Not a Cirque du Soleil act but three remarkable, independent women, two real, one fictional, two English, one Scotch- Irish. All born in the last decade of the 19thcentury; all long departed but kept alive in my bookshelves.
Not so long ago, travelling in China, I came to the ancient city of Dali, situated on the shores of Lake Erhai and in the shadow of the Cangshan mountains and it was here that I came across a bookshop, something that I was beginning to think did not exist in the whole of China. I can forgive Chairman Mao for the chaos and death caused by the ‘Great Leap Forward’; that was just a bad decision, like Prohibition. But I cannot forgive him for the lasting catastrophe of the Cultural Revolution when he replaced all poetry, art and craftsmanship with himself. In China Chairman Mao IS culture. His statue is the principal work of art in the lobby of my hotel and in this rare bookshop the shelves are lined only with various editions of the little red book, yellowing maps of the Great March and treatises on Communism.
The owner of the bookshop, who spoke English, invited me to sit down, share the ritual egg-cups of tea and listen to him eulogise a man who had disposed of fifty million of his fellow countrymen. When asked if I knew of an English lady called Violet Cressy-Marcks, I admitted I did not and, when I arrived home, I looked her up.
Information on Violet proved to be quite thin. There is no autobiography or biography and only the barest of outlines in Wikipedia, which told me she was born Violet Rutley in South East London on 9th June 1895. She was twenty two when she married Captain Maurice Cressy-Marcks with whom she had a son, William, in 1921. In 1925, freshly divorced, she discovered her true love while crossing Africa from Cairo to Capetown – the pleasure of travelling alone. The next winter she spent north of the Arctic Circle, travelling across Norwegian, Swedish and Finnish Lapland by sled drawn by reindeer and ending in Baluchistan. In 1929 she rode the Amazon by steamer, surveyed its upper reaches by canoe and crossed the Andes into Peru by horse. Afghanistan, Russian Turkestan and Siberia followed. In 1935, just as the Italian army was attempting to add Ethiopia to its African Empire, she travelled from Addis Ababa to Nairobi, stopping to visit the war fronts in Eritrea and Ethiopia. There is no record of her meeting any Ethiopian officials, but it cannot be by chance that a year later Emperor Haile Selassie, forced into exile, became a temporary guest at Hazelwood House in Hertfordshire, a home Violet then shared with her new husband, Francis Fisher.
In 1937 came the journey that brought Violet to the attention of my bookseller. It was Violet’s sixth visit to China and, like Honeybee, she made a list of objectives before she set out:
- To enter China from Burma. This was more by necessity than choice, although I feel it suited Violet to make her journeys as difficult as possible. The Japanese, already occupying Manchuria, were continuing their invasion west, while the centre of the country, from North to South, was a battleground between Mao’s Red Army and Chiang Kai-Shek’s Kuomintang. Skirmishes between various war lords and the presence of bandits added further danger to the journey.
- To visit the Communists and speak to the leader of the Eighth Route Army. Violet was not the first or only foreign journalist to interview Mao in his mountain stronghold at Yenan; American correspondent Edgar Snow had done that as well as Agnes Smedley, later accused of spying for the Russians. A photograph shows Violet looking a little like a housewife as she poses with Mao. But the mere fact he met with her shows he took her seriously.
- To study the war and the morale of the troops. I skipped most of this section. The request in her will that her biography should be shown first to the Head of MI5 suggests that the British government may have sponsored some of her travels. Alas there was to be no biography as the chosen writer, who had spent three years working for British Intelligence agencies in Constantinople, died before writing the book.
- To visit Lake Koko Nor in Tibet. Finally some sightseeing! At 4,300 square kilometres, the largest lake in China, Koko Nor is situated high on the Tibetan Plateau. As night falls and the yak drivers sleep in their warm tents, Violet sits by the side of the desolate lake, watching, till dawn. ‘Still, I liked the solitude, which is to me the kindest of all travelling companions. Sun, moon and stars, wind, rain and snow never fail to woo me more ardently with her by my side. ‘
When war became global two years later Violet was back in South West China, a war correspondent for London’s Daily Express. There was a spell as an ambulance driver for the Red Cross and when war ended she was at Nuremberg reporting on the trials of German war criminals for a London newspaper.
Photographer, archaeologist, ethnologist, zoologist, journalist and part-time spy, Violet travelled alone and light, with just a tent, a typewriter, her note books and a camera, for it was an age when it was still accepted that a single person could be an expert in several fields. ‘Adventurous travel’, she once said, ‘is no place for a man’.
What an ordinary extraordinary woman; fearless, competent, resourceful and adventurous. Twice married, a mother by her second husband of two boys, Forest and Ocean, both named after her real passions. She died in 1970. Nice to think a Chinese bookseller in Dali remembers her.
