'Faithful, All Too Faithful' by David Cormack (Part 2)

Mosely’s name appeared, in varying form, in the sumptuous French precursor of The Meister, La Revue Wagnérienne (1885-1888). In the Revue’s number for May 1886 its London correspondent Louis N. Parker mentioned ‘J.B. Moseley qui a fondé la branche anglaise de la Societé Wagnérienne’. [83] Mosely’s name suffered various misrepresentations throughout his life, though Parker must personally have known him. The next month Parker reported that ‘Lors du passage de Liszt à Londres, le 17 avril, une adresse lui a été présentée, de la part du Cercle Wagnérien, par M. J.B. Mosely’. [84] The Revue got the name right, though, when Parker reported the London Society’s prospectus for 1886 which included the lecture ‘Un simple description des principes d’art de Wagner’ to be given on 16 March ‘par M. B.L. Mosely’, and earlier when it listed the international central committee of ‘l’Association Wagnérienne’ in Munich. ‘[L]e president honoraire est Liszt; et les membres du Comité sont: le baron d’Ostini et le comte de Sporck, presidents; MM. Sachs et Porges, secrétaires; Schmid, trésorier; et H. Lévi, chef d’orchestre de Munich, Merz, le baron de Wolzogen, Fischer, de Schmœdel, et Seitz. Le représentant à Paris est M. H.S. Chamberlain, à Bruxelles M. H. La Fontaine, à Londres M. B.L. Mosely.’ [85]

In England though, Mosely had given up the position of secretary of the London branch by 1887 in favour of Julius Cyriax, though he remained one of the ‘Hon. Auditors’ of its balance sheet published for that year. [86] In May 1889 he is mentioned in The Meister as a contributor to the discussion following Louis N. Parker’s lecture ‘Confessions of a Wagnerian’ read at Trinity College on the first of that month. William Ashton Ellis is almost certainly the contributor of this ‘Note’:

Those among the audience expecting to hear a recantation after the manner of Mr. Friedrich Nietzsche were doomed to disappointment. Mr. Parker touched in a very light and gossipy style upon such widely dissimilar topics as provincial audiences, Bayreuth audiences, cuts, musical literature, old librettos, prima donnas, and musical education; and concluded with an account of what we must, for want of a better word, describe as his conversion. These points were illustrated with anecdotes and instances, and the paper seemed to find great favour with the audience. But by no means its least merit was that it provoked some excellent speeches from Messrs. Armbruster, Jacques, Mosely, and Praeger. […] Mr. Mosely referred eloquently to the loss sustained by the Society, owing to the death of Mr. Carl Rosa, and spoke in graceful terms of the lecture they had just heard. Mr. Parker closed the proceedings by thanking his audience for their reception of him, and congratulated them on being rewarded by their patience in listening to him by the privilege of hearing the other speakers. [87]

Ellis breaks in here to assure his readers that ‘Such evenings as the above are of great benefit to the Society; for, though in print they may have rather the appearance of the bugbear, “mutual admiration,” they are in reality the means of bringing about many an animated discussion, in which the views of different speakers must necessarily become widened and more catholic.’ [88] But it’s possible to read between the lines of Ellis’s report of Parker’s lecture his irritation at the ‘mutual admiration’ indulged in by old stagers of the London branch of the Wagner Society such as Praeger and Mosely. Parker’s reminiscences of this period, forty years later, were somewhat ingenuous, given his documented involvement in the Revue Wagnérienne, the London Wagner Society and The Meister:

I had been an original member of the London Branch of the Wagner Society; and now, partly with a view to getting better known in London, I took an active share in its work. This brought me into contact with Alfred [sic] Dowdeswell, Avigdor Birnstingl, Ashton Ellis and Alfred Forman […]. At one of my lectures I also made the acquaintance of Ferdinand Praeger and his wife. I grew very fond of them, and spent many pleasant hours at their house. Later Praeger published a book, Wagner as I Knew Him, which roused the extremists in the Wagner Society, and, I believe, Wahnfried, to fury. I was not, and am not, sufficiently versed in the minutiae of Wagnerian history to give any opinion on the rights of the case, but I think Praeger’s opponents were a little bloodthirsty. [89]

Parker fails to mention Mosely, and except for Ellis’s Note in May 1889, Mosely’s name never appeared in The Meister. He probably realised he was being sidelined. His last contribution to English Wagnerism was earlier in 1889, when he wrote to The Times to ‘correct’ its obituary of Francis Hueffer:

While wishing to bear my humble tribute to the services rendered to the Wagner movement in this country by the late Dr. Hueffer, in the name of historical accuracy I would ask to be allowed to point out an error which has crept into the obituary notice of that able critic. It is not correct to say that ‘Dr. Hueffer was perhaps the first in this country to recognize the merits of Richard Wagner and to advocate his claims.’ So far from this being the fact, it was already in 1856 [sic] that the Philharmonic Society, at Ferdinand Praeger’s suggestion, invited Wagner over to London to conduct their concerts, with a result which is now matter of common knowledge to all who interest themselves in the art of music. For many years after that untoward incident the name of Wagner was rarely heard here save as synonymous with charlatanism; and it was not until the late Walter Bache started his well-remembered concerts that the Wagner propaganda can be considered to have begun in real earnest. Mr. Bache’s efforts were seconded and supplemented by those of Mr. Edward Dannreuther, whose essays and whose concerts were largely instrumental in forcing the claims of the great German upon the notice of the English public. But all this happened before Dr. Francis Hueffer’s writings on Wagner had seen the light. [90]

Mosely withheld his own name: the letter was signed simply ‘Founder of the Wagner Society (London Branch)’.

For a time, though, Mosely maintained his connection with the London Branch. On 17 June 1889 he wrote to Cyriax with forebodings about its future if Cyriax’s intention to retire as secretary were carried out: ‘we may have to watch the melancholy spectacle of its decadence or, worse still, its employment for the purpose of advancing the commercial interests of some unscrupulous individual.’ Mosely must have meant Ellis. [91] Since his role in English Wagnerism has been eclipsed by William Ashton Ellis for over a century, this may be the time and place to acknowledge his contribution.

Benjamin Lewis Mosely was born at 48 Leadenhall Street in the City of London on 24 November 1851, the son of Ephraim Mosely (1810-1867), an ‘oilsman’ (a supplier of lighting and heating oil, but also recorded as a snuff and tobacco dealer), and his wife Rosetta (Rezka), née David. He was the youngest of seven children. The premature death of his mother when he was only seven months old, and the subsequent dispersal of most of his siblings, explains why by the age of nine he is found in the 1861 census at the far more affluent address of 55 Tavistock Square, St. Pancras. He is recorded as a scholar in the household of Jonas Levy, 46, an unmarried barrister. After the death of Mosely’s father in 1867, Jonas Levy adopted the 15 year-old and set him up in pupillage in his chambers. By the time of the census held on 2 April 1871 Benjamin is an undergraduate of London University (studying for his LL.B.), at the same address. [92] A fortnight later, on 18 April 1871, at the age of 19, ‘Benjamin Lewis Mosely of 55 Tavistock Square, 5th son of Ephraim Mosely late of Dalston, was admitted to Gray’s Inn on 18 April 1871’ to study law, following in the footsteps of his adoptive ‘stepfather’ twenty years earlier. By the same time, however, he had become enthusiastic about English poetry and drama. He was elected a Member of the Society of Arts in 1873, before being called to the Bar at Gray’s Inn on 26 January 1874 and admitted to the society of the Middle Temple on 4 May 1874. He was then aged 22. [93]

Ten years later he had become established in both German and English Wagnerian circles. In 1884 his translation of Hans von Wolzogen’s Guide to the Legend, Poem and Music of Richard Wagner’s Tristan and Isolde was published by Breitkopf und Härtel, and was dedicated ‘To the Right Honorable the Earl of Dysart, President of the London Branch of the United Richard Wagner Society’. In a translator’s footnote Mosely remarked: ‘It is not generally known that the subject of “Tristan and Isolde” was suggested to Wagner as appropriate for musico-dramatic treatment by his lifelong friend and staunch supporter, Ferdinand Praeger, himself a composer of striking originality.’ [94] Mosely (an amateur pupil of Praeger’s) may have been overly credulous on this, or he may have misremembered something Praeger had said about the ‘embryo of the idea’ of Tristan, at a meeting of the Musical Association two years earlier: ‘I may tell you at the same time that [Wagner] never looked out for a libretto, because, being so intimate with him, I asked him to write one, when he said, “I cannot; my librettos come only by chance. They all at once strike me.”’ [95] After Praeger later re-worked this reminiscence more ambiguously into his controversial reminiscences of Wagner, William Ashton Ellis queried its veracity (at least on account of the date) and Chamberlain derided Mosely for representing what he called a ‘conte à dormir debout’ (child's bedtime story) as historically established fact. [96]

Like George Bernard Shaw, Mosely was a member of the Browning and Shelley Societies and an ardent admirer of Alma Murray’s dramatic talents. The actress Alma Murray (1854-1945) was the wife of Wagner-translator Alfred Forman (1840-1925): both were on the committee of the London branch of the Wagner Society. On 7 May 1886 she was particularly admired in progressive literary circles for her strenuous performance as Beatrice in a single private representation at the Grand Theatre, Islington, of Shelley’s sensational incest-and-murder drama The Cenci. Mosely even composed some incidental music. ‘Appropriate music for the plaintive farewell song of Beatrice in the last act had been composed by B.L. Mosely, Esq.,’ reported Lloyd’s Weekly London Newspaper on 9 May 1886, ‘and notwithstanding the great strain upon Miss Murray’s voice through nearly four hours, her rendering of it was very touching and expressive.’ [97] Mosely later published privately a passionate record of ‘Miss Alma Murray as Beatrice Cenci (Read and discussed before the Shelley Society on the 9th of March, 1887)’. He had already eulogised her in 1885 in a paper read before the Browning Society, for her performance on 28 November 1884 as ‘Constance in Robert Browning’s “In a Balcony”’. [98]

