Interview with Helen C. Black from Notable Women Authors of the Day. 

Photograph of Riddell at c.60
 

THE sleepy little village of Upper Halliford, Middlesex, has one peculiar charm. Though within ten minutes’ walk of Walton Bridge, it lies quite off the main line of traffic, and is consequently free from the visits of Cockney tourists, affording in this, as in many other respects, a striking contrast to Lower Halliford, which, situated on a lovely reach of the Thames, welcomes annually thousands of visitors.

 

    There the inevitable steam-launch cuts its swift way through the water; there boating-men; clad in all the colours of the rainbow, are to be met with, on or after Good Friday, when the “season begins; there persistent fishermen, seated in punts warily moored, angle day after day, and all day long, for the bream, roach, and gudgeon, to be found: in such abundance; there furnished houses let at high rents; willows dip their branches in the river, and from thence the trees of Oatlands show well on the upland on the opposite sides of the glistening Thames.

 

    It was between Lower Halliford and Walton Bridge—half of which is in Surrey and half in Middlesex—that, at a point called the Coway Stakes, Julius Caesar is believed to have crossed the river. The name “Coway Stakes” originated in the fact that there Cassivelaunus fortified the banks, and filled the river with sharp-pointed stakes to prevent the enemy from crossing the stream, but notwith­standing these precautions the Roman leader and his legions accomplished their purpose, and, a little way above where the Ship Hotel (so well known to boating-men), now stands, a terrible battle was fought in the year 54 B.C. between the Britons and Romans. Several relics have been dug up about this part of the Thames, also a number of the stakes taken from the bed of the river, black with age, but still sound.

 

  Any one who cares to walk on to Walton should make a point of visiting the old Church of St. Mary—an edifice of great antiquity—in order to see a curious relic, dated 1632, a scold’s bit, or bridle, bearing the following inscription:-

“Chester to Walton sends a bridle
 to curb women’s tongues that talk too idle.”

 

    Upper Halliford, unlike Lower Halliford, or Walton, has nothing to show in the way of beauty or relic. it boasts no history, it has no legend, or old church, or historic mansion. It is only a quaint little hamlet, which might be a hundred miles from the bustle and roar of London; there, however, the famous author of “George Geith of Fen Court” has for the last seven years made her home, where she lives in absolute seclusion.

 

    Her little cottage stands slightly back from the high road. It is built flush with the ground, and covered with trellis-work, which in summer time is concealed by clustering white roses and clematis. The porch is in the centre, and the rooms on each side have broad bay windows. There is a large field in front, and so many evergreens about the cottage, that, when snow comes, the place looks like a winter “transformation scene.”

 

    A great, old-fashioned garden stretches far out at the back, and it was chiefly the tranquility arid privacy of this delightful garden, with its grand old hedge of holly, now bright with red berries, which attracted Mrs. Riddell, and decided her to settle down, away from the world, after long and fierce buffeting with the stormy seas of sorrow, disappointment, losses, and bereavement, of which she has had so large a share.

 

    The gentle, quiet face tells its tale of early struggles, heavy burdens, severe trials; yet time has not laid its ruthless hand over-harshly on the author. Not a silver hair is visible on the soft, brown hair, which is simply rolled into a neat coil, high on the back of her head, and fastened by a large tortoise-shell comb. The deep grey eyes are undimmed, and wear a look of peace and resignation, nobly won; while “ever and anon of grief's subdued, there comes a token “ which recalls the past. But Mrs. Riddell can smile sweetly,. and when she smiles, two-yes two-absolutely girlish dimples light up the expressive countenance. She is tall, has a good carriage, and is dressed in black; she has worn no colours for over ten years.

 
    The little room is very simply but prettily furnished . It is lighted by one bay window reaching to the ground in front, and a glass door at the side. Soft, white rugs lie here and there on the dark red carpet, and an old-fashioned bookcase contains the works of her favourite authors. There are no particular curiosities or decorations to be seen, save one valuable bit of old Dresden china, two or three plates of ancient Crown Derby, together with a couple of quaint Delhi-work slaves, and a few pictures hanging on the walls. Of these last, two are particularly attractive. One is the Head of a Christ crowned with thorns, beautifully painted on copper; the other, over the fire place, represents the Castle of Carrigfergus, which, though built nearly a thousand years ago, is still strong enough to hold a troop of soldiers.

 

    Mrs. Riddell was born in Ireland, at The Barn, Carrigfergus. She was the youngest daughter of Mr. James Cowan, who held the post of High Sheriff for the county of that town.

