is little remembered today, but during the later decades of the 19th
century this determined, independent-minded and hard-working woman
became a widely published poetess and author, much of her prose output being published
― both in the U.K. and in North America ― under the
nom de plume,
She also became a speaker on liberal
causes, particularly on the themes of religion, pacifism and animal
biographic sketch draws mainly on Isabella's splendid autobiography, "Recollections
of Fifty Years" (see the sections in italics that
follow), which provides a vivid account of the
difficulties and hardships faced by Victorian middle-class women who
attempted to earn their own living . . . .
". . . . women who earn money by doing
whatever work they are best able to do, are not much
honoured yet. It is thought that they lose their
womanliness. Girls who choose to live on relations
who are neither very able nor very willing to maintain
them, are commonly thought more lady-like. Many
men would not care to marry a woman who had worked for
her bread. People don't say these things quite
plainly . . . . they only act them. They would
tell us that they respected us, but they would not ask
us to a dinner party. They might say they wished
their daughters were like us, but they would not be
pleased if their sons wanted to marry us."
Perception of the Victorian working woman, from "Doing
Isabella Fyvie was born in London on 10th December, 1843, to Scottish
parents, Margaret Thomson and George Fyvie. She was the
youngest of the couple's
eight children, five of whom died in
their four sons. Isabella was educated privately, mainly at a girls' school near Covent
In 1851 her father died. George Fyvie had owned a
successful bakery, but following his death the business went into
decline: "for this startling reverse there were several causes. The
environment had changed; residents had gone off to suburbs. My
mother had little business acumen or enterprise, and could not adapt
herself to new conditions." The executor of her
father's estate "proved a broken reed. He took no interest, gave no advice.
He knew how to prosper financially himself, but he never helped
anybody else to prosperity." The outcome was that the
family fell heavily into debt and while still a girl
who had enjoyed
a comfortable, Victorian, middle-class upbringing
― Isabella was obliged to seek a living as best she could. "My life-and-death fight for bread and independence"
was to last from 1860
to 1869, but the family debts were repaid eventually and in
the process Isabella acquired "a mass of knowledge, both of facts
and different ways of looking at them, and of human nature generally"
― life's greatest lessons are
taught outside the classroom.
"Did anybody ever resolve to do anything without instantly finding
an opening by which to carry out his resolution? Possibly the opening
was always there, only waiting the opened vision and outstretched
recognize and seize it."
'Actions speaking louder then words',
Her first business venture during these hardship
years was to sell embroidered strips, made by her sister and herself, to a stall-holder in a London street
bazaar, who "bought them for 9d. each (2s. 3d. in all) and the strips had cost at
least 3d., and the embroidery cotton about 1½d.
. . . It was a cruel task." But on her seventeenth birthday
(1861) Isabella was invited to meet
Mrs. S. C. Hall (Anne Maria Fielding), then editor of the St. James's Magazine,
whose attention had been drawn to Isabella's promising verse.
It "proved a memorable date
. . . . little could I dream it then, but on that birthday I was
born into a friendship that never fainted or failed (though it was
often tried)." Mrs Hall advised her to give up writing for
several years, and
found her work in a telegraph office. But
"the noise of the machines
was incessant, and, without being loud, was most irritating to the
nerves" . . . .
"O, how Mary loathed the daily
surrounding of her life. Years afterwards it would
return to her as a nightmare—the big bare chamber at the
top of the huge house in Telegraph Court, the sun
flaring down through the dusty skylights, the long rows
of soiled wooden desks dotted with machines whose horrid
metallic clack went on relentlessly. There were at
least a hundred girls in that room; some stolidly
absorbed in their functions, some only too ready to turn
aside to furtive novel or snatch of chatter."
Life in a telegraph office, from "Rab
. . . . After two weeks, and feeling that she could
no longer continue, she again sought Mrs Hall's help. "'You must leave at once,' she
said. 'We must find you something else.' 'When one door shuts,
another opens' was a favourite proverb of hers." Armed
with an introduction to Bessie Rayner Parkes ― a redoubtable
campaigner for women's education and legal rights ― Isabella
was found casual secretarial work through the
'Office for the Employment of Women', an enterprise created by the
'Langham Place Group.'