Mosely seems to have known something about passion, illicit or otherwise. In 1878 he gallantly wrote several letters to the Law Journal to oppose the abolition of the legal action of breach of promise. [99] His own propinquity seems to have been adventurous. In August 1890 he was cited as co-respondent in the divorce of the theatrical designer and furniture historian Percy Macquoid (1852-1925). Macquoid’s biography makes no mention of his first wife Charlotte Thorn (born in1851), whom he married in November 1877; they had a child, Cecil Cuthbert, who died in infancy in September 1878. In his divorce petition Macquoid swore ‘That during the month of August 1889 at divers places at Nuremberg in the Empire of Germany [and] on the 13th, 14th, 15th, 16th, 17th, and 18th days of August instant at the Hotel Tronchet Rue Tronchet Paris in the Republic of France the said Charlotte Macquoid committed adultery with the said Benjamin Lewis Mosely.’ The petition was uncontested. Mosely paid costs of £65.2.2 into court, and the decree absolute took effect on 6 May 1891. Macquoid’s petition had added: ‘I say that there is no collusion or connivance between me and my wife Charlotte Macquoid or any other person in any way whatever.’ [100] But later in 1891 Macquoid married Theresa Isa Dent (1858-1939), whose portrait he had painted in 1883, while earlier the same year – as soon as the divorce permitted – Mosely had married Charlotte, under her maiden name.

Mosely’s cultural preoccupations took a new turn. He had affirmed his Anglo-Judaism in the dedications of songs published in 1875 (‘By the Rivers of Babylon’) and 1881 (‘Slumber Song’). Together with Francis Lewis Cohen (1862-1934) Mosely became co-editor of the Handbook of Synagogue Music for Congregational Singing (London 1889). In 1894 Jonas Levy died, bequeathing a large fortune to Mosely. Four years later the former synagogue musicologist left England for, of all places, British-occupied Muslim Egypt, where he had been appointed a judge of the Native Courts of First Instance. In Cairo in 1908 he befriended the touring novelist Hall Caine (1853-1931), finding a doctor to treat Caine’s ‘gyppy tummy’ and offering to relieve Caine’s wife by reading Syed Ameer Ali’s The Spirit of Islam (1891) to the invalid. [101] In July 1911 he was to be one of the organising honorary secretaries of the first Universal Races Congress held at the University of London, whose object was ‘to discuss, in the light of science and the modern conscience, the general relations subsisting between the peoples of the West and those of the East, between so-called white and so-called coloured peoples, with a view to encouraging between them a fuller understanding, the most friendly feelings, and a heartier co-operation.’ Mosely represented Egypt at the Congress [102] though he remained listed until 1915 in the London Post Office Directories at his chambers at 2 Brick Court, Temple, E.C. The circumstances of his death on 13 July 1916, at 4 Avenue des Fleurs, Monte Carlo in neutral Monaco, are not known. Surely it was not to stake his fortune at the gaming tables which, though reduced in clientèle, had remained open despite the war. [103] Mosely’s fortune seems to have remained intact. He left assets of £60 at the National Bank of Cairo, and £1,200-worth of Egyptian 4% Unified Bonds [104]and in the United Kingdom estate of £42,274 net. After bequests to former servants and clerks, ‘The residue of his estate Mr. Mosely left to his wife, but in the event of her predecease to the Khedive of Egypt for charitable purposes in Egypt and elsewhere as he may determine.’ [105] The Khedive didn’t inherit. He was deposed by the British in 1914 for siding with the Ottoman Empire. Charlotte Mosely lived on in the Monte Carlo Palace Hotel until her death on 1931 aged 81.

Benjamin Lewis Mosely’s later internationalism may not have been exactly typical, but it’s clear that when it was founded by him the new London branch of the United Wagner Society could contain an eclectic mixture of background and potential, men and women, English and German-speaking, confessing and atheist, aristocrat and professional, academic and dilettante, musical and literary. It also included William Ashton Ellis.


The Royal Albert Hall, on Monday 10 and Saturday 15 November 1884, saw two remarkable concert performances of Parsifal under the direction of Joseph Barnby. Therese Malten (Kundry), Heinrich Gudehus (Parsifal) and Emil Scaria (Gurnemanz) reprised their Bayreuth roles, with English supporting soloists and the Royal Albert Hall Choral Society. Authorised by Wagner’s publisher Schott’s if not by the composer’s heirs, these were the earliest nearly complete renderings to be given outside Bayreuth. Hueffer provided a 22-page programme-book published by Schott’s, [106] but despite considerable public excitement most of the London Wagner Society’s luminaries, loyal to the Bayreuth ideal, avoided it. William Ashton Ellis would say he had boycotted it as ‘an oratorio-version (which had better have stayed away)’. [107] Ellis may have joined the London branch of the United Wagner Society by then, but the following year he was still preoccupied with professional matters. On 17 March 1885 the Western Dispensary’s Minutes recorded that he ‘made application for the occasional use of the Board Room for Committee meetings’ - not of the Wagner Society, but – ‘of the Association of Members of the Royal College of Surgeons, of which he is one of the Honorary Secretaries’. The Association was formed during 1884, and held its first annual general meeting at Westminster Town Hall on 5 May 1885, at which Dr Robert Collum was confirmed as President, and Dr Warwick C. Steele, Mr J. Nield Cook [108] and Mr W. Ashton Ellis as Hon. Secs. and Treasurers. Its main objective was the constitutional reform of the Royal College. There were then some 16,500 Members as compared with 1,200 Fellows, and feeling among the Members was growing for some form of representation on the College’s Council. The campaign lasted several years, and included a Members’ petition to the Queen in Council. [109]

The campaign called repeatedly for rallies of the Members. In October 1886 the British Medical Journal carried a letter from Warwick C. Steele and Wm. Ashton Ellis, ‘Honorary Secretaries, Association of M.R.C.S.’:

SIR, - On Thursday, November 4th, at 3 P.M., the Members of the Royal College of Surgeons of England will again, it is hoped, fill their theatre in Lincoln’s-Inn-Fields with a body of men determined to attain fitting representation on the Council of that Corporation. L’union fait la force, and no consideration of the personal inconvenience of individual members should stand in the way of their assembling in their hundreds, and ensuring for that meeting a success equally decisive with that of the meetings of last year. [110]

These meetings can’t have been as ‘decisive’ as the Honorary Secretaries hoped. Two years later we find the British Medical Journal publishing a very similar letter from Steele and Ellis calling for a demonstration of Members at the imminent annual meeting of Fellows and Members: ‘Let Members, therefore, assemble on Thursday in numbers as large as on former occasions, and assist us in passing resolutions emphasising the determination of the great body of the Corporation to make its voice heard in the management of the affairs of its own College.’ [111] Then in February 1889 frustration broke out. Ellis and Steele organised a Members’ meeting at the College without the permission of the College Council. An extraordinary meeting of the Council was called to order the closure of the College on the appointed day. The Members met, found the doors of the College barred against them, and repaired to the Holborn Restaurant to consider their next step. They resolved to instruct Steele and Ellis, on behalf of the Members’ Association, to seek an injunction against the Council and its President, Sir William Savory (1826-1895) to prevent further enforcement of the ban.

It took until 26 January 1892 for the case of Steele v Savory to come to trial in the Chancery Division of the High Court. Warwick Charles Steele, William Ashton Ellis, Jabez Hogg and William Gilbert Dickinson ‘on behalf of themselves and all other [sic] the Members of the Royal College of Surgeons of England’ claimed a declaration that ‘all the freemen or Members’ had the right of free access to the College hall and to hold meetings, and that the President’s prohibition was based on a by-law that was ‘bad for unreasonableness.’ Without even calling upon Counsel for the defendants, Mr. Justice Romer summed up by saying that ‘to the lay mind there might appear to be something in the case, but to the legal mind, on the facts of the case, there was nothing.’ [112] Judgment was given emphatically against Steele and Ellis, and the case dismissed with costs. Steele and Ellis begged the College to forbear to press the costs. The College refused, but agreed to accept payment over a period. After three years of legal preparation for the trial, the costs amounted to £2,162, and half was paid immediately in cash - a severe drain on the plaintiffs’ resources. A subscription list for the remainder was launched in the British Medical Journal, [113] but Steele may have been bankrupted by the case: ‘Warwick Charles Steele, Ealing, Surgeon and Medical Practitioner’ was listed in The Times on 9 November 1892 among those placed under ‘receiving orders’.


