Published by

Imogen C

28 February 2023

The Life of Ethel Smyth

Born in Sidcup in 1858, Dame Ethel was the daughter of an army officer and longed to break free of the societal expectations which upper-middle-class life pressed upon her. Her father was a staunch army officer and was horrified at her wishes to study music. Ethel employed tactics Greta Thunberg would approve of and essentially went on strike in protest; refusing to attend church and take part in other household activities until her educational aspirations were realised.

Eventually, and begrudgingly, Ethel’s parents succumbed to her passionate personality, and she left England to ingratiate herself in the musical world – meeting the likes of Clara Schumann, Johannes Brahms and Pyotr Tchaikovsky, all prominent composers.

A fierce personality from day one, Ethel Smyth rose to prominence in the 1890s after returning to Britain from studying, living and breathing music across Europe. She cemented her status in the world of composition with works performed at the Crystal Palace and Royal Albert Hall in London. She spent the last few years of the 19th and the first decade of the 20th century channelling her musical prowess into a series of operas which were performed in multiple languages.

Perhaps her most notable opera, The Wreckers, tells the tale of a group of people who coax boats towards the rocks of the Cornish coast in order to thieve their cargo (we can just imagine this being performed against the backdrop of our very own, very dramatic, Tintagel Castle!).

With an impressive catalogue of operatic epics under her belt (which she likely would have paired with one of her famous tweed jackets), Ethel also employed her talents as part of the Women’s Suffrage movement. She worked closely with the Women’s Social and Political Union (spearheaded, of course, by blue plaque recipient and total legend, Emmeline Pankhurst) and the height of her contributions was her original composition, ‘The March of the Women’. This three-and-a-half-minute BANGER was the theme tune of the Suffragettes – think Darth Vader’s Imperial March, but less evil and more triumphant… and with lyrics[1]… and operatic solos… and… not in space.

[1] Written by Cicely Hamilton

Ethel at a Suffrage Meeting

It debuted in January 1911 and marked the moment those imprisoned as a result of the Black Friday protests were released (but these women weren’t fighting over a flatscreen TV, they were fighting for The Cause by congregating outside parliament, following the repeated use of deceptive political tactics by the government). ‘The March of the Women’ was so catchy that when Ethel was imprisoned at Holloway Prison in 1912 with a group of other activists, she started an impromptu choir (kind of like a flash mob, but less of a surprise because everyone was literally locked in).

Composer Thomas Beecham went to visit the imprisoned Ethel to find her conducting a criminally good rendition of the piece, reportedly keeping time ’in almost Bacchic frenzy with a toothbrush’!

In prison, Ethel occupied the cell adjacent to Pankhurst’s and there is rumour she had something of an infatuation with the leader of the WSPU. She had a history of romantic dalliances almost as epic as her operas; Lady Ponsonby (once Maid of Honour to Queen Victoria), the wife of the Archbishop of Canterbury Mary Benson, and writer Virginia Woolf are just a few names affectionately attached to Ethel’s name. Virginia once wrote to Ethel:

“Look dearest Ethel…. Please live 50 years at least; for now I’ve formed this limpet childish attachment it can’t but be part of my simple anatomy for ever — wanting Ethel — I say, live, live, and let me fasten myself upon you.”


Smyth was as openly queer as it was conceivably safe to be during her life. Writing to perhaps the only man she ever loved, Henry Brewster, she said

“it is so much easier for me, and I believe a great many English women, to love my own sex more passionately than yours”


– (SAVAGE?!). She was delightfully aware of the incongruousness of her manner – gleefully wearing men’s hats and tweed suits whilst relishing surprising male contemporaries with her aptitude for composition, both orchestral and operatic.

Such a bold character must, of course, have her faults; some of Ethel Smyth’s (and other Suffragettes’) political views, particularly surrounding the British Empire and race, though typical of the time, would and should face harsh criticism under the modern eye. Questions must also be asked of her memoirs and the stance she takes in them – never really promoting the work of her female contemporaries and discussing her own compositions quite pompously.

On the one hand, this could be viewed as endearing; giving herself the respect and credit she never received from the music industry. On the other hand, she was in a somewhat privileged position – having works performed at multiple Proms and speaking on the radio – should she have been proactively passing the baton (pardon the pun)?

By her 50s, Ethel had been struck with the same occupational irony that befell Beethoven over a century before – she was losing her hearing – a similarity she did not leave unacknowledged. Beethoven famously became D/deaf when he was much younger and at the peak of his creative inspiration. Ethel felt that her days of insatiable inspiration were behind her and so perceived her disability to present more of a challenge; she humbly remarked in a memoir that only those with an almost divine gift for music could continue composing cohesively with deafness:

‘“But you can read a score like a book, can’t you?” asks the reader. Well, no, I can’t, and I believe very few people except conductors, who are always at it, read complicated modern scores as easily as ordinary mortals read Alice in Wonderland.’


Nevertheless, Ethel continued to use her musical instinct to create work she still ‘longed to compose’. After visiting Violet Gordon-Woodhouse, the first person to record harpsichord, Ethel wrote to her:

“I can never tell you how adorable it was of you having me — and letting me feel I shouldn’t wear you out by my deafness. It touched me to the marrow. And I think of all you made possible for me… It made my heart ache to think I am cut off from what is my most overwhelming musical joy — your playing — but I won’t dwell on that.”


It’s clear that Ethel mourned the loss of her hearing, but that didn’t stop her attending a performance of her work, conducted by Thomas Beecham to mark her 75th birthday in 1934, where she was sat next to Queen Mary (Smyth was recognised by the royal family and made a Dame in 1922). Virginia Woolf also attended the performance and wrote humorously of the moment Ethel rapidly stood up, mistakenly thinking the National Anthem was beginning!

Ethel’s final memoir As Time Went On, was published in 1936 and was dedicated to Virginia Woolf. She died in Woking, Surrey in 1944.


To dedicate your book to an author in token of admiration is an impertinence.

To do it from affection is better. But what if the book turns out badly? That dedication may cost you a valued friendship.

Therefore, avoiding seductive quagmires that begin with an ‘a’, such as affection and admiration, I step on to safe ground and declare that solely because this book was written at her suggestion do I venture to offer it



January 1, 1936

Image Source: LSE Library

Research Sources: BBC, The Guardian,, Glyndebourne, The Marginalian, LGBT History UK, Brittanica, Museum of London, The Strad, Classic FM, Mental Floss, British Music Collection, LSE