This transcript has been lightly edited for clarity
Hi, I'm Dr Alison Laurie. I was the Gender and Women's Studies Programme Director at Victoria University of Wellington, here in New Zealand, for many years. I'm a writer, oral historian and lesbian and gay activist.
Today I'm going to be looking at the poet Mary Ursula Bethell who lived between 1874 and 1945, and I'm going to be looking at her relationship with Effie Pollen - Henrietta Dorothea 'Effie' Pollen - who was five years younger, she lived between 1879 and 1934, and at Ursula's reactions after the death of Effie, which were very sad and tragic, and also with her later relationship with some other women.
The relationship between Ursula Bethell and the woman she called her consort, Effie, lasted for over 30 years. They lived as expatriates for many years and didn't return to live in New Zealand until they were in their 40s and when they were able to establish an independent and private domestic life. Bethell's wealth created an idyllic context for the relationship, and their domestic and creative life was protected by her class position in the affluent Christchurch suburb of Cashmere.
Bethell wrote most of her poetry during the period of her relationship with Pollen, describing their home, garden and life together, and she was devastated by Pollen's death.
Their relationship has been presented by some biographers as platonic and maternal, and it's interesting about this because Bethell herself sometimes used the term maternal to explain her feelings. However, from the early 20th century there was an influential homosexual maternal discourse explaining lesbianism, and the well educated and travelled Bethell must have been familiar with this material. Bethell's expression "maternal constituent" then may function similarly to expressions like spinster, old maid, bluestocking and lady-husband and other ways that some earlier women may have referred to their really important romantic, passionate and sexual relationships with other women.
Ursula Bethell was the first child of Isabel and Richard Bethell. She was born in Surrey, England, in 1874. The family returned to New Zealand the following year and they lived at Nelson and then at Rangiora where their father, Richard, died in 1882, and the family were left moderately wealthy.
She attended Christchurch Girls' High School and was then educated overseas at Miss Soulsby's School in Oxford, England, and then at a Swiss school in Lake Geneva. She returned to New Zealand at the age of 18 in 1892 and did social work in the Christchurch Anglican Diocese until her second trip to England in 1895 to study painting in Geneva and music in Dresden. This is interesting because Dresden has a lot of associations with women going there to study; it also figures as a place with, later, a strong branch of the Institute for Sexual Science set up by Magnus Hirschfeld, and it's the city where the first transgender operation was performed in the early part of the 20th century. So, it's interesting that she was there. Clearly there were a number of communities there which could bear greater investigation.
Anyway, she moves back to London where she joins the Grey Ladies, an Anglican women's community, and that's where she meets Effie Pollen in 1905 when she's 31 and Pollen is 26.
When Pollen returned to New Zealand Bethell followed and from 1910 she lived with her mother in Saint Albans, Christchurch, continuing work in the parish. She goes back to London for wartime work between 1914 to 1918, and the two women settle back in Christchurch from 1919 where she purchases Rise Cottage at Westenra Terrace on the Cashmere Hills. They live at Rise Cottage until Pollen's death in 1934 when Bethell moves back to Webb Street in Christchurch, which is one of the family properties. She dies in 1945. She's buried in the Bethell family grave at Rangiora. Effie Pollen is buried at Karori Cemetery with the Pollen family.
Effie was the daughter of Dr Henry Pollen from Ireland, and Kathleen Burke from Napier. She had one younger sister. The family had lived in Gisborne where Effie was born until they moved to Wellington where Dr Pollen established his medical practice and his residence at Boulcott Street in a house which has been moved now to the corner of Boulcott Street and Willis Street, and which is today a restaurant and has had a number of existences - it's quite an attractive house.
Effie's mother died in 1894, and Dr. Pollen died during the influenza epidemic in 1918. They were buried in the family plot at Karori, and that was where Effie was then subsequently buried after her death from a brain hemorrhage, aged only 55 in 1934.
And despite their 30 year relationship there seem to have been family expectations that each would be buried in their respective family plots.
Effie and Ursula had met in 1905 when Effie had become involved with Ursula and had begun to live with the Bethell family. In their subsequent life living together at their home in Rise Cottage, Bethell calls Pollen her little raven. In a poem called "Grace" she writes:
I have a little Raven
Who brings me my dinner,
Her tresses are raven,
Her tresses are raven,
She brings me my dinner -
But not by a brook.