Ellis’s troubles increased in the summer of 1885. The Dispensary Minutes for 21 July noted that ‘In consequence of the serious illness of the Resident Medical Officer’s father, immediate leave of absence was granted to Mr Ellis’. Robert Ellis, however, died the next day. The Post Office Directories show that he had left Chelsea around 1877 , [114] probably retiring as a practising surgeon at the age of 53. He had moved his family south, out of the metropolis, to what was then rural Mitcham in Surrey. The handsome (and still extant, and listed) Elm Lodge in Lower Green, Mitcham, was built in around 1807, and is today a doctor’s surgery: local history says it has often been occupied by doctors. [115] The 1881 census lists the Lodge’s occupants as Robert Ellis, Mary A.E. Ellis, Ada M. Ellis, Reginald H.U. Ellis, Douglas U. Ellis, Evelyn C. Ellis, Claude B. Ellis, Florence M. Ellis, plus two domestic servants and a footman. That is to say, the entire family is still together, save for Robert Uther Ellis (a married dentist in Marylebone); William Ashton Ellis (resident medical officer at the Western Dispensary, Rochester Row); and Ernest Charles Ellis (solicitor in Rickmansworth High Street). [116] Robert Ellis remains listed at Elm Lodge in the Post Office Directories of Surrey from 1878 until 1882. However, he was to end his life a few years later in North Devon, in quite other company.

The following advertisement appeared on the front page of the North Devon Journal for 7 February 1884:

GOOD HORSE (Aged), FOR SALE. Belongs to a Private Gentleman, having no further need of him. Will only be sold to a gentleman where he would have light work and kind treatment. Price most moderate. Believed to be sound and quiet in harness. – Apply, Dr. Ellis, ‘Sunset,’ Westward Ho.

Westward Ho!, in the north-western corner of Northam parish named after Charles Kingsley’s 1855 novel set there, is the only place-name in the British Isles officially to include an exclamation mark. It was a most suitable place for the retirement of the respected author of The Chemistry of Creation, who might have read it described as ‘222½ miles from London, by the London and South Western Railway.’ And interestingly,

There is much building ground still available – and among the plans likely to be carried out is one of a Sanatorium, to be called the ‘Kingsley,’ with a resident physician, for the reception and benefit of invalids, who would here derive the solid advantages to be gained from the salubrious breezes of the Atlantic. This locality supplies several objects of interest to geologists and antiquarians. In the low cliffs may be seen the remains of an ancient raised beach of pebbles, analogous to the present pebble ridge in its formation and materials, marking a period when the water flowed to a far higher level than at present. While in exact contrast to this may be seen near low-water mark the remains of a peat bed, in which are found numerous specimens of an extinct shell (a pholas), the remains of large trees, hazel nuts, the bones of red deer, &c., and, stranger still, the tokens of ancient man, who lived amid these trees and woods, as seen in the flint flakes that mark the places where he hewed weapons out of flint nodules – and in the bones of the ox, sheep, &c., which were broken up by him to extract the marrow’. [117]

The geologist and antiquarian Dr. Ellis was among those who had taken out an interest in building ground. Under the ‘Local Board’ report for Northam on its inside pages, the North Devon Journal recorded that ‘Letters were received from Dr. Ellis, of Westward Ho, respecting the nuisance arising from the sewerage gas from his dwelling, in consequence of there not being any common sewer. – The Board was unanimous in ordering a pipe sewer to be made, in order that Dr. Ellis’s drain might be connected.’ And again, ‘A letter was also read from Dr. Ellis, of Sunset, Westward Ho! in reference to the delay in arranging for the gas to be brought to his house, and he also wrote that Mr. Molesworth, the gas proprietor, was quite willing to do his part if the Board did theirs.’ [118]

A short obituary notice in The Lancet for August 1, 1885 read: ‘ELLIS - On the 22nd ult., at Sunset, Westward Ho, North Devon, after a long illness, Robert Ellis, M.R.C.S., L.S.A., late of 63, Sloane-street, aged 62.’ (Almost identical notices appeared in British Medical Journal, The Times and the North Devon Journal.) The ‘long illness’ may have been euphemistic: the cause of death was attributed by the local physician to ‘Cirrhossis [sic] of the Liver 2 Years Certified by Ezekiel Rouse’. ‘Sunset’ was pointed out to me by a local historian in June 1995 as then a nursing home (thankfully not called ‘Sunset’) on Atlantic Way, not far from what was the United Services College (made famous by Kipling in Stalky & Co., but long since converted into flats). In its issue for Thursday 23 July 1885 (the day after Robert Ellis’s death) The North Devon Herald reported a cricket match (played three days before his death) between the United Services College and Mr L. E. Day’s Eleven: ‘This match was played on the College Ground at Westward Ho! on Saturday last, and resulted in a draw [...]. E.C. Ellis, in the College innings, bowled very well his six wickets, costing only two runs each.’ I have no corroborating evidence, but this might just have been the younger and more sportif of Robert Ellis’s two sons with the initials E.C., the twenty-year-old Evelyn Campbell Ellis. [119]

Ezekiel Rouse, the medical officer of health for the area and surgeon to the United Services College, was a witness when Robert Ellis made his will three days before his death. It revoked ‘all Wills and testamentary dispositions heretofore made by me’. To ‘my friend Miss Wilkins of Westward Ho’, Robert Ellis left ‘the chiming clock presented by her to me’ and the sum of fifty pounds. The will omitted the names of his wife and his eldest son Robert Uther Ellis, both alive and well 222½ miles away, but at least there were bequests to his daughters Ada Mathilde Ellis (including ‘my gold ring with stones set to form the name “Robert”’), Florence Mabel Ellis, his youngest son Claude Bertram Ellis, and his sister Elizabeth Swan. The option to purchase (!) ‘my one horse power gas engine at the price of twenty pounds’ was given to his sons Reginald Henry Uther Ellis and Douglas Uther Ellis, ‘should they be carrying on the business of Soda Water Manufacturers at the time of my decease’. (They were, in Lower Mitcham, Surrey.) Other gifts went to ‘the widow of my old Coachman Henry Aldridge’ and to two old servants, Charles Meredith (the footman of the 1871 census) and William Belford. But these bequests were second in priority to some characteristic legacies: five guineas each to the Church Missionary Society, the London City Mission, the Scripture Readers Association, ‘the Boys Home of Dr. Barnardo and The Orphan Home of Mr. Müller near Bristol’. Upon probate, Robert Ellis’s estate was valued at an enormous £33,141 7s. 4d. (re-sworn in April 1888 at £32,700 18s. 2d.). William Ashton Ellis, Reginald Henry Uther Ellis and Evelyn Campbell Ellis, though executors, were otherwise bequeathed nothing in their father’s will beyond a sibling’s equal share in his residual estate. [120]

The reason may never be uncovered, but the worthy though hard-headed Robert Ellis had taken up with a new home and a new ‘friend’ Miss Wilkins in Westward Ho! towards the end of his life. Sophia Ann Wilkins was born in Stamford Hill, North London, in 1816, some six or seven years before Robert Ellis was born in North Wales. By 1881, however, according to the census for that year, she was a 64-year-old spinster, lodging at the home of a widowed dressmaker named Mrs Anderson, at 151 Sloane Street, Chelsea. The next census (1891, six years after Robert Ellis’s death) lists Miss Sophia A. Wilkins, aged 74, ‘Living on her own means’, with two servants, not at ‘Sunset’ but at Hill Side, Westward Ho Road, Northam (given in the 1893 Kelly’s Directory as Hillside Cottage, Westward Ho!). Sophia Ann Wilkins was to die nearby, at ‘Rockingham’, close to ‘Sunset’, on 21 December 1899 aged 83. The cause of death was influenza and acute bronchopneumonia. She is described as ‘of independent means’. She is the only traceable ‘Miss Wilkins of Westward Ho’. [121] It is not beyond conjecture that in the 1870s a Sloane Street liaison developed between the middle-aged doctor and the older spinster lodger, causing Ellis to leave Chelsea for Mitcham some time after 1877. When Robert Ellis’s family were all ‘of age’ (the youngest, Claude Bertram, would have been about 15), [122] he may then have joined Sophia in Westward Ho! some time around 1882 or 1883. At any rate, in the mid 1880s Robert Ellis appears to have turned his back on his wife of more than thirty-five years, and most of his own large family left behind in London. Beside the £50 in his will, had he settled some of his wealth on Miss Wilkins, raising her from impoverished spinsterhood to ‘independent means’? If he had new-found happiness it was short-lived; the chiming clock he bequeathed back to Miss Wilkins would have counted down the two years of liver disease which caught up with him in July 1885.

Back in London, a first indication of some unhappiness at the Western Dispensary is found on 27 July 1886, when the Western Dispensary’s Minutes record that William Ashton Ellis applied for the post of secretary there. Curiously, in view of his financial circumstances, the post of secretary offered a salary of only £18.2s.6d. per quarter, compared with his Resident Medical Officer’s salary of £26.5s. Less onerous duties rather than remuneration may have been the attraction. In any event Ellis failed to obtain the post. It was given to Francis Charles Morgan, a bank clerk by profession, who held it until his death on 22 December 1912, when his 35 year-old daughter Edith succeeded him. [123] In the closing years of his life Ellis was to have certain difficulties with that lady.


Ellis’s first public contribution to Wagner studies was a paper read to the Society for the Encouragement of the Fine Arts on 3 February 1887, and repeated before the London Branch of the ‘United Richard Wagner Society’ on 10 March. It marked a decisive change in Ellis’s career, which deprived the Westminster poor of his ministry in order to enrich us less tangibly. Between those readings (on 1 March to be exact), a special meeting of the Western Dispensary’s Committee of Management was convened to receive a letter from the Resident Medical Officer, resigning his appointment with effect from Lady Day next (25 March - the Dispensary worked punctiliously to the quarters). Another special meeting on 22 March appointed a successor, but the Minutes also show that it was

carried most unanimously that -

‘The Committee desire to express to Mr Ellis, the late Resident Medical Officer, their best thanks for the very efficient manner in which he has discharged his various duties during the last 8 years and to acknowledge the kindness and courtesy he has always shown to the patients under his care.’

