Edna Lyall was born in Brighton on the 25th March, 1857, the youngest of four children of a barrister who died when she was eleven. Her mother, Mary Winter died three years later, an experience which Ada Bayly was later to write about in her novel We Two where the heroine Erica returns home after her mother's death. The young Ada had been ill with scarlet fever when her mother died, staying in lodgings with a faithful servant - "For those who have to come back to the empty house, the home which never can be home again, may God comfort them, no one else can." Being delicate in health she was educated partly at home, partly by an uncle who became her guardian and partly at boarding school.
As an adult Ada Bayly lived with her sisters (both married to clergymen) in London, Lincoln and Eastbourne. A lifelong spinster and deeply religious, she supported the women's suffrage movement from its early days. A shy woman she once wrote in a letter, "what wouldn't I give for your power of talking! but I was born to be a listener, and never could manage general conversation though now and then enjoying a tête-a-tête." On one occasion she met Eliza Lynn Linton and during the first part of luncheon seemed almost paralysed by the presence of the elder authoress, but the subject that was broached deeply interested her, and the two were soon in deep discussion. Afterwards Mrs Lynn Linton said, "What a sincere soul she has!"
Her first book (written under the pseudonym, Edna Lyall - concocted from various letters in her three names) was the girl's story Won by Waiting, published in 1879, the same year as George Meredith's The Egoist, ME Braddon's Cloven Foot and Anthony Trollope's The Duke's Children. This was also the year the British legation were massacred at Kabul and Afghanistan was invaded. When the book was finally published she was holidaying abroad and wrote on receipt of her first novel:
It was so nice to find my book really waiting for me when we came back from the Pyrenees yesterday. I had hardly dared to let myself expect it. B & I went into our room in the twilight, and I just asked her if any letters were there, thinking nothing of it, as she answered purposely in a very ordinary voice. Then to my surprise I found the thick white packet and flew for "bougies" and matches! The first few minutes is very delightful. Then comes the sobering sense of all the defects. It is sad to find how much one longs to alter already...I am afraid the style is too colloquial in places and exaggerated in others and I have had a good laugh at two or three sentences today.
In 1882 she brought out Donovan. This melodrama, with a redeemed agnostic as its hero, only sold 320 copies of its first edition. But it attracted the admiration of Gladstone who in response to receiving a copy of the book wrote:
When you did me the honour to send me a copy of your lately published novel Donovan, I returned my formal thanks. I have since employed my scraps of time in reading it through, and I wish now to make an acknowledgement related not only to your courtesy but to the work itself. I cannot but admire the fidelity with which, while it avoids being didactic, it conveys true and deep knowledge, and combines a thorough equity and charity towards an atheist with a not less thorough homage to the authority of truth. Let me presume to add my poor tribute especially to the first volume as a very delicate and refined work of art.
Furthermore, a review of the book in the Secularists' paper, The National Reformer led to a correspondence and friendship with the notorious free-thinker, Charles Bradlaugh, with whom Bayly was sympathetic despite their religious differences. Bradlaugh was an atheist who was elected to Parliament and fought to be allowed to take his seat without taking the traditional oath. In 1877 he had been prosecuted along with Annie Besant for publishing Charles Knowlton's The Fruits of Philosophy a guide to birth control for the working class. Ada Bayly lent financial support to his election campaigns and after his death in 1891 subscribed six months' royalties to his memorial fund.
In the sequel, We Two (1884), Bradlaugh's influence can be seen in the novel's secularist preoccupations, and in the character of Luke Raeburn, "public agitator". Raeburn's daughter Erica is finally weaned from parental atheism in a flash of revelation under the dome of the British Library in the British Museum:
When "God's great sun-rise" finds us out, we have need of something higher than human speech - there are no words for it. At the utmost she could only say that it was like coming out of the twilight, that it seemed as if she were immersed in a great wave of all-pervading light.
Although We Two established her reputation, In the Golden Days (1885), a historical novel set in the reign of Charles II, was her first truly popular work, dramatised by Mr Edwin Gilbert and read by Ruskin on his death bed. Of her novels she wrote, "It is against all my principles to draw absolutely ideal characters. Study from life and then idealise; but to idealise and spin fabrics from one's own brain is not art."
