Glimpses of Two Great Writers - The Late Edna Lyall by Alice Corkran - The Girl's Realm, 1903


Miss Edna LyallI remember, when at Eastbourne, going one day in November to call on Edna Lyall. She lived with her sister and brother-in-law, the Rev Hampden Gurney Jameson, in a gabled picturesque house covered with Virginia creepers. I climbed up to her study and found her busy looking over a large book, with a small chorister boy by her side. She seemed frail and slight. Her face was full of the highest intelligence; the dark eyes, the abundant dark hair, gave to it a sense of character and of colour, and she struck me altogether as a woman of a very feminine and a very strong personality.

Her room was a student's room, she lived surrounded by books; they were in the book-cases and on the table; among the materials of her daily writing life late autumn flowers bloomed. She had written to me a little while before about THE GIRL'S REALM. A phrase occurs in that letter which I am sure will interest you.

"Your wishes and aims appeal to me most strongly - life, for the young especially, is so hurried and restless that there seems great danger of the higher things being altogether crowded out. I do hope THE GIRL'S REALM will be a very great success." We sat by the fire and chatted together. We chatted of girls, and she spoke to me of her experiences among them. "I believe in girls," I remember she said: "I love to write for them. With them your appeal is strong just in proportion to the fineness of your theme." She spoke to me of her Sunday classes which were attended by the shop girls and working girls of Eastbourne and its environs. "My little room is quite filled with them," she said. "We talk of all sorts of subjects, social, political, religious. It is extraordinary how easy it is to touch their hearts with the story of the world's wrongs.

"My girls," she continued, "are interested in the Armenian question; they have helped the poor in the West of Ireland; they think a great deal of the right and wrong of questions, I assure you," and there was a bright look in her eyes. "I speak to them also of the Woman's Suffrage." Edna Lyall was very strong in advocating the right of women to vote. "Some people say it is unfeminine," she remarked with a little laugh; "I cannot see where the want of femininity comes in, to record your sympathy, and what your conscience tells you is for the right." She was at one time secretary of the local "Women's Liberal Association" at Eastbourne.

"But tell me something of THE GIRL'S REALM," she said. Her eyes filled with tears as I told her of the Guild. Its motto, "Service and Good Fellowship" appealed to her. It stirred her inexhaustible sympathy to hear of a scheme by which girls who have, work for those who have not; whereby girls in health work for invalid girls, and girls who are accomplished teach girls who want knowledge, also of the great corresponding scheme; and the broad interest thus roused among girls for each other seemed to fascinate her.

I remember she told me much of her own girlish ambition. "I was quite a child when I began to write - nine years of age, I think I was, when I wrote my first tale." These childish stories were treasured by her mother. In an old desk "I came across a letter written by her to my father, in which she told him of little Eddie's gift. 'They are uncommonly good,' she said, and my father's answer was then, 'Do not make too much of Eddie's stories; teach her to be active and regular in her duties.'"

Her father, Mr Robert Bayley, was a barrister of the Inner Temple, and Edna Lyall was born at Brighton. He seems to have had a great influence over his little daughter. She, one of the younger ones of a large family, was present at many of the conversations that he would have with his elder children. Friends also would come, and Eddie would hear discussed the great subjects that interested the world, and she was imbued with the magnanimity of the spirit displayed. She remembered how her father went against the cheap craze that had set in. Pretty presents that cost next to nothing, cheap finery of every kind, he always waged war against. "Do not buy it," he would say severely; "the workers cannot be properly paid for their toil." From him the child doubtless inherited that unfailing sympathy with the working classes and with the oppressed, that grew with her growth, and often touched her lips as with fire. Her first literary impression, she has told us, came from sitting at her father's feet as he read aloud Walter Scott. He was a beautiful reader, and these great romances kindled his daughter's imagination. The child wrote, unconsciously preparing herself for her destiny. She wove plots, the ideas for which sprang out of all that she had heard, and which later on became the germ of her future romances. She grew to love her characters, and that affection for the children of her fancy she kept to the end. "The characters I write about," she said to my niece, "are so dear to me that I really cannot part with them until from sheer necessity I must. That is why so many of them appear again and again in my books. They have been for so long the friends and companions of my daily life."

"In the Golden Days" was dreamt of in her childhood. She used to visit at a Suffolk mansion, Mondesfield, which belonged to some of her kinsfolk. "I remember," she said, "I used to play in the musician's gallery the story of a younger brother persecuted by an elder one." The idea evolved, but it was the same story with the characters clothed with flesh and blood, that she had imagined in the old home. She was a child when she wrote a story called "Mervyn's Ordeal," in which a boy was falsely suspected by his employer. "The wicked uncle hounds him on almost to despair, and I remember," she went on, with a laugh, "that I made him support himself and his sisters by tuning pianos." This was the germ of "A Hardy Norseman," perhaps the most charming of her novels.