In accordance with the united wish of the Committee, Mr Ellis was called in and personally informed by the Chairman of the motion referred to as well as of the tenor of the accompanying and subsequent remarks. Mr Ellis thanked the meeting for this Evidence of their Esteem and appreciation.

It was resolved that a copy of the motion be forwarded to Mr Ellis, in a communication to be signed by the Chairman.

If to the Dispensary’s Committee Ellis’s resignation was as inexplicable as it was unexpected, the reason for it is to be found in a letter of Helena Petrovna Blavatsky (1831-91), the founder of Theosophy, written from Ostend to her sister Vera Jelihovsky (1835-1896):

What am I to Ellis who never saw me before, that he should think nothing of the risk, when leaving the hospital without permission, for a whole week for my sake; now he has lost his place, his handsome pay, and his rooms at the Westminster [sic] dispensary. He went home and returned here laughing: he does not care a bit, he says! ‘He will have more time to spend on Theosophy.’ [124]

It’s unlikely that Ellis exaggerated his own self-sacrifice. Madame Blavatsky was reciting only one of a number of examples of her ostensible power over others: ‘Why should it be my fate to influence the destinies of other people?’ she asks rhetorically in the same letter. No doubt it suited her purpose to imagine that Ellis left his post ‘without permission’. A more objective account was given by Blavatsky’s companion, Countess Constance Wachtmeister (1838-1910):

In October, 1886, I joined H.P.B. in Ostende [...] Towards the end of the winter [evidently in March] H.P.B. became very ill [...]. I telegraphed to Madame Gebhard [...] and also to Mr. Ashton Ellis, a member of the T.S. [Theosophical Society] and a clever doctor, both responded to my call and helped me through those trying and anxious days, and in the end Mr. Ellis’ wise treatment pulled her through the dangerous crisis. [125]

Ellis had diagnosed H.P.B.’s dangerous crisis as Bright’s Disease of the kidneys. According to Countess Wachtmeister, he ‘massé’d her until he was quite exhausted; but she got no better, and to my horror I began to detect that peculiar faint odour of death which sometimes precedes dissolution.’ But against all expectations the efforts of Ellis and a Belgian doctor prevailed. [126] Blavatsky’s own full account to her sister provides a unique glimpse of Ellis’s bedside manner. She describes a profound intimation of mortality in Ostend on 17 March 1887.

Two days after we nearly forgot all about it, when I received a letter from a certain London member [of the Theosophical Society], whom I never saw before in my life — Ashton Ellis, a doctor of the Westminster Dispensary, a mystic, a Wagnerian, great lover of music, still quite a young man, he also insisted on my coming [to London] for the simple reason, don’t you know, of having seen me before him and having recognized me because of my portraits. I stood, he says, on the other side of the table on which he was writing, and gazed at him. I and Constance (the Countess Wachtmeister) were very much amused by his enthusiastic statement: ‘My life seems strangely linked with yours,’ he writes, ‘with you and the Theosophical Society. I know I am bound to see you soon.’ We were amused, but soon forgot all about it. Then I caught a cold in the throat, I really do not understand how, and then it grew still worse. When on the fifth day — after I had to go to bed, the Ostende doctors said there was no hope, as the poisoning of the blood had begun owing to the inaction of the kidneys, I dozing all the time and doomed to enter eternal sleep while thus dozing — the Countess remembered that this Ashton Ellis is a well-known doctor. She telegraphed to him, asking him to send her a good specialist. And lo! — this perfect stranger wires back: ‘coming myself, shall arrive in the night.’ Through my sleep I dimly remember someone coming into the room in the night, taking my hand and kissing it and giving me something to swallow; then he sat at the edge of my bed and started massaging my back. Just fancy, this man never went to bed during three days and three nights, rubbing and massaging me every hour...

After this Blavatsky narrates that she heard someone saying her body would not be allowed to be burned, were she to die not having signed her will. Cremation only would secure her reincarnation. ‘Here,’ she continues,

consciousness awoke in me, struck with horror at the thought of being buried, of lying here with Catholics, and not in Adyar ... I called out to them and said: ‘Quick, quick, a lawyer,’ and, would you believe it, I got up! Arthur Beghard [sic – probably Gebhard], who had just returned from America and had come here with his mother, having heard about my illness, rushed out and brought a lawyer and the American Consul, and I really don’t know how I could gather so much strength: -- I dictated and signed the will... Having done with it, I felt I could not keep up any longer. I went back to bed saying to myself: ‘Well, good bye, now I shall die.’ But Ashton Ellis was positively beside himself; the whole night he massaged me and continually gave me something nasty to drink. But I had no hope, for I saw my body was grey and covered with dark yellowish-blue spots, and loosing [sic] consciousness I was bidding good bye to you all in my thoughts...

Twenty-four hours later she had recovered. To her aunt Nadejda Fadeef she wrote shortly afterwards:

The Ostende doctors tortured me, with no result at all, robbing me of my money and nearly killing me, but I was saved by a Theosophist of ours, Dr. Ashton Ellis, who as a reward has lost a situation with good pay, having left the Westminster Dispensary without permission and having been the last nine days by my side (massaging my back)... When all the local doctors gave me up, Countess remembered about Ashton Ellis, whom she knew by reputation, and asked him to give some advice or to send some doctor, and he answered, he was coming personally in the night. He dropped everything and came here. And mind you, he had not so much as seen me before, knowing of me only through my work and articles. I am simply tortured with remorse, he having lost so much for my sake. At least it is well he is a bachelor... He has saved me with massage, rubbing me day and night, positively taking no rest whatever. Lately he has been to London and returned yesterday, informing me that he will not leave me until I am quite recovered and intends to take me to London personally, the first warm day. […] And what do you say about the attachment this Ashton Ellis has shown to me! Where could a man be found, who would give up a good position and work, all in order to be free to save from death an old woman, an unknown stranger to him? ... And everything at his own expense, — he refuses to take a penny from me, treating me, into the bargain, to some very old Bordeaux, he has unearthed from somewhere. And all this from a stranger and an Englishman, moreover. People say: the ‘English are cold, the English are soulless.’ Evidently not all... [127]

The meeting of the Society for the Encouragement of the Fine Arts which heard Ellis’s lecture on 3 February 1887, was chaired by A.P. Sinnett, Esq. As well as being on that Society’s Council, Alfred Percy Sinnett (1840-1921) was a member of the Theosophical Society, then and later a far less reticent one than Ellis. Acquainted with Madame Blavatsky since 1879, he had been on her behalf the recipient of the controversial ‘Mahatma Letters’ supposedly communicated for the benefit of theosophy by Himalayan ‘Masters’. After H.P.B.’s death he professed his conviction as to her previous incarnations (including ‘an aunt who died prematurely’) and her ‘transfer to another nationality’ so as to ‘be better able from the fulcrum of a European birth to further the interest of the Hindoo race.’ [128]

It was evidently not necessary later to revere H.P.B. to be a true Theosophist. Sinnett was to become the author of The Early Days of Theosophy in Europe (published posthumously in 1922), a work denounced by yet more Wagnerian theosophists, Alice Leighton Cleather (1854-1938) and Basil Woodward Crump (1866-1945). [129] Between 1897 and 1899 Basil Crump had written on 'Richard Wagner's Music Dramas', and reviewed Ellis's translation of the Prose Works, in the American theosophical journal Universal Brotherhood (see http://www.theosociety.org/pasadena/ub/ub-hp.htm). However, while grateful to William Ashton Ellis for translating all the relevant ‘Eastern’ references in Wagner, in their own Wagnerian writings Cleather and Crump made little reference to their forerunner’s personal theosophical involvement. Nor apparently does Ellis refer in print to Cleather and Crump’s Wagnerian contributions. Ellis may have preferred to refrain when they condemned Sinnett for holding Blavatsky ‘up to the scorn and reprobation of posterity as nothing more than an ordinary medium, and a fraudulent one at that.’ [130] Sinnett had sided with Blavatsky’s successor as leader of the Theosophical Society, the former associate of Charles Bradlaugh and Bernard Shaw, Annie Besant. ‘In spite of her conversion to the tenets of Theosophy,’ wrote Cleather, ‘the ineffaceable stain of Socialism and Atheism remained. Subsequent events have amply proved the danger to the Theosophical Movement of these and other elements in Mrs. Besant, who was destined to become its evil genius.’ [131]

Following Blavatsky’s arrival in London in 1887 after Ellis’s treatment of her in Ostend - Sinnett preferred to regard it as ‘the exercise of occult power’ [132] - a Blavatsky Lodge was set up in opposition to the London Lodge dating from 1876. By the mid 1890s the Theosophical movement was in disruption, with accusations and counter-accusations of charlatanism. Sinnett was charged with dubious experiments with mesmerism verging on black magic. He was classed with the most notorious of Annie Besant’s associates, the alleged paedophile Charles Webster Leadbeater. Cleather and Crump were to call as witness against this perversion of the movement no less an expert than Richard Wagner himself:

Richard Wagner, who had considerable knowledge of magic, gives an exact and terrible illustration of this process in his symbolical music-drama Parsifal [...]. At the beginning of Act II [Klingsor] is seen calling up [Kundry’s] ‘red-violet Astral Body’ while her physical body lies in a hypnotic sleep under a bush in the Grail’s domain [...]. The whole may be taken as a drama of the Theosophical Society, which may now be said to be under the domain of Klingsor, and still awaiting the coming of its Parsifal who can shatter the vast fabric of psychic illusion. [133]

Ellis wouldn’t have found this too far-fetched. In The Meister for July 1888 he noted:

The red turban which [Klingsor] wears (which, by the way, has been discarded, for some unaccountable reason, since Wagner’s death in favour of a white turban) is the distinctive mark in the East of the sorcerers who use their knowledge of the secret forces of nature for the furtherance of black magic, in pursuance of inordinate selfish ambition, and who are called from their wearing of this colour the Dugpas (red caps). [134]

In 1887 Ellis was more than hovering on the fringes of theosophical controversy with that lecture delivered under Sinnet’s chairmanship, Richard Wagner, as Poet, Musician and Mystic. The ‘as poet’ section eschewed literary analysis: ‘there is room here for none but intense feelings of passion, or ecstatic yearnings for sensation lifted on to a plane above this world’. [135] The ‘as musician’ section disavowed musicianship disingenuously: ‘I am not schooled in rules of harmony, and have not cared to indulge in the sad diversion of picking a passage of music to pieces to see what it is made of. Such scientific dissection I must leave to the professional musicians, though not without recognising that it is an all-important duty for them to exercise themselves in the anatomy of their art.’ [136] The same section anticipated the ‘as mystic’:

But if we cannot enter upon the Indian mysteries of nature and, like [Wagner], surprise her at her work, forcing from her her archetypes and bringing them from what the Easterns call the Akāsa, and the Western occulists [sic], the ‘astral light’ - that sphere in which the moulds of things past, present and to come, lie as an open secret, unlocked to inspiration - down to the plane of matter: if we cannot do this, we can at least judge from the effect whether he was right or wrong. [...] My advice to those about to witness a Wagner performance would therefore be: leave your motiv-books behind you, and give yourself up heart and soul to the music, action, poetry and scene set before you. If you lose your identity for the time, what matter? It will come back to you, sure enough, with the matter-of-fact din and hubbub of the streets, when you return to them. [137]

The ‘as mystic’ section of the essay turned out to be a closely argued protest against materialism. Ellis defined ‘mysticism’ in sentences from ‘our own great Philosopher Thomas Carlisle’ [sic] which culminated in:

‘The Invisible world is near us, or rather, it is here, in us and about us; were the fleshly coil removed from our soul, the glories of the Unseen were even now around us, as the ancients fabled of the spheral music.’

‘These words of Carlyle’ Ellis continued,

sound almost as a prophecy, when we consider that they were written half a century ago, when there seemed to most men but little prospect of a revival from the crushing scientific materialism that was gradually tightening its iron grasp upon the hearts of Englishmen; for now-a-days people of open mind are glad to search into these things, and the ridicule is rather being turned against the self-sufficient obscurantists than against those who are earnestly endeavouring to penetrate behind the veil of Isis. At no time has there been such a widespread desire to search all things, and to wring forth some of the hidden secrets of that which is above and beyond Matter. Bodies of men are grouping themselves together, some attempting to deal with the question from the side of ghostly manifestations, as the Spiritualists; some from that of thought-transference and allied phenomena, as the Society for Psychical Research; and some from the side of the ancient, and till lately almost inaccessible stores of occult wisdom, as the Theosophical Society. The object in all, however, is the same; to shake off this great pall of gross matter that shuts men off into separate prison cells of personal egoism, and to reach forth, however feebly at first, into a realm, the nearness to us of which Carlyle thus set forth.

‘That this was also Wagner’s great, though at first unconscious aim,’ Ellis went on, ‘no one can deny, who will take the trouble to read his prose-writings, or who will analyse the systematic expansion of the spiritual side of his dramatic works.’ However, ‘Such an analysis’ - i.e. that systematic expansion of the spiritual side of Wagner’s works – ‘is quite out of the question to-night,’ Ellis told his no doubt relieved audience,

for in preparing a paper which I read elsewhere I found that the mere hints that might be offered on this subject filled up a space of time longer than I could dare to demand from you for the whole of this lecture, and even then the topic could only be grazed upon, to say nothing of exhausted. [138]

The lecture quoted extensively from Wagner’s prose works, which Ellis evidently knew comprehensively by that date. Ellis neatly rounded off his argument by appearing to draw together his themes of Wagner, the English, and the ineffable:

One little passage alone would vindicate my contention, where [Wagner] says, ‘I fear that to go to the bottom of this subject would lead us to Mystic depths, and those who would follow us would be branded by the self-styled cultured world of music as blockheads, a word with which according to Carlyle, the English label all Mystics.’ [139]

Wagner seems to have been referring to Carlyle’s article on Novalis which remarks that in English (or rather Scots) ‘common speech’ a Mystic ‘means only a man whom we do not understand, and, in self-defence, reckon or would fain reckon a Dunce’. [140] William Ashton Ellis could not have been unaware that the streets of his youth were famously walked by the Sage of Chelsea. Did he recognise in the Scottish-born Carlyle a non-conformist, even dislocated, intellectual force that reminded him of his own Welsh-born father?

The ‘paper read elsewhere’ had been published before the As Poet lecture, as Theosophy in the Works of Richard Wagner in the August 1886 issue (number 11) of the Transactions of the London Lodge of the Theosophical Society. [141] The opening of that essay averred, with a mixture of geological metaphors, that ‘while our Tyndalls and Huxleys, our Darwins and our Spencers are reducing all to the cold plane of gross matter, a school has arisen, unmarked or derided in its inception, but destined, in the lapse of time, to win back the world from these frigid formularies to the sense of higher realms, standing open with rich fields of gold ready for the spade of the explorer.' [142] Replete with quotations from Edwin Arnold’s Buddhistic poem The Light of Asia and terms such as the ‘septenary chain’ of ‘the body Rupa’, ‘the Kama Rupa’, ‘Prana’, ‘Linga Sharira’, ‘the Manas’, ‘Buddhi’, and ‘the Atma’, the essay’s aim was to introduce English theosophists to their German precursor Richard Wagner. As such, it’s more easily digested than A.P. Sinnett’s arcane musings, which comprised the majority of the Transactions. For our purposes, though, the essay is interesting for its reference at its close to correspondence Ellis reveals he had already had with ‘a lady who had most intimately known the composer for the last thirty years of his life’. He quotes a passage from this lady’s reply on the subject of vegetarianism and Buddhism: Wagner was ‘in principle’ a vegetarian, she says, but ‘in practice, however, neither his health nor the orders of his physician allowed him to be a vegetarian.’ [143] (At this point it’s with some relief that we can observe that if Wagner was only as spiritual as his physical life allowed him to be, Ellis would turn out to be only as theosophical as his English sense of propriety allowed him to be.) [144]

Twenty years later, in his 1905 edition of the letters of Richard Wagner to Mathilde Wesendonck, Ellis was to reveal publicly that he had had the ‘personal experience’ of being ‘admitted to the honour of Frau Wesendonck’s society during the last twenty years of her life’, beginning with a first encounter ‘in that sad year at Bayreuth when the master was no more.’ If Ellis meant that he met Mathilde Wesendonck at a Bayreuth Festival, then he was referring to the 1884 rather than the 1883 Festival. [145] The meticulous Minutes of the Western Dispensary show that on 21 March 1883 Ellis applied for and was granted three weeks’ leave from 3 April (to pay homage, as we have seen, at the Palazzo Vendramin) but no leave was granted for the Festival month of August 1883. The Minutes for 16 July the following year, however, show that Ellis applied for and was granted three weeks’ leave, which would have taken in the 1884 Festival.

Ellis conjures her up: ‘This placid, sweet Madonna, the perfect emblem of a pearl, not opal, her eyes still dreaming of Nirvana, - no! emphatically no! she could not once have been swayed by carnal passion’. [146] Whereas A.P. Sinnett could idolise first Helena Petrovna Blavatsky’s spiritual connections, and then Annie Besant’s, Ellis’s devotion was steadily directed towards Mathilde Wesendonck, a living ‘spiritual’ link (at any rate until her death on 29 August 1902) with his own acknowledged Master. Richard Wagner to Mathilde Wesendonck includes a letter to Ellis from Mathilde in unintentionally hilarious English, which Ellis po-facedly reproduces in facsimile. [147] Dated 26 March 1892, it is a reply to a warning apparently sent by to her by Ellis about the ‘slander’ contained in Praeger’s Wagner As I Knew Him (about which more later):

Milan. März 26. 1892.

Dear Sir!