Isabella's first assignment was to address
envelopes at the sum of three shillings per
1500. Her employer was a 'gentleman' running for public office
who permitted her, unwittingly, to learn "a little of the ways of
wire-pulling and of corruption". Later, during a a
period in which she provided holiday cover at the Office for the Employment of Women
received at first hand an insight into the plight of
'distressed gentlewomen,' often
much older and less capable than herself . . . .
". . . . The work at the society's offices was rather depressing. It meant
confronting, advising, and making notes concerning an ever-flowing
stream of feminine misfortune, misery, and incapacity. Most of the
women who came to the office belonged to the middle classes, and
nearly all were middle-aged. There was a deadly gentility about
them, and though they represented themselves as in dire distress, or
as dependent on relations not able or willing to maintain them, they
were frequently very well dressed—quite grand, indeed, as compared
with my own shabby little self. They were "ready to do anything." They could do nothing. They seemed to hope for work on the plea that
they were "so well connected."
Those who really moved my sympathy were old governesses, who could
no longer get pupils, and who, though they had earned considerable
salaries, had saved nothing, often because they had supported agèd
parents, or had educated young brothers, now sometimes dead, but
more often married and ungrateful. I remember one of these ladies,
with a face still bright and winning, who took a sovereign from her
purse, and holding it up, said, "This is my last." I remember, too,
an attractive young woman, with an earnest, anxious face, who gave
her name with the prefix of "Mrs.," and was eager for work, because
her husband was incapacitated by illness. What became of those poor
people? Of course, when my little term of office ended, I heard no
more about them. It was rather a heart-breaking experience, the more
so because I felt, even then, that most of these poor people needed
to be helped out of themselves before anybody could give them any
other help worth having. . . ."
from . . .
"Recollections of Fifty Years"
Other assignments followed including work as a copyist, and as
an amanuensis to a "literary woman." She
― identified only as Miss Y
"decidedly a 'character'" who, being a Scot, "invariably decried
all things English . . . . an aggravating woman,
and I can understand that she could make herself most objectionable
to many people." Aggravating or not, Miss Y
― who it later transpired had a serious drink problem ― was a welcome
source of income at six pence per hour. Another
interesting employer was the dilapidated Countess of B;
"We drove from her house in an ordinary cab, and I
wondered why our cab attracted so much attention, till I realized
that her liveried servant was on the box." But the
countess, a Roman catholic, failed to attract the approval of the
vigilant Mrs. Hall, who "regarded it as a
Popish plot to entrap a promising young woman." Years
later, such experiences were to provide Isabella with dashes of colour for
her story-lines . . .
"As for her other employers, they
numbered people with hobbies and crazes,—one, a dear old
lady, sweet and gracious as spring lilac, who had strong
convictions that the Isle of Man had been peopled by the
lost Ten Tribes; another, of high rank, who accepted
Mary's help in arranging valuable papers, to which her
own position gave her access, and in whose mansion Mary
went happily up and down—now taking tea with the
marchioness in her boudoir, and then with the
housekeeper and the ladies' maids in their little room
Isabella's next venture was as a legal
copyist, work that required a combination of technique, precision and
Of such sweatshop labour she had this to say
―"Once work came in—as it often did—in the evening, and the
time marked for its return compelled me to work through that night,
all the next day, the following night, and the day after till about
seven in the evening. During that time I paused only to snatch
some food . . . . and for about two hours' sleep." And, when
an assignment was complete,
"we could not be released for
home at once, lest more work should come in. I was so tired and
sleepy that I laid my chair down on the [office's]
rag rug, used one of its
rungs as a pillow, and there I straightway enjoyed an incredibly
sweet snatch of slumber."
