“The air was laden with the scent of hay after the recent heavy rain; down the grassy cliff-side fat Kentish sheep and lambs were contentedly munching the short herbage; all sights and scents, and even the rushing and rustling of the wind through the little trees that bordered the canal soothed my discontented spirit.” The Wooing of a Fairy1

Gertrude Warden, actor and writer, was born in Brixton in 1859. The daughter of Charles and Alice Price, Gertrude enjoyed a life of privilege with her siblings Florence and Percy, until the failure of her father's business. Forced to leave her finishing school in Brighton, with her sister, Gertrude sought to make her way in the world working as a governess for two years before taking to the stage. She appeared as one of the schoolgirls in the Bancrofts’ revival of The School for Scandal and later took roles in both London and provincial theatres, as well as touring America with Mrs Langtry. In her sister, Florence Warden's production, The House on the Marsh (1885), she played the “disagreeable” Mrs Rayner.2

In September 1887, Gertrude appeared in Henry Arthur Jones’s play 'Heart of Hearts' at the Vaudeville Theatre, and after this performance, she became typecast as the 'vindictive young lady of fashion'.3 Eventually, she grew tired of the relentlessness: “I got sick of doing the hack work of touring, and took up my pen to write, and was successful from the start.”4 Her first novel As a Bird to the Snare, described as a “deeply interesting story” was published in 1888.5 She would go on to write over 30 romance and mystery novels.

In 1889, Gertrude married John William (Wilton) Jones, playwright and journalist who was known for writing light-hearted comedies, melodramas and pantomimes. As well as playwriting, he contributed poetry and was sub-editor for Town and Country magazine and started a short-lived magazine called The Vaudeville. He was described by his friend Horace Lennard as “a long awkward fellow, with a heart as big as a lion’s and an everlasting smile.”5 The couple settled in Fulham and enjoyed a good working relationship, frequently co-writing and acting together, as shown in Woman’s Proper Place (1896) and The Cruel City (1896). In 'A chat with Mr and Mrs Wilton Jones' (The Sketch, 1895) the couple described how they discussed their plays together on their walks to Richmond Park often “wrangling” over the dialogue.6

After the death of her husband in March 1897, Gertrude would “have probably have broken down under the terrible strain” if her sister, Florence had not been there to comfort her.7 Gertrude spent the next few months in Ramsgate with Florence. It is clear that this was not her first visit to Kent, as her 1897 book The Wooing of a Fairy which was published just before her husband's death was set in Kent.

In the novel, Adrian Hervey, an unwell artist, heads to Kent on the recommendation of his friend Collars who says; “I have discovered the jolliest little place you ever saw. No railway, five miles from anywhere, and a mile from the sea. Stuck on a cliff – you can live like a fighting cock at a shilling a day, and never see a soul.”8 However, Collars is dismissive of the locals, calling them stupid. Hervey who was “tired and wanted to think.”9 determines to set off: “It was the worst of all weathers in which to leave town, but I was more or less indifferent to rain as my friend the sea often looks its best under a drenching downpour from the skies.” 10

On arrival at the railway station in Cranling (a hybrid of Cranbrook and Sandling) Hervey has to “tramp it two miles and a half to the village of Lythinge on the brow of the hill.”11 It is likely the village is Lympne as the description of the church with its “short square tower” crowns the summit of a grassy hill, and is two and a half miles to Sandling. Hervey stands “for over an hour gazing over the wide-spreading marshes to the angry line of the sea beyond. And the charm and strangeness of the place sank deep into my heart”.12 It is possible Gertrude had sought solace in the countryside after the death of her husband and that she is describing her feelings here.

According to the landlady at the Rose and Crown, where Hervey stays, “Life at Lythinge was ‘so dull’ she complained, and her former existence in a tiny marsh hamlet was one of wild dissipation and delight by comparison, barring the ague.” 13. The hotel is not all it was cracked up to be and the landlady stood in dread of the “occasional soldiers who came over from Sandhythe” These would have been the soldiers at the School of Musketry in Hythe.

Warden’s description of the area suggests that she had visited Lympne, as it is intimate and not styled on a travel book description: “a vast panorama of marshland, intersected by canals and dotted here and there by tiny villages, bordered by a row of Martello towers, which looked at this distance like children’s overturned sand pails and the sea.” 14 She said in her earlier interview in the Sketch: “Locality has a great effect on me. What I mean is that an old castle, or a moated grange at once seem peopled by a variety of characters as I walk round the building; but I never want to go inside – the interior I prefer to invent; the exterior I generally describe in detail.”15

As Hervey walks, we can imagine Gertrude’s daily outings as she comes to terms with her husband’s sudden death: “I wandered between the lines of sand dunes and waves, until a very keen country hunger made me turn inland again, and struggle in the teeth of the wind up the rugged cliffside towards the church tower.”16

In the story, Hervey becomes enchanted by Lilith, a young girl of about 15 who “appeared at first more like a fairylike emanation of the sunset than a living and breathing creature.”[^re17] He marries her but she deserts him, after spending all his money. Escaping London and its gossips, he moves into the old French House, Lythinge (Based on the French House, Lympne which was later owned by Sir Philip Sassoon) . At the end of the book, Hervey, now a broken man, ponders upon the fifteen months he “watched the changing seasons over the marshes, hugging my sorrow and living upon memories.” 18.

It is unlikely that Gertrude’s stay in Kent was as long as her protagonist's, but her sorrow was probably as real. In 1899 she married Auguste Devot de Quillacq, a long-standing family friend, who was 18 years older than her and they moved to Monaco, where she enjoyed life on the Riviera and became acquainted with Baroness Orczy.19 She was a member of the Women's Writers' Suffrage League, along with Sarah Grand.

This article was published: 25 September 2021.

References


  1. Warden, G. (1897) The Wooing of a Fairy p.36. 

  2. The Sketch, Wednesday 20 November. 

  3. Illustrated Sporting and Dramatic News, Saturday 12 March 1892. 

  4. The Sketch, Wednesday 20 November. 

  5. The Stage, Thursday 04 March 1897. 

  6. The Sketch, Wednesday 20 November. 

  7. The Era, Saturday 06 March 1897. 

  8. Warden, G. (1897) The Wooing of a Fairy p.3. 

  9. Warden, G. (1897) The Wooing of a Fairy p.4. 

  10. Warden, G. (1897) The Wooing of a Fairy p.31. 

  11. Warden, G. (1897) The Wooing of a Fairy p.32. 

  12. Warden, G. (1897) The Wooing of a Fairy p.33. 

  13. Warden, G. (1897) The Wooing of a Fairy p.34. 

  14. Warden, G. (1897) The Wooing of a Fairy p.35. 

  15. The Sketch- Wednesday 20 November 1895 

  16. Warden, G. (1897) The Wooing of a Fairy p.37. 

  17. Warden, G. (1897) The Wooing of a Fairy p.38. 

  18. Warden, G. (1897) The Wooing of a Fairy p.333. 

  19. The Bystander - Wednesday 29 November 1922, The Bystander - Wednesday 26 November 1924