She feeds me, she scolds me,
She scolds me, she feeds me,
I'm a hungry old sinner,
She brings me my dinner,
She cooks it in the kitchen
Beside a cookery book.
Little raven was a famously lively racing pony of the 1890s, and perhaps Bethell's pet name for Pollen was based on this characteristic. The activities expressed in the poem suggest energy and liveliness; the hungry old sinner a reference to a stereotypical New Zealand masculinity, scolded by the consort.
In the poem "Discipline" Bethell writes:
I said: I will go into the garden and consider roses;
I will observe the deployment of their petals,
And compare one variety with another.
But I was made to sit down and scrape potatoes.
The morning's rosebuds passed by unattended,
While I sat bound to monotonous kitchen industry.
Howbeit the heart of my consort was exhilarated,
And for virtuous renunciation I received praise.
The taste of the potatoes was satisfactory
With a sprig of fresh mint, dairy butter, and very young green peas.
Effie Pollen seems to have taken a practical and cheerful approach to life, and certainly seems to have known how to manage Ursula, who seems to have been rather more temperamental. Bethell wrote, "My darling announced one day that as for her she couldn't see anything in life which consists of doing what you didn't want to do and doing without what you require, and she just didn't agree with creation." This seems to me to be a comment on lesbianism and relationships between women.
Pollen may have been influenced by romantic evangelicalism and other forms of radical Christian thinking that did not regard any loving relationship as sinful. Possibly Bethell had held similar views, with their religious ideas in harmony with their relationship. This comment on "what you require" suggests they might have held modern ideas on health and sexuality and thought that they were perfectly entitled to have such a relationship.
However, though they might have been positive about their relationship in private, they were quite careful in public. While guarding their privacy, they did invite friends to visit, including homosexual men. The bisexual artist, Toss Woollaston was a friend, and also the wealthy homosexual poet, Charles Brasch was a friend, and Walter D'Arcy Cresswell visited, and various other people, so they were not isolated despite the private nature of their relationship. And certainly some of Ursula Bethell's letters to Rodney Kennedy imply more communication and discussion of same-sex relationships. These letters are in the Hocken Library in Dunedin.
After Effie died Pollen is grief stricken. It happened very suddenly. It was a few days after Bethell's 60th birthday. Pollen complained of severe headaches, she went to bed and she died three weeks later. The distraught Bethell wrote openly of her grief for Pollen in letters and in the six memorial poems composed on the anniversaries of Pollen's death. These poems were not intended for publication, though she sent copies to friends, and they were not published for five years after her own death.
The first memorial poem was written in October, 1935 when she wrote:
The green has come back, the spring green, the new green,
Darling, the young green upon the field willows,
And the gorse on the wild hills was never so yellow,
Together, together, past years we have looked on the scene.
You were laughter, my liking, and frolic, my lost one,
I must dissemble and smile still for your sake,
Now that I know how spring time is heart-break,
Now you have left me to look upon all that is lovely, alone.
As the second anniversary of Pollen's death approached, Bethell wrote to Rodney Kennedy that, "The loneliness closed round me again to which I am growing accustomed and only sometimes dare to think of the years when everything was shared. ...I am not proud, Rodney, of all this sadness of looking back; I think it is limiting God, because it is as good as saying that His resources have run out, that He can't do as much again, that something uniquely beautiful has perished - I don't really hold with that - but it does seem as if this darkness were something I have to endure." She thought, too, that though it was "very sad settling my things alone," she could not go on in a muddle, and that her lost friend would "rather have me found in pleasing surroundings, so I shall have to go on with it to please her."
In the second memorial poem, "November 1936", Bethell wrote that she had tried to brighten up the Webb Street house:
Today I trimmed my lonely dwelling place with flowers;
Memories ask garlands;
I see you, darling,
Dispose deft-handed, your bright bunches in that happy home of ours.
Because the years to months diminish, days to hours,
And love is stronger
Than death's anger
I have adorned today, alone, my brief abiding place with flowers.
At the third anniversary she wrote to Rodney Kennedy, "The utter devotion and love of an exquisite person was squandered daily, hourly, on me," adding that, "For these three years I have been waiting to know what to do with this desolation. The first task was to go on living without tenderness, without joy, without fun, without sharing, needed by no one and going deep into the bitter knowledge of how much more I might have given." She warned Kennedy that, "If one offers everything to God, then know what you are doing, because if God takes it you are left in great darkness and dread."
