killing of Brett as an intentional murder. Legally, it was murder; morally, it was homicide in the rescue of a political captive. If it were a question of the rescue of the political captives of Varignano, or of political captives in Bourbon, in Naples, or in Poland, or in Paris, even earls might be found so to argue. Wherein is our sister Ireland less than these? In executing these men, they would throw down the gauntlet for terrible reprisals. It was a grave and solemn question. It had been said by a previous speaker that they were prepared to go to any lengths to save these Irishmen. They were not. He wished they were. If they were, if the men of England, from one end to the other, were prepared to say, “These men shall not be executed,” they would not be. He was afraid they had not pluck enough for that. Their moral courage was not equal to their physical strength. Therefore he would not say that they were prepared to do so. They must plead _ad misericordiam_. He appealed to the press, which represented the power of England; to that press which in its panic-stricken moments had done much harm, and which ought now to save these four doomed men. If the press demanded it, no Government would be mad enough to resist. The memory of the blood which was shed in 1798 rose up like a bloody ghost against them to-day. He only feared that what they said upon the subject might do the poor men more harm than good. If it were not so, he would coin words that should speak in words of fire. As it was, he could only say to the Government: You are strong to-day; you hold these men’s lives in your hands; but if you want to reconcile their country to you, if you want to win back Ireland, if you want to make her children love you–then do not embitter their hearts still more by taking the lives of these men. Temper your strength with mercy; do not use the sword of justice like one of vengeance; for the day may come when it shall be broken in your hands, and you yourselves brained by the hilt of the weapon you have so wickedly wielded.”

In October he had printed a plea for Ireland, strong and earnest, asking:–

“Where is our boasted English freedom when you cross to Kingstown pier? Where has it been for near two years? The Habeas Corpus Act suspended, the gaols crowded, the steamers searched, spies listening at shebeen shops for sedition, and the end of it a Fenian panic in England. Oh, before it be too late, before more blood shall stain the pages of our present history, before we exasperate and arouse bitter animosities, let us try and do justice to our sister land. Abolish once and for all the land laws, which in their iniquitous operation have ruined her peasantry. Sweep away the leech-like Church which has sucked her vitality, and has given her back no word even of comfort in her degradation. Turn her barracks into flax mills, encourage a spirit of independence in her citizens, restore to her people the protection of the law, so that they may speak without fear of arrest, and beg them to plainly and boldly state their grievances. Let a commission of the best and wisest amongst Irishmen, with some of our highest English judges added, sit solemnly to hear all complaints, and then let us honestly legislate, not for the punishment of the discontented, but to remove the causes of the discontent. It is not the Fenians who have depopulated Ireland’s strength and increased her misery. It is not the Fenians who have evicted tenants by the score. It is not the Fenians who have checked cultivation. Those who have caused the wrong at least should frame the remedy.”


In December, 1867, I was married at St. Leonards, and after a brief trip to Paris and Southsea, we went to Cheltenham where Mr. Besant had obtained a mastership. We lived at first in lodgings, and as I was very much alone, my love for reading had full swing. Quietly to myself I fretted intensely for my mother, and for the daily sympathy and comradeship that had made my life so fair. In a strange town, among strangers, with a number of ladies visiting me who talked only of servants and babies–troubles of which I knew nothing–who were profoundly uninterested in everything that had formed my previous life, in theology, in politics, in questions of social reform, and who looked on me as “strange” because I cared more for the great struggles outside than for the discussions of a housemaid’s young man, or the amount of “butter when dripping would have done perfectly well, my dear,” used by the cook–under such circumstances it will not seem marvellous that I felt somewhat forlorn. I found refuge, however, in books, and energetically carried on my favorite studies; next, I thought I would try writing, and took up two very different lines of composition; I wrote some short stories of a very flimsy type, and also a work of a much more ambitious character, “The Lives of the Black Letter Saints”. For the sake of the unecclesiastically trained it may be well to mention that in the Calendar of the Church of England there are a number of Saints’ Days; some of these are printed in red, and are Red Letter Days, for which services are appointed by the Church; others are printed in black, and are Black Letter Days, and have no special services fixed for them. It seemed to me that it would be interesting to take each of these days and write a sketch of the life of the saint belonging to it, and accordingly I set to work to do so, and gathered various books of history and legend wherefrom to collect my “facts”. I don’t in the least know what became of that valuable book; I tried Macmillans with it, and it was sent on by them to someone who was preparing a series of church books for the young; later I had a letter from a Church brotherhood offering to publish it, if I would give it as an “act of piety” to their order; its ultimate fate is to me unknown.

