'Faithful, All Too Faithful' by David Cormack (Part 5)


In the same year Ernest Newman wrote: ‘Only those who have had occasion to study Wagner’s writings closely can estimate the debt of all English Wagnerians to Mr. Ellis for his extremely careful and faithful translations, the valuable prefaces and editorial information he supplies, and the magnificent indexes of the volumes.’ [288] By 1914 and the time of Wagner as Man and Artist, however, ‘Mr Youngman’ had been so excoriated by Ellis that in his new book Newman would retaliate by making all the translations himself from the originals. However it is true that Ellis was always proud of his indexing, though his habit of condensing page numbers by omitting repeated tens and hundred values - ostensibly to save space! – can be irritating. (If indexing was conceived by Ellis as an exact science, he knew that translation itself was only an approximation.) Not only indexing: besides summarised Contents and chapter-headings, in the Life of Richard Wagner he allowed himself free rein with textual interpolation (usually those square brackets), footnotes, and ‘Supplemental Notes’. His protestations about space and the cost of typesetting were surely ironic. Ellis’s footnoting frequently went off the subject to make his own idiosyncratic comment. One example is in 1908, in volume VI of the Life, when he referred to ‘a six-bar autograph’ prefiguring the ‘Ride of the Valkyries’, sent by Wagner to Liszt on 20 November 1856. Wagner had inscribed it, ‘So reitet man in der Luft!’, which Ellis translated in a footnote with comment: ‘“That’s how one rides in the air”; not at all a bad motto for the coming aero prize-winner.’ [289] Ellis evidently expected his readers to be abreast of the news of the forthcoming Coupe de Michelin challenge: in December 1908 Wilbur Wright (having toured Europe for three months) would demonstrate the future international (and military) potential for aeronautical machines by flying from Le Mans to the Michelin headquarters at Clermont-Ferrand in two hours eighteen minutes to claim a prize of F20,000. And Ellis opined not only on current affairs; he was happy to expend space on comments on historical events. When in 1855 Wagner writes to Praeger about Charles Lüders’ alleged leading part in ‘the émeute in Hyde Park the other day’ Ellis dismisses Praeger’s footnote about this being simply a jocular reference to Lüders’ unprepossessing stature and demureness. [290] He feels he has to tell us ‘what the Hyde Park riot was about’, and quotes from The Times of 2 July 1855 to inform the reader about the people who ‘hooted and groaned at every carriage which passed along the drive near the Serpentine, and exhorted the occupant to “go to church.”’ They were protesting about a Bill to enforce Sunday closing of public houses ‘for the better observance of the Sabbath’. [291] Neither the 1908 aero prize nor the 1855 Hyde Park riot are matters of great Wagnerian moment, and yet Ellis would elsewhere bemoan ‘lack of space’. Younger writers such as Ernest Newman came to regard Ellis’s footnotes as irritating, irrelevant or self-indulgent asides in a work that was itself becoming outmoded in approach and style. But, in historicist terms, we can now see them as indications of Ellis’s impulse to present his Wagner in what he felt to be our time.


In 1894 Shaw had observed that

No doubt some time must elapse before the sale of so fine a piece of work [as the prose works] will have produced enough to pay Mr Ellis as much as the wages of a dock labourer for the time he has devoted to it; but as all such enterprises must at present be disinterested - more shame for us, bye the bye - he will probably esteem himself happy if he escapes being actually out of pocket by his printer’s bills.[292]

Shaw would later confirm that Ellis’s earnings from his translations were minimal, and he was almost wholly dependent on his share of his parental inheritance. Ellis’s salary during his years at the Western Dispensary had been relatively high (with rooms thrown in), but he took considerable time off in the summers at his own expense, for both personal and Wagnerian purposes. It’s reasonable to assume that his ability to give up a promising medical career meant a fairly secure background at first, and Ellis’s London addresses are indicative of this. His birthplace in Sloane Street was prestigiously located on the corner with Hans Street, but the site was rebuilt imposingly in the last years of the century. After resigning his residential post at the Western Dispensary, Ellis took lodgings at 14 Grosvenor Road, Westminster, S.W., now redeveloped and untraceable. From 1891 to 1895 his address was 33 Southampton Street, Covent Garden, W.C., today an Italian restaurant. The last volume of The Meister (1895) gave his address as 14 Buckingham Street, Adelphi, W.C., a building which today bears a plaque declaring it to be the former site of Samuel Pepys’ home, and the present building to have housed (before Ellis) the painters William Etty (1787-1849) and Clarkson Stanfield (1793-1867). It was still an artistic and intellectual locus when Ellis was a tenant: according to the Post Office Directory for 1895 he shared the address with, among others, the Church Association (publishers of militant protestant Anglican Tracts from 1860 to 1918), Thomas Graham Jackson, A.R.A. (1835-1924), architect of the Bridge of Sighs at Hertford College, Oxford, and Joseph Pennell (1847-1926), Philadelphia-born illustrator and writer who had settled in London in 1884 and joined Whistler’s circle. In 1899 Bernard Shaw would have an address nearby when he moved into his affluent wife’s flat at 10 Adelphi Terrace. Ellis was evidently keen to be associated socially with artists and arguments of the time. He probably over-extended himself, financially at least. When The Meister ceased publication, Ellis was at ‘Woodberry’ (not extant), on newly suburban Half Moon Lane, Herne Hill, S.E., at least until 1898. There is a short documentary gap until 1900, when Ellis is found at 87 Hailsham Avenue, Streatham, probably to be nearer the home of his elderly mother in Streatham. None of Ellis’s addresses suggests a particular lack of means. But he was probably spending beyond those means.

In any event Ellis’s private circumstances were about to be transformed. On 10 January 1900 Mary Ann Eliza Ellis died aged 79 of bronchopneumonia brought on by influenza, in her home at ‘Lauriston’, 1 Conyers Road in Streatham. Her will disposed of the ‘moiety’ of the estate she had received from ‘my late father Charles Bagley Uther deceased’, but made no mention of any widow’s inheritance from the late Robert Ellis. Probate in her small estate of £381 15s 11d was granted to her sons William Ashton Ellis, surgeon, and Ernest Charles Ellis, solicitor. Ellis was later to confess that ‘Had it not been for the death of my dear mother at the beginning of 1900 I shd. have been in the workhouse long ago; but my little share of her property is dwindling to its last, & I cannot hold on for more than a twelvemonth, as my works bring me in not a penny (in 12 to 14 years!).’ [293]

In May there came some belated consolation. ‘On Richard Wagner’s birthday (Tuesday), Sir Hubert Parry presided at a dinner given by the Wagner society to Mr. W. Ashton Ellis, the translator of the master’s prose works.’

Sir Hubert said that at one time Wagner’s cause was so unpopular that to declare oneself a Wagnerite was to be branded as mad or worse. He should never forget the letter he received from a most eminent musician when, in 1876, he heard he was going to the opening festival at Bayreuth. One sentence ran:- “The best thing that could happen would be that an earthquake should swallow up the whole place.” The task of rendering Wagner’s difficult German into readable English was one on which both Mr. Ellis and the Society might well congratulate themselves. Sir Hubert then handed Mr. Ellis an illuminated address, a pair of opera glasses, and a cheque for 100l.[294]

The year 1900 saw the eight volumes of the Prose Works stacked on the shelf, together with the 1899 companion translations of Wagner’s letters to Otto Wesendonck, Malwida von Meysenbug and Eliza Wille, and to Emil Heckel. In the course of these Ellis could not suppress his physician’s instincts in footnoting his own diagnosis (thirty-five years after the event) of ‘pyæmia’ (septicaemia), rather than the more usually attributed rheumatic fever, as the cause of Ludwig Schnorr von Carolsfeld’s death shortly after he created the role of Tristan. [295] However The Times had already detected a more worrying trait in the Wesendonck and Heckel translations:

Mr. Ashton Ellis deserves so well for his labour of love in translating Wagner’s prose-writings that it seems captious to cavil at a few points in the present volumes. Probably a wish to be strictly accurate has led him to translate the colloquial “Gott” and “Mein Gott” as “God” and “My God,” though the effect is very different in English. But “All is so earnest” cannot be accepted as an accurate rendering of the “Alles ist so ernst” of the letter of condolence to Wesendonck on the death of a child; and such words and expressions as “tendence,” “unforegoably,” “indicible,” “a housely future,” “the gotten property,” and “at like time” are hardly English at all. [296]

The Pall Mall Gazette, which had earlier been as critical, had mellowed, however, as the Prose Works translations progressed. After the sixth volume appeared, it wrote:

