A lecture to the Royston Pike group: Part 2
A somewhat less controversial, and altogether more serious, advocate of women's rights who was selected for The Elmbridge Hundred was Harriet Mill (1807-1858). Her reputation has until recently been often overshadowed by her 2nd husband, the philosopher John Stuart Mill. In 1826, she married John Taylor, a wealthy merchant and together they had three children. The Taylors became active in the Unitarian Church, and in 1830, her Unitarian minister introduced Harriet to John Stuart Mill, and they began an intimate and lasting friendship that lasted for more than 20 years. At first, Harriet's husband reluctantly tolerated their relationship, which both claimed was non-sexual, but in 1833, she separated from her husband and moved to Walton-on-Thames. To avoid gossip John Taylor remained in London, and John Stuart Mill lived with his family in Kensington. History records that Harriet Taylor 'hid' away from society at Walton-on-Thames, where Mill could discretely visit her at the weekends. However, Elmbridge at that time had a lively literary and artistic community. Nevertheless, their affair scandalized English society, they saw only close friends, and were widely shunned in public. Her essay, 'The Enfranchisement of Women' (1851) is now considered one of her most important works, but was originally published under Mills name. The essay strongly advocated that women be given access to the same jobs as men, and that they should not have to live in 'separate spheres'. Her views on equality were inevitably even more radical than those of Mills himself. In 1849, Harriet Taylor returned to nurse her husband who was dying of cancer. John Taylor died in 1849, and she finally married John Stuart Mill in April 1851. In autumn 1858, they travelled to France seeking a better climate for Harriet's tuberculosis, but she died of respiratory failure in Avignon on 3rd November 1858. John Stuart Mills' most famous work On Liberty, which they had written together, was dedicated to Harriet when it was published a year after she died.
The kind of women's liberation perhaps not quite envisaged by Harriet Mill was personified by the aptly named, Felicity Anne Cumming (1917-1993), who did not get a single vote from the first round of panelists. History, I am particularly fond of telling the museum curators I work with at the V&A, is not a thing of the past; it is a narrative told and retold in the endless present. We recount and judge past lives with our own personal standards, prejudices, and preconceptions. Felicity Anne Cumming was a sexual tourist and writer of erotic travelogues, who was born in Walton-on-Thames on 14th December 1917. When I recounted her life story, it prompted some prudish puckering and tut-tutting by several panelists who felt she was not the right sort of historical figure represent Walton-on-Thames. She was the granddaughter of James Grimble Groves, who sounds like an implausible caricature from one of George Bernard Shaw's more farcical social satires. Grimble Groves (1854-1914) was a wealthy brewery-owner, the first chairman of the Brewers' Society, and Conservative MP for Altrincham. His frothy fortune freed Felicity from domestic and financial worries, and allowed her to live up to her name with blissful pursuits. She was educated at Horsely Towers in Kent, before attending finishing schools in Germany and Switzerland, and in 1935 she was presented as a debutante at court. Shortly after Cumming came out, she lost her virginity on a park bench under that most phallic of cultural icons, the Eiffel Tower. She studied drama at Dartington Hall School under Michael Chekhov, the nephew of the Russian playwright. At Dartington, she met her first husband, Henry Landall Lyon Young. The young couple joined a new performance group, Chekhov Theatre Players, which performed in America, but their acting ambitions were curtailed by the outbreak of the 2nd World War. In 1948, she divorced Young and married the novelist Richard Mason (1919-1997), who wrote The Wind Cannot Read (1946) and The Shadow and the Peak (1950), which were made into popular films. In 1957, Mason became the bestselling author of The World of Suzy Wong. Suzie Wong is a Hong Kong hooker with a heart of gold, a rich virgin whose father has five houses and more cars than she can count. In 1958, Richard and Felicity Mason moved to Rome, and she began working in the Italian film industry, as a publicist, dialogue coach, and occasional actress. However, as her second marriage broke down, she embarked on a series of casual, sexual affairs with younger men. She was to write about many of these affairs in her first book of sexual memoirs, published in 1977, the scandalously confessional, The Love Habit. She increasingly began travelling alone, making a series of adventurous journeys around the Middle East. Her travels in the Arabic world aroused in her a fascination for the exotic and erotic, which increasingly shaped her life. She befriended and became lovers with marginal social figures, artistic and literary outsiders, and eccentrics from diverse social backgrounds and nationalities. Fluent in French language and literary culture, she was attracted to what she termed 