There are few women-writers more popular, and more deservedly so, at the present day than Miss Ellen Thorneycroft Fowler, the elder daughter of the late Secretary of State for India. The fact that she entered upon her work while still very young makes any account of her life especially interesting to girls.
Miss Fowler, like many another novelist, "made up" stories long before she could write them down, and as a very little child composed a poem about a certain hero named "Vouchsafe," in whom she took the deepest interest.
"I got the name," she said laughing, "from the Te Deum, and used to occupy the time when I was outwardly employed in public worship in weaving romances about this gentleman. I concluded it was a man's name because it began with a capital letter, and being unable to read very well, made three instead of two syllables of it; even now it is as real a man's name to me as Henry or John. Only one verse survives, and has been quoted by my sister in her book, 'The Young Pretenders.' Here it is:
"Let's learn Latin, Vouchsafe-
Learn it quickly as we can!
But he dashed the sparkling water
At the feet of Mary Ann!"
The first longer poem which Miss Fowler can remember having written is a parody on "Annabel Lee," composed when only thirteen, showing that she was already widely read, as Poe's poems seldom come within the range of so young a child; the verses are proof also that her sense of humour developed early. The poem was founded on fact and runs as follows:
"I used to read a great deal of poetry," said Miss Fowler, "but my favourite books when I was about twelve were, Mark Lemon's 'Jest Book,' Miss Alcott's 'Little Women,' and, almost best of all, a delightful old-fashioned book called 'The Habits of Good Society,' which gave instructions as to how to be fascinating, and how to win admiration, and all sorts of engrossing subjects of that kind, and I studied it assiduously until I knew it almost by heart.
"I was never in the least a tom-boyish little girl; in fact, boys frightened me by their roughness; I disliked them and their games, and would not have even a boy-doll, though I adored little girl-dolls, and must have played with them till I was quite fifteen. I remember that I always felt it a deep disgrace to have dark hair, but at last some one managed to get me a black-haired doll, which was a tremendous rarity in those days, and that was a great comfort to me, for I had more sympathy with it than with the flaxen-haired members of my family; besides, it had real eyelashes, and I loved it as my own soul!"
This reminds one of a passage in "The Farringdons," so much of the early part of which is autobiographical:
"During the first decade of her existence Elizabeth used frequently and earnestly to pray that her hair might become golden and her eyes brown; but as on this score the heavens remained as brass, and her hair continued dark brown and her eyes blue-grey, she changed her tactics, and confined her heroine-worship to ladies of this particular style of colouring; which showed that even at the age of ten Elizabeth had her full share of adaptability."
"Did you care only for stories as a child?" I asked Miss Fowler, "or did you like your lessons, too?"
"Oh," she replied promptly, "I loved the lessons which would make a story, but I hated geography and arithmetic; they always seemed to me such useless things. In fact, when I went to school I had to have a class all to myself for sums, I was so backward that I was not fit to mix with anybody else! History and mythology were my delight, for I was always living in a pretence world, and used to fancy myself a nun, an imprisoned princess and a vestal virgin by turns. My governess, therefore, had thrust upon her, and unconsciously acted, the parts of an abbess or a gaoler or anything else which best fitted in with my fancy at the time. Mary Queen of Scots was my greatest heroine, but my favourite pretence, and the one which lasted longest, was that of personating a vestal virgin. I used, attended by my sister, to worship Diana in the wood at the bottom of the garden, and together we celebrated most solemn rites in her honour. One of my religious duties was to go round and feed all the fires in the house, the schoolroom one being principally chosen for sacrifice, and it was there that I used to offer the contents of the household paper basket. This habit of mine was not the comfort to my family which might at first be supposed, since my one desire was to send up smoke, and that, though right and necessary on a sacrificial altar, is undesirable, and even offensive in a domestic fire!"
Miss Fowler is, therefore, only writing of her own childish days when she says, "Miss Farringdon's thanksgiving, however, would have been less fervent had she known that, for the time being, her protégée had assumed the rôle of a vestal virgin, and that Elizabeth's care of the fires that winter was not fulfilment of a duty but part of a game. This, however, was Elizabeth's way; she frequently received credit for performing a duty when she was really only taking part in a performance; which merely meant that she possessed the artist's power of looking at duty through the haze of idealism, and of seeing that, although it was good, it might also be made picturesque."
After a time, however, Miss Fowler gave up writing her childish stories and went to school at Miss Pipe's Laleham, Clapham Park, a celebrated school, which she has described in one of her books under the name of Fox How.
"I loved and adored it," she said, enthusiastically, speaking of her life there, "and feel I can never repay the debt that I owe to that school," and the account she has written of it in "The Farringdons" is worth quoting as giving Miss Fowler's views on true education for girls:
"The gracious personality which ruled over Fox How in the days of Elizabeth had mastered the rarely acquired fact that the word educate is derived from educo, I draw out, and not (as is generally supposed) from addo, I give to: so the pupils there were trained to train themselves, and learnt how to learn - a far better equipment for life and its lessons than any ready-made cloak of superficial knowledge, which covers all individualities and fits none. There was no cramming or forcing at Fox How; the object of the school was not to teach girls how to be scholars, but rather, how to be themselves - that is to say, the best selves which they were capable of becoming. High character rather than high scholarship was the end of education there; and good breeding counted for more than correct knowledge. Not that learning was neglected, for Elizabeth and her schoolfellows worked at their books for eight good hours every day; but it did not form the first item on the programme of life.