‘Trilby’- it has a nice ring to it; a name for the sort of self-possessed young woman to be found in a rich aunt’s villa in the South of France. The name of a Bond girl. You would be right if you think it’s the name of a man’s soft, felt hat, now only worn by rich racehorse trainers; but the hat was named after a girl called Trilby, the heroine of an 1894 novel that turned out to be a blockbuster.
Trilby O’Ferrall was a grisette, living in the Latin Quarter of Paris during La Belle Epoque where she worked as a blanchisseuse du fin and as a part time model for artists. The death of her father, an Irish gentleman and cleric, obliged through addiction to strong drink to flee to Paris and the later death of her mother, a barmaid and ‘Highland lassie of low degree’, had left Trilby an orphan and guardian of her younger brother.
One day, descending the stairs from the studio of Durien, a sculptor, where she had been modeling ‘in the altogether’, Trilby hears music coming from the apartment below and, on an impulse, knocks and enters. She is greeted by three amateur artists, Sandy, a bearded Scot and occupant of the studio and his two friends, Taffy, a good-humoured Yorkshireman, and Little Billee, a slender, sentimental young man of twenty years. Trilby’s outfit, an army overcoat over a petticoat and a pair of man’s shoes, her self-confidence as she sat down and crossed her legs and rolled a cigarette left the ‘toffs’ bewildered and besotted. So too was the pianist, the bearded and sinister Svengali. In an age where piano legs were curtained off to avoid any incitement to passion, the sight of Trilby’s slender, white ankles caused her male audience to shift uncomfortably in their seats. But the piano stopped and jaws dropped when Trilby kicked off her shoes to reveal that rarest of human features, a perfect pair of pedal extremities.
Trilby soon became a regular and popular visitor to Sandy’s studio, appreciated as much for her charm and lack of vanity as for her sewing and cooking. It was during an evening of song, with Svengali at the piano and his friend, Gecko, on violin, that Trilby revealed her one defect, a total lack of singing voice, a flaw that did not prevent Billee from decorating the studio with a study of Trilby’s feet and falling in love. After rejecting countless proposals of marriage from Billee, Trilby finally accepts, knowing that their social backgrounds were incompatible.
Billee makes the mistake of announcing his engagement to his widowed mother, Mrs Bagot, who arrives post-haste in Paris with one question in mind regarding her son’s fiancée – ‘Is she a lady?’ Although ready to flay her dearest friend alive in order to make her son a pair of gloves out of the skin, Mrs Bagot was not prepared to allow Billee to marry an unchaste siren and duly drags him back to England. After a period of sulking Billee returns to his art, later becoming a successful painter and member of the Royal Academy.
Years later, intrigued to learn that the greatest female singer of the age was known as La Svengali, Billee travels to Paris to investigate and is astounded to find Trilby singing like a nightingale. When Svengali collapses and dies from a heart attack in the box, Trilby, no longer under his hypnotic gaze, can no longer sing in tune, reverting to her former personality with no recollection of her life as a diva. Shortly after this transformation and with no apparent indication that she is suffering from a fatal illness, Trilby fades quietly away surrounded by mystified doctors and the distraught Billee descends into madness on hearing Trilby call for Svengali with her last breath. Soon after, Billee also takes to his bed heartbroken and surrenders life with the manly calm of a true gentleman.
How did this Victorian pot-boiler, largely unread today, become a huge best seller, a novel that launched hundreds of dramatized versions across Britain and America, a character that had hot-dogs and ice-creams and a hat named after it and persuaded the mayor of Macon, Florida, to change the town’s name to Trilby? Mainly, perhaps, because it was the first literary portrait of romanticized Bohemian life and of an idealized Belle Epoque Paris. It also introduced a new type of heroine, a self-confident gamine who eschewed corsets and rolled her own cigarettes. Then there was the character of Svengali, a term that still lives with us today as a person who has an evil, controlling influence over another, but without the anti-Semitic characteristics that George Orwell deplored in the novel’s character. There is an amusing sarcastic tone throughout and the language is littered with real French argot. The narrative was also stoked by Du Maurier’s illustrations and by its delivery in eight suspenseful instalments in Harpers magazine.
Trilby’s creator, George du Maurier was born in Paris in 1834 to an English mother and French father. Moving to London around 1850 he worked as cartoonist for Punch and as illustrator of popular magazines. He and his wife, Emma had five children of whom only Sylvia, born in 1866, and Gerald, born in 1873, achieved fame of differing sorts.
Sylvia married Arthur Llewelyn Davies, a lawyer, with whom she had five sons. They were chosen by Arthur’s best friend, the playwright JM Barrie, as models for ‘the lost boys’ that feature in the stories of Peter Pan. Kate Winslet impersonated Sylvia in the 2004 movie ‘Finding Neverland’.
Gerald was a successful theatre manager and actor; he is best remembered now as the father of novelist Daphne du Maurier, for lending his name to one of the most popular brands of cigarette of the 30s and 40s and as the subject of this classic limerick:
There was a young lady called Gloria
Who was had by Sir Gerald du Maurier
And then by ten men
Sir Gerald again
And the band of the Waldorf Astoria.
