An Introduction to Novelist Edna Lyall in Two Parts (Part 2)

Edna Lyall’s persona in the literary marketplace – as a compassionate author of novels rooted in sympathy – was satirized in 1891 by Punch. Her popular work Donovan was parodied as Sonogun by ‘Miss Redna Trial, Author of “Wee Jew;” “A Lardy Horseman;” “Spun by Prating,” &c., &c., &c.’.[1] A short note from ‘the fair Author’ caricatured Lyall further, giving readers her foolproof recipe for ‘pleas[ing] the publishers and captur[ing] the public’:

The philosophic infidel must be battered into belief by the aid of philosophy mingled with kindness. Take Renan, Haeckel, Huxley, Strauss, and Draper – the names, I mean; it is quite useless and might do harm to read their books, – shake them up together and make into a paste, add some poetical excerpts of a moral tendency, and spread thick over a violent lad smarting under a sense of demerit justly scorned.[2]

Lyall’s marketed image functioned as a symbol of reassurance and sympathy for a lower middle-class readership. Her career substantiates some of our persistent contemporary views of sympathy as both moral and practical. By her example as political activist qua novelist, Lyall instilled the belief that sympathy could be used as a ‘spur to action’.[3] But how successful was her sympathy really?

We might turn to her correspondence with Charles Bradlaugh’s daughter, Mrs. Hypatia Bradlaugh Bonner (1858–1935), for an answer. The letters give unique insight into the methods of communication that underlie Lyall’s sympathy.

At the time of his death in January 1891, Mr. Bradlaugh was £6,000 in debt due to the numerous litigation fees incurred throughout his career as an outspoken atheist. When Lyall heard of his passing and the debts inherited by his only surviving daughter, she sent £50 to Mrs. Bonner.[4] Once plans to set up a subscription on Bonner’s behalf were set in motion, Lyall was regarded as the natural high-profile personality to contact in order to raise funds. On 8 April 1891, George Jacob Holyoake (1817–1906), another tenacious leader of British freethinkers, wrote to Lyall:

In consequence of the generous gift you made Mrs. Bonner, I suggested to Mr. Bradlaugh’s friends that the subscription they need for redeeming his little estate for Mrs. Bonner could be more aided by you than by any other person […] [T]here is no doubt that if an appeal was made to them by one in whom they had confidence many would imitate your example and send subscriptions.[5]

In response, Lyall submitted a letter of support that was reproduced and printed in facsimile in several papers, urging readers to act:

Hundreds of kindly notices, and regrets for the harsh treatment Mr. Bradlaugh received, have appeared recently in the newspapers; we have not to prove that these words were no mere empty sentiment to relieve our own sense of discomfort, but genuine, unselfish sympathy.[6]

Portrait of Hypatia Bradlaugh Bonner. From Frederick James Gould, ‘The Pioneers of Johnson’s Court: A History of the Rationalist Press Association from 1899 Onwards’ (Watts, 1929), p. 82.

Lyall and Mrs. Bonner exchanged a few letters around this time and then met in July 1891: ‘from this time a correspondence was kept up between them, and the friendship became a great mutual enjoyment’.[8] Lyall’s biographer J.M. Escreet reports:

With intense sympathy for his daughter [Lyall] at once wrote to her, and for twelve years – until her own death – on each anniversary of the day [of Bradlaugh’s death], sent Mrs. Bradlaugh Bonner a box of violets and lilies of the valley, sheathed in their broad pale green leaves; these, being her father’s Northampton colours, conveyed their message of sympathy.[9]

Escreet discloses excerpts from letters Lyall sent to Bonner in the spring of 1892. In one, Lyall shares her wish that the Blasphemy Laws will be repealed. In another, she relates her experience of hearing the women’s rights activist Annie Besant (1847–1933) speak on Theosophy.[10] Each letter reflects Lyall’s careful choice of subject matter for the daughter of the late secularist leader. The latter excerpt is of particular interest because it sheds light on Lyall’s brand of sympathetic engagement:

There was much that seemed to me most beautiful in what she [Besant] said as to the gradual growth of character and as to unconscious influence – but then all that is not specially characteristic of Theosophy. The great want in all theories of ‘universal brotherhood,’ such as she described, seems to me that such a brotherhood can only be a phrase, not an actual living fact, unless there be a Universal Father. But there we come to the point on which you and I differ, so I will say no more.[11]

Dialogue ends where difference begins. Lyall exposes her sympathy as based upon likenesses, rather than an effort to understand, or enter into, differences. Today, this effort is termed empathy, but – as a word coined after Lyall’s death – its current associations were in Lyall’s lifetime very often part and parcel of a sympathetic exchange.

