E is for …



Photo: Courtesy of Pixabay (CC0 Public Domain)

 Dame Ethel Smyth (1858 to 1944)

Composer and writer

Ethel is best known for being a friend of Virginia Woolf but that’s not really fair or indeed doing her justice as she was a very interesting woman in her own right.

Ethel was born in 1858 so she was twenty four years older than Virginia. She met Virginia when she was 71 years old and Virginia would have been 47. Ethel fell in love with Virginia but it wasn’t wholly reciprocated. However, the two ladies did become good friends and they corresponded frequently.

Despite her father’s objections to her following a career in music, Ethel was one of the first women to write an opera and she composed five in her lifetime. She also composed many orchestral works and piano music. In 1913 she began to suffer with hearing loss and it brought her composing career to an early end. So, she went on to pursue literature instead and between 1919 and 1940 she wrote ten successful books; these were mainly autobiographies.

As if this wasn’t enough, Ethel was the first woman to be made a DBE (Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire) for her achievements. There had been DBEs before but they had been awarded on status and position rather than achievement. Ethel was also awarded honorary doctorates in music from Durham and from Oxford. However, she also served a two month prison sentence for her suffrage activities of participating in a window smashing frenzy.

During her career, Ethel was a victim of double patriarchal standards. It was bad enough that she was referred to as a ‘woman composer’, which kept her on the margins of her profession but in addition, if her music was powerful she was criticised for not being feminine; if her music was not powerful then she was criticised for not meeting male artistic standards.

Don’t get me on.


9 thoughts on “E is for …

  1. I should be thrilled if you would indeed ‘get on’ with an examination of the woman question and first wave feminism as it affected Virginia and her contemporaries. I would be very interested to read your research.


  2. I think Dame Ethel Smyth is an excellent choice for E. I also thought of Edith Sitwell, although the relationship was not as close. I have planned to read more about the three Sitwells siblings -Ethel, Osbert and Sacheverell but have not done so. They rivalled the Bloomsburies, some said, though their influence did not last. Have you read much about them?


    1. Hi Brenda. You must read my mind as I also thought about Edith Sitwell. I really wish that Edith had been closer to the Bloomsberries because the Sitwell family estate (Renishaw Hall, in Derbyshire) is only an hour’s drive from here and we visit it quite often. Despite this I know nothing about the Sitwells really but am intrigued now! Renishaw has been the country house of the Sitwells for more than 350 years and the beautiful gardens are open to the public. You are very knowledgeable and I appreciate your comments. How come you became so interested in the Bloomsberries?


      1. I read one of her novels and it went from there. I like her life and times more than her writing, though. Reading about her led me to read about others in the group and I became fascinated. How fortunate you are to live in England and be able to visit all the places one has read about. I hope to visit sometime but I don’t know when and each year one gets older(59). But hopefully one day I will be able to visit Monk’s House and the country places owned by the others of the Bloombury set.


      2. I am also getting more engrossed in her life and times, rather than her writing, but I intend to concentrate on her texts very soon. We are about two hours by train away from London so hope to visit all the ‘Squares’ this summer. Monks House was about six hours drive for us but that was well worth it as part of our holiday on the South Coast. By the way, we have been to your part of the world a couple of times and loved it.


      3. Hi. The first time we visited we went to British Columbia: Vancouver etc. The second time was a bit nearer to you – Quebec City, Montreal, St Lawrence, Horseshoe Falls etc. Each time, we started in Canada and then worked our way into North America. First time, Washington, Oregon and California and the second time, the New England states. A long time ago now but very memorable.


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