Your kind lettre of The20th reached me at Milan, where I stay a couple of day’s, on the way home to Berlin, Zelten 21., after an absence of almost a year, past in Austria and in Italy.-

You will believe me that the content of your writing, deeply afflicts’ me. It is a base and hateful beginning, that of Mr Ferdinand Prager’s, in writing and publishing a book, merely to darken the Meister’s Memory to Mankind, by making ‘Gossip’ on the Intimacy of his Private Life, a Life, full of Conflikt, affliction and suffering!-

What hath the Publick to do with it? Deed he not bequeath to him, his unequaled, unrivaled everlasting Work’s? And is this holy Testament not above all doubt and Calumny? Is it not sufficient to secure him for ever, the grateful and tender Respect, the awe and the Consideration, due to his Great-ness and his Genius? –

The [Jessie Laussot]‘Episode’ of Bordeaux has been related by the ‘Meister’ himself, and is to be found in the Edition of: ‘hinterlassene Schriften’. May we not be content with what he tell’s us about it? Need we know more? –

The truth is: That R. Wagner’s affection and Gratefulness to the ‘Wesendonck’s’ remained the same throughout his life, and that the ‘Wesendonck’s’ on theire Side, never ceased to belong to his most true and sincerest friend’s until to Death!-

What shall I say more! Is it worth while, to speak in so serious a matter, from my owne personal Self?-

The tie that bound him to Mathilde Wesendonck, whome he then called his ‘Muse’, was of a so high, pure, nobel and ideal Nature that, alas, it will only be valued of those, that in their own Noble chest find the same elevation and selfishlessnes of Mind!-

Many, many thank’s for your kind interference and communication. Yours truly

Mathilde Wesendonck

[In margin] I write in english, though no more accustomed to it, on purpose to prevent missun-derstanding!

Curiously, the original of Mathilde’s letter ended up folio’d in 1965 among George Bernard Shaw’s papers in the British Library Manuscripts Department and it remains wrongly indexed there as a letter to Shaw. [148]

The young W.B. Yeats (1865-1939) was convinced that in April 1888 Ellis was the author of the unsigned review in Madame Blavatsky’s theosophical monthly Lucifer of A Dream of the Gironde and other poems by Evelyn Pyne. ‘We understand that there remain only a few copies of this volume,’ said the review, ‘and that they are for the most part in the possession of the author, Mr. Evelyn Pyne, The Pines, Bagshot, Surrey, to whom we refer our readers.’ [149] The same issue of Lucifer included three poems by Evelyn Pyne - and the second number of The Meister the following month included that author’s ‘Anniversary Ode (R. Wagner, born May 22, 1813)’. [p150] ‘They think no end of “Mr Pyne”,’ wrote Yeats, ‘as they call her. One man on the staff is quite enthusiastic[,] has bought both her books and compares her metre to Swinburne. Has quite considerable corrispondence [sic] with her, never dreaming she was not “Evelyn Pyne Esq”. He is the editor of the new Wagner journal the “Meister”.’ Yeats relished this exhibition of mistaken theosophical enthusiasm for Evelyn Pyne’s allegedly Swinburnian (the review actually said Shelleyan) rhapsodies: ‘the very simple minded musician who reviews and is so enthusiastic about her blushed when he was told “Mr Pyne” was a lady. Her poems in Lucifer are quite long. I have not read them.’ [151]

‘Evelyn Pyne’ was the pseudonym of Evelyn May Noble born in June 1853, daughter of the Sunningdale nurseryman Charles Noble. She is said to have taken her nom de plume from her address, The Pines, Bagshot, Surrey. Paradoxically, she seems to have had a very unSchopenhauerian will to life. The 1891 census recorded her at Noble’s Nurseries with an employment status given as ‘Litterary Various’ [sic]. In 1893 she married John Armitage, a Quaker minister 27 years her senior. The following year The Times of 25 May announced the forthcoming publication by Hodder Brothers of a volume of ‘social and political essays’ establishing a new liberal political party to be called ‘The New Party’; contributors would include Robert Blatchford, Keir Hardie, Alfred Russel Wallace, Walter Crane, and ‘Miss Evelyn Pyne’. On 22 June the same year The Times reported that ‘Messrs. William Andrews & Co., of Hull, propose to issue shortly the “Quaker Poets of England,” by Evelyn Pyne (Mrs. Evelyn Noble Armitage), author of “The Message of Quakerism to the Present Day,” &c.’ It was published in 1896. In 1901 the census found Evelyn and John Armitage at 1 Mount Pleasant Crescent in Hastings, aged 47 and 74 respectively. John Armitage died in 1903. In 1909 Evelyn married again; her second husband, Millin Russell Selby (born 1849) died in 1933. On 28 December 1937 The Times announced the death in Brighton on 24 December of ‘EVELYN MAY (EVELYN PYNE), widow of MILLIN R. SELBY, aged 86’. (She would in fact have been 84.)

The publisher’s advertisement in the endpapers of Evelyn Pyne’s collection The Poet in May (1885) for the earlier Dream of the Gironde (1877) had cited appreciations of ‘Mr. Pyne’s poetry’ from the Westminster Review, the Liverpool Daily Post and the Spectator. Those reviewers, like Ellis, had doubtless been misled by the dedication of the earlier volume ‘To the dear memory of her who dead to the world blooms a star in my heart forever.’ (Ellis had a younger brother, it will be recalled, called Evelyn.) But whether Ellis blushed or not in 1888, his admiration for Miss Evelyn Pyne remained undimmed. He was to publish another of her poems, ‘A May Song’, in The Meister in May 1890. Fifteen years later, in his volume of translations of letters from Richard Wagner to Mathilde Wesendonck he unblushingly rendered thanks ‘above all to an English friend, “Evelyn Pyne,’” for her assistance in giving the due feminine flavour to our joint translation of Frau Wesendonck’s tales and letters, also for her sole and beautiful translation of that lady’s poems.’ And in covering the Wesendonck episode in the sixth volume (1908) of the Life of Richard Wagner Ellis gave the credit again to his ‘English friend’ for translations ‘for these pages by “Evelyn Pyne”’ of the texts of three of the Five Songs. [152]

Yeats may not have known it, but Ellis’s first signed contribution to Lucifer had been published in its fourth issue, dated 15 December 1887. The article ‘An infant genius’ presented the keyboard prodigy Josef Hofmann, ‘a child whose life, in this incarnation at least, is barely ten years old’, as proof of the doctrine of reincarnation. The young Hofmann (1876-1957) was taking concert-going London by storm, but aroused deeper reflections in Ellis: ‘it must be that the child has lived upon this earth before’. Allowing that the child was likely subsequently to ‘squander’ his gifts in this existence, Ellis wrote:

We have only adduced this boy’s genius as one of the indications that life is in its succession a far more complex problem than the materialists or the orthodox religionists would have us believe. There are countless other suggestive little facts of early talent that must have come within the circle of the daily life of each of us; but without the thread of Karma whereon to string them, we pass them by; and it is only when some remarkable phenomenon, such as that of Josef Hofmann, bursts upon the world, that men fall to wondering. Yet it is by the accumulation of small details that a philosopher like Darwin worked out his scheme of natural evolution; and it is by the testing of such a theory as that of re-incarnation by many a little hitherto unexplained incident that we shall find its worth. [153]

Ellis’s second contribution to Lucifer, in its sixth issue, a review of the astrologer Captain William C. Eldon Serjeant’s Spirit Revealed, envisaged something more socially concrete than the accumulation of small details strung on the thread of Karma: ‘an awakening of the peoples to their real position as members of one great Spiritual community’. ‘If Theosophy is to be a living thing, and not a mere intellectual amusement,’ Ellis concluded, it is by such men as Captain Serjeant that ‘the world would soon be freed from its misery, by the force of their united volition. Verily their reward is at hand.’ [154]

Ellis’s other contributions to Lucifer were ‘Occult Phenomena’ (15 March 1888) and ‘A Glance at “Parsifal”’ (15 October 1888). The former is, to the best of my knowledge, Ellis’s only published verse-form contribution. It derides those who seek a facile ‘sign’ that the material world is not all there is. The answer to them is Jonah’s cry to the city of Nineveh ‘to cleanse its heart – and see’. The latter, somewhat contradictorily, views Parsifal as a rich source of profound ‘mystic’ or ‘philosophical’ signs, to be found in formulations such as ‘Time is swallowed up in Space’ and in ‘the various hints of the doctrine of re-incarnation’ as in the words ‘all that breathes and lives, and lives again.’ Between December 1888 and June 1889 Lucifer also printed instalments of Ellis’s (apparently uncompleted) translation of E.T.A. Hoffmann’s The Elixir of the Devil.

If Josef Hofmann was a temporary musical detail on the thread of Karma, the figure of Richard Wagner must have seemed to Ellis to embody Karma itself. [155] In that sixth issue of Lucifer, an advertisement appeared for ‘The new Wagner journal’ The Meister, whose prospectus had just been received by the editor H.P. Blavatsky. It noted that since The Meister’s editor ‘is a member of the Committee of the Wagner Society, and a member of the Council of the London Lodge of the Theosophical Society, we hope that prominence will be given to the esoteric side of Richard Wagner’s works’. And justification for that hope was looked for in words quoted from The Meister’s prospectus:

Religion, Art, and Social Questions are in these works (Wagner’s) presented to his readers under novel aspects, and such as are of the greatest interest to a generation which is eagerly scanning the horizon for some cloud which may be the harbinger of refreshing rain long looked for to quench the thirst of the arid sands of Materialist Science. [156]

At the end of 1888, in Lucifer’s ‘Literary Jottings’, H.P.B. marked the completion of The Meister’s first volume:

We congratulate our brother theosophist, the editor of THE MEISTER, on the completion of the first year of that journal. No. IV (the issue is quarterly) is well up to the standard of its predecessors, and contains the conclusion of a careful analysis of the deeper meaning of “Parsifal”, in which though unsigned, we detect the hand of the Editor, Mr. W. Ashton Ellis. In some respects the lines of Mr. Ellis’ contribution to the Transactions of the London Lodge of the T.S. have been followed, but the author has evidently pondered the subject more deeply in his mind with the lapse of time, and has matured his treatment of the mystic philosophy of this greatest of modern dramas. [157]

The notice went on to comment on The Meister’s translation of Art and Revolution, ‘a work most daring in its conception of the relation of art to social life’. In fact, though, Ellis’s ponderings may have caused him to begin to doubt whether H.P.B. and the Theosophical Society were after all capable of delivering the spiritual revolution he himself envisioned.