[Ellis’s] industry and patience have been little short of amazing; but, but is even more to the point, he has from volume to volume made extraordinary progress in the sheer art of translation. In the case of some of the earlier volumes we have not hesitated to point out the curious German influence which seemed to brook over Mr. Ellis’s English style, and under which phrases were admitted to his pages sometimes of reckless clumsiness and complexity. This fault has been gradually disappearing as volume has succeeded volumes, until in the present collection of essays there are pages and pages which might be selected as very models of translation. The English is often supple and easy, with touches here and there of unforced and natural humour; it is nearly always lucid, and even in those occasional passages where the German has been too strong for it, the complexity never becomes outrageous or tiresome. Mr. Ellis deserves the heartiest congratulations upon a really fine achievement. [297]

And on the eventual completion of the ‘formidable task which he set himself to accomplish in less than nine years ago’, the Pall Mall could say that the eighth and final volume

crowns as industrious and as noble an example of perseverance in the face of difficulties that could well have been given by any man of letters. […] One can only, in the face of such constancy, such loyalty to a single cause, give to a tenacity of purpose so fine the homage of silent admiration. At all events, we know that if the old question had been propounded to Mr. Ashton Ellis in 1891 - “What book would you like to have with you, if you were stranded on a desert island?” - his answer would not be the Bible or Shakespeare. […] In dealing with the first two volumes we ourselves complained that far too many pages were written in a tongue that, for want of a better word, might be called Anglo-German. But as Mr. Ellis continued his work his hand grew in cunning. He found a more liberal, more fluent manner with the publication of each successive volume, until it comes to this: that the last three volumes are as near as possible models of what a translation should be. [298]

Feeling he had subdued the carping press, Ellis was now prepared to carry out his promise made six years before in The Meister to tackle Glasenapp’s biography, by then expanded into its third edition. Translation of the prose works had been, he wrote,

an unalloyed enjoyment, whatever obstacles may occasionally have stood in the way of my seizing [Wagner’s] precise intention. [...] Meantime I have the honour to invite my readers to accompany me for the next two or three years to the most trustworthy Life of Richard Wagner ever penned by another, the fruit of the untiring zeal of C. F. Glasenapp. So that my Farewell may really prove, I hope, ‘Auf Wiedersehen!’ [299]

Though a few spinster and bachelor siblings clung together, his brothers and sisters were by now dispersed. Ellis decided to take his library and manuscripts (and his piano) out of the ‘din and hubbub’ of the metropolis. In the Sussex village of Horsted Keynes he rented Leighton Cote (Leightoncote in his printed letterheads, and nowadays Leighton Cottage). For the next nine years (rather than ‘two or three’) he spent in the Sussex countryside he seems genuinely to have ‘esteemed himself happy’ as a reclusive but respectable Edwardian gentleman. Except insofar as the 1901 census return shows George Laurance, a thirty-eight year-old from Middleton in Lancashire, also resident at Leighton Cote as Ellis’s ‘companion’, to which occupation the census enumerator has added ‘Dom’ (domestic).

In the rear-facing bow-windowed study of Leighton Cote, with its still fine view over rolling fields and woodland Ellis dated the preface to the first of the six volumes ‘Horsted Keynes, August 1900’. He proceeded ‘at once to make a clean breast of it, and confess that this is not a literal translation of Herr Glasenapp’s work.’ With Glasenapp’s explicit approval he was undertaking ‘an English revision’, though much of the early text was straightforward translation. The Times gave it a positive review:

The first volume of Herr C. F. Glasenapp’s authoritative biography of WAGNER – a work that has taken many years in preparation and is even now not complete – has been translated into English by Mr. W. Ashton Ellis, and is published by Messrs. Kegan Paul, Trench, and Co. Mr. Ashton Ellis’s version of the master’s complete prose works is well known, and his industry is beyond all praise; it is now clear that the awkwardness of style which made the former translation rather hard reading is due mainly to the writer’s reverence for his original, a possibly mistaken reverence, but one that must command respect. In the biography we meet with far fewer Teutonisms or sentences only half-Anglicized […]. The translator has wisely given himself liberty to make sundry changes from the exact phrases or sequence of ideas in his original, and with the happiest results. He expects to complete the work, provided that the original book is finished, in about three years from the present time. […] [300]

The departure from ‘his original’, however, grew apace. In the preface to volume II Ellis tells us that, ‘as from about the seventh of the present set of chapters I had allowed myself considerably greater freedom, alike of exposition and construction, the work ran away with me at last’; in that to volume III he says that his 500 pages represented only 100 of Glasenapp’s, and leaves it to the reader to decide whether ‘English version’ is still an accurate description. From volume IV he felt he had to omit Glasenapp’s name from the title-page since ‘I cannot honestly conceal the truth that very few of the ensuing pages are based, even for facts, on my esteemed precursor’s work, accurate though that is.’ [301] Volume V bears no preface as such, and it is there that, as we have seen, Ellis became bogged down in the minutiae of Wagner’s 1855 visit to London, Ferdinand Praeger’s share in it, and Praeger’s later calumny in general.

Though Ellis is best known for his Englishing of Wagner and Glasenapp, he was in fact also published in German, and in the Bayreuther Blätter no less. As ‘Herausgeber des “Meister”’ he had been one of a number of contributors in 1892 to the ‘Tannhäuser-Nachklänge’ following Cosima’s Bayreuth production of that work the previous year, which had demonstrated her determination to draw the entire canon of mature music-dramas into the Festival’s repertory. Ellis says he had attended performances on 30 July and 2 August 1891. His slender review Aus dem Briefe eines Engländers an einen Deutschen followed similarly-titled contributions from Houston Stewart Chamberlain and the French Marxist Charles Bonnier (writing from Oxford where he had become a tutor). [302] In 1896, Ellis’s short article ‘Erlösendes Weltentat’, drawing thematic connections (though emphatically not political ones) between Siegfrieds Tod and the Vaterlandsverein address, was also published in the Blätter; but from the parenthetical line at the end, ‘Deutsch von A. Brunnemann’, [303] it would appear that Ellis was not entirely responsible for the language in which it appeared. In the spring of 1904 the Berlin bimonthly Die Musik, then in its third year of publication, published in its tenth and eleventh numbers a ‘contribution to Wagner scholarship’. ‘Die verschiedenen Fassungen von “Siegfrieds Tod”’ was Ellis’s only significant public effort in the German language. Here too he had the text seen through stylistically, this time by Prof. Rudolf Schlösser, [304] whose footnote recorded that he eagerly took on that task ‘because I recognised throughout Mr Ellis’s work the most significant contribution we have been given to date on the evolution of the Ring’. However, apart from a few formal editorial modifications, readers were assured that the essay was genuinely Ellis’s own intellectual property. Ellis was evidently keen to be reckoned with directly in the continental German Wagnerian salons, and so to fill the void left by the discredited Praeger. Though both Ellis and Chamberlain contributed to the Bayreuther Blätter for the first time in 1892, Ellis was in no position (and had no ambition) to displace Chamberlain as England’s ambassador to Wahnfried. [305] Apart from his personal reception by Cosima Wagner in 1889 – Chamberlain had first met her only a year before - it seems Ellis’s communication with Wahnfried, with Wolzogen, and even Glasenapp during work on the Life, may have been mainly postal.[306]

While the rootless Englishman Chamberlain was – so to speak – bedding down in Bayreuth, Ellis was happy to further his Wagnerian efforts in bucolic Sussex. In another of his few surviving letters to Bernard Shaw, Ellis gives a glimpse – small details which he calls ‘secrets’ – of his life in Horsted Keynes.

Forgive me if this letter is all about myself, but I have only this afternoon discovered that I was dining last Thursday with Arthur Balfour’s sister. I knew I was to meet at Mrs Benson’s (the archbishop’s widow, who lives a mile from here) a Mrs Henry Sidgwick; but my knowledge of the bigger world is so limited, that I did not know that relationship until my after-dinner (i.e. ‘digestion’) call to-day, when Miss Tait (daughter of another late Archbishop) informed me. The latter is an awfully nice woman, whom I met a few months back on an errand of mercy (a child dying of convulsions in the village). Then came a local wedding, five weeks since, & at the reception I was led up by Miss Tait for introduction to Mrs B., who was in a kindly penitant mood for having ignored my existence these close on five years. […] It’s rather amusing, about Mrs B., for I have doggedly remained away from Church the whole time I’ve been here, except one Sunday (& this wedding), though I did get up two consecutive concerts in the Village reading-room last June on behalf of a new organ, lending and playing on my own piano. (Another amusing affair, is that I got the wife of the Radical candidate to sing at one, & the Conserv. Cand & his wife to come to the other.)

