Dunia Garcia-Ontiveros – our Head of Bibliographic Services – blogs on Lady Colin Campbell and her 1903 book “A Woman’s Walks”, extracts from which are featured in the latest Found on The Shelves series published by Pushkin Press to coincide with our 175th anniversary.
As a woman who had to reinvent herself and become self-sufficient after being at the centre of the most notorious divorce scandal of the 1880s, Lady Colin Campbell (1857-1911), was the embodiment of the independent, intrepid and outspoken author.
Following the separation from her husband she was largely exiled from society but became a prolific author, art and literary critic, playwright, novelist, essayist, translator, newspaper editor and journalist, contributing to the Saturday Review and the Pall Mall Gazette. She was also an artist, a talented singer and an accomplished sportswoman who could speak and write authoritatively on a broad range of subjects and enjoyed the friendship and patronage of George Bernard Shaw (who described her writing as “impudently amusing”). Her formidable spirit was actually set free by her fall from grace and nowhere is this seen more clearly than in A Woman’s Walks: Studies in Colour Abroad and at Home (1903).
Originally published in issues of The World, from 1889 onwards under the pseudonym Vera Tsaritsyn, it is a collection of short pieces on her travels in Italy, France, Switzerland, Austro-Hungary, London, and the English countryside. Vera, as she was known to her friends, revisits some of the places where she spent her childhood, such as Venice, but also ventures into locations new to her. The pieces, from which we have reprinted only a selection, vary widely in tone and subject matter. There are beautiful mountain landscapes, sun-bathed lagoons, candle-lit churches and quiet gardens but there are also busy railway signal-boxes, noisy and dangerous workshops, the smells of the fish market and the squalor of dirty little back gardens in south London. The author is often accompanied by friends (to whom she dedicates the book) and who are sketchily described and sometimes affectionately mocked:
“The Expert, wishing to note whether his gear-chain is all right, walks a little distance, and can hardly keep his feet at all on the slippery surface. With relief he finds himself once more in the saddle, and, catching us up, is explaining the matter to me, when, as the words “These tyres really seem to hold better on this road than shoes” leave his lips, the demon that invariably lurks in a bike seizes the opportunity. Before he can enunciate the word “shoes” the wheels slip as if mowed down by a scythe, and I have just time to spurt violently ahead to avoid being bowled over by h
is downfall. I grieve to say that the Gemini and I are so shaking with laughter at the psychological moment chosen for the mishap that we can only just make friendly inquiry over our shoulders.” (p. 125-126)
The characters she encounters are not usually treated with quite as much kindness:
“ … these fat female Teutons, with red, perspiring faces, surrounded by straggling wisps of sandy hair, clothed in men’s shirts and boots and much-abbreviated skirts hitched up with straps round their middles (one could not give the name of waist to such equatorial lines !) and their Falstaffian companions, entirely spoil the beauty of the scene for me.” (p. 60-61)
But it is this uncensored voice that makes the book come alive. Lady Colin Campbell shares her exhilaration with us:
“Dogged determination not to be beaten, however, makes victory but a question of time, and, once conquered, the bicycle becomes a friend, an ally to be depended
upon at all times and seasons, an endless delight. To it one owes not only the feeling of absolute independence, of self-sufficiency in the truest and best sense of that much ill-used term, but the knowledge of the sensation of flying.” (p. 82)
“I have visited many graveyards, but always with horror and reluctance, as my mind persistently dwelt upon and realised the unspeakable abominations of physical corruption. Besides, the idea of being hidden in a hole in the ground, away from the light and heat of the sun, has always oppressed me like an evil dream; but as I leave the crematorium of Milan I am conscious of nothing but a radiant vision – a chariot of flame to close my earthly record … “ (p. 56)
And her joy at venturing outside again after a long illness:
“ … seeing a door open in the wall on the left, we pass through it, and find ourselves in a delightful garden, a great stretching space of velvety green turf, with glorious trees. After my imprisonment, such a place is like a glimpse of paradise. “ (p. 243)
But what really shines through is her love of freedom and adventure:
“I ought, by all the rules that should govern the mind of a sensitive, proper-minded female, to be overcome with dismay at finding myself friendless, soap-less, comb-less, curling-tong-less, alone and unprotected in a strange city “as the clocks are chiming the hour” of midnight! But I am not; or rather, when I realise the entire novelty of the situation, I am so overcome with a sense of exhilaration at being for once in my life absolutely free, with no more responsibility than a bird on the wing, that I very nearly dance a rigadoon of delight on the dusty metals of the line before an advancing engine! … I hum to myself as I stand looking up at the sky, filled to overflowing with the joy of liberty, and swaying to the lilt of the seguidilla [a Spanish dance]. Nobody knows where I am; nobody (here in Milan) cares what I do” (p. 50)
“No! A companion is not always either a thing of beauty or a joy for ever; he or she is often a stopper in a vial of perfume, a discordant note in the otherwise perfect harmony, an ever-present weight. Like trout fishing, bicycling has joys that are unknown to those who seek them not in solitude”(p. 84)
And her wicked sense of humour:
“I am awakened by the connubial warblings of an unmistakably American couple in the next room. Dear me! what strange forms of expression Yankee matrimony takes upon itself in privacy, or at least what it is pleased to suppose is privacy!” (p. 51-52)
“We are not lucky, or else we possess some unknown and undesired attraction for fat Germans; for four of the fattest specimens tumble into our compartment … Jokes born of wine nearly produce apoplexy in my opposite neighbour, an individual whose face might be taken for that of” The Man in the Moon”; when, mercifully, one of the four starts humming a tune, another produces a well-thumbed book of Yolks-Lieder out of his pocket, and the four launch into part-songs with undeniably sweet voices, which is a distinct improvement on their guttural conversation and loud guffaws … They continue to warble softly and pleasantly, like four fat red bullfinches; and the blue gooseberry eyes of my opposite neighbour are full of tears as he ecstatically sings what will happen “Wenn ich komm, wenn ich komm, wenn ich wieder urn komm” (his vision will probably materialise into chastisement with a broomstick by the wife of his bosom if he returns to her in his present condition!) as we draw up at Caux, and leave the bullfinches to warble alone.” (p. 61)
It is terribly sad to think that only three years after the book was published trout-fishing, fencing, cycling, globe-trotting Vera was confined to a wheelchair because of what the press called rheumatoid arthritis but in fact was syphilis, which she had accused her husband of infecting her with deliberately during her divorce case. It is even sadder to know that a person so full of life should spend the following five years withdrawing from the world until her premature death at the age of 53. Having read about her fear of being buried one can only feel relief at finding out she was cremated.