 

    “Yes, I am from the north—the black north,” says your hostess in a low, soft voice. “My grandfather was in the navy, and my great-grandfather fought at Culloden, so I may fairly claim to be English, Scotch, and Irish. My mother, Ellen Kilshaw, was a beautiful, graceful, and accomplished English woman. On most subjects people have two opinions, but I never heard a second opinion about my mother. Even amongst those who only knew her in later life, when stricken with disease, and changed by long years of sorrow, she stands out a distinct personality, as one of those possessed of the manners, appearance, and ideas, that we associate with the highest bred women of the past!”

 

    “And she was good as she was beautiful. I wish you could hear how rich and poor who knew her in the old time at The Barn still speak of her; As for me, while I speak, the grief of her death seems sharp and present as on that sixteenth of December when she left me.”

 

    Last autumn, after a lapse of twenty-five years, Mrs. Riddell revisited her native place. “Such of our old friends as were left,” she says, “I found as kind as ever.”

 

    It must have been sad, yet sweet, for the author to recall the old reminiscences of her girlish home as she saw once more the pretty bungalow-like house, with its gardens, hot-houses, and vineries, and to visit again the spot where, at the age of fifteen, she remembers writing her first story.

 

    “It was on a bright moonlight night,” she says—” I can see it now flooding the gardens—that I began it, and I wrote week after week, never ceasing until it was finished. Need I add it was never published?”

 

    She goes on eloquently to tell you of yet further recollections of the old house, the memory of her father’s lingering illness, and the low, sweet tones of her mother’s voice as she read aloud to him for hours together. “From my father,” says Mrs. Riddell, “I think I got the few brains I possess. Undoubtedly he was a very clever man, but I never knew him at his best, for as far as my memory goes back he was always more or less a sufferer, blessed with the most tender and devoted wife man ever had.”

 

    On her father’s death, the property passed into other hands, and with but a small jointure the broken­hearted widow and her daughter left their old home. They lived afterwards, for a while, in the charming village of Dundonald in the County Down, where the young author subsequently laid the scene of her novel, “Berna Boyle,” and then, after a good deal of meditation, they decided to come to London. In later years she wrote three other Irish stories, “The Earl’s Promise,” “The Nun’s Curse,” and “Maxwell Drewitt,” which last contains an exciting account of an election at Connemara.

 

    “I have often wished,” says Mrs. Riddell, "we never had so decided, yes in that case, I do not think I ever should have achieved the smallest success, and even before we left, with bitter tears, a place where we had the kindest friends, and knew much happiness, my mother’s death was—though neither of us then knew the fact—a certainty. The illness of which she died had then taken hold of her. She had always a great horror of pain mental and physical; she was keenly sensitive, and mercifully before the agonising period of her complaint arrived, the nerves of sensation were paralysed; first or last, she never lost a night’s sleep the whole of the ten weeks, during which I fought with death for her, and—was beaten.”

 

    Mrs. Riddell’s first impressions of London are well worth recording. Coming as strangers to a strange land, throughout the length and breadth of the great metropolis, she says, “We did not know a single creature! During the first fortnight, indeed, I really thought I should break my heart. I had never taken kindly to new places, and, remembering the sweet hamlet and the loving friends left behind, London seemed to me horrible! I could not eat; I could not sleep; I could only walk over the ‘stony-hearted streets’ and offer my manuscripts to publisher after publisher, who unanimously declined them.” The desolation of her spirit can be more easily imagined than described. Conceive the situation of the young girl, burning to earn a living by her pen, knowing that it was within her to do so, yet unacquainted with a single literary or other person; friendless, unknown, with an invalid mother, and terribly insufficient means! And when, at last, she sold a story, called “Moors and Fens,” that beloved mother had passed away; and your eyes moisten as the daughter mentions the touching and filial use to which her first twenty pounds were applied.

 

    But Mrs. Riddell has something pleasant to say for those who declined her MSS., and it must be related in her own words: “Looking back I must say, as a rule, they were all very kind to me. I was too ignorant and heartsore to understand how gracious they were to my simplicity, even more than to my youth. Yet I shall never forget how charming Mr. George Bentley’s manner seemed the first day I saw him. His father-the kindest, most impulsive, most sympathetic of men-was alive then, and for many a year afterwards; but it so happened that Mr. George Bentley was the partner whom I saw, and, "she adds smiling, and naively"  "though he, like every­one else, refused my work, still I left his office not unhappy, but thinking much more about how courteous and nice he was than of how entirely the wrong person in the wrong place I seemed to be. Ere long, with some publishers I became quite on friendly terms, and I have now known three generations of the Bentleys.”

 

    After a short silence Mrs. Riddell resumes the subject, saying, “I must name also Mr. Charles Skeet, of King William Street, who was good enough to keep my mother supplied with books. Long as it is since he retired from business, our friendship remained unbroken until his death. He was most kind to me always. He published ‘The Rich Husband,’ ‘Too Much Alone,’ ‘The World and the Church,’ and ‘Alaric Spencer.’