[…] In fact I’m rather liked down here, though I never entertain: but I’ve had a few broken legs &c. to doctor gratis, & that gets one well spoken of. – Now I’m telling you all my secrets, so I’d better bring this egoistic letter to a close. [307]

But Ellis’s contentment in his ‘rural nest’ was not to last. The preface to volume VI of The Life of Richard Wagner exists in two forms. The earlier, dated ‘Horsted Keynes, January, 1908’, contains the longest personal complaint Ellis ever put into print. By comparing this with his apologetically ‘egoistic’ letter to Shaw, and with the square-bracketed personal parentheses in his published works, it’s possible to discern something of the private persona. Additionally, for its value as a local period curiosity it’s worth reproducing in its entirety:

Dear Reader,

I fear I owe you some apology for the length of the interval separating the appearance of the present volume from that of its predecessor. When you have gained an inkling of its cause, however, I just as strongly feel, you not only will forgive, but pity me; and should that pity merge into benignant sympathy, you will have pledged me to sincerest thanks. So bear with me a moment, while I unfold a private tale.

As the address below the preface to each volume of this Life will shew, the whole work hitherto has passed into the printer’s hands from the same secluded little nook of hill-bound Sussex; and in this rural nest I hoped some day to finish it. That hope has now been shattered by one of the most ruthlessly desecrating deeds that can ever have entered the mind of man, or woman. Once more, please listen:-

Overleaf you will find the reproduction of a photograph taken* [Ellis’s footnote reads: ‘* By Mr F. Douglas Miller, Boltro Road, Hayward’s Heath.’] from my study window during our belated summer of last September, just as the final sheets of this volume’s proofs, apart from its Index, were reaching my hands. I offer no apology for admitting unknown readers to a share in what has been the delight of my friends, but to them I must explain that the whole foreground, including that salient group of three acacias, had been slowly built up by my personal toil to throw into due relief the native beauty of the middle distance - my tiny pleasaunce having been nothing save a wilderness when first I rented it. It had just attained, in fact, that fatal point of perfection which presages impending ill. Swift and relentless as Fate, came that ill.

Not a week had I received proofs of this exquisite picture and allowed one of them to be displayed in our village shop, before workmen in the grounds adjoining me (to the left of the picture) began erecting, under the very boughs of my acacias, an atrocity the name whereof I dare not even mention here. To the philistines who recently had thrust on our unwelcoming souls a garish tabernacle for advancement of their own peculiar brand of politics-cum-piety nearly an acre of land lay still available; yet nothing could content them save defacement of the whole hillside through the site selected for this utterly unneeded thing. Behind the backs both of myself and those who own my residence, these professors of Brotherly Love had obtained from the District authorities a sanction too heedlessly given, and our expostulations, albeit lodged the moment we got wind of it, proved all too late. Such is the helpless condition to which the Individual is already reduced by our beautiful progress toward Socialism!

So there in full sight of my windows, and dominating every corner of my garden - owing to the equally remorseless previous mutilation of our common hedge - this horror with its added infamy, a thatch atop, has stood for full three months; and now the leaves have fallen, it mocks one all the more. How could a man sit tamely down and index, with such a canker grinning at him from the very heart of what had been a daily feast for his eyes? If others could, I could not, and a wickedly large part of my time since mid-autumn has been spent on unavailing efforts to shame the chief culprit into removal of what even our scavengers view with disgust. No, that culprit is ‘advanced’ alike in views and years, and nothing can convince her that no amount of rustic thatching will redeem a pest; just as there are those who tie up sewage-pipes with bows of satin and expect you to admire them in their boudoirs.

With heavy heart, accordingly, I shall have to bid farewell to my retreat next midsummer. Where I shall find another so entirely propitious to my work as this had erewhile been, Heaven knows, since ways and means must be consulted and nothing but the kindness of a few supporters has enabled me to pull along at all of late, - said work being unremunerative of its very nature, whatever my reviewers may suppose.

But, that being scarcely what I set about to say, I return to my apology, dear Reader, and, should the tale have interested you, will gladly forward a reprint of my open letter to a Sussex weekly thereanent, also a view since taken by myself at close quarters of that centennial oak whose strengthening presence I soon must leave, - provided only you enclose an addressed stamped envelope of about the length of this page.

And now, my future plans being so uncertain, I will simply add Auf Wiedersehen!

Yours very truly,


Horsted Keynes,

January, 1908.

No ‘open letter’ can be traced in any Sussex weekly of the time. It’s hard to judge what is irony and what is genuine in the story, but Ellis’s ultramundane theosophy probably gives the key. In 1903 the women’s suffragist and noncomformist preacher Louisa Martindale (1839-1914) had retired from Lewes, Sussex, [308] to ‘Cheelys’, a cottage in Horsted Keynes just down the hill to the right of Leighton Cote. Four years later she endowed a Congregational Hall, now called the Martindale Centre (its foundation stone bears the date 27 October 1906), on the other side of Ellis’s dwelling. She was manifestly that ‘culprit […] advanced alike in views and years’ (she would have been nearly 70) whom Ellis held responsible for the unutterable thatched ‘atrocity’ built in its grounds. But what to make of Ellis’s allusion to sewage-pipes? Could Mrs Martindale’s progressive brand of ‘politics-cum-piety’ have extended to the erection of – a public convenience? Was this the ‘utterly unneeded thing’ that stood ‘grinning down’ on Ellis’s ‘pleasaunce’, a forerunner perhaps of the one that stands today on the road obliquely facing Leighton Cottage? [309]

As for the photograph ‘overleaf’, it was not bound into the edition containing that preface. It was bound into a subsequent printing, which bears a much shorter, but equally personal, preface addressed ‘To the reader’ as follows:

Dear Reader,

Think yourself lucky you are rather late in the field, and have thus escaped the original preface I am doing my best to forget, though - barring the Corrigenda list on page vii - the edition otherwise remains the same. Merely one sentence and a scrap will I preserve from that whilom lament, in transparent excuse for retaining an illustration I am as fond of as ever, viz. the view from my late workroom window:- ‘As the address beneath the preface to each volume of this Life will shew, the whole work hitherto has passed into the printer’s hands from the same secluded little nook of hill-bound Sussex; and in this rural nest I hoped some day to finish it. That hope has now been shattered’...

Well, there is scarcely any misfortune that has not some redeeming feature, and although I now am robbed of the beloved oak I used to gaze on, I’m still in Sussex, and not only have the choice of downs or sea to feast my eyes with at five minutes’ notice, but the frequent opportunity of hearing our great master’s music capitally performed. So, instead of pity, I’ll this time ask you for your envy. Perhaps it even may lead to your following my example, and our meeting face to face.

Yours heartily,


Preston Park,

February, 1909.

The view from the study window of Leighton Cottage in Horsted Keynes is still recognisable today from the photograph. A hand-pump still draws water to the cottage from the pond in the middle distance. A battered old oak at the bottom of the grounds of the Congregational Hall may be the remnant of Ellis’s ‘beloved oak’. Ellis sent photographs of this oak (which he said had been ‘printed for sale at our village shop’) to Bernard Shaw. [310] Whatever the cause, Ellis left the village, and by February 1909 was residing at 3 Surrenden Road, Preston Park, just outside Brighton. Though he greeted his readers ‘heartily’ from there in the second preface, the Life of Richard Wagner was never resumed. Whereas Glasenapp’s biography ground on into further editions and made it to the end of Wagner’s life with its sixth volume (1911), [311] Ellis’s version broke off with Wagner completing the score of Tristan und Isolde on 6 August 1859.