'The Other', that capitalized, Constitutive Other beloved by continental philosophers. The English are still obligingly appalled when post-Freudian foreigners exclaim that "Copulation is communication," as Felicity Anne Cumming spurts forth in The Love Habit. Although, the very next line of her laconic ejaculation is far more emotionally telling and profound: "I want to be wanted". Living mainly in Tangier and Paris, she became intimate with several American Beat poets, the novelist William Burroughs, and Paul and Jane Bowles. That louche, journalistic profiler of semi-literary personalities, Robert Tewdwr Moss later wrote, "She was a great catalyst and helpful conspirator in other people's affairs, be they social, sexual or professional". In 1991, she published a second sexual travelogue called The Love Quest: A Sexual Odyssey. Her sexual exploits between 1952 and 1965 were even more sensationalist, from a Parisian orgy for political VIPs to her passionate tussles with a notorious Tunisian gangster. Her memoirs are often pointlessly candid, and tiresomely lewd in pornographic detail. But she is rarely unkind about her former lovers, who are often portrayed… I have to say it… with penetrating wit. Richard Davenport-Hines in his ODNB biography describes her as "…a woman of tireless physical curiosity, for whom sexual acts were both agreeably stupefying and emotionally absorbing". In her later years, living in New York as a self-imposed sexual refugee, like her friend Quentin Crisp, she dressed outmodishly, wearing outfits and hats from the Fifties. The pose she perfected was seemingly ladylike, faux-conventional, pseudo-aristocratic, allowing her outrageous conversation and flagrant sexuality to surprise. As she became older, her shock tactics, perhaps encouraged by the declining standards of tabloid culture often descended into the vulgar. In 1992, she appeared topless in the Sunday Sport under the title 'Stunnagran'. She also appeared naked, wearing only pearl necklace and earrings, on Channel 4 in the world's first nude chat show. In 1986, she was diagnosed HIV positive. During her final years, she resumed her travels, visiting Brazil, India, Oman, Uzbekistan, and Russia. Having made promiscuity and confession her modus operandi, she kept her the nature of her illness quiet, perhaps not wanting to appear an object lesson to conservatives, or a tragic victim to fellow libertines. She died of bronchopneumonia in August 1993 at the London Lighthouse, a care centre for HIV and AIDS.
In this talk, I decided, like Felicity Anne Cumming, to embrace a few of the capitalized, Constitutive Others, because highlighting some of the marginal narratives illuminates just how many people were excluded, and why, in selecting The Elmbridge Hundred. In the writing of history, subtexts often eventually become important narratives, and what we choose to marginalize, or omit altogether, can speak volumes to later generations. Even they are one of the great dissenting stories of English history, I have decided not to talk about The Diggers or Gerrard Winstanley. Partly because they were recently bought dramatically back to life in the play The Digger's Daughter in this very room, but also because Protestant agrarian grumbling about the common people of England being robbed and exploited by a foreign ruling class has become a dominant narrative of modern English historiography. The True Levellers of 1649 have been embraced by communists, hippies, ecologists, and social egalitarians of every hue and creed ever since. Moreover, I have read Winstanley's religious ranting, which had me reaching for another Woody Allen one-liner to stem the flow. In Winstanley's writing, 'Commentary' and 'Dissent' merged to form 'Dysentery'. Fighting the New Model Army with pitchforks clearly wasn't a smart option, but planting carrots and parsnips is not the best way to change an oppressive system. Jane Bickerton, Catherine Sedley, Felicity Anne Cumming, and Frances Day were far more imaginative and liberated with their roots.
A formidable Victorian woman who was selected for The Elmbridge Hundred with her family, and whose reputation is overshadowed by the careers of three great men, is the theatre impresario Helen Carte (1852-1913). In 1875, whilst a young actress, Susan Helen Couper Black, whose stage name was Helen Lenoir, met Richard D'Oyly Carte and became his assistant and business manager, co-producing with him all of The Savoy Operas by Gilbert and Sullivan. Her eye for detail, organizational skills, and management of the often-difficult relationship between Gilbert and Sullivan was openly acknowledged by her husband to be the mainstay of The Savoy Operas success. She only married Richard D'Oyly Carte in 1888, when his health was declining, and she took sole responsibility for the business in the 1890s, assuming full control upon his death in 1901. Her husband had brought Gilbert and Sullivan back together in 1875 to provide him with a curtain raiser for Offenbach's La Perichole. The one-act drama Trial by Jury was a huge success, as was his next commission, The Sorcerer in 1877, followed by HMS Pinafore in 1878. Over the next two decades, they produced a succession of famous operas together.