Yet, Lyall’s approach to sympathy had its defenders. Escreet in particular elaborates on Lyall’s focus upon commonalities: ‘She was so anxious to understand people, to love and serve them, it quite distressed her if she could not find a meeting point’. On one occasion, when Lyall stayed at a hotel on the Continent, she recorded coming across a married couple and their young son: ‘There is a child in this hotel who makes us all quite unhappy. He is only four and a nice friendly little fellow. But he has a weak mother and a bullying father and they are just ruining him’. Lyall describes the parents as ‘of the racing, gambling set’ and recounts sitting with them at meals: ‘it is rather depressing, […] It is a great puzzle to know how to get into touch with people like that. I generally end in sitting by quite silently’.[12]

Lyall appears to have rested comfortably in knowing that others differ as long as she was able to find ‘a meeting point’ to serve as a foundation for sympathy that would keep communication active and a relationship alive. In a letter to one of her cousins, ‘a strong Unionist’ who disagreed with Lyall’s support of Home Rule in Ireland, she writes: ‘I am afraid like the two knights and the shield we never could agree politically, but I hope […] that you will not count me an enemy but reckon me always your affectionate cousin’.[13]

Here, Lyall emphasizes their familial connection – no matter their political differences, they may rest in the shared knowledge that they remain ‘affectionate cousin[s]’. The fable of the two knights and the shield recounts two knights who each walk towards a shield standing in the ground, coming from opposite directions. One side of the shield is silver; the other is gold. When the knights meet, they disagree over the beauty of the silver/gold shield. Their conflict is easily resolved when they encircle the shield. Lyall, at least, recognizes the frequent impossibility of performing such an exchange of perspectives in reality, and she highlights her inability to understand Bonner’s point of view on more than one occasion:

What the struggle must be for you, who have had so much to bear from them [slanderers], I can’t conceive.[14]

I cannot help being surprised that you do not wonder whether those months of complete happiness were not just a foretaste of a happiness that is, from its very nature, lasting. I don’t understand how, having had this foretaste, you can yet be “entirely satisfied with the years between birth and death”.[15]

In contrast, she delighted in finding shared interests: ‘I am so glad you know her [Mrs. Davies] and like her so much as a singer – that will be a bond between us’.[16]

The letters between Lyall and Bonner strike one as deeply personal, and they reveal that Lyall considered sympathy essentially active, and kind gestures of great importance. When Lyall originally wrote to Bonner with her £50 contribution, she asked Bonner to accept the cheque as ‘practical proof of the deep respect which I have always felt and shall always feel for Mr. Bradlaugh’.[17] Early in their correspondence, too, Lyall invited Bonner ‘to let me know if at any time or in any way I can serve you’, and it seems Bonner did turn to Lyall in some of her struggles – clearly she felt safe enough with Lyall to do so.[18] In replying to a letter from Bonner that must have referred to anxiety and loss, Lyall comforts her:

There is a quaint bit in one of George Herbert’s poems which has often helped me – ‘Either grief will not come; or it must. / Do not forecast, / And while it cometh, it is almost past.’ I will not finish the verse for it would very likely only jar upon you, and you are always so careful to avoid hurting me, that I want to be equally careful.[19]

The omitted lines read, ‘Away distrust: / My God hath promis’d; he is just’. It is interesting Lyall chooses to mention the omission in a moment of tender reassurance – why allude to it at all if her intention is to avoid what might ‘jar upon’ Bonner? Or perhaps it draws beneficial attention to Lyall’s delicate notice of Bonner’s sensitivities?