In 1886 she was libelled by the allegation that the mysteriously pseudonymous authoress was in a lunatic asylum! In response she publicly announced her identity and defended herself in her novel, The Autobiography of a Slander (1887), a work which was translated into French, German, and Norwegian.
Another novel which contains much that is autobiographical is Derrick Vaughan: Novelist, which was serialised in Murray's Magazine. The male pacifist writer Derrick is clearly the young Lyall. Although several of her novels were serialised, for example Wayfaring Men, A Hardy Norseman and To Right The Wrong in Good Words and Doreen in The Christian World she did not like the system and wrote to a friend on the subject of Doreen, "I do hope that you will not read her in weekly portions! It is a horrid system and quite spoils a novel."
Several of her more interesting novels deal with questions of faith and freedom, as in To Right The Wrong (1893), where she offers a sympathetic portrait of John Hampden, in the context of the Civil War and in Doreen (1894) which is a pro-Home Rule Irish novel. The heroine is the daughter of a Fenian who loses her singing voice after mistreatment in prison. However, her son Dermot inherits her singing talent. Gladstone's speeches on Ireland figure centrally in the last pages and again he wrote to the author after reading the novel:
Dear Miss Bayly
I offer my best thanks to you for sending me Doreen. That leading character seems to me to be delineated with a remarkable boldness, yet without overstepping the limits of nature. What above all strikes me is the singular courage with which you stake your wide public reputation upon the Irish cause, knowing as you do the obstinacy of the cruel prejudices which still possess a portion of the people.
The Autobiography of a Truth (1896) champions the Armenian people against their Turkish oppressor, something that she felt very strongly about, writing, "...the Armenian question is so difficult to deal with. But one's heart burns at the thought of the horrible cruelty and injustice of the Turkish Government, and I had to write something about it. How one longs for a brave, outspoken man to speak for the Armenians and shame Englishmen into doing something for them!"
It is the author's fierce opposition to the Boer war that is conveyed in The Hinderers (1902). The title alludes to the enigmatic accusation in St Luke's Gospel, "Ye hindered". Lyall is showing that the "awful war" could have been averted if England had had the courage of its "best convictions" and wrote of it "This terrible war almost breaks one's heart. But I hope, as you say, it may help the nation to sober down and to realise the hatefulness of the Jingo spirit."
Her "novels with a purpose" were always less popular than her romances which included such titles as Wayfaring Men (1897), Hope The Hermit (1898) and In Spite of All (1901). Nevertheless she did not consider that her novels were "novels with a purpose" admitting that she disliked the latter as much as any one, at the same time believing, however that each book "must have its particular motive." In addition, she contributed the chapter on Mrs Gaskell to Hurst and Blackett's collection of essays Women Novelists of Queen Victoria's Reign (1897) and in 1902 published an autobiography entitled The Burges Letters.
In 1889 Ada Bayly had been taken seriously ill with pericarditis, and passed her last years as a semi-invalid. In 1897 she attended the Women Writers' Dinner for the only time. Miss Rowland-Grey wrote of that occasion:
I...remember how she seemed to enjoy it, and how she regretted that her health did not allow her to be more often present on such occasions. She was essentially a good comrade, with a deep, unselfish interest in her fellow-women.
She died at the age of 46 on the 8th February, 1903 having arranged all the details of her funeral and asking that no-one should go into mourning unless they very particularly wished and then very slightly. In her will she desired her body be cremated and the ashes placed at the foot of the old cross in Bosbury Churchyard and should her friends wish to raise another stone in her memory it should say, "My trust is in the tender mercy of God for ever and ever." Childless she donated three bells named after characters in her books - Donovan, Erica and Hugo - to her church, St Saviour's, Eastbourne.
We Two (1889) People who have been brought up in the country, or in small places where every neighbour is known by sight, are apt to think that life in a large town must lack many of the interests which they have learned to find in their more limited communities. In a somewhat bewildered way, they gaze at the shifting crowd of strange faces, and wonder whether it would be possible to feel completely at home where all the surroundings of life seem ever changing and unfamiliar.