Fifty years later, Tristan was to be the primary evidence adduced by those who sought to convict Wagner of moral depravity. If he preferred to ignore the current scandals connected with his erstwhile theosophical acquaintances, William Ashton Ellis could hardly have been unaware of the popular studies of sexuality by his contemporary and namesake, Havelock Ellis, [312] nor of Max Nordau, whose Degeneration was first published in 1892 and in English translation in 1895. Most likely it was Ernest Newman’s footnote referring to ‘excessive erethism among musicians’ in A Study of Wagner [313]that prompted Ellis’s repeated insistence in his Life of Wagner on a straightforward physiological basis for Wagner’s character. Ellis was able to draw upon his medical background and contacts in Wagner’s moral defence. In his third volume, he had diagnosed migraine behind Wagner’s persistent skin complaint and “neurasthenia”. [314] In the sixth volume, Ellis submitted at length evidence from the ophthalmologist Dr George M. Gould of Philadelphia, and from his own enquiries to the opticians Critchetts, whom Wagner had consulted (at Dannreuther’s suggestion) in London in 1877. In December 1904 Ellis had written triumphantly to Shaw, ‘It will interest you to know that I now know from Sir A. Critchett himself that Wagner had astigmatism.’ [315] Ellis may have been a fellow-sufferer. ‘I have also found,’ he went on, ‘the right oculist, & he has done my sight a lot of good. Remember him! L.V. Cargill, F.R.C.S., 31 Harley Street (of King’s Hosp., quite a youngish man).’ [316] Ellis’s aim was to show that ‘presbyopia’ or eye-strain, rather than any more questionable condition, governed Wagner’s nature. ‘Astigmatism’, he argued, had not at the time been identified clinically, ‘but it is better for us to track that scientific cause than to catch up the parrot-cry of the pseudo-scientists and prate of “sexual erethism” (!!) or Degeneration.’ Nordau’s name had already been briefly invoked in one of Ellis’s typical sarcastic parentheses. [317]

As a scientific theosophist Ellis had rejoiced in the Curies’ isolation of radium in 1902. It coincided with his argument in the Life of Richard Wagner that ‘Wotan’s Gedanke’ is that the Volsung twins can break ‘the “primordial law” of Natural Selection’ to create a new, unheard-of life-force. In a footnote inserted ‘Since the above was written (early 1903)’, he quoted a lecture by the eminent physicist (and President of the Society for Psychical Research) Sir Oliver Lodge. For Ellis the text would have echoed strikingly his Darwinian father’s Chemistry of Creation and its evocation more than fifty years earlier of the ongoing natural ‘economy of the world’ in ‘the interchange of ingredients’ through the ‘decay of former myriads’. In Lodge’s words the newly discovered transmutation of elements demonstrated that

Birth, culmination and decay, is the rule, whether for a plant or an animal, a nation or a planet or a sun. Twenty years ago it was thought that the atoms of matter were exempt from this liability to change... Not so; the process of change has now been found to reach to these also. Nothing material is permanent... The atoms are crumbling and decaying: must they not also be forming and coming to birth? This last we do not know as yet. It is the next thing to be looked for. Decay only, without birth and culmination, cannot be the last word. [318]

In 1899, Ellis had denied that Wagner was ever an ‘optimist in the only logical sense of the term, i.e., a believer in this world’s being the best of all worlds possible.’ Nor, however, could he be described as a pessimist:

The idea of folding his hands in peace, and letting things take their downward course, or even proceed on their level way - the legitimate outcome of a hearty belief in the non-reality of all phenomena - must always have been repugnant to so ardent, so revolutionary, so strongly mercurial a spirit as Richard Wagner’s;

and Ellis found ‘glorious inconsistency’ to be the prerogative of genius. ‘I must guard myself, however,’ he continued (and it is surely his self-defensive own voice we now hear),

against the possible interpretation of this ‘inconsistency’ as a fluctuation in point of time, a man’s denial to-day of that in which he trusted yesterday: rather is it a case of two co-existent planes of thought, the one facing towards an ideal world, the other fronting actual, practical life or art. And if a man has heart as well as brains, it is surely nothing to his discredit that, believing the world presented to our senses a mere hallucination, the baseless fabric of a vision, he yet endeavoured to bring some comfort to his fellows in that dream, to help them play their part in it as men ‘quand même’.[319]

By 1908, in the sixth volume of the Life of Wagner, Ellis had developed this ethical not-quite-quietism to make plain his own scientifically-based inability to accept Schopenhauer’s unalloyed ‘pessimism’. He endeavoured to show how both Schopenhauer and Wagner ‘may have been physiologically disposed towards the pessimistic view’. In fact he produced scant ‘physiological’ evidence with regard to Schopenhauer: but it’s significant that Ellis found ‘a ray of hope’ in the pessimist’s axiom that the death of an individual might imply the life of others. [320] Simply removing the notion of time, he said, results in the notion of ‘Metempsychosis’. As he put it, ‘Having come to curse the Will-to-life, the prophet has remained to bless it - in disguise.’ There followed what was surely one of Ellis’s most authentic utterances:

And should one now and then feel faint and heartsick, even in the thick of the fight there is always in that temporary refuge, the central peace a man may find at bottom of his deepest heart (as Sachs did), all consciousness forgotten for a spell. Let him not abide there too long - that is all - for work will still be waiting for his hand and brain, and ever thus must his Will be wrought to finer faculty of use and service. What of the opposition of contending energies! If the thumb did not oppose the fingers, and its own flexor and extensor muscles oppose each other, you never could pick up so much as a pin.

The physician and erstwhile theosophist had left Glasenapp and a ‘Life’ of Wagner far behind, and if Ellis ever delivered himself of a personal credo it was here:

let us not be too afraid of Egoism, if only it be held in check by Altruism. [...] If end of all things there ever is to be, we can conceive it still less possibly than a beginning; we ought to vex our souls no more with problematic happenings so infinitely remote. Sufficient for us to feel something within us, that might power the Will, which tells us plainer than all words, This cannot be our first ‘objectification’ and will not be our last - even if we chose so. [321]

Ellis, however, could hardly claim disinterest in that unique objectification of the Will that had been Richard Wagner. The facts of the composer’s personal life, particularly his conjugal life, seemed to require Ellis’s continual curating. In 1899, when Cosima Wagner had first given him ‘gracious permission’ to translate Wagner’s published letters, it had been expedient for Ellis to denigrate the composer’s misfortunate first marriage in almost vulturine terms:

Harsh as it may sound to say it, the merest justice to Richard Wagner’s memory demands that it should be placed on record that during the latter half of their wedded life Minna hung like a thunder-cloud above her husband’s head, continually discharging shocks that shattered his most cherished plans (half against her will), and filling him with dread of what might happen next. Even when finally separated, this luckless invalid’s power for evil was undiminished; and it is surely more than a coincidence, that the most peaceful years of Wagner’s life commence precisely with the date of unhappy Minna’s death. [322]

For Ernest Newman (and later Elbert Lenrow) Ellis’s short article in the Fortnightly Review of July 1905 on ‘Richard and Minna Wagner’ still seemed spitefully biased against Minna (though in fact Ellis was retailing an anecdote from Wendelin Weissheimer’s Erlebnisse mit Richard Wagner of 1898). That same year Ellis had broken off from the Life of Richard Wagner to publish his translation of Wagner’s letters to Mathilde Wesendonck, with commentaries and nuances of rendering which, as critics such as William Wallace, Julius Kapp and Ernest Newman were soon to point out, painted an all-too-innocent picture of that affair. [323] By 1909, however, Ellis had re-thought Minna’s role. Wondering how Minna had caused so many of Wagner’s letters to her to survive and find their way intact ‘into the Wahnfried strong-box’, he wrote that ‘it is as though she dimly foresaw the day when herself she might be instrumental in triumphantly clearing her husband’s name from calumnies reposing on a false assumption of her “martyrdom.”’ [324] With the letters from Richard to Minna Wagner Ellis could now present two volumes of documentary proof that Wagner had in fact been a long-suffering but always caring and dutiful husband to her. These volumes would lead to the 1911 translation of the Family Letters, ‘i.e. letters from Richard Wagner to his mother, sisters, nieces, and so on’, where, as John Deathridge pointed out in his edition, Ellis would ponder on the significance of Wagner’s women without (perhaps) knowing anything of Freud. [325] The sanctimonious way in which the bachelor Ellis handled these intimate letters, released conditionally from the ‘Wahnfried strong-box’ for publication and translation, suggests an understandable professional respect for Cosima’s matriarchal authority, but as he worked his way through them they seem gradually to have also acquired an increasingly deep personal significance for the translator himself.

