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.