The Victorian public loved W.S. Gilbert's libretti for The Savoy Operas, 'topsy-turvy' situation comedies, which turned the social order on its head. Gilbert was a famous poet and illustrator before he met Sullivan, and The Bab Ballads are a forgotten masterpiece of social satire, pointing and poking fun at the pomp of privilege. Life history, like its lewd and lazy cousin, tabloid journalism, is particularly good at revealing that the true leveller in society is love and sex, and its cultural sublimation in arts and science. The Russian cultural historian Mikhail Bahktin (1895-1975) has shown that scandalous behavior, and the riotous disruption of the carnival, does more to affect social change social than political action. Momentous events, and the public personae caught up in them, are really just ripples in history, which is a vast ocean of extraordinary, tangled, emotional lives.
One of Frances Day's more illustrious liaisons was with a Walton resident the panelists were more than happy to embrace as the right sort. Yet, Louis Alexander Mountbatten, [formerly Prince Ludwig of Battenberg] (1854-1921) was very definitely part of a foreign ruling class. Before bedding Frances Day, a brief liaison with the actress Lillie Langtry resulted in the birth of a daughter, Jeanne-Marie Langtry, in March 1881, and to avoid scandal, a financial settlement was made. Mountbatten became 1st sea lord in 1912, which was a controversial appointment considering his German origins. On 29th October 1914, after British losses at sea, he found his position increasingly unpopular and he resigned. In July 1917, at the king's request, to help 'Anglicize' the royal family, Prince Louis relinquished his title prince, and assumed the surname Mountbatten. He was raised to the peerage of the United Kingdom as marquess of Milford Haven. In 1894, he and his wife Victoria lived at Elm Grove estate in Walton-on-Thames. Nicholas the last Czar of Russia, stayed with them for several weeks with his future bride, Princess Alix of Hess-Darmstadt. Louis Mountbatten was selected as one of The Elmbridge Hundred along with his wife Victoria Alberta Elisabeth Mathilde Marie Mountbatten, marchioness of Milford Haven [formerly Princess Louis of Battenberg; née Princess Victoria of Hesse and by Rhine] (1863-1950). The panels decided to select a number of married couple together because they had shared in their achievements. Princess Victoria was a favourite granddaughter of Queen Victoria. Her son Earl Mountbatten called her "a walking encyclopedia. All through her life, she stored up knowledge on all sorts of subjects, and she had the great gift of being able to make it all interesting when she taught it to me… She was outspoken and open-minded to a degree quite unusual in members of the Royal Family. And she was also entirely free from prejudice about politics or colour and things of that kind." It is a pity then that she did not also take a hand in the education of her grandson Prince Philip. The duke of Edinburgh of course famously told British students he met on a State Visit to China in 1986' "If you stay here much longer, you'll all be slitty-eyed", and told the President of Nigeria dressed in traditional robes, "You look like you're ready for bed!"
Compared to religion, issues of race and ethnicity might seem a long way removed from Elmbridge, despite the rich social diversity of people of many nationalities that have lived or passed through the area. However, for me the most controversial figure by far who was selected for the The Elmbridge Hundred was the politician Samuel Dicker (?-1760). Dicker was not however selected for his undistinguished political achievements, nor is that what makes him controversial to my mind. Dicker was elected MP for Plymouth in 1754, and held the seat for a mere six years before he died in 1760. Samuel Dicker was selected simply for commissioning the 1st bridge over the Thames at Walton. However, what for me makes him a difficult character is the source of the wealth that paid for that undoubtedly iconic and famous bridge. Dicker owned slave plantations in Jamaica, and in 1738 was appointed a Councilor of Jamaica where he served the interests of his fellow slave owners and traders. I have chosen to depict Samuel Dicker with this late 18th century clay pipe. With its outsized bowl, it was not designed for smoking but domestic display, to proudly indicate that the owner was a slave-owner. On retiring to England a wealthy man, he became a landowner in Walton-on-Thames, with an estate at Mount Felix. In 1750, he obtained an Act of Parliament to enable him to build a bridge across the Thames at Walton at his own expense, and levy tolls. His bridge replaced the local ferrymen, made the river difficult to navigate by barges, and was not really wanted by the residents of Walton. The central arch the widest unsupported span in England, but what made the bridge famous was that Canaletto, who lived in London between 1746 and 1755, was commissioned by Thomas Hollis in 1750 to make a painting of the bridge. After seeing Hollis' painting Dicker also commissioned Canaletto to paint the bridge in 1754/5, which is the famous picture now in Dulwich Picture Gallery. I mentioned earlier the significance of historical duration relative to an important achievement in fixing someone's association with a particular place. For me, the fleeting visit of Canaletto to immortalize a bridge is far more important in defining the history of a place than the profiteering of a local landowner and slave owner. However, the inclusion of Dicker is a salutary reminder that every corner, even the most idyllic scenes of English society and art, are untainted by the economic gains of slavery.