By 1905 Ellis’s relations with ‘Mr. Youngman’ were, as we have seen, at a low ebb. As Ellis became preoccupied between 1905 and 1911 with the complexity of Wagner’s relationships with Mathilde, Minna and his own family, it is interesting to see him accused by other critics of puerility in this context. [326] It may be tempting to try to discern a fraught Oedipal relationship between Newman and Ellis, but with his scientific background Ellis could not have been unaware of the sexual basis of recent developments in psychology. In the same year in which Ellis’s translation of the Family Letters appeared, Havelock Ellis’s The World of Dreams (London 1911) could hardly avoid mentioning Freud’s Die Traumdeutung. ‘Touches felt on awakening, in correspondence with a dream,’ he wrote, ‘are not so very uncommon. Thus Wagner, when in love with Mathilde Wesendonk, wrote, in the private diary he kept for her, how, after a dream, “as I awoke I distinctly felt a kiss on my brow.”’ [327] The spelling Wesendonk suggests that Ellis (Havelock) wasn’t drawing here on Ellis (William Ashton) and his 1905 translation of the letters from Richard Wagner to Mathilde Wesendonck. [328] But at least since 1899, when their names had appeared alphabetically one after the other on the Contents page of The Fortnightly Review, Ellis (William Ashton) would have been uncomfortably aware of his namesake’s popular studies on sex. Die Traumdeutung was not translated into English until 1913. Ellis of course would hardly have needed to wait for anyone else’s translation from the German of any works drawn on by Havelock Ellis, including Freud’s. He had already confronted psychological enemies – Nietzsche, Nordau, Praeger – in their own language. Ellis energetically deplored any prurient fascination for Wagner. But in a way that implies something about his own personality, he so overstated Wagner’s moral character as to make it implausibly chaste. Ernest Newman mocked him as a sanctifying ‘thurifer’. [329]

In 1899, as he concluded the Prose Works and began to contemplate the Glasenapp Life, Ellis (perhaps encouraged by Cosima and Chamberlain) had allowed himself the anticipation that ‘Some future day there may yet be opened up the prospect of following Richard Wagner's footsteps through his own life-history, but that cannot be for several years to come.’ [330] In fact as long ago as 1892, in his Trinity College lectures on ‘The Artwork of the Future’, Ellis had given assurances from Siegfried Wagner himself that Richard Wagner’s autobiography would one day be published. In 1911 that time now came, for financial, family and ideological purposes. Having first considered Henry Thode for the trusted task, Cosima asked Chamberlain to edit the manuscript and first privately-printed edition of Mein Leben for open publication. It was Chamberlain, she thought, who could properly ‘place the Meister in the philosophical company of Hegel, Feuerbach and Schopenhauer.’ [331] But when Constable & Co. in London, and Dodd, Mead and Company in New York, simultaneously published an anonymous ‘authorized’ English translation in May the same year, Ellis expressed the hope ‘that we yet may be given a reliable [emphasis added] translation of Mein Leben’. [332] It’s clear, however, that he had not expected to be entrusted with the job himself. His friend David Irvine would take up cudgels over the translation’s reliability, claiming to find 800 errors in the German edition. [333] But by 1911 Ellis must have believed that so far as England was concerned he had already done what was necessary to wash the character of Wagner lastingly clean from all blemish - having vigorously opposed those, from the old traducer Ferdinand Praeger to the arrogant ‘Mr Youngman’, who would throw dirt at Wagner in order to see if it would stick. For us, an ‘authorized’ translation of Mein Leben by William Ashton Ellis would have been a fascinating balancing act between faithfulness and antisepsis; for him it would probably have been a welcome lucrative task.

‘Somewhere,’ wrote Ellis in his Translator’s Preface, ‘I have recently seen this collection of “Family Letters” referred to by a well-wishing journalist in advance of its integral English publication […] as “a supplement to Wagner’s Autobiography.”’ [334] Ellis was not averse to this comparison, but the socialist Ernest Belfort Bax took the opposite view to David Irvine and found Ellis’s translation of the Family Letters, published the same year, a distinctly lesser ‘supplement’ to the autobiography:

A word as to the translation of “My Life.” We have not had an opportunity of comparing it with the original, but can say that the style of the English is admirable, and seldom betrays its character as a translation. It is, indeed, quite exceptionally good in this respect. Mr. Ashton Ellis’s translation of the “Letters” gives the impression of being extremely faithful in its adhesion to the original if, perhaps, a trifle less idiomatic than the English of the anonymous translator of the autobiography. [335]

This must have dispirited Ellis. His efforts to save Wagner from the ‘anti-Wagnerians’ had personally cost him a lot, ‘said work being unremunerative of its very nature’ as he had put it. Shortly before Ellis wrote those words in 1908 Bernard Shaw had urged R.B. Haldane (then Secretary of State for War) to make a bid for the Liberal premiership: ‘You must seize the crown; and when you have got it let the first acts of your reign be to give me that [Civil List] pension for Ashton Ellis (who is pawning his spare scarf-pins) and to abolish the Censorship of plays.’ [336]


Ellis had tentatively reopened correspondence with Shaw in December 1904 with a view to ‘a Treasury Pension, or whatever they call it.’ Their personal acquaintance had almost certainly begun twelve years before at the Musical Association with that reading by Ellis of his essay on ‘Richard Wagner’s Prose’. What Ellis now told Shaw, about the terms put to him by Grevel & Co. for the translation of the Mathilde Wesendonck letters, reveals the level of commercial esteem in which his Wagnerian endeavours were held, both by his publishers and himself: ‘Their offer to me was delicious. “We had been thinking of £30.” “It will take me 6 months to translate properly”, I replied, “do you imagine I can live on £60 a year?” – “Perhaps £50 then”. – “No, not on £100 a year can I live.” Ellis eventually agreed a royalty of 6d per copy sold for the first edition of a thousand, and 1/- per copy thereafter, banking on the success of Wolfgang Golther’s German edition, then into its 11th thousand. [337] Ellis’s focus on what the translation would bring him materially contrasts strikingly with the highflown moralism he would translate from the Wesendonck letters themselves. Elsewhere in his letters to Shaw around this time Ellis affects a coy artlessness about professors, archbishops and statesmen, designed to win Shaw’s good offices in trying to recruit them to Ellis’s personal, material, cause.

In January 1905, Shaw obligingly drafted a letter to the prime minister, Arthur Balfour, to accompany a complete set of the eight volumes of Prose Works, sent ‘to enable you to judge the magnitude of the enterprise’. The real purpose of the letter, however, was to argue that case for a Civil List pension for Ellis. ‘[The] cost to the translator,’ Shaw pleaded, ‘has included not only years of the most arduous labor in the face of every discouragement and difficulty, but the expenditure of his slender private fortune and the sacrifice of his profession as a physician. At the age of 52 he finds himself practically without resources […].’ [338] Shaw envisaged the letter taking the form of a petition to be signed by Ellis’s supporters. Ellis had sent through various suggestions for signatories, including, as we have seen, Arthur Balfour via his sister Eleanor Sidgwick. The previous October he had been encouraged by correspondence as friendly as it was unsolicited from the music critic of the Birmingham Gazette. [339] At the time Ellis was aggrieved at what he saw as the ‘anti-Wagnerism’ of younger music critics such as Edward Algernon Baughan (1865-1938) and Ernest Newman. Robert Buckley (1847-1938), however, had favourably reviewed the fourth volume of Ellis’s Life of Richard Wagner, and Ellis sought his opinion on whether he should ask Grevel’s to request that his Mathilde Wesendonck translations should be reviewed by literary rather than musical critics, so as to ‘extricate’ the work ‘from the hands of that pestilent tribe’. Buckley was already the first biographer, and a personal friend, of Edward Elgar. On 27 December 1904 Ellis assured Shaw that ‘Buckley cd. get Elgar too’ to subscribe to the Civil List appeal. [340] But it is doubtful whether this letter was ever sent, or if it was, whose signatures it bore.

The Tory government faced growing unpopularity during 1905, and on 4 November Balfour resigned without seeking the dissolution of parliament. The Liberals formed a minority administration on 5 December, but in the general election called the following January they swept into power with a crushing and historic majority. Henry Campbell-Bannerman (1836-1908) became prime minister (the first PM to use the title formally). Shaw kept up the pressure on Lord Haldane (1856-1928), co-translator in 1883 of Schopenhauer’s The World and Will and Idea and now (incongruous as it seems) Secretary of State for War:

I threatened that if something was not done we should have to sue in forma pauperis to the Kaiser; that is the only stone I could pick up to shy at our national amour propre. I don’t think this Government [Campbell-Bannerman’s] is at all less likely to give the pension than the late one [Balfour’s]. C.-B. is probably less squeezable with gentle little jobs on hand than A.B., and therefore likely to keep more in hand for real cases. [341]

Shaw eventually found a chink in the bureaucracy surrounding Campbell-Bannerman, whose health began to deteriorate after the death of his wife in August 1906, in the person of his private secretary, the economist historian Henry Higgs (1864-1940). Higgs put up stiff resistance at first, pointing out that ‘Linguists and Wagner-enthusiasts say that the translator has been (as the Italian pun has it) a traitor, misunderstanding and botching his work. The Civil List Acts say that C.L. pensions are to be given only to such persons as have … by their eminent attainments in Literature or the Arts or their useful discoveries in Science deserved the gracious consideration of their Sovereign and the gratitude of their country. These are, I think, the exact words. Can we shew that Mr Ellis is a man of “eminent attainments in Literature”? Or is he a mere translator?’ [342]