She was quite a child, still in her early teens, when her father and mother died. She told me something of what she has recorded about herself, of the great uplifting comfort she received from listening to the singer Edith Wynne. It was a sense of the hallowing influence of music and of that of a beautiful voice that gave her the idea of "Doreen."

Edna Lyall was much interested in the stage. The adventure of a life full of surprises attracted her. "Wayfaring Men" is very much the outcome of the spell thrown over Edna Lyall by her thoughts of stage life. She came across a company of players going North. She knew its manager, and she was able to follow the life of the little society. The manager gave a party to his company, inviting all to meet her. A member of it is a friend of mine, and she has told me how passing sweet and kind was the authoress. She talked to each member; she took, I think, a particular fancy to my friend, and invited her to come to see her when she passed through Eastbourne. She spoke with such enthusiasm of the possibilities of the theatrical career, that she fired the heart of the girl with a new delight in it. My friend's name is "Irene," and she sent her autograph album to Edna Lyall, who wrote in it a long poem "To Irene," copied from Lowell's works. The manager corrected the proofs of "Wayfaring Men," ensuring thereby the accuracy of every professional detail. The illustrious novelist once tried her fortunes in the drama. A version of "In Spite of All," a Puritan story, was experimentally placed upon the stage. But the tender and elusive qualities of conception and style were not suited for the footlights, and it was withdrawn after a few representations.

Edna Lyall in the introduction to Mr G Holmes' "Farnham and its Surroundings," has told us of her love for trees and of her love especially for the noble trees in Farnham Park. Her great-grandfather's home was there. She delighted in climbing these trees, in ensconcing herself in their greenwood shade, among the birds and the insects who dwelt therein. One big tree especially, whose spreading branches were wide enough to accommodate the whole tribe of cousins - "five Brightonians and seven Farnham cousins" - was her favourite resort. There, one sunny August morning, she wrote the first chapter of "We Two." It was the sequel of "Donovan." The courage and magnanimity of a woman so Christian as she was in making an atheist one of the finest heroes that she has depicted must ever be remembered. It is well known that Mr Bradlaugh was the origin of the atheist, Luke Raeburn.

Her early literary beginnings were beset with difficulty. Any girl who feels drawn to writing should study the history of this author's experiences, and find encouragement therein. She has told us how suddenly she passed from obscurity to fame. She had already written "Won by Waiting" and "Donovan"; both had had good reviews, but neither had had any sale to speak of. When she had finished "We Two" she presented it to many publishers, who all refused it. Still she was determined, for she felt the call within her; but a lassitude was beginning to overcome her. One day she called at a publisher's house in Paternoster Row to get back her rejected manuscript. She has told us how she went into St Paul's, miserably wondering whether she must give up her ambition. "I made up my mind," she says, "to go on until the list of publishers was exhausted, and as I walked down the south aisle a little thing gave me fresh courage. I caught sight of a monument to one of our kinsfolk who was killed at Camperdown, and I thought 'He died fighting; I will die fighting, too.'"

The manuscript was shortly afterwards accepted, and Edna Lyall went on a yachting cruise with some cousins. On their way home they stopped at Gibraltar, and asked for letters. The cholera was raging then, and no ships were admitted into the harbour. The letters and parcels were handed to them by tongs, and Edna Lyall received a bundle of reviews that told her that "We Two" was a great success, and that fame awaited her. The fame of "We Two" reflected on "Donovan," and a new popularity was awarded to the book that had failed in attracting attention a year or two before.

Edna Lyall's books are very womanly, in the best sense; they are full of charm; above all they are full of sincerity. Her feminine characters are altogether convincing, in their tenderness, their heroism, their devotion. Erica, the loving daughter; Francesca Britton, impulsive and untidy; warm-hearted Doreen, sweet and strong; the simple and tender Gwanhild, all live in our memory. With the proceeds of some of her novels she gave to her brother-in-law's church in Eastbourne three bells, which bear the names of three of her characters, Donovan, Erica, and Hugo.

She also wrote for children delightful tales, which had always a lesson to teach, a lesson of charity, of sympathy, of duty, and which were full of the gentle gaiety and domesticity which children love. The most popular of these are, "How Children Raised the Wind," "Their Happiest Christmas," "The Burges Letters: The Record of a Child's Life in the Sixties."

Edna Lyall died on the night of February 8th, and her death will be mourned by all the girls and women who found in her a guide and a friend.


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