Friday - 31 October 2014

Lucy Clifford’s correspondents

22 September 2004Written by ATG Reporter

OFFERED as part of a Lawrences of Crewkerne sale of July 6 was ‘The Valehouse Collection of Letters to Mrs W.K. Clifford’. Though little read nowadays, ‘Lucy’ Clifford was immensely popular in late Victorian and early Edwardian times and was even classed with Edith Wharton, Joseph Conrad and H.G. Wells as one of those whose books “will never die”.

The widow of a brilliant mathematician who succumbed to TB whilst still in his early thirties and, perhaps encouraged by some his friends, George Eliot and Sir Leslie Stephen among them, Lucy Clifford turned to reviewing and writing to top up the small income she received from a fund set up by the Royal Society.

A novel about euthanasia, Mrs Keith’s Crime, made her name and another best seller, Love Letters of a Worldly Woman followed. Aunt Anne, another novel, and several successful plays brought her many literary friends and admirers – and a few enemies too. Virginia Woolf and Vanessa Bell seemed to have hated her and, as descendant Alice Dilke noted in her catalogue introduction to the collection, “wrote to each other about her in obscene terms” – but today only a couple of rather disturbing children’s stories, The New Mother and Wooden Tony, find their way into anthologies.

A large collection of typescripts by Lucy Clifford, mostly unpublished plays, together with some short stories, workbooks, engagement diaries and correspondence regarding her work for the theatre, reviews, press cuttings and so on, brought a bid of £5200 where a very modest estimate of just £200-400 had been ventured.

Henry James was an admirer, describing her as the “bravest of women and finest of friends”. He readily praised her work and addresses her in the friendliest of terms in a group of nine of ten letters sent to her in the years 1892-1913. Lotted with a few other letters from James to Lucy’s daughter Ethel and her husband, they sold at £2000.

Sold for £2900 was a lot offering 38 letters to Lucy from the American writer and critic James Russell Lowell, who from 1880-85 was US ambassador to Britain and a man with whom she enjoyed a bantering affectionate correspondence. Lucy had been introduced to Lowell by Sir Leslie Stephen in 1883 and it was he who encouraged her to write Love Letters of a Worldly Woman.

Three letters from Hardy, the longest referring to a theatrical production of The Dynasts and offering advice about an outline for a play about the Krupps that she had sent him, brought a bid of £1200. “As to the central conception – that the Krupps, or a woman Krupp, might bring peace to the world by controlling its ordnance– it is naturally attractive, especially to me,” wrote Hardy in 1914, “but as the theme of a practical drama which has to draw people to a theatre & make them pay well, I am in the dark altogether.”

Virginia Woolf, as mentioned earlier, wrote of Lucy Clifford in most unflattering terms, but she could be civil when the occasion and respect for her father’s friendships demanded, as a letter of 1924 that sold for £800 demonstrates: “I am sending you with my love a little book of my father’s [Some Early Impressions by Sir Leslie Stephen] which we have just brought out, thinking you may like to have it... the printers have made it look rather cheap and nasty I’m afraid. But I like the book itself & I think you may too.”

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ATG Reporter

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