The London Branch of the Universal Wagner Society had been planning a Wagner journal some time before March 1887. [158] As its front-page advertisement in The Musical Times for 1 March 1887 put it, ‘It seems strange that though Germany and France have each a periodical exclusively devoted to the furtherance of the Wagner movement, England possesses nothing whatever of the kind. In order to supply this want, it is proposed to start a QUARTERLY PUBLICATION […]. Messrs. W. Ashton Ellis and E.F. Jacques have kindly consented to act as Honorary Editor and Sub-Editor.’ The journal would appear as soon as an extra annual subscription of 4s (over and above the 10s ordinary subscription) from at least one hundred members of the Society was pledged. Julius Cyriax pressed Ellis to take up the post of Honorary Editor. Ellis replied:

Dear Cyriax,

I have been thinking a good deal over what I said to you on Sat. night, & though I must give up the idea of being Hon. Ed. of the Wagner Journal, owing to complete change & upset in all my plans caused by my leaving my old post, I will get out the first number of the journal if you wish it, & then hand over the Ed.ship to whoever you may think best. I don’t know Wagnerians well enough to choose one myself. [159]

On 2 July 1887 Cyriax reported to Carl Friedrich Glasenapp in Bayreuth that because of the ‘insufferable formalities’ of his position at the Western Dispensary, Ellis had handed back the task. [160] As we have seen, in July 1886 Ellis had tried unsuccessfully to obtain the less onerous post of Secretary at the Dispensary; and on 1 March 1887 the Dispensary’s Committee received and accepted his resignation. The conflict Ellis experienced over taking up editorship of the Wagner journal was more to do with his higher devotion to Madame Blavatsky rather than his day job. However, Ellis’s resignation from his ‘old post’ at the Dispensary resolved the crisis. His predestined mission to Madame Blavatsky was fulfilled, the subscriptions and contributors for the Wagner periodical were found, and by 14 January 1888 Cyriax was able to inform Glasenapp that ‘Ellis is almost red-hot in his enthusiasm for the journal; he is responsible for everything; I have the fullest trust in him. He wants to christen the child “The Meister”.’ [161] As Ellis grew ‘red-hot’ for Wagnerism, his theosophical passion would cool.

Despite the speed and diligence with which he had attended Madame Blavatsky in Ostend in 1887, and being numbered for a time among her closest associates after her subsequent arrival in London, after 1889 Ellis withdrew from her circle, and seems to have shunned both the London Lodge and the Blavatsky Lodge of the Theosophical Society. [162] Another physician, Dr Z. Mennell, would attend H.P.B.’s deathbed in St John’s Wood on 8 May 1891. [163] Ellis may have been unaware of the event. Seemingly wholly engrossed in Wagnerian matters, the previous day he signed off his ‘Translator’s Preface’ to Arthur Smolian’s The Themes of Tannhäuser (London 1891). [164] The only explicit reference to Madame Blavatsky in Ellis’s published Wagnerian writings is in an inconsequential footnote of 1902, where Ellis offers the information that the Countess Hahn-Hahn, a guest along with Wagner at Ferdinand Hiller’s soirees in 1846, was ‘Countess Ida, the novelist, an older cousin of the late Helena Petrovna Blavatzky [sic]. - W.A.E.’ [165] After H.P.B.’s death W.A.E. was unlikely (given his revulsion from both materialism and orthodoxy in matters of the spirit) to have allied himself with her successor Annie Besant and her well-known kaleidoscopic career through exoteric freethought, atheism, socialism and republicanism to theosophy. Nor, for the same reason, with Annie Besant’s esoteric theosophical opponents such as Cleather and Crump. Ellis clearly wished to have no more to do with (capital T) Theosophy in its descent into unseemly squabbles. As his work of translating and interpreting Wagner took hold of him, he would on his own account lay before an English audience Wagner’s own allusions to Buddhism, Hindu myths and reincarnation.

The last number of The Meister to appear contained the second part of Ellis’s article on ‘The “Ring” Drama’. In it he translated a lengthy passage from Wagner’s letter to August Röckel of April 1855, in which the composer had turned his back on ‘affirmative’ (Feuerbachian) thought, now seen as merely ‘coquetting with the Will’ and which when ‘pursued at all costs’ turned out to be ‘Judaism itself, so omnipotent again today and trumpeting the narrowest, most parochial world-view ever preached’. True Christianity’s origins were not to be found in the ‘soulless, heartless Optimism’ of Judaism, according to Wagner (as translated, and wholeheartedly endorsed, it seems, by Ellis), but in ‘the pure original teachings of the Buddha, and particularly the doctrine of the Transmigration of the Soul as incentive to a purely humane, a life full of sympathy with special reference to the knowledge-lacking world of beasts and plants, - assuredly the most beautiful fancy of a lofty spirit longing to impart itself.’ ‘It may appear an abuse of editorial privilege,’ Ellis interjected, ‘to have led my readers seemingly so far from the immediate subject, the ‘Ring Drama’; but when one places oneself in Richard Wagner’s hands for a journey to the transcendental, it is uncommonly difficult to turn back and descend from the general to the particular.’ [166] It was significant for Ellis that Wagner was expressing these buddhistic yearnings at the very time he was packing his bags for no less worldly a spot than London. The transcendental journey eastwards was an ‘astral’ counterpart of the actual westward railway and steamship journey from Zurich, via Paris to Dover. From there it was a train journey into London Bridge, where in Ellis’s imagination - now phrased more like William Booth than Edwin Arnold - Wagner ‘[had] to do his own haggling with the London porters, and deposit his weary bones in that abomination of desolation, a station “growler”’, before ‘trundling through the four odd miles of streets made trebly dismal by the sepulchral gloom of an English Sunday night, splashed here and there with the forbidding glare of public-houses’. [167] Among the multifarious criticisms Ellis would make of Ferdinand Praeger, Wagner’s London host in 1855, Ellis chided him for failing to meet his famous guest at the station. In fact Wagner himself didn’t complain: after a ‘stupid’ two-and-a-half hour wait for a train at Dover, ‘[the] journey to London,’ he wrote, ‘finally passed off quite well’ with an hour’s cab drive to Praeger’s house in unexpectedly fine evening weather. [168]

In musing on how destiny can unite the sublime and the base, Ellis may have recalled that his father’s Chemistry of Creation had opened with a steel engraving of ‘The Alchemist’ and with mention of Hermes Trismegistus and Geber – ‘curiosities in the history of chemistry’. Robert Ellis had respected ‘the chemistry of experience’ in ancient Egypt and China, which had yielded glass, porcelain, dyes, and, through astrology, the science of astronomy. For him, though, the perceptible driving-force had been ‘the deep-rooted covetousness of the human heart, that, from the very first, men regarded chemistry as a means of making gold.’ The search for the philosopher’s stone had persisted ‘down even to the end of the last century, one of its latest victims being a Dr. Price, of Guildford, who destroyed himself in disappointment at discovering the delusion under which he had been labouring.’ [169] The elixir of personal immortality, the distillation of fluid gold from base matter, was ‘a foolish and illogical train of reasoning’ not to be regarded in Faustian tragic-heroic terms, but as an irresponsibility to be condemned in Victorian-moral terms:

How lightly after all did they really estimate the misery of immortal life to an individual in the present world! An immortality of the beholding of suffering, sorrow, and sin, of withering hopes, dying friends, unsatisfying occupations - this was the object of their search? Surely it was the voice of mercy, not of wrath, which pronounced in solemn accents, death to be the wages of sin, that it might add the glorious intelligence that the gift of God is eternal life, through Jesus Christ our Lord. [170]

Robert Ellis went on to describe the hand of God behind the rational, experimental advance of chemistry from Francis Bacon onward, up to his own day and his own materialist heroes of natural science, Dalton, Davey, Priestley, Liebig and Darwin. But by the late nineteenth century - by the time William Ashton Ellis was beginning to write - Frederick Engels had noted how Bacon, Newton, Crookes and Darwin’s colleague Alfred Russel Wallace, whatever their scientific discoveries, had reverted to metaphysical speculations about elixirs, spirit rapping, a fourth dimension and the like. ‘If we trust the spectrum-analysis observations of Crookes, which led to the discovery of the metal thallium, or the rich zoological discoveries of Wallace in the Malay Archipelago,’ Engels wrote, ‘we are asked to place the same trust in the spiritualistic experiences and discoveries of these two scientists.’ And when Engels expressed the sarcastic opinion ‘that, after all, there is a little difference between the two, namely, that we can verify the one but not the other’, he found he was met with sophistic assurances by ‘empiricists’ that ‘the existence of falsifications proves the genuineness of the genuine ones’. [171]