To Right the Wrong (1894) The hot rays of a July sun were beating down upon two riders who, with tired and foam-flecked steeds were making their way along a ridge of country overlooking the fens of Lincolnshire.
In the Golden Days (1885) "That stripling of yours is too quiet by half, Randolph!"
The soul of a high intent, be it known,
Can die no more than any soul
Which God keeps by him under the throne;
And this, at whatever interim,
Shall live, and be consummated
Into the being of deeds made whole
STANDARD This is a very admirable work. The reader is from the first carried away by the gallant unconventionality of its author. "Donovan" is a very excellent novel; but it is something more and better. It should do as much good as the best sermon ever written or delivered extempore. The story is told with a grand simplicity, an unconscious poetry of eloquence which stirs the very depths of the heart. One of the main excellencies of this novel is the delicacy of touch with which the author shows her most delightful characters to be after all human beings, and not angels before their time.
We Two (1889)
ATHENAEUM "We Two" contains many very exciting passages and a great deal of information. Miss Lyall is a capable writer and a clear-headed thinker.
MORNING POST A work of deep thought and much power. Serious as it is, it is now and then brightened by rays of genuine humour. Altogether this story is more and better than a novel.
In the Golden Days (1885)
SPECTATOR Miss Lyall has given us a vigorous study of such life and character as are really worth reading about. The central figure of her story is Algernon Sydney; and this figure she invests with a singular dignity and power. He always appears with effect, but no liberties are taken with the facts of his life. The plot is adapted with great felicity to them. His part in it, absolutely consistent as it is with historical truth gives it reality as well as dignity. Some of the scenes are remarkably vivid. The escape is an admirable narrative, which almost makes one hold one's breath as one reads.
Won by Waiting (1879)
FREEMAN "Won by Waiting" is a very pleasing and well-written tale; full of graphic descriptions of French and English life, with incidents and characters well sustained. A book with such pleasant reading, and with such a healthy tone and influence, is a great boon to the young people in our families.
This first poem was written at the end of a letter to a friend:
This second poem was published in the Christmas number of The Lady's Realm:
It was only a picture: rippling stream,
With bare trees arching overhead,
A trout stream swirling swiftly on,
And a background of sunset rosy red.
And the critic frowned - "This painter's art
Is bad and surely bad his heart!"
But the picture gladdened a sick man's gloom,
It brought the country into his room.
It was only a ballad, blithe and gay,
A simple air, a sweet refrain;
No morbid thought no wild despair,
No discord to give a hint of pain.
And the critic scoffed - "Tis out of date;
This tuneful sweetness palls of late!"
But the song was sung in many a clime,
It cheered sad souls, and it lessened crime.
It was only a play: a Christmas piece,
With many a gay and gallant knight;
Not a word of vice, not a vulgar thought
Spoiled its sweetness or marred its light.
And the critic sneered - " This will not pay
Your moral pieces have had their day".
But in many a town it warmed dull hearts
With the glow pure mirth full oft imparts.
This third poem was written in an autograph book:After seeing Wilson Barrett in "The Sign of the Cross"
O'er the great mystery of pain we moan;
Clear proof it is, some say, that God there's none.
And yet our God His only Son did send
To show 'twas the mean unto an end.
Pain nobly borne wins men to God each day;
Our crosses too may lighten up the way.
"Grief shall be turned to joy" the Christ once said;
Trust Him! lift up your heart and drooping head!
"Christus hath triumphed" and in Him we live.
Evil shall cease. To God all glory give.
(The picture is of Wilson Barrett in "The Sign of the Cross" - apparently he wrote the play about Marcus, the Prefect of Rome who is condemned to the lions because of his love for a Christian woman less because of his belief and more because of the box office money!)
My copy of "Knight-Errant" (1887) has been inscribed:
For my darling Amy from her loving "Cab horse" Oct 10 1887 [!]
I would love to read Autobiography of a Slander by Edna Lyall
I would like to read How I Became a Novelist by Edna Lyall
I would like to read The Late Edna Lyall by Alice Corkran
Click here to see a list of her works