Deciding to remain at home for this anniversary she wrote to him, "Perhaps I ought to stay put now, though my impulse is to get away for Race Week, that week that she lay dying." Her third memorial poem, written in November, 1937, she's writing about the Webb Street garden where she's living, she mourns, "Left with all this, I lack what made it mine."
For the fourth anniversary of Pollen's death she visited the Pollen family grave at Karori Cemetery where she had previously been with Effie, who was now also, of course, buried there. In November, 1938, she wrote, "Dearest, these four years I have been consenting to live onwards alone," and she explained in a letter to Kennedy that though they did not visit the Pollen family grave often, they always meant to go back. Now, the thought of going there "...without the companion renews the desolation. I have no superstitious feelings about cemeteries, but it will be something to do on that 8th of November, when she was caught away, to go out and put a bunch of flowers beside her name."
The fifth memorial poem, "November 1939", written at Akaroa, a seaside town an hour from Christchurch on Banks' Peninsula, and this one explains:
Once again, my darling, it is come, the time you died,
And on this quiet harbour once again I look
Return I now to join a casual throng. No more
Rounding, alone, a coign of the sea-scalloped track
Shall I, surprised, perceive my dear, with eager pace
Coming to meet me, and with eager look of love,
And go companioned; nor may I ask to know
Such cherished company, such tender love again.
She wrote to Kennedy that there were "many reminders in Akaroa, where we used to come together, but it is so quiet and beautiful, it is healing."
In the sixth and final poem, "Spring 1940", written in Christchurch, she again mourned the coming of spring, and the anniversary of Pollen's death, asking God to:
Match Spring with vision, Spirit of Beauty, bring
With your persuasive love to the inward eye awakening,
Lest looking on this life to count what time has taken
I cannot bear the pain.
And she wrote to Holcroft, soon after Pollen's death, "It has been a complete shattering of my life; from her I have had love, tenderness and understanding for 30 years, a close and happy companionship... in this house for 10 years. I shall not want another home on this planet."
And later she does develop friendships with other women. She develops a strong friendship with a woman, Kathleen Taylor. She meets her in 1941 when she's 66 and Taylor is in her early 20s, and this relationship may have been platonic, though her letters to Kathleen Taylor are passionate and loving, and significantly, she does not write any further despairing memorial poems about Effie Pollen after she meets Kathleen Taylor. She may have thought that God had managed to "do as much again" when Taylor came to live with her at Webb Street.
However, she encourages Kathleen Taylor to marry, and she does. She marries Davies, he is a curate, and it seems that she totally supports this.
She wrote to Taylor, "It was curiously natural to have you about, Katya. I felt it almost from the first," and later that, "I ventured to put it in my prayer - seeing that life was going on - that, if it were possible, three things might come to me again - love and poetry and a home." And then she adds, "How strangely and unexpectedly your dear little love came," comparing it to, "my Effie coming 37 years ago, because before I knew her I felt sorry about her feeling lonely. Similarly, I didn't take you in at all the first evening. I asked you to come again because Paul said you were lonely in your lodging and I asked him whether you would care to come. The second time I remember seeing that you were a very right-minded young woman, and then I was charmed by you being hungry - like a boy."
Bethell's attraction to Taylor's boyish and youthful hunger - maybe for food, and maybe referring to other physical needs - suggests a maternal attraction, and she does call her relationships maternal. And given the 40 year age difference, this relationship may not have been particularly, if at all, sexual, and because of her enduring love for Pollen, Bethell may well have regarded all subsequent physical relationships as faithless to her memory.
A letter written to Taylor when she was on her honeymoon with Davies says, "Not that it's everything, this two-sided sexuality. I think my prose shows that pretty clearly, don't you? There was peace and happiness, for all the blemishes, at Rise Cottage, and fun - such fun! - and you don't have fun without peace - lots of anxiety too - and therein perhaps the maternal constituent was having its day."
So, all of these letters and poems can be interpreted as strongly being influenced by Bethell's love, her passionate attachments, firstly to Effie Pollen and later Kathleen Taylor; clearly it influences her poetry; clearly it's highly significant in her life. And I think to ignore these relationships or try to dismiss them as simple ordinary friendships which were celibate is to ignore the depth of the love, the depth of the emotion, and the way in which she based her life on the importance of these friendships with other women.
Transcript by cyberscrivener.com