The short stories were more fortunate. I sent the first to the _Family Herald_, and some weeks afterwards received a letter from which dropped a cheque as I opened it. Dear me! I have earned a good deal of money since by my pen, but never any that gave me the intense delight of that first thirty shillings. It was the first money I had ever earned, and the pride of the earning was added to the pride of authorship. In my childish delight and practical religion, I went down on my knees and thanked God for sending it to me, and I saw myself earning heaps of golden guineas, and becoming quite a support of the household. Besides, it was “my very own”, I thought, and a delightful sense of independence came over me. I had not then realised the beauty of the English law, and the dignified position in which it placed the married woman; I did not understand that all a married woman earned by law belonged to her owner, and that she could have nothing that belonged to her of right.[1] I did not want the money: I was only so glad to have something of my own to give, and it was rather a shock to learn that it was not really mine at all.

[Footnote 1: This odious law has now been altered, and a married woman is a person, not a chattel.]

From time to time after that, I earned a few pounds for stories in the same journal; and the _Family Herald,_ let me say, has one peculiarity which should render it beloved by poor authors; it pays its contributor when it accepts the paper, whether it prints it immediately or not; thus my first story was not printed for some weeks after I received the cheque, and it was the same with all others accepted by the same journal. Encouraged by these small successes, I began writing a novel! It took a long time to do, but was at last finished, and sent off to the _Family Herald._ The poor thing came back, but with a kind note, telling me that it was too political for their pages, but that if I would write one of “purely domestic interest”, and up to the same level, it would probably be accepted. But by that time I was in the full struggle of theological doubt, and that novel of “purely domestic interest” never got itself written.

I contributed further to the literature of my country a theological pamphlet, of which I forget the exact title, but it dealt with the duty of fasting incumbent on all faithful Christians, and was very patristic in its tone.

In January, 1869, my little son was born, and as I was very ill for some months before,–and was far too much interested in the tiny creature afterwards, to devote myself to pen and paper, my literary career was checked for a while. The baby gave a new interest and a new pleasure to life, and as we could not afford a nurse I had plenty to do in looking after his small majesty. My energy in reading became less feverish when it was done by the side of the baby’s cradle, and the little one’s presence almost healed the abiding pain of my mother’s loss.