"And who can deny that the system of Fox How was the correct system of education, at any rate as far as girls are concerned? Unless a woman has to earn her living by teaching, what does it matter to her how much hydrogen there is in a drop of rain-water, or in what year Hannibal crossed the Alps? But it will matter to her infinitely, for the rest of her mortal existence, whether she is one of those graceful, sympathetic beings, whose pathway is paved by the love of man and the friendship of woman, or one of that much-to-be-blamed, if somewhat-to-be-pitied, sisterhood, who are unloved because they are unlovely, and unlovely because they are unloved."
"One of the things I loved most at school," said Miss Fowler, "was being with other girls; nothing delights me so much as to be surrounded by my peers, and I have always liked people of my own age. I hate to be in any way peculiar; in fact, I would far rather form one of a crowd; and I always like to feel that everybody else has already felt and thought just as I do about things. I don't want in the very least to be unusual; I would much prefer to believe myself just like everybody else" - a belief, which, for so brilliant a woman, must surely be disproved at every turn!
While at school Miss Fowler excelled all her schoolfellows in essays and creative work of that kind, although she sat in solitary humility at her arithmetic class, but story-telling was set aside at this time, and the only way in which she exercised her talent was by writing letters in rhyme, which to her was as easy as prose.
After she left school she began writing short stories for magazines and was very successful; as she herself says, "I had good fortune all along, and never had reason to complain of editors and publishers as so many seem to have." But Miss Fowler did not settle steadily to work, and even now only writes when she feels inclined.
In 1891 her first book, "Verses Grave and Gay," appeared, and this was followed in 1895 by "Verses Wise and Otherwise," and in 1897 by "Cupid's Garden." It was not until 1898 that she published her first important novel, "Concerning Isabel Carnaby," a book which was written in the surprisingly short period of four months, and which at once made its authoress celebrated. It was followed before long by the "Double Thread," and later by "The Farringdons," and "Sirius" - a collection of short stories - and by "Fuel of Fire."
"I seldom write more than two hours a day," said Miss Fowler, when questioned about her methods of work, "and even then only when I feel it 'on me' to do so, and I always have my plot clear and complete in my mind before I begin to write. The object of all art seems to me to be to point out and interpret to the ordinary eye what the artistic eye has seen. Once I begin to work I make very few alterations, and seldom rewrite fundamentally, although of course I do a certain amount of 'polishing up.'"
"Yes," in answer to a question as to her feeling about the girls of the present day, "I like them immensely. I don't think I have any particular opinions about the 'modern girl,' for it seems to me that human nature and the 'eternal feminine' are always the same, and though she may alter superficially at different periods she is identical at heart.
"Even as a little child I was always far more interested in women than in men; and in my history I used to hate the wars and the men's part, but I was a passionate devotee of some of the women, and especially of Mary Queen of Scots. Women still interest me more, and I prefer books written by them, I suppose because they look at things from my own point of view; though I think men really take a broader, bigger, truer view of life than we do."
That Miss Fowler likes girls, she herself asserts; that she understands them, all those who read her books have undeniable proof.
As she writes at the head of one of her chapters:
"Up to eighteen we fight with fears,
And deal with problems grave and weighty,
And smile our smiles and weep our tears,
Just as we do in after years
From eighteen up to eighty."
She seldom introduces school-girls into her stories, but when she does so, as in the case of Elizabeth Farringdon, they are convincingly real, and many might find in the character of Julia Welford, with her restless bitterness, the secret of much of the unhappiness of life. Julia had every outward circumstance to make her happy, and yet she was never content, and the reason for this was an error into which very many of us fall. She "expected too much of everybody and everything, therefore disappointment was her inalienable portion. She was always overdrawing her account at the Bank of Life, and consequently having her cheques dishonoured. She had never grasped the fact that the measure wherewith we mete is the only measure which we have a right to demand; and that as we can only give of our very best to one person, we should expect only one person to give of his or her very best to us. Poor Julia, however, expected to be first in the estimation of people who occupied about the twenty-fifth place in her scale of attachment; and when she found that she was naturally not the primary consideration in these cases, she cried her eyes out, and exclaimed that love was a snare and friendship vanity. She had no sense of proportion."
Her sister, Miss Edith Henrietta Fowler, whose work has so many admirers, is well known by her sympathetically written children's books, "The Young Pretenders" and "The Professor's Children," and also by her delightful novels, "A Corner of the West" and "The World and Winstow," which must be dear to the heart of every girl who has read them.
Miss Edith Fowler did not, like her sister, write as a child; she speaks of herself, in fact, as a wild tom-boyish little girl, not in the least literary, and it was not until she was grown up that her stories began to appear in the pages of various magazines, her first book, "The Young Pretenders," being published in 1895.
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