"Even the dry law papers which she copied had lessons for
Charlotte—hints of the subtlety and magnitude of hereditary
influences, of strange secret compensating laws of nature, to say
nothing of occasional terrible
revelations of social depths and complications beneath the smooth
surface of society, each working itself into some great problem that
the race must solve some day."
Isabella recycling life-experiences, from
Isabella excelled as a law-writer, eventually becoming
self-employed. But, when she in turn offered employment to 'gentlewomen'
in sore need of income, the memory of her time as secretary in the
Office for the Employment of Women was to revisit her
― this, of one "lady" that she sent to work as a copyist ― "when
she found that she would have to sit in the gentleman's library,
himself at work at another table, she refused to stay. She
said it was not proper, and she was so well-connected!"
Some 30 years later Isabella was to recall such experience: in her
novel "Rab Bethune's Double," young Mary Olrig, having gained a
position as trainee telegraph operator (unpaid during training!) meets
applicant as she leaves the telegraph office
. . . .
"Well, I'm glad I've seen the place,"
remarked the elder woman, with an acid smile. "Now
my mind can be at rest about it. For I see it is
not the place for a lady by birth, so very well
connected as I am in the Church and the Army—of course,
it is a very good opportunity for plain, strong, young
girls, fit for roughing it; my dear, I suppose you are
to be congratulated."
The unhealthy influence of social
connections, from "Rab
. . . . Such were the social constraints faced by Victorian
middle-class women, even in the face of penury. This type of
experience was to teach Isabella an important commercial truth in
her law-writing business, that her "first
duty was not the philanthropic teaching and training of incompetent
women, but rather of getting and keeping as much work as I could
. . . . I fell into the habit of seeking assistance only from
the men law-writers."
From an early age, Isabella had shown interest in writing
both verse and stories . . . .
DEAR MISS FYVIE,
"I have just received your note and the little tale called 'Janet
Campbell.' You asked to have it noticed on the cover of the
magazine, but as I could only mention it there, I prefer to write to
"At your early age, my dear, it is better that you should be
cultivating your own mind than that you should attempt to interest
and amuse others. You are not able at present to write from your own
observation, but must
draw your characters and scenes from books. This is not good for
you, and if you ever wish to write really well, you must wait till
you have made your own observations on human nature. I think your
tale very much
better than most girls of your age would have written, but I do not
consider it worthy of a place in the magazine (which I only began
this month to edit), but I feel interested in your account of
yourself. If you like to write
to me, and tell me what is your condition in life, whether you are
at school, and what you are doing to improve yourself, I should be
happy to answer your letter, and if I can give you any advice, shall
be glad to do so.
"I would not advise you to write any more till you are sixteen, and
in the meantime I would take particular notice how books and papers
which interest you are written. Say to yourself when you read of
children: 'Do the
children that I know talk in this way, or act in this way?' If they
do, then consider the book well written. If they do not, then notice
in what the difference consists. You should do the same in reference
people, though the most useful studies for you are girls of your own
age, because you can understand their motives best.
"You are at present not mistress of your own language. In your nice
little note to me you say: 'It is MORE the wish of learning your
opinion concerning it rather than the hope of its being inserted,'
etc. You must not use
more than one of these words; the other is superfluous. Again, in
the tale you say: 'I do not dare do what is wrong,' 'You must be
made reveal your secret.' 'I do not dare to do what is wrong,' 'You
must be made to
reveal your secret,' would be more correct; or, better still, 'I
dare not do what is wrong.'
"And now I have not time to write more. I give you my address and
name, and if you like you can write to me.
3 January, 1857
From . . . .
. . . . Throughout these sweatshop years Isabella maintained her
assault on that
near impregnable bastion into the literary world,
the Editor's desk, which provided yet another memory she
was later to recall . . . .
"Mary had had a sad day. The
morning post had brought back a poem which she had sent
weeks before to a certain magazine. And it looked
so crisp and fresh that she doubted if the editor had
done more than transfer it, unread, from the envelope in
which she sent it to that which she had enclosed . . . .
when she came home in the evening, tired out, with damp
garments, she found another post packet waiting for her.