I may pass very quickly over the next two years. In August, 1870, a little sister was born to my son, and the recovery was slow and tedious, for my general health had been failing for some time. I was, among other things, fretting much about my mother, who was in sore trouble. A lawyer in whom she had had the most perfect confidence betrayed it; for years she had paid all her large accounts through him, and she had placed her money in his hands. Suddenly he was discovered by his partners to have been behaving unfairly; the crash came, and my mother found that all the money given by her for discharge of liabilities had vanished, while the accounts were unpaid, and that she was involved in debt to a very serious extent. The shock was a very terrible one to her, for she was too old to begin the world afresh. She sold off all she had, and used the money, as far as it would go, to pay the debts she believed to have been long ago discharged, and she was thus left penniless after thinking she had made a little competence for her old age. Lord Hatherley’s influence obtained for my brother the post of undersecretary to the Society of Arts, and also some work from the Patent Office, and my mother went to live with him. But the dependence was intolerable to her, though she never let anyone but myself know she suffered, and even I, until her last illness, never knew how great her suffering had been. The feeling of debt weighed on her, and broke her heart; all day long while my brother was at his office, through the bitter winter weather, she would sit without a fire, lighting it only a little before his home-coming, so that she might save all the expense she could; often and often she would go out about half-past twelve, saying that she was going out to lunch, and would walk about till late in the afternoon, so as to avoid the lunch-hour at home. I have always felt that the winter of 1870-1 killed her, though she lived on for three years longer; it made her an old broken woman, and crushed her brave spirit. How often I have thought since: “If only I had not left her! I should have seen she was suffering, and should have saved her.” One little chance help I gave her, on a brief visit to town. She was looking very ill, and I coaxed out of her that her back was always aching, and that she never had a moment free from pain. Luckily I had that morning received a letter containing L2 2s. from my liberal _Family Herald_ editor, and as, glancing round the room, I saw there were only ordinary chairs, I disregarded all questions as to the legal ownership of the money, and marched out without saying a word, and bought for L1 15s. a nice cushiony chair, just like one she used to have at Harrow, and had it sent home to her. For a moment she was distressed, but I told her I had earned the money, and so she was satisfied. “Oh, the rest!” she said softly once or twice during the evening. I have that chair still, and mean to keep it as long as I live.

In the spring of 1871 both my children were taken ill with hooping-cough. The boy, Digby, vigorous and merry, fought his way through it with no danger, and with comparatively little suffering; Mabel, the baby, had been delicate since her birth; there had been some little difficulty in getting her to breathe after she was born, and a slight tendency afterwards to lung-delicacy. She was very young for so trying a disease as hooping-cough, and after a while bronchitis set in, and was followed by congestion of the lungs. For weeks she lay in hourly peril of death; we arranged a screen round the fire like a tent, and kept it full of steam to ease the panting breath, and there I sat all through those weary weeks with her on my lap, day and night. The doctor said that recovery was impossible, and that in one of the fits of coughing she must die; the most distressing thing was that at last the giving of a drop or two of milk brought on the terrible convulsive choking, and it seemed cruel to torture the apparently dying child. At length, one morning when the doctor was there, he said that she could not last through the day; I had sent for him hurriedly, for her body had swollen up rapidly, and I did not know what had happened; the pleura of one lung had become perforated, and the air escaping into the cavity of the chest had caused the swelling; while he was there, one of the fits of coughing came on, and it seemed as though it would be the last; the doctor took a small bottle of chloroform out of his pocket, and putting a drop on a handkerchief, held it near the child’s face, till the drug soothed the convulsive struggle. “It can’t do any harm at this stage,” he said, “and it checks the suffering.” He went away, saying that he would return in the afternoon, but he feared he would never see the child alive again. One of the kindest friends I had in my married life was that same doctor, Mr. Lauriston Winterbotham; he was as good as he was clever, and, like so many of his noble, profession, he had the merits of discretion and of silence.

That chance thought of his about the chloroform, verily, I believe, saved the child’s life. Whenever one of the convulsive fits was coming on I used it, and so not only prevented to a great extent the violence of the attacks, but also the profound exhaustion that followed them, when of breath at the top of the throat showing that she still lived. At last, though more than once we had thought her dead, a change took place for the better, and the child began slowly to mend. For years, however, that struggle for life left its traces on her, not only in serious lung-delicacy but also in a form of epileptic fits. In her play she would suddenly stop, and become fixed for about a minute, and then go on again as though nothing had occurred. On her mother a more permanent trace was left.