In the event Haldane was not required to mount the coup urged by Shaw. In March 1908, a month before Campbell-Bannerman’s death at 10 Downing Street, Shaw’s blandishments worked. He had evidently sent through another petition on behalf of Ellis, since Higgs replied: ‘I have consulted two of your co-signatories. They say they “don’t know much about Ellis”. Such is the way of them when they sign memorials.’ But he conceded he was now ‘satisfied that the works were worth translating, and that we ought to do something for Ellis if we can.’ On 19 March 1908 he wrote to Shaw that

The King has approved of a Civil List pension of £80 a year to Mr. W. Ashton Ellis, to date from the 1st of April 1907. It is desirable not to publish the fact until it is reported to Parliament in July. / I hope you will not be disappointed that the pension is not larger. If it does not comfort you to think of it as 2,000 franks or 1,600 marks, it may be more satisfying to reflect that, as Ellis is only 55 years of age, the present value of his Annuity is considerably over £1,000 – which is a substantial subvention for the work he has done. [343]

Ellis was actually aged 56 by this time. As announced in The Times on 26 June (rather than July) 1905 the pension was awarded ‘in consideration of his contributions to literature in biography and music’. Sir Edwin Ray Lankester (the son of Robert Ellis’s Linnean Society sponsor) was granted £250 annually on the same occasion, ‘in consideration of his eminent services to science’.

On receiving notification the next day, Ellis thanked Shaw profusely ‘as prime mover & most influential pursuant in my “Civil List” cause’. As a result ‘at least I need not come upon “the rates” this side of the grave.’ Ellis acknowledged the ‘energetic’ support he had had from Ashton Jonson, but confided that ‘Privately, D.H. Irvine has been helping me above the rest.’ [344] Shaw remained dissatisfied with the outcome. As he put it much later, in an unsigned article to the New Statesman in 1913, ‘Mr Ashton Ellis devoted his life to the translation of Wagner’s prose works; and it was with the greatest difficulty that, after years of effort, a wretchedly inadequate Civil List pension was procured for him in the face of the sedulously inculcated conviction that Wagner was an abominably bad musician, and that, being only a composer, he could not possibly have written books, or if he did they could not be proper ones.’ [345]

Ellis was taken seriously by at least one major musical contemporary. On 30 May 1905 Edward Elgar wrote to his patron and friend Edward Speyer, ‘I am sorry I forgot to send you back Ashton Ellis’s letter. Here it is. I am sending him Gerontius.’ [346] The Elgars had visited the Speyers at Ridgehurst, their home in Shenley, Hertfordshire, on 13-15 May, and it appears that Speyer handed the composer a letter from Ellis at that time. Whatever it contained, it has not survived. Speyer may have given it to Elgar to let him have Ellis’s address, since a copy of The Dream of Gerontius, its title-page handsomely inscribed by Elgar to Ellis, has survived. The dedication reads, ‘To W. Ashton Ellis / with admiration & gratitude for / his devotion to the master / from Edward Elgar / June 1905.’ [347]The Elgars set sail on the Deutschland for a tour of America on 9 June, so the inscription can be dated to the first week of June. Whether it was Robert Buckley who had indeed ‘got’ Elgar for Ellis is not known.


The unexplained circumstances of Ellis’s reluctant departure from Horsted Keynes and Leightoncote are compounded by an aside in that letter he wrote to Shaw from there on 20 March 1908, thanking him for securing the Civil List pension:

I had been away from home since yesterday morning, spending the night at my sisters’ [in Streatham] & returned in the most fearful fit of depression owing to a wave of misfortune wh. has almost swamped the whole of my family (I mean, of course, my brothers and sisters); little did I expect that a piece of good news for my personal self was awaiting me at home (or rather, here, wh. will soon no longer be my home). [348]

Ellis’s departure and his ensuing years in Preston Park, Brighton, are not well documented, and offer no further clue as to this ‘wave of misfortune’. He was later to refer – equally mysteriously - to ‘a strange concatenation of circumstances’ which led him to abandon the Life of Wagner. The ‘Translator’s Preface’ to the letters from Richard to Minna Wagner, dated ‘Preston Park, January 1909’, suggests some apprehension for the future. It places it ‘in the reader’s own hands, whether the present volumes shall soon be supplemented by an English rendering of the delightful Familienbriefe […].’ [349] If the misfortune of 1908 was financial, the preface (‘Brighton, July 1911’) to the Family Letters of Richard Wagner at any rate testified to William Ashton Ellis’s professed lack of interest in making money from his work:

I have persuaded my present publishers to issue this [volume] at a price within the means of all who crowd the cheaper sections of the house at performances [of Wagner]. With them and their numberless friends it must rest, alike to justify our present, and to shape our future policy. For at least one more volume of letters is ready for printing in the event of a cordial reception of this. [350]

One more intended volume of letters may have been the translation of those to Theodor Apel, the German edition of which was published in Leipzig in 1910. Ellis opined that the Family Letters ‘presents us with the earliest of Richard Wagner’s private missives as yet discoverable; though in that respect it is run pretty close by the “Letters to Apel” quite lately contributed by me to The English Review […].’ [351] Ellis’s translation of the Letters of Wagner to His Schoolfellow Apel apeared in the English Review in June-July and August-September 1911, but the text doesn’t appear to have been published elsewhere as a substantive ‘volume’. [352]

Ernest Newman, certainly, gave a less than cordial reception to Ellis’s volumes in 1912: ‘These Wagner-Ellis things don’t command a high price. The other day I only gave 5/6 for the two volumes of his Letters to Minna (pubd. 24/-).’ [353] Ellis was now aged 60, his literary reputation was waning, and he suffered a personal blow when his ‘companion attendant (domestic)’ [354] of the last twelve years, George Laurance, died at the age of 50 at their home in Preston Park on 1 September 1912. Ellis himself, ‘present at the death’, certified the cause as ‘Bright’s disease (15 years), Paroxysmal Tachycardia, Syncope’. In his will dated 27 November 1901 Laurance had bequeathed everything to Ellis, including ‘my jewellery and trinkets and the money standing in my name at the Post Office Savings Bank.’ No-one else is mentioned. His estate was valued at £70.15s. Laurance had succumbed to the same condition from which Ellis had saved Madame Blavatsky twenty-five years earlier. [355]

In the Wagner centenary year of 1913, it was Ernest Newman, not William Ashton Ellis, who fronted the Musical Times’ commemorative issue of 1 May with an article on ‘Wagner’s Prose Works’. ‘As a writer,’ Newman asserted, Wagner ‘is still singularly little known in this country’:

For this the peculiar quality of most of the translations is largely responsible. They convert his German, which is often clumsy and tortuous enough to begin with, into a curious sort of pseudo-Teutonic English that no one ever talked or wrote before or since; and it is hardly surprising that people who have broken a tooth or two on one of these very tough nuts should shy at tackling the remainder. [356]

There was no rejoinder from Ellis, and I have traced nothing from his pen in the Wagner centenary year. There was to be no further volume of translations to afflict the teeth of English readers after the Family Letters; no more literary efforts in fact until the summer of 1915, when Ellis contributed three linked articles to the Musical Times concerning Wagner and the Great War. Though Ellis’s star was setting, it flickered one last time. One can only guess at the personal effect on Ellis of the advent of war between Britain and Germany, the loss of his correspondence with Wahnfried, the closure of the Bayreuth Festivals after 1914. Glasenapp died on 14 April 1915. Twenty years earlier, in the last issue of The Meister to appear, Ellis had issued an appeal to princes echoing Wagner’s in the Ring-poem preface of 1863. In part vicariously on his own behalf, he had called for support of the Riga schoolmaster ‘owing to the troubles put upon Herr Glasenapp by the Russian Government’:

If ever a German Prince, or even an Englishman of wealth, had the opportunity of doing the world a service, it is presented now. Herr Glasenapp ought to be rescued from all necessity of earning his living by teaching youth; his proper function is the teaching of men. There must be many a comfortable post, of Librarian and so forth, only waiting for a man of his standing and ability. Can no one influence, for instance, a member of our own Royal Family who is at like time a German Ruler, and thus ensure for Glasenapp a position where he could devote the major part of his time to the completion of his Life of Wagner? [357]

But now Ellis’s articles were unstinting in their condemnation of Germany and ‘the fiendish criminality of our hate-belching enemy’. The first was written three months after the sinking of the Lusitania, described by Ellis as ‘that appalling butchery on the high seas’. Wagner, Ellis maintained, was not that sort of German. Ellis publicly and uncompromisingly severed himself from Houston Stewart Chamberlain, whose notorious Kriegsaufsätze (translated by Charles H. Clarke as The Ravings of a Renegade) had appeared that same year:

Could the Bayreuth Master arise from the tomb in which he was laid to rest over two-and-thirty years ago, I can imagine nobody who would be more indignant at the articles recently penned by that renegade ex-Englishman who now lives in his house, or at the prior insolent action of that old pupil we all once so honoured. But one thing is certain: his spirit would flee to the uttermost ends of the universe to escape contamination from the air polluted by the Hohenzollern decadent who but lately conferred a badge of shame, the Iron Cross ‘with white ribbon (for non-combatants),’ on his posthumous son-in-law. [...] To speak for myself, if I may be permitted to, even in the almost inconceivable event of the Festival-theatre at Bayreuth opening its doors again during my lifetime, never more could I enter a town or country where a traitor to his native land apparently is held in high esteem, neither could I ever shake hands again with anyone of German birth who had not expressed a stern and honest detestation of the crimes this outcrop of barbarians misnames ‘necessities of war’; but of all his countrymen our Wagner was most innocent of any influence in that direction, and to condemn him for the wickedness of those who now are reversing all his cherished principles would be grotesquely absurd were it not so grimly tragic. [358]

At around the same time an anonymous ‘Neutral Correspondent’ for The Times surveyed the ‘war literature’ in Germany. ‘I know of no more interesting psychological study at this moment,’ he wrote, ‘than a dispassionate analysis of the “literary” auxiliary corps of the German Army.’ He elaborates:

‘[T]he well-known Professor of Political Economy, Werner Sombart […] develops [his] thesis in order to show that the centre point of the world-struggle is that between “the shopkeeper and the hero,” between the mercenary and the heroic spirit. The two peoples which most definitely represent these conflicting spirits are the British and the Germans. Only as an Anglo-German war does the world-war of 1914 attain its deep historic significance.

Another book, published while I was in Germany, is a heavy volume bearing in big red letters the title “The Annihilation of English World-Power,” with the smaller sub-title “And of Russian Tsarism through the Triple Alliance and Islam.” The author must now regret his allusion to the Triple Alliance. A special note informed the reader that it was the first work issued by the “War Political Culture Committee of the German Northern European Wagner Society.” Among the contributors to its pages were “A Turkish Diplomatist,” Professors Haeckel and Eucken, and other well-known men. The back cover bore prominently the words, “Ceterum censeo Britanniam esse delendam.” […] This Wagner Culture Committee has many adherents. Among its leading spirits is the renegade Englishman, Mr. Houston Stewart Chamberlain, the author of the German Emperor’s favourite book, “The Foundations of the Nineteenth Century.” He recently received from the Kaiser the Iron Cross, “to be worn on a white ribbon,” in recognition of his services as an anti-English essayist. [359]

If ‘our’ Wagner was defended by Ellis - even the Kapitulation which Ellis had once been prepared to see suppressed could be excused [360] - Nietzsche was offered up as a sacrifice. In the ‘Translator’s Preface’ to the fifth volume of the Prose Works dated January 1897, Ellis had described Nietzsche’s later writings as ‘nothing but aphorisms, glittering, acid, eccentric, sometimes startling and suggestive, but as unnutritious to the reader as a diet of chopped straw or a dinner composed of hors d’oeuvres’. In his preface to the succeeding volume, dated Christmas 1897, Ellis reported that during that year he had studied Elisabeth Förster-Nietzsche’s biography of her brother, ‘also a very large portion of Nietzsche’s own voluminous writings.’ These had confirmed his earlier impression of them: they were ‘so bewildering in their almost utter chaos, their stringing-together of jewels and glass beads, without so much as an index to guide one [emphasis added] [...]. Though I cannot pretend to have read all his works as yet, I have closely studied a very large section of them, and dipped into the remainder.’ Ellis reminded his readers of Nietzsche’s insanity, not without a hint of sympathy, and follows Elisabeth Förster-Nietzsche in regretting a loss to the cause: ‘Nietzsche’, he had concluded, ‘was the only opponent within measurable distance of the master.’ [361]

But as Ellis now recalled it in 1915,

Between ten and twenty years ago I waded through his eight big volumes (plus four of supplemental ‘remains’), and to this day I haven’t forgotten the mingled sense of irritation and disgust with which all but the earliest then filled me. To save myself from any future necessity of the sort, however, on the inner cover of each of them I providently jotted down a rough subject-index to the more distinctive passages as they struck me during my self-imposed task, expecting to need to enter somewhat fully into the said antagonism whenever I arrived at the ‘seventies in that ‘Life of Wagner’ which a strange concatenation of adverse circumstances arrested in mid-career even before the Great War came to shatter all hopes of resumption. [362]

Several of those passages were now patched together in his Musical Times article, whose thesis was: Wagner didn’t like Bismarck; Nietzsche didn’t like Wagner; therefore Nietzsche liked Bismarck. Ellis knew better than this: his Musical Times articles were not terribly scholarly, but they were a product of their time. In the event, Ellis’s loyalty to his country rose above his loyalty to an ideal to which he had dedicated his productive life.

The Minutes of the monthly meeting of the Committee of Management of the Western Dispensary for February 1915 read as follows:

Mr. Jones stated that he had visited the Dispensary several times during the past months and in the course of his visits he had ascertained that the Resident Medical Officer was in a very bad state of health and appeared to be quite unable to carry out his duties properly, and he (Mr. Jones) was of the opinion that, in the interests of the Dispensary the engagement should be terminated forthwith. The secretary read some letters which she had received from Mr. W. Ashton Ellis, a former Resident Medical Officer, expressing his willingness to again act in that capacity if it required. [363][364]

The next month Ellis was confirmed in his old post as Resident Medical Officer at the Rochester Row Dispensary, and at his old salary (albeit nearly forty years later) of 100 guineas per annum. ‘Permission was granted to Mr. Ellis to have his grand piano in the Board Room, as there was not room for it in his apartments’. [364] But another month later, ‘Attention was called by members of the Committee to the quantity of furniture belonging to the Resident Medical Officer which had been placed in the Board Room and in other parts of the premises. After a discussion it was arranged that Mr. Sim should see the doctor upon the matter.’ [365]

Ellis’s return to the Dispensary was by no means welcomed by all. The 38 year old Edith Morgan was the secretary, and she seems to have taken exception to this figure from the past. The feeling was mutual, according to the Dispensary’s minutes:

The Resident Medical Officer made a complaint with regard to a call by two gentlemen asking if there was a vacancy at the Dispensary for Resident Medical Officers, giving as their introduction the name of Messrs. Arnold & Sons, from whom the Resident Medical Officer had ascertained that the Secretary had been in correspondence with them. [366]

Ellis put his complaint in writing, and it was read out at a special meeting of the Committee on 6 January 1916:

Dear Sir,

Having been informed by you that it is the wish of the Committee that I should reduce to the form of a written complaint entrusted to myself the enquiry I addressed to them in person at their last meeting, viz. 20th inst., I proceed to complain.

That without the faintest warning to me or the remotest hint from myself of any desire to terminate the engagement I hold here subject to three months’ notice on either side, I have been submitted to the grave indignity of discovering that, owing to communications which appear to have passed between our Secretary and a firm of medical agents in course of the week ended 18th inst. two applicants - one of them being an identifiable man - called here on the 19th inst. with a view to an alleged immediate vacancy in the post of ‘House Doctor.’

This is a matter so closely affecting not only my personal repute, but also the honour of the whole medical profession, that I respectfully pray yourself and colleagues to institute a searching enquiry into its true motives and authorship and further to redress any stigma I so easily may have incurred in the eyes both of Messrs. Arnold, the said agents, and our serving staff.

I have the honour to remain, dear Sir,

Your obedient servant

(Sgd). Wm. Ashton Ellis -

Res. Med. Officer

Also a Life Governor of Thirty Years standing.

Ellis actually issued a writ for slander against Miss Morgan. In the upshot the Committee of Management diplomatically defused the crisis by deciding that since Miss Morgan had not formally complained about the Resident Medical Officer, and the Committee had not sacked him, they could assure Ellis that no professional stigma attached to him.[367]

Ellis continued to be troublesome. Only eleven days later, the Minutes note that because of his ‘interference’ the Gas Light & Coke Company had been unable to install a new gas stove in the Dispensary in place of the coal-fire range. Perhaps Ellis’s mistrust of gas was the natural response of a physician during the First World War (poison gas had first been used on 22 April 1915). There were further disputes over ‘the quantity of furniture’ Ellis had brought to the Dispensary - presumably including his library and piano. The Minutes for 16 July 1917 record that the Chairman of the Committee of Management ‘arranged to see the R.M.O. with regard to his furniture &c and to explain that the purpose of the Committee in having the clearance [of the Dispensary’s basement] was to afford cover in case of air raids’.

