Born on December 10th 1843 in London of Scottish parentage and christened at St Martin in the Fields, she was educated privately at a girls' school near Covent Garden. The baby of the family, apparently her earliest memory was of being turned away from the British Museum at the age of four, by which time she could already read fluently.
According to her Recollections of Fifty Years, by the age of eight she was familiar with the eighteenth century Scottish Presbyterian preacher Hugh Blair's Belle Lettres, and was addicted to Jean Ingelow's tales which she read in the Youth's Magazine. At thirteen she submitted a tale to the journal. It was rejected, but Ingelow wrote her a long helpful letter back.
Isabella Fyvie's father, George, was, initially, a prosperous West End master baker, but his business failed, his daughter Elizabeth died when Isabella was six, all four of his sons died and he followed in 1861. He left behind him a debt of £800. Aged seventeen, Isabella was left shouldering her father's financial responsibilities although she was under no legal obligation to do so.
Throughout the 1860s she made a living copying legal documents and addressing envelopes at the rate of 1,500 a day for 3 shillings. She also acted as amanuensis to a literary woman, "Miss Y" at 6d an hour, and eventually paid off all the family debts. She was also involved in the "Office for the Employment of Women" at Langham Place, and became acquainted with various literary patrons, including the Scottish novelist and poet, Isa Craig and the Irish writer and philanthropist Mrs S C Hall.
With the help of her friends she began to publish poems and stories under the pseudonym of "Edward Garrett". The evangelical publisher, Alexander Strahan encouraged her and commissioned her serial The Occupations of a Retired Life in 1867 for £300, thus ending her struggle for financial security.
She wrote a variety of different types of fiction, including at least one mystery novel, The Mystery of Allan Grale concerning the "Black Pool and its horrors...", and one "Tale of the Turf". Her stories always featured strong women, or women who having been kept downtrodden and repressed, given the chance are shown that they are as fully capable of grasping life as their male counterparts.
In the short story, A Sister's Journey, published in the Girl's Own Paper, Volume 2, 1881, Ruth's scapegrace brother, Harold has to be rescued and redeemed by his sister who is the mainstay of the family. Using all her single-mindedness and strength of will she manages to make her way alone from her quiet country home, across the Atlantic to Canada with virtually no money to save her brother, surviving hunger and shipwreck in the process. Although she does end up marrying the Captain of the ship it is obviously Ruth who is the dominant partner in the relationship.
In The Shut-Up Houses published in The Argosy, Volume XXXI, 1881, Mrs Mayo explores the theme of the exclusion from society and thereby the world, of two women as a result of the perceived wickednesses and shameful professions of their parents. Their father had made great wealth by "money-lending and bitter extortions", and they had only known their mother "in the public print as a shameful woman!" As a result the sisters have led a completely isolated life shut-up in their house, too scared, and ill-educated in the world to take part in it, despite their riches. It is only when a young lawyer arrives and brings the world's light into the life of the remaining sister that she is able to begin to look outside of her four walls. It is too late for her to start living herself, but she ensures that after her death others are given the chance. As a result of her Will, a lawyer is enabled to be salaried "to hold his time and talents at the disposal of poor people who need legal advice, and to render them legal help when their cause is righteous," and an institute set up where "young orphan girls are trained in domestic service and in attendance on the sick, the inmates of the rooms being the helplessly aged or the hopelessly crippled."
Even as a wife and mother, as in her novel The House with the Verandah, the heroine is the stronger partner in the marriage, having, as a result of her husband's chronic illness to be the breadwinner and organiser of the family, returning to selling her artwork despite having given it up on her marriage.
Apart from fictional writing and poems, she also contributed a number of non-fiction articles to various magazines. For example, in volumes 9 and 10 of the Girl's Own Paper she published a series of articles on "The Stories of Famous Songs". In 1897, she published a novel entitled A Daughter of the Klephts, about the Greek war of liberation. Possibly as a marketing ploy, or simply because she had done the research, at least two articles on Greece appeared in magazines that year, "The Patriot Songs of Greece" in Good Words, and "The Girls of Greece" in the Girl's Own Paper. "Christina Rossetti: An Appreciation", which appeared in Volume XIX of the Girl's Own Paper is available to read on this website.
In September 1870 she had married a solicitor, John Ryall Mayo, in Lambeth, the couple initially living with Isabella's mother. They had one son, George Ryall Mayo, but her husband, John, died in 1877. For most of her writing career she lived in Aberdeen, and on the 1881 census she is shown living at 2 Firhill Place with her ten year old son, one servant, an 18 year old tutor, and two medical student boarders. She was the first woman to be elected to a public board in the city of Aberdeen and she became involved in the "Women's Social and Political Union", chairing some meetings in the city when leaders Mrs Pankhurst, Helen Fraser and Teresa Billington-Greig arrived to set up a branch there. Apparently relations were not completely smooth and at one meeting there was a platform disagreement between Mrs Pankhurst and Mrs Mayo with Mrs Pankhurst overruling the latter...