Not unnaturally, when the child was out of danger, I collapsed from sheer exhaustion, and I lay in bed for a week. But an important change of mind dated from those silent weeks with a dying child on my knees. There had grown up in my mind a feeling of angry resentment against the God who had been for weeks, as I thought, torturing my helpless baby. For some months a stubborn antagonism to the Providence who ordained the sufferings of life had been steadily increasing in me, and this sullen challenge, “Is God good?” found voice in my heart during those silent nights and days. My mother’s sufferings, and much personal unhappiness, had been, intensifying the feeling, and as I watched my baby in its agony, and felt so helpless to relieve, more than once the indignant cry broke from my lips: “How canst thou torture a baby so? What has she done that she should suffer so? Why dost thou not kill her at once, and let her be at peace?” More than once I cried aloud: “O God, take the child, but do not torment her.” All my personal belief in God, all my intense faith in his constant direction of affairs, all my habit of continual prayer and of realisation of his presence, were against me now. To me he was not an abstract idea, but a living reality, and all my mother-heart rose up in rebellion against this person in whom I believed, and whose individual finger I saw in my baby’s agony.

At this time I met a clergyman–I do not give his name lest I should injure him–whose wider and more liberal views of Christianity exercised much influence over me during the months of struggle that followed. Mr. Besant had brought him to me while the child was at her worst, and I suppose something of the “Why is it?” had, unconsciously to me, shown itself to his keen eyes. On the day after his visit, I received from him the following letter, in which unbeliever as well as believer may recognise the deep human sympathy and noble nature of the writer:–

“April 21st, 1871.

“MY DEAR MRS. BESANT,–I am painfully conscious that I gave you but little help in your trouble yesterday. It is needless to say that it was not from want of sympathy. Perhaps it would be nearer the truth to say that it was from excess of sympathy. I shrink intensely from meddling with the sorrow of anyone whom I feel to be of a sensitive nature.

‘The heart hath its own bitterness, and the stranger meddleth not therewith.’

It is to me a positively fearful thought that I might await a reflection as

‘And common was the common place,
And vacant chaff well meant for grain’.

Conventional consolations, conventional verses out of the Bible and conventional prayers are, it seems to me, an intolerable aggravation of suffering. And so I acted on a principle that I mentioned to your husband, that ‘there is no power so great as that of one human faith looking upon another human faith’. The promises of God, the love of Christ for little children, and all that has been given to us of hope and comfort, are as deeply planted in your heart as in mine, and I did not care to quote them. But when I talk face to face with one who is in sore need of them, my faith in them suddenly becomes so vast and heart-stirring that I think I must help most by talking naturally, and letting the faith find its own way from soul to soul. Indeed I could not find words for it if I tried. And yet I am compelled, as a messenger of the glad tidings of God, to solemnly assure you that all is well. We have no key to the ‘Mystery of Pain’, excepting the Cross of Christ. But there is another and a deeper solution in the hands of our Father. And it will be ours when we can understand it. There is–in the place to which we travel–some blessed explanation of your baby’s pain and your grief, which will fill with light the darkest heart. Now you must believe without having seen; that is true faith. You must

‘Reach a hand through time to catch
The far-oft interest of tears’.

That you may have strength so to do is part of your share in the prayers of yours very faithfully, W. D—-.”

During the summer months I saw much of this clergyman, Mr. D—- and his wife. We grew into closer intimacy in consequence of the dangerous illness of their only child, a beautiful boy a few months old. I had gained quite a name in Cheltenham as a nurse–my praises having been sung by the doctor–and Mrs. D—- felt she could trust me even with her darling boy while she snatched a night’s sorely needed rest. My questionings were not shirked by Mr. D—-, nor discouraged; he was neither horrified nor sanctimoniously rebuking, but met them all with a wide comprehension inexpressibly soothing to one writhing in the first agony of real doubt. The thought of hell was torturing me; somehow out of the baby’s pain through those seemingly endless hours had grown a dim realisation of what hell might be, full of the sufferings of the beloved, and my whole brain and heart revolted from the unutterable cruelty of a creating and destroying God. Mr. D—- lent me Maurice and Robertson, and strove to lead me into their wider hope for man, their more trustful faith in God.