Despite these disputes, Ellis’s altruism seems to have developed. On 5 February 1918 he was awarded Honorary Life Membership of the British Red Cross Society, receiving badge number 127, ‘having given five complete courses of British Red Cross lectures gratuitously’. [368] During his lectures, Ellis may have recalled his words in the Musical Times ‘Wagner contra Militarism’ article, when he castigated attempts to ban the music of dead German composers from British concert-halls: by the same token, he had demanded, ‘are we promptly to discard all our triangular bandages lest our brave wounded should have their pride hurt by hearing them inadvertently called by the name derived from their inventor, the late well-known Prussian army-surgeon Esmarch?’ [369] Four days later, the Western Dispensary’s register records William Ashton Ellis becoming himself a financial subscriber towards the free care of the poor.


In 1878 when he had been first appointed to the Resident Medical Officer’s post, his name was recorded as William Ashdown Ellis. Along with Frederick and Margaret Brown (his servants, presumably), the 1918 Register of Electors resident at the dispensary on Rochester Row now listed him as ‘Ellis, William Ashlar’. Getting H. Ashton Ellis wrong always seems to have been unavoidable in one way or another. It will never be known whether Ellis diagnosed his own condition correctly. William Ashton Ellis died in his rooms at the Western Dispensary on Thursday 2 January 1919. He was 67 years of age. His brother Sir Evelyn Campbell Ellis was in attendance. [370] The certified cause of death was given as ‘aortic regurgitation, cardiac dilatation, pulmonary congestion.’ I stand to be corrected by qualified medical opinion, but Ellis may have been a victim of the devastating post-war ‘Spanish flu’ pandemic.

Left nothing specific in the will of Robert Ellis, according to his will of 23 May 1918 William Ashton Ellis had somehow come to possess ‘our late father’s large Ross microscope with stand and glass shade complete’. This potent symbol of his scientific paternity was bequeathed to Sir Evelyn Campbell Ellis together with ‘all such of my pictures engravings and photographs as he may care to select’. It was balanced by a sentimental keepsake offering a faint glimpse of the unknown Mary Ann Eliza Ellis: ‘I give to my beloved sister Ada Matilda Ellis my small white gilt & painted Worcester vase which we both remember as standing in our childhood on our darling mothers bedroom mantelpiece[:] with her never failing generosity and kindness I know that in the event of her surviving me my dear sister would not wish for more’.

Like his father, William Ashton Ellis made characteristic bequests. Fifty pounds to the King George’s Fund for Sailors; and should his brothers Reginald and Claude not survive him, fifty pounds to the Royal Medical Benevolent Fund; and should his residual legatees not survive him, their share to ‘whatever fund or funds intended for the relief of sufferers through the present war’ his executors selected. His effects, valued in probate at £2,443 17s. 11d., suggest that slightly fussy English Biedermeier taste: ‘ornamental china glass and other decorative articles of vertu’; a sterling silver collection, the prize of which was a ‘silver coffee pot with silver stand and spirit lamp complete bequeathed to me by my late godmother’; a ‘small chippendale glass doored dwarf cabinet that has stood upon the mantelpiece of my successive sitting rooms for well nigh forty years’; that is, since he first furnished his rooms at the Western Dispensary.

‘[The] whole stock of my published literary works as standing in my name and to my credit at my printers and publishers at the time of my death together with my copyright and other legal rights therein’ were bequeathed to Ellis’s ‘valued friend Thomas Francis Howell[,] Barrister at law’. Howell (1864-1953) had studied music at the Guildhall School, but turned to the law when he was called to the Bar at Inner Temple in 1889. Together with Sir Evelyn Campbell Ellis, he was now executor of Ellis’s will. He asserted the copyright he inherited in Ellis’s works at least once, as indicated by a slip bound into copies of L. Archier Leroy’s Wagner's Music Drama of the Ring, published by Noel Douglas, 38 Great Ormond Street, London WC1. There is no publication date, but the author's preface and H.R. Barbor’s Introduction are both dated 1925, which suggest that Ellis’s copyright expired in 1995. [371]

William Ashton Ellis’s ‘dear friend Thomas Lear of 7 Holmwood Grove West Jesmond Newcastle on Tyne’ was to receive the choicest and most personal items: his private collection of books; his papers; his unpublished manuscripts and all rights in them; ‘my silver plated goods my personal trinkets jewellery and writing implements my wearing apparel kit bags & portmanteaux my grand pianoforte my stained glass medallion of Richard Wagner and my framed engraving of a scene in Nuremberg’. The silver coffee pot was bequeathed to ‘my godson Walter Hans Lear with custody thereof during his minority [he was then aged six] to his father the aforesaid Thomas Lear’.

Thomas Lear was born in Leeds in 1882, the son of a Rochdale ‘willyer’ – a wool worker. By the age of 18 he was already a musician by profession according to the 1901 census; he became an accomplished musical all-rounder, and when he died in Newcastle in 1954 aged 71 the death certificate described him as a ‘Theatre Musical Director (Retired)’. His pupil, the flautist Gerald Jackson, recalled that in about 1905, ‘Besides playing the trombone, [Lear] was also a master of the violin, the piano and the cornet, and on a Sunday he would turn to the flute and piccolo in the Baptist chapel. […] The standard achieved by Thomas Lear was such that he was on regular call by the committee which arranged the concerts of the Leeds Symphony Orchestra.’[372] How this precocious northerner, thirty years his junior, struck up a friendship with the reclusive William Ashton Ellis, remains a mystery. Lear married Cissy (Elizabeth) Blakey in 1904, and Ellis became godfather to their son, Walter Hans Lear, after his birth in Newcastle on 4 March 1913 (he died in 1983). Ellis would still have been in Brighton, and it must have been Lear who took his talents southwards. Perhaps it was when he availed himself there of the ‘frequent opportunity of hearing our great master’s music capitally performed’ that he encountered Lear. Thomas Lear is said by some of his descendants to have been a close friend of Siegfried Wagner: this can’t be verified. A story lingers in the Lear family that ‘Dr. Ellis’ (he is sometimes referred to with even greater deference as Sir William Ashton Ellis) was ‘sweet upon’ Lear’s wife Elizabeth (1883-1968). [373]

Thomas Lear evidently had much more catholic musical interests than Ellis. The British Library possesses a virtuoso piece by Thos. Lear with polka rhythms for solo (or with piano accompaniment) B flat cornet entitled ‘Shylock’, published by Boosey & Co. in 1927. [374] A branch of the Lear family kindly passed on to me an undated Carl Simon Musikverlag score (for harmonium or organ with string quartet accompaniment) of Kistler’s Gebet Op. 59 No. 3, inscribed (almost certainly by the composer) ‘Seinem lieben Herrn Ellis aus London’, and his Trauerklänge (Erinnerung an Hans von Bülow) for harmonium or organ, Op. 64 (Berlin 1894). The family also gave me piano sheet music bearing Thomas Lear’s name or monogram stamp. These include a Novello album of Marches by Various Composers; Trois Morceaux by Sigismond Noskowski; a Breitkopf und Härtel Klavier-Bibliothek transcription of the Freischütz Overture; the Danse Bohemiènne from Bizet’s Fair Maid of Perth; Adolf Jensen’s Hochzeitsmusik; a Capriccio by Domenico Scarlatti arranged by Tausig; Dvořák’s Silhouetten; the second part of Moritz Moszkowski’s Sechs Klavierstücke; Bülow’s arrangement of two Bach Gavottes; an Entr’acte from Gounod’s Colombe; Liszt’s Consolation No. 3, and his transcriptions of Mendelssohn’s Wasserfahrt and Der Jäger Abschied; and Johann Strauss’s Morgenblätter Waltz No. 7. A copy of Etienne Charavay’s catalogue of the Lettres Autographes composant la Collection de M. Alfred Bovet (Paris 1887) is certainly Ellis’s. [375] The surviving Lear family have not been able to preserve much of Ellis’s estate, but they were generous in assisting me with my research. The silver coffee pot was sold years ago, but the stained glass portrait of Wagner survives. [376] All of William Ashton Ellis’s estate that the descendants of Thomas Lear now have in their possession - besides some kindly memories passed down - is his baptismal bible and the stained glass medallion of Richard Wagner.


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