Sunday, November 23, 2014

1890s Literary Hostesses

The literary hostess is a figure, who pops up repeatedly in the biographies of all my 1890s writers. Married, or unmarried, she was usually, but not always a woman of means, who loved literature, and the arts. Her motivation for hosting the great writers of the day ranged from simple interest, to loving a particular writer, or even trying to advance her own writing career. A literary hostess might have also been an author in her own right, but she also helped to build the community of writers in London in the 1890s.

'A Five O'Clock Tea' (1893).
In his poem, "Slightly Foxed," William Plomer writes about the life of the husband of Gloria Jukes, an 1890s literary hostess.
Ignored in her lifetime, he paid for her fun
And enjoyed all the fuss. When she died he was done.
He sold up the house and retired from the scene
Where nobody noticed that he’d ever been.
His memoirs unwritten (though once he began ‘em)
He lives on a hundred and fifty per annum
And once in the day totters out for a stroll
To purchase the Times, two eggs and a roll.
Up to now he has paid for his pleasures and needs
With books he had saved and that everyone reads,
Signed copies presented by authors to Gloria
In the reign of King Edward and good Queen Victoria.
They brought in fair prices but came to an end,
Then Jukes was reduced to one book-loving friend [...]
Roger D. Sell accurately describes it as "a poem about the fickleness, bitchiness and transience of metropolitan literary circles." All of which are qualities the imagination, however unfairly, immediately transfers onto the literary hostess herself.

Louise Chandler Moulton
Louise Chandler Moulton was an American poet, writer, critic, and outstanding literary hostess. Willis J. Buckingham writes:
Few American women were more widely known as writers, and none was so conspicuous and active as a literary hostess, both at home and in England, as Louise Chandler Moulton. Living in each city for half the year, she presided over notable weekly salons in Boston and London for several decades. She knew everyone, from Longfellow and Emerson to Ezra Pound. Her poems, travel sketches, and literary letters, were widely admired. Her own verse was superficially like Dickinson's in being highly personal, brief, and frequently concerned with unfulfilled love and the transience of life. In its graceful, faded diction and utterly conventional pressed-rose melancholy, her verse was eminently suited to popular taste.
The life of the literary hostess, and author, as Moulton lived it, illustrates how a life of letters in the 1890s needn't be a solitary life at all. Their writers groups were fine salons in major cities, organized by women.

Some of these women have also been characterized as the "Grand Dames" of the 1890s, rich women, who served as patrons of the arts, like Annie Horniman and Lady Ottoline Morrell.

Lady Ottoline Morrell (1912)
Lady Ottoline didn't really become a literary hostess until after the turn of the century, but I couldn't resist including her sassy picture here, and taking a moment to note the kind of influence a woman like her could have on literature. She had an open marriage, and carried on many love affairs, while caring for the many children her husband had through his extramarital relationships. Among many others, her lovers included the philosopher Bertrand Russel, and the historian Roger Fry. Lady Ottoline is said to have been immortalized in literature through the characters of Mrs Bidlake in Aldous Huxley's Point Counter Point, Hermione Roddice in H.D. Lawrence's Women in Love, and as Lady Chatterly, among many others.

Lady Jane Francesca Agnes Wilde a.k.a. 'Speranza.'
Oscar Wilde was raised by one of the greatest literary hostesses of the late-nineteenth century, though his mother's salons began to peter off in the 1890s, due to her old age and failing health. It's said that once someone asked Speranza how she attracted such interesting people to her salons, and she replied: "By interesting them, of course!"

Speranza's salons were said to be crammed full of famous people from the time her sons were children. She entertained celebrities and writers by candlelight, and liked to keep the atmosphere dark because it encourage "bawdy talk."

Speranza is another one of those literary hostesses, who was an incredibly successful author in her own right. At one point in her life, she was considered Ireland's National Poetess.

I once called Hall Caine's wife, Mary, an unlikely archivist, but the truth seems to be that the women of London's literary circle in the 1890s were the keeper of records, and the organizers of events, as much, if not more than, their male counterparts. Perhaps, for some, it was because they needed these literary connections to get their work published, but so did the male writers. That's why so many attended their parties and salons.

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