Everyone who has doubted after believing knows how, after the first admitted and recognised doubt, others rush in like a flood, and how doctrine after doctrine starts up in new and lurid light, looking so different in aspect from the fair faint outlines in which it had shone forth in the soft mists of faith. The presence of evil and pain in the world made by a “good God”, and the pain falling on the innocent, as on my seven months’ old babe; the pain here reaching on into eternity unhealed; these, while I yet believed, drove me desperate, and I believed and hated, instead of like the devils, “believed and trembled”. Next, I challenged the righteousness of the doctrine of the Atonement, and while I worshipped and clung to the suffering Christ, I hated the God who required the death sacrifice at his hands. And so for months the turmoil went on, the struggle being all the more terrible for the very desperation with which I strove to cling to some planks of the wrecked ship of faith on the tossing sea of doubt.

After Mr. D—- left Cheltenham, as he did in the early autumn of 1871, he still aided me in my mental struggles. He had advised me to read McLeod Campbell’s work on the Atonement, as one that would meet many of the difficulties that lay on the surface of the orthodox view, and in answer to a letter dealing with this really remarkable work, he wrote (Nov. 22, 1871):

“(1) The two passages on pp. 25 and 108 you doubtless interpret quite rightly. In your third reference to pp. 117, 188, you forget one great principle–that God is impassive; cannot suffer. Christ, qua _God_, did not suffer, but as Son of _Man_ and in his _humanity_. Still, it may be correctly stated that He felt to sin and sinners ‘as God eternally feels’–_i.e., abhorrence of sin and love of the sinner_. But to infer from that that the Father in his Godhead feels the sufferings which Christ experienced solely in humanity, and because incarnate, is, I think, wrong.

“(2) I felt strongly inclined to blow you up for the last part of your letter. You assume, I think quite gratuitously, that God condemns the major part of his children to objectless future suffering. You say that if he does not, he places a book in their hands which threatens what he does not mean to inflict. But how utterly this seems to me opposed to the gospel of Christ. All Christ’s reference to eternal punishment may be resolved into reference to the Valley of Hinnom, by way of imagery; with the exception of the Dives parable, where is distinctly inferred a moral amendment beyond the grave. I speak of the unselfish desire of Dives to save his brothers. The more I see of the controversy the more baseless does the eternal punishment theory appear. It seems, then, to me, that instead of feeling aggrieved and shaken, you ought to feel encouraged and thankful that God is so much better than you were taught to believe him. You will have discovered by this time, in Maurice’s ‘What is Revelation’ (I suppose you have the ‘Sequel’ too?) that God’s truth _is_ our truth, and his love is our love, only more perfect and full. There is no position more utterly defeated in modern philosophy and theology, than Dean Mansel’s attempt to show that God’s justice, love, etc., are different in kind from ours. Mill and Maurice, from totally alien points of view, have shown up the preposterous nature of the notion.

“(3) A good deal of what you have thought is, I fancy, based on a strange forgetfulness of your former experience. If you have known Christ (whom to know is eternal life)–and that you have known him I am certain–can you really say that a few intellectual difficulties, nay, a few moral difficulties if you will, are able at once to obliterate the testimony of that higher state of being?

“Why, the keynote of all my theology is that Christ is loveable because, and _just_ because, he is the perfection of all that I know to be noble and generous, and loving, and tender, and true. If an angel from heaven brought me a gospel which contained doctrines that would not stand the test of such perfect loveableness–doctrines hard, or cruel, or unjust–I should reject him and his trumpery gospel with scorn, knowing that neither could be Christ’s.

“Know Christ and judge religions by him; don’t judge him by religions, and then complain because you find yourself looking at him through a blood-colored glass….

“I am saturating myself with Maurice, who is the antidote given by God to this age against all dreary doubtings and temptings of the devil to despair.”