 

    “I could always, when the day was frightfully cold—and what a winter that was4when I first came to London—turn into Mr. Newby’s snug and warm office in Welbeck Street, and have a talk with him and his ‘woman of business.’ I am glad to mention her name—Miss Springett. She was a lady, always kind, nice, and capable; she remained with him till her death, I believe. Everyone was good to me in those days; but, indeed, I have received, all my life through, an enormous amount of kindness, and have not a word to say against a world which has treated me far better than I deserved.”

 

    A year after the death of her mother the young author married. Mr. Riddell belonged to an old Staffordshire family, a branch of the Scotch Riddells, of long descent and gentle blood. “Courageous and hopeful, gifted with indomitable energy,” says his widow, “endowed with marvellous persistence and perseverance ; modestly conscious of talents which ought to have made their mark, he, when, a mere lad, began his long quest after fortune, one single favour from whom he was never destined to receive.”

 

    Gifted with much inventive genius, Mr. Riddell was also possessed of considerable general knowledge, and was deeply versed in literature, medicine, science, and mathematics. To him his wife turned for all the information she needed in her novels; the chemistry in “Too Much Alone,” the engineering in “City and Suburb.” He supplied all the business details in “George Geith,” and “The Race for Wealth”; while in “Mortomley’s Estate” Mrs. Riddell says she has but told the simple story of what, when in ill-health and broken in spirit, he had to encounter before ruin, total and complete, overtook him.” Too early in youth overweighted with a heavy burden, under which a strong man might have found it hard to stagger, she declares that, “in spite of harassing trouble and continuous misfortune, their twenty-three years of married life were happy as few lives are, simply by reason of his sweet, patient temper, and his child-like faith.” Suddenly and unexpectedly, the end came, and the crowning sorrow of a much-tried life was laid upon the devoted wife when death claimed her gifted husband. Over that grief a veil must be drawn. Suffice it to say that it is a sorrow which will ever be keen in her remembrance “Until the day break and the shadows flee away.”

 

    “I never remember the time,” Mrs. Riddell says, ‘when I did not compose.’ Before I was old enough to hold a pen I used to get my mother to write down my childish ideas, arid a friend remarked to me quite lately that she distinctly remembers my being discouraged in the habit, as it was feared I might be led into telling untruths. In my very early days I read everything I could lay hands on, the Koran included, when about eight years old. I thought it most interesting.”

 

    Mrs. Riddell describes the way in which the situations and characters of her books are often suggested. She observes everything almost unconsciously; but if asked, directly after, her impressions, she could scarcely describe them. Later on, perhaps, when between the border-land of sleep and waking, scenes, words, people whom she has noticed seem to be photographed on the brain; sentences form themselves, and in the morning she is able to reproduce them at length.

 

    The intimate knowledge of the city possessed by this novelist is the result of personal experience. Whilst on her once fruitless expeditions to publishers she learnt every short cut, every alley and lane by heart. Little as she relished these excursions at the time, they laid the foundation for many a scene afterwards so faithfully depicted in “ George Geith,” “ City and Suburb” (in which most of the poetry was quoted from the works of her young sister-in-law, a genius who died at the age of nineteen), “Daisies and Butter­cups,” “The Struggle for Fame,” “Mitre Court,” “My First Love, and My Last Love,” “The Earl’s Promise,” and also that entrancing book, “The Senior Partner,” in which the old Scotch merchant, M’Cullagh, “plain auld Rab,” worthy but saving old gentleman, is a distinct creation. “In all the old city churches and graveyards, such, indeed, as are left,” Mrs. Riddell says, sorrowfully, “you could take no better guide than myself; but, alas! many of the old landmarks are now pulled down to make room for the ever increasing business of the great metropolis.”

 

    “Austin Friars” described her first home after her marriage, when, without much practical knowledge of business, she was greatly impressed by the lives of business men. This old house is now a thing of the past, and the Cannon Street railway runs over the place where it once stood.

 

    The author’s latest work—a story of seaside life, and her twenty-ninth novel—is called “Grays Point,” and will be brought out in three volumes in the coming year. She lately was invited to write an article for The Lady of the House, a new journal which appeared in Dublin last year, and this is the first time that she has ever written a line for an Irish paper. Of her own books, Mrs. Riddell says that she prefers “The Mystery in Palace Gardens” and “Too Much Alone.” The latter she considers made her name, though the first edition was only a short one, and but four copies were sent out for review. “A Mad Tour, or A Journey Undertaken in an Insane Moment through Central Europe on Foot,” in one volume, is a recent work, and describes accurately her own experiences in company with a young friend. It gives a bright and amusing account of their misadventures.

 

    Mrs. Riddell’s latest published novel in. three volumes, “The Head of the Firm,” fully bears out the high literary reputation of the author of “George Geith.” Carefully and conscientiously worked out, each character is drawn with an unerring hand, and sustains its interest to the final page, whilst here and there are not wanting those touches of humour which have always distinguished her works.