This was a story returned from another quarter.
The manuscript was rather voluminous, but in this
instance it had been so fingered and dog-eared, that it
could never be sent on another adventure, with such
ill-omened marks of foregone failure palpable upon it."
Yet another rejection slip, from "Rab
. . . . Gradually, her early essays in verse
began to attract attention ― "My earnings in the first year of these efforts were
£30. In the second they were £60; in the third and fourth, about
£80; in the fifth, my tiny literary earnings having somewhat
increased, nearly £100" [See POEMS,
which contains examples of Miss Fyvie's early verse, as published in
Good Words and other Victorian periodicals]. Then, in 1867, came the
― "having earned yet another £100, that "miracle" happened to me—of a
publisher's asking an unknown girl to write a serial for an
important magazine, paying her £300 for it, and inviting her to write
another on the same terms." The publisher was
Alexander Strachan. It later
transpired that she had been invited to contribute to the
Sunday Magazine to fill a gap left by a defaulting
contributor, Strahan acting on the advice of Alexander Japp,
another of Isabella's future friends. "Mr. Strahan himself was, it seems, very
nervous about the matter, which is not surprising."
BESIDE THE STILE.
WE both walked
slowly o'er the yellow grass,
Beneath the sunset sky:
And then he climbed the stile I did not pass,
And there we said Good-bye.
He paused one moment, I leaned on the stile,
And faced the hazy lane:
But neither of us spoke until we both
Just said Good-bye again.
And I went homeward to our quaint old farm,
And he went on his way:
And he has never crossed that field again,
From that time to this day.
I wonder if he ever gives a thought
To what he left behind:—
As I start sometimes, dreaming that I hear
A footstep in the wind.
If he had said but one regretful word,
Or I had shed a tear,
He would not go alone about the world,
Nor I sit lonely here.
Alas! our hearts were full of angry pride,
And love was choked in strife:
And so the stile, beyond the yellow grass,
Stands straight across our life.
From Good Words, 1867.
Strachan had already
decided on the plot and advertised the story, which was to come from the
pen of "Edward Garrett" (a nom de plume) ― "He
had jotted down, in his quaint handwriting, on a tiny scrap of paper
(which I still possess), a few of the subjects with which he wished
me to deal—the sick, the lonely, the outcast, and so forth. I
was to take the standpoint of an old City merchant. 'Apart
from that, I leave you to do your best with the matter,' said he."
Isabella decided on a serialised novel, the outcome being "The
Occupations of a Retired Life," the first of her many successful
compositions in the genre. "On Christmas Eve, while I was
out, Mr. Strahan called at our house, and left for me a cheque as
"one-third payment" for 'The Occupations of a Retired Life,' which
raised his payment for it to £300 [the initial offer had been
for £100]. Within a day or two afterwards he told me that
his firm would be prepared to take as much work of any kind as I was
likely to do. From that time till Mr. Strahan left the firm (I
think in 1873) I worked only for his magazines."
Aberdeen Weekly Journal
18th September, 1893.
Mrs Isabella Fyvie Mayo, who writes fiction both
in her own name and under the nom de plume of
"Edward Garrett," is the widow of a London
solicitor. Her father came of a race of
Aberdeenshire farmers of the old-fashioned kind,
who worked with their own hands and in whose
kitchen the birr of the spinning-wheel was
seldom silent. Her mother was the
descendant of a similar family among the
"Borderers" on Tweedside.
In later years, Isabella Fyvie Mayo
and "Edward Garrett" between them became a prolific and successful
poetess and author, being published widely
in both the U.K. and the U.S.A. Her stories usually appeared in serialized
one of the popular periodicals of the day including The Sunday Magazine, Good Words, The Quiver,
The Argosy, The Girl's Own Paper,
Onwards and Upwards, often being
followed by hard-back editions. Their sentimental plots are sometimes heavily
embroidered with Christian morality ―
catholicity of religious sentiment" as one
reviewer described it ― that no doubt answered the pious requirements of the
journals for which they were intended, but which rather limit their appeal today.