On these lines weary strife went on for months, until at last brain and health gave way completely, and for weeks I lay prostrate and helpless, in terrible ceaseless head-pain, unable to find relief in sleep. The doctor tried every form of relief in vain; he covered my head with ice, he gave me opium–which only drove me mad–he used every means his skill could dictate to remove the pain, but all failed. At last he gave up the attempt to cure physically, and tried mental diversion; he brought me up books on anatomy and persuaded me to study them; I have still an analysis made by me at that time of Luther Holden’s “Human Osteology “. He was wise enough to see that if I were to be brought back to reasonable life, it could only be by diverting thought from the currents in which it had been running to a dangerous extent.

No one who has not felt it knows the fearful agony caused by doubt to the earnestly religious mind. There is in this life no other pain so horrible. The doubt seems to shipwreck everything, to destroy the one steady gleam of happiness “on the other side” that no earthly storm could obscure; to make all life gloomy with a horror of despair, a darkness that may verily be felt. Fools talk of Atheism as the outcome of foul life and vicious thought. They, in their shallow heartlessness, their brainless stupidity, cannot even dimly imagine the anguish of the mere penumbra of the eclipse of faith, much less the horror of that great darkness in which the orphaned soul cries out into the infinite emptiness: “Is it a Devil who has made this world? Are we the sentient toys of an Almighty Power, who sports with our agony, and whose peals of awful mocking laughter echo the wailings of our despair?”


On recovering from that prostrating physical pain, I came to a very definite decision. I resolved that, whatever might be the result, I would take each dogma of the Christian religion, and carefully and thoroughly examine it, so that I should never again say “I believe” where I had not proved. So, patiently and steadily, I set to work. Four problems chiefly at this time pressed for solution. I. The eternity of punishment after death. II. The meaning of “goodness” and “love” as applied to a God who had made this world with all its evil and its misery. III. The nature of the atonement of Christ, and the “justice” of God in accepting a vicarious suffering from Christ, and a vicarious righteousness from the sinner. IV. The meaning of “inspiration” as applied to the Bible, and the reconciliation of the perfection of the author with the blunders and the immoralities of the work.

Maurice’s writings now came in for very careful study, and I read also those of Robertson, of Brighton, and of Stopford Brooke, striving to find in these some solid ground whereon I might build up a new edifice of faith. That ground, however, I failed to find; there were poetry, beauty, enthusiasm, devotion; but there was no rock on which I might take my stand. Mansel’s Bampton lectures on “The Limits of Religious Thought” deepened and intensified my doubts. His arguments seemed to make certainty impossible, and I could not suddenly turn round and believe to order, as he seemed to recommend, because proof was beyond reach. I could not, and would not, adore in God as the highest Righteousness that which, in man was condemned as harsh, as cruel, and as unjust.

In the midst of this long mental struggle, a change occurred in the outward circumstances of my life. I wrote to Lord Hatherley and asked him if he could give Mr. Besant a Crown living, and he offered us first one in Northumberland, near Alnwick Castle, and then one in Lincolnshire, the village of Sibsey, with a vicarage house, and an income of L410 per annum. We decided to accept the latter.

The village was scattered over a considerable amount of ground, but the work was not heavy. The church was one of the fine edifices for which the fen country is so famous, and the vicarage was a comfortable house, with large and very beautiful gardens and paddock, and with outlying fields. The people were farmers and laborers, with a sprinkling of shopkeepers; the only “society” was that of the neighboring clergy, Tory and prim to an appalling extent. There was here plenty of time for study, and of that time I vigorously availed myself. But no satisfactory light came to me, and the suggestions and arguments of my friend Mr. D—- failed to bring conviction to my mind. It appeared clear to me that the doctrine of Eternal Punishment was taught in the Bible, and the explanations given of the word “eternal” by men like Maurice and Stanley, did not recommend themselves to me as anything more than skilful special pleading– evasions, not clearings up, of a moral difficulty. For the problem was: Given a good God, how can he have created mankind, knowing beforehand that the vast majority of those whom he had created were to be tortured for evermore? Given a just God, how can he punish people for being

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