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Mary Llewelyn Davies to Sylvia du Maurier - 1890

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Letter from Mary Llewelyn Davies to Sylvia, 1 October 1890. See Peter's comments in the transcription, as well as a long and moving account of Peter's later meetings with Dolly Ponsonby (nee Parry), who is first mentioned in this letter.

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Transcription

K.L. Oct. 1, 1890.

Ever so many thanks, dear one, for yr. pleasant letter. I like to hear all you are doing so much. I am often thinking of my Sylvia, and I want to tell you things and to see your dear face. When shall we meet next, I wonder? I heard of you at Putney Park, where yr. visit gave much pleasure. Yes, I do think it was brave and good of you to go but you are really most excellent with all these endless relations. However I can't claim Mrs Maurice as a relation; she has been a very dear friend for many years, and I feel so sorry for her lonely life. It is formidable for you I feel going there with Miss D. who is still a stranger to you. But what would be much better would be to go afterwards by yourself. You would find you could talk to her much better tête-à-tete, and always give pleasure by going. I should like you to get on well with her. What do you say to your little green room being turned into a hospital!
Lady Maud and her two girls came on Saty. and the eldest, Dolly, has been so ill ever since, and we had to get Dr. Wyllie to attend her, and ice from Underlay. It is a sort of jaundice from a chill, and her temperature has been up. She is a delicate girl and I don't know how long she may be set fast here. They are such a remarkable pair of girls, so very clever and full of character. Dolly is 14 and Gwen 12. Gwen is so tall she makes our Margt. look quite a dwarf! She plays on the fiddle in a quite wonderful way for a child. And Dolly has even more musical gift — and she loves acting, and writes plays, and wishes to go on the stage. She dances, too — wonderful dances wh. she invents and Gwen fiddles! But all this I have not seen, for the poor thing is in bed. They are both so handsome and so is Ly. Maud....
Ll. goes to Oxford to preach next Sunday, and will spend Monday in town doing heaps of things, and lunching with Charley.
That life of Macaulay is a capital book to read. I fear my list is not getting on well at all. You'll beat me hollow. How about the singing? Have you thought of the lessons? Mrs. Enfield much admired May's singing.
Fare you well dear child. I hope Arthur sounds all right. I don't hear much from him.
Your loving
M.

Peter's commentary in the Morgue:

Mrs. Maurice I take to be the widow of John Ll.D's “master” F. D. Maurice, who had died in 1872. Is there a faint suggestion here, by the way, that Mary Ll.D was not altogether devoted to Emily D. (Miss D.)? In any case, poor Sylvia!

Lady Maude was Lady Maude Parry, wife of the great composer, Hubert Parry. Jack will no doubt remember them, and their house at Rustington, even better than I do. Sir H.P. was an extraordinary and I shd. think most attractive personality: robust, red-faced, hearty, white-moustached, as unlike the conventional idea of a musician as could be imagined. I believe he was Keeper of the Field at Eton, and had an Oratorio or some equivalent piece published while he was still at school there. I remember chiefly going for a sail in his yacht from Littlehampton (in 1904) and feeling a bit sick and pusillanimously staying on board and eating Nestle's milk neat with a teaspoon while G[eorge] or J[ack], or perhaps both, stripped and jumped over the side with a rope round them for a bathe.
Gwen Parry married Plunket Greens, the exquisite singer, whom I remember giving a recital in the Cloisters at Eton in the summer of 1914. I believe she is still alive. Dolly married Arthur (later Lord) Ponsonby. A year or two ago, with this and the two following letters in mind, and remembering the friendship which existed between her and S.Ll.D., and that almost if not quite the last time S.Ll.D. went away for a week-end before her fatal illness (in 1909) was to stay with the Ponsonbys at Shulbrede Priory (taking Michael with her), I wrote to Lady Ponsonby and met with the warmest possible response, Although in a way it doesn't all fit in very aptly, I think I may as well insert her reply here.

Undershaw Hotel,
Hindhead.
Dec. 21st, 1945.

Dear Peter,
I can't tell you what a pleasure your letter was to me. I have often thought how much I should like to get into touch with you. I have no one now with whom I can talk of your mother — Sylvia. She was the dearest friend I ever had. Nobody has remotely taken her place. Nobody could. I can see her now so vividly that she might be standing before me — and hear her voice, and her laugh. I hope you were not too young to remember her like this, and that you are able to recall her and picture her as I can.
When she was a girl and in early married life everyone, of course, realized her extraordinary charm and beauty and grace — and her wit and sense of humour — but as we know she developed the most courageous and remarkable character; she suffered intensely, because her power of feeling and her love was so strong, and in connection with your dear splendid Father's illness I had some agonizing, unforgettable moments with her. But she was very controlled and reticent — and minded so much poor Margaret's outpourings and desire to help her. She felt much too much to talk about it in that way.
Now I want to tell you that I cannot write much at this moment, because for 2 years my Arthur has been so ill that I cannot leave him — and about a fortnight ago I left Shulbrede, having had no help for 3 years, and came to an hotel up at Hindhead in order to be near my husband in a nursing home. Curiously enough, about a month ago I went through a number of letters with the object of destroying them, and one was from your grandmother from Kirkby Lonsdale. Whether I did or not, I can't remember. But our papers and letters have got beyond bounds, and I felt I was not justified in leaving them for Matthew [her son, now Lord Ponsonby] to deal with. But I have a lot to say about Kirkby and your grandmother and Sylvia and their love of one another.
You have really helped me by writing as you do — I cannot think of the future — and the present is very hard to bear. But thinking of Sylvia these last 2 nights and recalling all sorts of incidents and occurrences I felt only that happy past and for the moment forgot the present. I will write down perhaps in rather a desultory way things I like to remember and that you would perhaps like to hear. I should very much like to see you one day.
Yours ever,
Dolly Ponsonby.