Lyall’s fiction largely advocates a sympathy that is ‘practical not sentimental’ (as she phrases it in The Autobiography of a Truth).[20] She does not (over)analyze sympathy or shrewdly question its functionality as a basis for morality, as so many other Victorian novelists do. Where the literary critic Rebecca N. Mitchell suggests that Victorian novelists urge their readers ‘to acknowledge the limits of the self while at the same time pushing them, from within their awareness of their limitations, to understand the other as best they can’, Lyall it may be said only pushes her readers in one direction: toward an habitual focus upon similarities.[21]

But perhaps Lyall’s brand of sympathy is effective. She does not seek to eradicate difference; only she does not dwell upon it. Instead, she looks to what can be done. In sympathizing with Bonner, Lyall relied upon ‘meeting point[s]’ – their shared aversion to hypocrisy, shared aspiration for Parliamentary oath reform, and shared interest in gender and religious equity, for instance – rather than seeking to understand the shades of difference that separated her Anglicanism and Broad-Church upbringing from Bonner’s secularism. With Lyall, even the effort not to ‘jar upon’ another – no matter how clumsy – can be construed as a genuine sign of sympathy.

Sarah Barnette (@drsarahbarnette) earned her M.Litt in Romantic and Victorian Studies at the University of St. Andrews in 2011 and completed her D.Phil in English Literature at the University of Oxford at the end of 2017. Her interest in Victorian literary ethics and methods of engagement with difference led to her dissertation, ‘Many-sided Sympathy & the Science of Religion in George Eliot, Vernon Lee, & Edna Lyall’. Sarah has written about the Brontes, George Eliot, Goethe, Max Muller, Vernon Lee, Walter Pater, E.B. Tylor, and others. She pursues both academic writing and creative nonfiction, and currently works as a Professional Writing Tutor at Villanova University’s Writing Center in the United States.

Read Part 1 of ‘An Introduction to Novelist Edna Lyall’ here.

Notes & references

[1] ‘Mr. Punch’s Prize Novels’, Punch, (7 Mar 1891), 112–13 in 19th Century UK Periodicals. Accessed 25 January 2017.

[2] ‘Mr. Punch’s Prize Novels’, p. 112.

[3] Brigid Lowe, Victorian Fiction and the Insights of Sympathy: An Alternative to the Hermeneutics of Suspicion (London: Anthem, 2007), p. 17.

[4] George Anderson, the Treasurer of the Bradlaugh appeal, references Lyall’s early donation in a letter of June 1891: ‘Miss Edna Lyall the famous novelist has given Mr. Bradlaugh’s Daughter £50 and written on her behalf the generous letter of which I enclose you a facsimile’. London, Bishopsgate Institute (BI), Charles Bradlaugh Archive. Item no. 2300. My transcription.

[5] Manchester, National Co-operative Archive (NCA), GJ Holyoake Collection, George Jacob Holyoake to Edna Lyall, 8 April 1891. Item no. 3296. My transcription.

[6] NCA, GJ Holyoake Collection. Item no. 3299. My transcription.

[7] Frederick James Gould, The Pioneers of Johnson’s Court: A History of the Rationalist Press Association from 1899 Onwards (Watts, 1929), p. 82. Accessed 9 May 2020.

[8] See J.M. Escreet, The Life of Edna Lyall, Ada Ellen Bayly (London: Longmans, Green, and Co., 1904), p. 102.

[9] Escreet, Edna Lyall, p. 102.

[10] Escreet, Edna Lyall, pp. 112–13. Besant joined the National Secular Society in 1874. She began writing for the National Reformer in 1875, which marked the start of both a professional and personal relationship with Charles Bradlaugh.

[11] Escreet, Edna Lyall, pp. 112–13.

[12] Escreet, Edna Lyall, p. 126.

[13] Escreet, Edna Lyall, p. 128.

[14] Escreet, Edna Lyall, p. 99.

[15] Escreet, Edna Lyall, p. 107.

[16] Escreet, Edna Lyall, p. 105.

[17] Escreet, Edna Lyall, p. 98.

[18] Escreet, Edna Lyall, p. 99.

[19] Escreet, Edna Lyall, p. 106.

[20] Edna Lyall, The Autobiography of a Truth, 2nd edition (London, New York, and Bombay: Longmans, Green, and Co., 1896), p. 73.

[21] Carolyn Betensky, ‘“Victorian Lessons in Empathy and Difference” by Rebecca N. Mitchell (review)’, Victorian Studies 55:4 (2013), 738–40 (p. 739), in Project Muse. Accessed 21 August 2015.

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