 

    After a snug luncheon in the comfortable dining-room, in which, by the way, unexpected little steps and deep cupboards seem to be built promiscuously——as, indeed, they are throughout the cottage—your hostess takes you round the garden, which is well worth seeing, mid-winter though it be. She points out the great height of the holly hedge, and laments that she has been obliged to have twelve feet cut off the top. Notwithstanding, it is still twenty feet high. The japonica is the admiration of passers-by in the early spring, being then covered with a mass of scarlet flowers. The apricot tree is sadly in want of root pruning, but, as she says, “I cannot persuade the old gardener to do it, and as I am never equal to arguing, I let him take his own way.” There is an extraordinary plant which you have never seen before; its flowers are green, and Mrs. Riddell says that she never saw one like it except in her old home. The huge weeping ash, although now bereft of leaves, is a great feature, and the high box borders divide large squares of ground, wherein good old bushes of lavender, rue and lad’s love grow profusely.

 

    Your hostess points out the adjoining cottage, the home of her old gardener, aged eighty, and remarks that another old man who preceded him begged from a neighbour enough elm to make him a coffin. It was given to him, and the hitherto unnecessary article made. Tie kept the gruesome object for some time, but finding it took up too much room in his small abode, he altered it into a cupboard.

 

    A turn round the last walk leads to the poultry-yard, which is a great delight to Mrs. Riddell. She has several fine breeds of fowls and geese, amongst which last are two handsome but noisy specimens from Japan. One little peculiarity of interest must be noticed. The wall which supports the granary steps is pierced by two holes for dog kennels, an arrange­ment of great antiquity.

 

    Mrs. Riddell loves walking. The church she attends lies rather more than two miles away towards Laleham, which place Arnold left with so much regret, and where Matthew Arnold is buried. She speaks of Littleton in the neighbourhood as being the village she described in “For Dick’s Sake” and says, laughing, “It has stood still for over two hundred years. There is no resident rector or squire, or doctor, or lawyer, or publican, or farrier, but it is a sweetly peaceful spot, and the woods in primrose time are a sight to behold, whilst at Sunbury,” she adds, “to show you how little change may take place, in one hundred years there have been only two vicars, and one of them is alive now !

 

    But it is getting dark, and tea is ordered as a preparation for your cold journey; whilst sipping it, she says that as you are so much interested in her own early “struggle for fame,” she will mention one more anecdot à propos of Mr. Newby, as it is amusing, and she relates it thus: “In those early days he—Mr. Newby.—was good enough to take a book of mine. Of course he only knew me by my maiden name, because after my mother’s death Welbeck Street lay quite out of my way, and I fear I ungratefully forgot the cheerful fire, and the talks about authors, which were once so pleasant.

 

    “For this reason he knew nothing of my doings. The years came and the years went, till after the crash came in our affairs; when I was looking about me for every five-pound note I could get, I bethought me of this and another old book, which I can never sufficiently regret republishing. Well, I found I could sell both of them, and forthwith repaired, after all that time, to Mr. Newby’s, where nothing looked much changed, and no one seemed much older, except  myself, who had lived many lives in the interval.

 

    “Of course both Mr. Newby and Miss Springett had a vague memory of me, when I reminded the former that he had published ‘Zuriel’s Grandchild.’ What I wanted was a copy of the book. He feared he had not one, but promised to ascertain. I can see them both now in that warm, comfortable back room, into which, as a girl, I had often gone shivering.

 

    “He took a seat on one side of a large table, she on the other. I sat facing Mr. Newby—a most anxious woman, yet amused.

“‘Have you,’ he said delicately, ‘gone on at all with literature ?‘

    “ ‘Oh, yes,’ I answered.”

“‘Have you published anything?’ with great caution, so as not to hurt my feelings.

    “‘Several books,’ I replied.

Indeed!!!’ amazed. ‘Might I ask the names?’ tentatively.

"'Well, amongst others, “George Geith.”’

 

    “A dead silence ensued, during which I had the comfort of feeling that they both felt sure I was saying what was not true. I sat quite quiet, and so did they. If I had not been so burdened with care I must have laughed out loud. As it happened, I comported myself, as I have often done since, in many difficult and humorous positions, with decent gravity, and then this came from Mr. Newby, the while the ribbons on Miss Springett’s cap were tremulous:

 

    "'If—you really wrote” George Geith,” then indeed you have achieved a success!’”

And so you part; with loving tender sympathy. Though the morn of this distinguished woman’s life has been so clouded, the noon so stormy, the noble, self-reliant spirit has battled through it bravely and patiently, and you leave her with the inwardly-breathed prayer that “at evening time there shall come light!”

 

Top of page

Back to home page