Time and again her sermonizing gives the impression that, had
it been possible at the time for a woman to take holy orders,
would have been well equipped to have done so.
"For there is a life which will bear us
company and keep us safe on either—that Life which is
the Light from above and the Way from below, the
revelation of the love and character of God, his Father
and ours; the life of Him who was born in a manger and
tempted in the wilderness, who wept and was indignant,
who loved and was lonely, who was applauded and
outlawed, who gave himself up to God's Will in
Gethsemane, that He might be given away on Calvary!
'God forgive me, if I am daring,' thought Sarah Russell
; 'but I almost think that those who tread the longer
way home may gain some secrets of sweet and sacred
companionship which they would not give up for the
swifter journey. The two disciples did not know
Jesus till the walk to Emmaus was over; but when He was
revealed did they wish the way had been shorter?
And yet for those who miss the gems that lurk in the
dark waters of deep experience, and who miss the
glimpses gained from Pisgah heights of mental triumph,
there remain the unreckoned mysteries of that especial beatitude: "Blessed are they
who have not seen, and yet have believed." But after all, that
blessing remains for every one of us, and for one as much as
another, for, in the vastness of the truth and love of God, the
little differences in our developments of faith and grasps of law
dwindle as do the differing mountains of the earth as it hangs in
boundless ether! He who knows most and believes most is he who,
climbing height after height in the spiritual life, is clear-eyed
enough to see height after height rising above him, and pausing to
look up on the unknown hills beyond, as well as to survey the
conquered land that lies behind, is honest-hearted enough to own
that he knows nothing, except that it is his duty to go forward in
the name of God!'"
From . . . "By
Still Waters (a story for quiet hours)"
Other than devoting time to writing, Isabella travelled widely (Chapter
VIII., "Recollections"), became a prison visitor (Chapter
X., "Recollections"), a lecturer/campaigner, and the first woman member of the Schools Board for Aberdeen.
Reports in the Aberdeen press during the 1890s portray an ardent socialist
who, at the time of the Second Boer War,
was a vociferous supporter of the ant-war movement, her publically
expressed views attracting much hostility! She was also a
translator of Tolstoy [NOTE 2.].
But in somewhat surprising contrast to what one might expect of a progressive Christian,
is her uncompromising attitude to 'fallen women' wishing
to enter domestic service: "But there are some very sinister aspects of the domestic employment
of women who have lost character. Why should a fellow-servant,
possibly some decent working-man's innocent young daughter, be
exposed to household association with some Magdalen who quite
possibly "loved not much" anything or anybody but her own
sensuality and idleness?" ―
so much for the compassion of the age.
"Of medium height, with large,
sparkling eyes and a broad, intellectual forehead,
but a face of great sweetness and
In July, 1870, Isabella married John Ryall Mayo, a solicitor,
and in the autumn of that year they visited Canada. John Mayo died in 1877, leaving her with a son, George (born 1871). Although her short
married life appears to have been happy,
her "Recollections" tell us little about it or her
husband (to whom the book is dedicated), and nothing about her son.
She might have had more to say about both it and about other aspects
of her work ― including her interest in Tolstoyan philosophy
― in a later volume of memoires that she planned, but did not live
"The first duty of the British workers is
to refrain from entering the Army or Navy, these being
the tools whereby their landowning class defend their
own possessions at home, and exploit and seize on the
land of others abroad. The British working man has
been too often misled into rejoicing in the evil of war
on the pleas that it "increases employment" and "gives
new fields for labour," while he has remained blind to
the fact that within the last twenty years millions of
acres in his own country have passed out of cultivation
and become mere playgrounds for the exploiters of
From Isabella's 'Note' to a "A
by LEO TOLSTOY
Isabella died at her
home, "Bishop's Gate", in Old Aberdeen on 13th
Bishop's Gate, Old Aberdeen.