The African-American female anti-lynching activist, Ida B Wells stayed with Isabella Fyvie Mayo at the beginning of her first anti-lynching tour of the UK in 1893, describing her home as an asylum for "East Indians". Dr George Ferdinands from Ceylon seems to have been living at the house at this time and is also mentioned in the memoirs of John Patterson Green, the "Father of Labor Day" and first African-American elected to office in Cleveland when he was elected Republican Justice of the Peace in 1872. He was later elected the first African-American to the Ohio Senate in 1892. Mr Green also visited Isabella Mayo on a tour round Britain. He was given a "hearty welcome" and "great good cheer" was his "portion". He describes Mrs Mayo as
quite a story-teller; which, by the way, I noticed to be one of the pleasing characteristics of the Scotch people, wherever I went...[one] of Mrs Mayo's stories, which I subsequently found in Dean Ramsey's book of Scotch stories, is, in substance as follows: A Scottish lad experienced so much embarrassment in "popping the question", that he took his sweetheart to the family lot in the ancient cemetery; and, while standing with her by the graves of his ancestors, he significantly, said: "Jennie, how wad ye like ter hae the richt ter lie there?"
Towards the end of her life Isabella Mayo was one of the pioneering translators of Tolstoy into English, translating The End of the Age (On the approaching revolution) preceded by The Crisis in Russia, King Assarhadon and other stories and To the working people (the latter two in conjuction with V Tchertkoff).
Although she died of cancer on the 13th May, 1914, Isabella Fyvie Mayo is still remembered today in Aberdeen where she has been nominated for a commemorative plaque as a "suffragette...Women's Political and Social Union campaigner, writer and translator".
A Sister's Journey (Girl's Own Paper April 30, 1881)
And when one sees how the giddy prodigal, who might so easily have become the branded outcast, is grown into the steady thriving man, with kind word and a helping hand for everybody, though with a curious gravity which seems always struggling with the natural gaiety of his disposition, one feels what miracles may be wrought in this world, and how very near the Kingdom of God might be, if there was more of that force of love which beareth all things, hopeth all things, endureth all things.
The House with the Verandah (Girl's Own Paper April 1, 1899)
A lady came out of a little house set in the corner of a quiet street on the northern edge of Bloomsbury.
The Mystery of Allan Grale (Argosy, Vol XXXIX, 1885)
Night was fast settling down over a wild mountain pass.
The Shut-up Houses (Argosy, Vol XXXI, 1881)
Only she always felt it had been great presumption in her to do it!
A WELL-SPENT LIFE
Her youth was filled with gentle tasks,
With homely joys and holy cares;
'Twas hers to read the grandsire's psalm,
And teach the little ones their prayers;
And some, now scattered far and wide,
First said "Our Father" by her side.
She could not give the dainty gifts
The rich folks' careless money buys;
So she gave the comfort of her smile,
The silent laughter of her eyes,
Which only seemed more sweet to grow
The more they wept for others' woe.
She could not plead the orphan's cause,
Nor fill the widow's hand with pelf,
But she gave all she had to give -
Her thoughts, her heart, her very self;
She shared her wage, she broke her bread,
She watched the sick and lonely bed.
She had some secrets which she kept
In silence, as if never heard:
Folks trusted her as they might trust
A distant star or wandering bird.
(I think her own heart might enfold
A secret which she never told!
I think she gave the angels one
Sweet story for themselves to read -
Surely they knew the secret source
Of many a brave and loving deed -
And what a Heaven earth would grow
If all our sorrows blossomed so!)
She gave her very life at last,
Ready she was to go or stay:
Her Lord had slain all death for her,
And those who watched her heard her say,
"I long to know, beyond earth's view,
What work He keeps for me to do."
THE GIRL'S OWN PAPER, 1881
MY DOROTHY AND I
We sat together in the dusk, my Dorothy and I,
Not a breeze was in the trees, nor star out in the sky;
We had been talking at our work, but then a silence fell,
Save that her tale a nightingale poured out with yearning swell.
My Dorothy and I are friends: we met five years ago;
How she was bred and how bestead, the whole wide world may know.
But I learned something that still night - that night we spake no word;
I know too well to ever tell the tale I never heard.
God speaks to us without a voice - our souls are one with Him:
Words are like rain upon a pane that makes the daylight dim.
And by the gladness of the glow He spreads on earth and sky
We know He bears all sins and fears, and knows how they must die.
Dorothy's face is keen and strong: her voice is glad and sweet -
Her walk is light as angels bright along the common street.
Dorothy's face that night was calm as theirs who look on Death,
Nor try to hide nor turn aside, nor even hold their breath.
Dorothy's mouth is firmly set, I know the reason why:
Some awful stroke her heart-strings broke, and yet she gave no cry.
I cannot guess to what grim pile her life was ever bound,
But by the sight I saw that night her soul was faithful found
Strange thoughts half waken sometimes: and I wonder may it be
That angels' books are made of looks whose meaning angels see.
'Tis an old belief that in a hush the angels ever come -
And love, a flame, may show the name of tales they carry home.
THE ARGOSY, 1876
When using her own name as author Mrs Mayo, unlike many of her contemporaries never used the "Mrs" nor her husband's Christian name, but always styled herself, "Isabella Fyvie Mayo".
I would love to read the short story The Mystery of Dr Hardy's Marriage by Isabella Fyvie Mayo
I would love to read an essay by Isabella Mayo on the subject of Christina Rossetti
Click here to see a list of her works