Some months after this letter — on 12th December 1946, to be exact — I did meet her at her house in Kensington Square. It was interesting to find how familiar her face seemed to me as soon as I saw her, and on what easy terms we were from the first word; and quite astounding to hear her exact and intimate memories of all our family. She gave me a number of invaluable little extracts from her diaries, and wrote out for me a few pages of more general reminiscence, which began as follows:

"Our close association with the Llewelyn Davieses started with my mother's great liking and admiration for Margaret. [N.B. Lady Ponsonby's mother was a daughter of Lord Herbert, Florence Nightingale's Sidney Herbert, later Earl of Pembroke, notable for his advanced humanitarian and feminist views.] I was 8 perhaps when I first went to Blandford Square. I have just found the number of their house — 5 — on an old envelope addressed by me to Margaret in a very childish hand. Before Margaret died she sent me my mother's letters to her and some childish ones of my own.... In 1889, when her father was appointed Rector of Kirkby Lonsdale, there was some outcry among his admirers. It was regarded as a sort of banishment. He was a Broad Churchman, and on a very high moral and intellectual plane. Mr. Gladstone was quite rightly criticised for this appointment. I heard so much of it from my father and mother, though only 13 — that I had my own reasons for disliking Mr. Gladstone in my youth. He didn't approve of Mr. Llewelyn Davies and he cut down trees.
Mr. Davies himself was never in the least bitter, and grew to love Kirkby and his walks over the Fells....
My first mention of Arthur LLD was in 1889, staying with some old, rich, plutocratic friends — an odd setting for him.
From my diary: “Arthur Davies arrived — he is very handsome and nice, with a great deal of sense of humour. In the morning at breakfast, Mother said that if anyone was starving it would be quite right to steal, and I'm sure I agree with her. We then said that if one person had several bracelets and another none, it would be quite right for the poor person without the bracelets to steal some. Then we all stole each other's things — Arthur Davies stealing my beads and Mother Mrs. Rate's blue china.”
In 1890 when I was 14 we stayed with the Llewelyn Davieses at Kirkby. I still have the most vivid recollection of it — partly because I was rather badly ill, and Mrs. Davies' kindness was unforgettable. I can remember exactly where my bed was in the little room and the window looking on to a rushing river below and the Fells beyond. Mrs Davies would bring me up grapes and ice sent by Lady Bective, the feudal Lady of the place. The house seemed perfectly run with a real feeling of home — fires and nice servants in caps, and particularly good food — and I remember my mother taking away some receipts of old-fashioned puddings and we went on with these till quite the other day. One was called 'Long Tom.'
But Mrs. Llewelyn Davies was not only a perfect housewife, but a woman with a remarkable brain, and great knowledge and love of literature and poetry. She was remarkably independent in thought and I expect you know that she never went to her husband's church, and he never asked her to. As a friend rightly said, 'Creditable to both.' To me she transmuted what had hitherto appeared rather dry and difficult poems into things of interest and excitement and beauty — reading aloud so well and naturally, explaining any difficult parts or words so simply. I especially remember being thrilled by her reading after tea in the drawing-room, Matthew Arnold's Sohrab and Rustum.
I have often thought of her splendid life with her 6 sons and one daughter. At that period it was accepted as a matter of course that a daughter would help her mother. But so advanced and so unselfish was Margaret's mother, that I am sure she hardly breathed it to herself that she would have liked the feminine companionship of a daughter and her help. Margaret would attend meetings and Co-op. parties nearly every evening — and her sitting-room downstairs was swamped with pamphlets on various progressive questions of the day.
When Arthur was engaged to Sylvia I realized what it meant to Mrs. Davies. I remember her telling us about it, and taking out of a cupboard in the drawing-room 2 photographs, saying 'That is my sweet Sylvia.' She was engaged to Arthur and you felt her happiness and absolute approval. I was so fascinated by those photographs that I was always thinking whether I couldn't go to the cupboard and have another look.
How romantic it is to think of Sylvia coming to Kirkby, to the outwardly severe-looking Georgian Rectory adjoining the graveyard on one side, and looking over the lovely Fells, where Mr. Davies walked nearly every day. I like to think of Sylvia feeling the warmth within, and the love and sympathy she found in Arthur's mother. And Arthur's brothers, austere outwardly, felt, I feel sure, very soon the charm of this lovely sweet feminine creature. All the same, I feel it must have been a strange contrast to her easy-going, happy, more or less Bohemian home .... "

Further passages from Lady Ponsonby's recollections, and the various extracts from her diaries, I will insert later in their appropriate places. I think it will be agreed that it was a happy thought on my part to re-establish contact with her.

[AB: for browsers of this website, use the "Dolly Ponsonby" tag to read more extracts from her diaries and reminiscences.]

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