Nina Hamnett was a real-life Trilby, a true Bohemienne and good-time girl who had a good time without upsetting anyone except her family and other sale bourgeois individuals. After publication of her memoirs ‘Laughing Torso’ in 1928, Nina became an international trademark for indoor fun after midnight.
Born in Tenby, Wales in 1890, Nina was educated at the Royal School for Daughters of Officers of the Army in Bath where she showed flashes of unconventional wisdom and a complete disdain for authority. Later at art school in London, where she was fortunate to have Frank Brangwyn as a teacher, she posed in the altogether for the French sculptor, Henri Gaudier-Brzeska, who chiseled her nude torso from marble and became an early entry in her list of lovers. ‘I’m in the V&A with my left tit knocked off’ she would claim later.
Excited by a visit to Paris in 1912 where she met Jacob Epstein and his wife, Nina returned in 1914, rented a studio on the boulevard Raspail and enrolled in Marie Vassilieff’s art school, where Fernand Leger was teaching at the time. On her first night in Paris Nina was dining alone at Rosalie’s, a cheapish restaurant which Epstein had recommended, when Modigliani walked in, sat down at her table and after introducing himself, offered his art for sale. Nina bought a drawing of a head for five francs. Soon she was accompanying Modi every day to the Dome and the Rotonde, sometimes posing for him (‘Modigliani said I had the best tits in Europe.’) and joining him in week long parties. ‘At Van Dongen’s studio negro boxers sparred with the guests… and Nina danced naked under a black veil’.
When not dancing naked on the tables of Montparnasse, Nina was often homeless and penniless, living on bread, cheese and wine, fortunately in a country that produces the best in the world. She survived mainly because she was popular, which enabled her to refuel as a frequent house guest of the rich and famous like Brancusi, Ezra Pound, Sinclair Lewis, Coco Chanel and Jean Cocteau. She danced for Eric Satie, sang a duet with James Joyce, played a nose-flute in Edmond Dulac’s studio and entertained Stravinsky and Diaghilev. In Antibes she sat next to Rudolph Valentino at the piano and sang her signature sea-shanties for him and his wife. Nancy Cunard helped her as did the kindly Marie Vassilief. Although no intellectual, Nina must have been good company but most importantly she treated her famous friends with discretion in both volumes of her memoirs. She was promiscuous in an indifferent sort of way, ‘Can’t see anything in it myself…. But they seem to like it so I let them get on with it.’
There was a little income from the sale of her paintings, but hers was a minor talent and she was unwilling to apply herself. Nevertheless she exhibited at the Salon d’Automne and Salon des Independents. Walter Sickert bought her paintings. Her portrait of Sir Osbert Sitwell is on display today at London’s National Portrait Gallery and her pictures still sell at auction, a small oil fetching between four and six thousand pounds but, as Daniel Farson points out, she was always more interesting than her art.
Back in England Nina found work with the Omega Workshop designing and making fabrics, murals and furniture under the direction of Vanessa Bell, Duncan Grant and Roger Fry who became another of her lovers. Fry’s portraits of Nina show a rather serious, subdued Nina, not strikingly attractive but with that whiff of upper-class, bourgeois origins that she tried so hard to shake off.
By strange coincidence, she met Sir Gerald du Maurier on the cross-Channel ferry and in the preface to her second volume of memoirs – ‘Is She a Lady?’ she quotes from ‘Trilby’: ‘There is no place like the gutter for getting a clear view of the stars’. I wonder whether the stars dimmed for her in those last years. But she remained faithful to Bohemia to the end, spending much of her last years in the Fitzroy Tavern rattling a few coins in her tobacco tin to let others know she needed someone to buy her a drink.
She died in 1956 soon after falling out of her bedroom window.
- Journey into China; Violet Cressy-Marcks; Hodder & Stoughton, London, 1940.
- Trilby; George du Maurier; first published in 8 parts in Harper’s magazine, 1894
- Laughing Torso; Nina Hamnett; Constable, London, 1932
- Is She a Lady? Nina Hamnett; Alan Wingate, London, 1955
- Modigliani, The Pure Bohemian; June Rose, St Martin’s Press, New York, 1990
- The People’s Album of London Statues; Osbert Sitwell and Nina Hamnett (Illustrator), Duckworth, London, 1928
- Soho in the Fifties; Daniel Farson; Michael Joseph, London, 1987
 This is the first recorded use of the euphemism for ‘naked’
 Nina’s marble torso can be seen in London’s Victoria and Albert Museum.
3 thoughts on “VIOLET, TRILBY AND NINA”
Tre bellissime storie!
La preferita Ã¨ quella di Violet.
E bravo John!
Grazie mille Paolo!
Honeybee’s list of objectives before setting out on a journey includes the location of the nearest shoe shop, nothing so adventurous as Miss Violet’s!