Robert Ellis’s concern for ‘individuals in the present world’ had been empirically obvious in his later writings on the medical care of children and women. In giving up his Linnean Society Fellowship after 1854 and in declining to take sides in the grand ontological battles of Owen, Darwin and Huxley, he had returned to the purview of his speculum. To that extent his aims were shared by his son’s early commitment to hands-on medical work at the Western Dispensary. It’s hard, therefore, to imagine a thirtysomething William Ashton Ellis putting that seriousness of purpose aside in order to take holidays by bicycle (perhaps with one of Evelyn Pyne’s slim volumes in his pannier) through the countryside of this present world, even if his destination were usually Bayreuth. But this is apparently what happened. A flamboyant young woman, Annie Horniman (1860-1937) had made Ellis’s acquaintance in the reading-room of the British Museum. Annie too had rejected a rich, serious-minded Linnean Society father (tea magnate, entomologist and founder of the Horniman Museum in Forest Hill, south-east London), in order to indulge her passion for art and the theatre. After assisting him with his Wagnerian researches in the British Museum, ‘Miss Horniman’, apparently, ‘visited the Continent with Ellis, a bachelor of somewhat fussy habits, and though he had some uneasiness as to the propriety of the companionship, her only objections arose when she was mistaken for being his wife.’ [172] As late as 1905 Yeats would write to Arthur Symons: ‘Your essay [on Wagner] is a substitute for more volumes than anything of the kind I have seen, and has I believe greatly pleased Ashton Ellis. At any rate I know it has Miss Horniman, who I think speaks as his voice.’ [173] But whatever their liaison and however long it lasted, their paths were diverging. By 1890 Annie had forsaken Ellis for Yeats and a post-theosophy variety of mysticism, the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, until factionalism inevitably forced her resignation from it too in 1903. Ellis was to retreat to Sussex and a vicarious intellectual and spiritual life based on events half a century previous. Evidently Ellis became convinced that the Karmic ‘veil of Maya’ could be better lifted to universal moral and spiritual effect through the example of an historic German figure in living memory, whose genius was now publicly acknowledged even in the theatres, concert halls and newspapers of England.

In his ‘Introductory’ chapter to the letters from Richard Wagner to Mathilde Wesendonck (1905), Ellis was to quote Malwida von Meysenbug’s allusion to of Wagner’s ‘belief in the future of Woman’: ‘In face of practical life he had that awkwardness of genius which is so touching, since it coincides with a profound naivety of ideas about the relations of ordinary life which can be misunderstood alone by mediocrity and malice.’ [174] Malwida, along with Hans Richter, had been chosen by Richard and Cosima to be a witness at their wedding in Lucerne in 1859. Associated as she is with masculine radicals including Robert Blum, Alexander Herzen, Lajos Kossuth, Mazzini and Garibaldi, and later Nietzsche and Romain Rolland, it seems difficult nowadays to square Malwida’s feminist and socialist independence with her loyalty to the Wagner family through all its vicissitudes, before and after Wagner’s death. [175] Ellis sheds some light on this aspect of the Woman Question when he goes on to cite (from the Prose Works) as an example of Wagner’s ‘naivety’ a passage from the first edition of A Communication to My Friends describing his (Wagner’s) early licentious self-expression as ‘the only way in which Nature can utter herself under the pressure of the moral bigotry of our Society, namely as - what folk call, unfortunately to-be-tolerated – vice’. (One recalls Ellis’s quotation in The Meister of Shaw’s words: ‘When Blake told men that through excess they would learn moderation, he knew that the way for the present lay through the Venusberg.’) In the faithful Prose Works, Ellis had observed the suppression of that passage in translating the later (1872) edition of the Communication, but only by relegating the sentences to an appendix – ‘whence - oddly enough - ’, he remarked, ‘they have not yet been unearthed by “mediocrity and malice”.’ Ellis refused to censor the passage completely. On the contrary he pointed out that its suppression in the German edition proved that ‘[Wagner’s] traducers were a force to be reckoned with, people who even in 1872 would fail to comprehend his protest against that “shy reserve towards the female sex” which still prevailed in Germany and turned that sex into domestic animals or puppets’. And it was Ellis himself, without any known liaison beyond his cycling tours with Annie Horniman and his intellectual encounter with Malwida von Meysenbug, who concluded that in Wagner’s day ‘The Woman of the Future was only just beginning to be born, and rational liberty of comradeship was not yet tolerated.’ [176] Ellis may possibly be recalling John Stuart Mill:

Thus far, the benefits which it has appeared that the world would gain by ceasing to make sex a disqualification for privileges and a badge of subjection, are social rather than individual; consisting in an increase of the general fund of thinking and acting power, and an improvement in the general conditions of the association of men with women. But it would be a grievous understatement of the case to omit the most direct benefit of all, the unspeakable gain in private happiness to the liberated half of the species; the difference to them between a life of subjection to the will of others, and a life of rational freedom. [177]

Considering that when he wrote about the ‘rational liberty of comradeship’ in 1905 the English ‘Woman of the Future’ had only just begun to demand the national vote, Ellis’s attitude toward intellectual women seems decidedly liberal, though incontestably bachelor. Was he aware, one wonders, of the item that appeared in March the previous year in the militant ‘Outside the Gates’ column in the British Journal of Nursing?

Surprise and dissatisfaction have been caused by the refusal of the Governors of the Western Dispensary, Westminster, to confirm the appointment of Dr. Ethel Vernon, who was temporarily appointed, and has since acted, as medical officer to the institution, in last November. The reason is to be found in the announcement at the Annual Meeting of the Governors that Dr. W. H. Allchin, hon. consulting physician to the dispensary, would resign if Miss Vernon were permitted to continue her work as an attendant medical officer. Apparently, Dr. Allchin was abroad when the appointment was first made, or his narrow, intolerant attitude towards women would no doubt have caused a protest from him in the first instance. It is from men of this type that nurses must expect opposition to their just demands, and it is not surprising to find that Dr. Allchin is an active member of the Central Hospital Council for London which is organising opposition to the Nurses’ Registration Bill. [178]

Ellis himself had remained a Governor of the Western Dispensary, but whether he had supported Dr Vernon’s appointment is not known. He seems to have concocted his own notion of that ‘rational liberty of comradeship’ which transcended the hypocritical ‘shy reserve’ overtly shown by most men towards women. It’s quite possible to infer in Ellis himself the same ‘touching awkwardness’ and ‘naivety’ that he recited in Malwida’s description of Wagner. Ellis was to remain unmarried and childless, and without any recorded close human relationship. He always remained close (geographically as well as emotionally) to his mother. He gives away nothing about his father, whose intellect he must have admired but whose late infidelity to his wife and family must have been devastating to him. On the other hand, or perhaps as a result, there was a tenacious, obsessive side to William Ashton Ellis’s personality.

In 1908 an acutely personal insight into his animosity toward moral bigotry is revealed in the Life of Richard Wagner. Ellis recalled ‘a little manual which has enjoyed unrivalled circulation for the last three generations under the insinuating title The Peep of Day: A Series of the Earliest Religious Instruction [sic] the Infant Mind is Capable of Receiving’ (the square-bracketed [sic] is Ellis’s insertion). After quoting ‘choice extracts’ of the most excruciating condescension on the subject of men and animals, bodies and souls, Ellis confessed in a footnote that he too had been one of ‘the millions of British Infant Minds’ brought up over the previous seventy years on this twaddle [179](and the square-bracketed parentheses are all Ellis’s):

The little book was first published in 1836, and I have a vivid recollection of it as one of the earliest Instructors of my own childhood an odd score of years later. The edition I quote from is dated 1901, and may have been a little modernised, though the main drift of the casuistry quite chimes with my juvenile memories. In many respects, no doubt, it is a good little book for ‘the Infant Mind,’ but let me give one further illustration of its standpoint as regards the lower animals: ‘God makes the corn. Of what does he make it? - Of nothing [!]. God makes things of nothing... If he did not make corn grow in the field, we should die. But he will not forget us. He even [subtle poison in that ‘even’] remembers the little birds. They are too silly [!] to plough or to sow corn, or to reap, or to put corn into barns [or over-eat themselves]; yet God does not let them starve [never?]. He hears their cry, and gives them food. Now God loves us much better than he loves the little birds, because we have souls, so he will certainly hear us when we pray to him.’ We are not informed why no ‘souls’ were given to the birds - had the supply of ‘nothing’ run short? - but to tranquillise the Infant Mind, the booklet ends up with a picture of the seamy side of the world to come and a grim warning that ‘Many people in Hell will say, “How I wish I had listened to the words of my teachers!”’ It does not add that some of those teachers may there have an opportunity of revising their doctrine as to the ‘throwing away’ of dead puppies like orange-peel.

Those bitter, square-bracketed interpolations are typical of Ellis’s engagement with his material when he leaves mere translation behind. Here Wagner is left behind as Ellis comes down on the side of ‘the worthies of the Roman church in olden times’, such as St Francis of Assisi, and on the side of those modern philosophers who had thrown off the burden of St Paul, Protestantism and Jesuitism, such as Schopenhauer, and concludes that ‘if this be Christian teaching, “heathen” India should shame us.’ [180] Ellis’s own clasp bible has survived, and when I saw it (June 1995) was in the possession of the widow (Maimie, deceased 7 August 1996) of his godson, Walter Hans Lear. Below the dedication, ‘A baptismal gift from his Godfather Robt. J. Ashton’, is inscribed, in the same hand, the uncompromising text from Mark XVI,16: ‘He that believeth and is baptized shall be saved; but he that believeth not shall be damned.’ The words would have haunted Ellis’s ‘Infant Mind’ as it anticipated ‘the seamy side of the world to come.’ [181]


for continuation of article, click here


Return to Archive

LinksContactArchiveLinksContactArchiveCurrent issueCurrent issue