Mary Elizabeth Coleridge was born in London, England on 23 September 1861. Her great-great uncle was the Romantic poet, Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1772-1834), and her great aunt was Sara Coleridge (1802-1852), author of Phantasmion (1837). Mary's father, Arthur Duke Coleridge was one of the prime movers behind the formation of the London Bach Choir in 1875. Arthur was a talented tenor, and had considered a career as an opera singer. However, he rejected it as a full-time profession on moral grounds and instead became a Clerk to the Assizes, working on the Midlands Circuit for fifty-four years. Nevertheless, there was much of the performer in Arthur Coleridge, and in her collection of Mary Coleridge's poems (1954), Theresa Whistler paints a vivid picture of the head of the Coleridge household. Arthur was, 'a genial, magnificent figure with a face that would look well on a Roman coin, his shock of wavy grey hair poked forward over his open brow [ . . . ]' (26).
Royal College of Music. Click on thumbnail for larger image.
Mary's mother, Mary Anne Jameson, was a member of the famous Jameson Whiskey family, and a cousin of Gugliemo Marconi, the inventor of the oscillating aerial, which enabled the first transatlantic wireless broadcast to take place between England and Canada in 1901. Mary Anne's marriage to Arthur took place in Galway in August 1860. Soon after, they moved to London and Mary was born in the following year and their younger daughter, Florence, on 29th June 1865. Florence was musical, inheriting her talents from her parents. For a short while she attended the Royal Academy of Music which was close to the Coleridge home in Kensington. Mary and Florence were extremely disparate in terms of their personalities, but they remained devoted to each other until Mary's early death.
The Coleridge family was impressively well connected and several evenings a week the door would be opened perhaps to Alfred, Lord Tennyson, Robert Browning, or the artists, Holman Hunt and Sir John Everett Millais. Likewise, it may have been the actress, Fanny Kemble paying a visit, or the singer Jenny Lind, with her husband, the conductor, Otto Goldschmidt. In Mary's collection of essays, Non Sequitur (1900), she describes her feelings when she first saw Robert Browning step through her front door: 'I should like to think of another girl — as gay, as full of bold ambition and not so shy [ . . . ] I hope she will see the greatest man in the world come in, as I saw Robert Browning come through the door one evening, his hat under his arm' (201).
Mary was a shy child, scared of the dark and its shadows, but she had a naturally enquiring mind. At the age of twelve she became fascinated with the shape of Hebrew lettering and asked her father to teach her the language. She quickly became fluent in Hebrew as well as in French, German and Italian. In her mid twenties, she would read Greek nude the tutelage of William Cory, who had been Master at Eton when her father was a student there.
Nonetheless, it was literature, and Browning in particular, which took possession of Mary Coleridge from a very early age. After reading 'On A Balcony,' she wrote, 'I think it passed into my blood' (Coleridge, Collected Poems, 31). In the late 1880's, Mary and a group of friends began to meet weekly at her home in Cromwell Place, London. They would discuss literature and read each other's poems and compositions. They became known as 'The Settee'. Joining Mary every Thursday would be, Ella Coltman, Margaret Newbolt and her husband, Henry Newbolt, later author of the poems Drake's Drum and Vitae Lampada. It was at one of these gatherings that Mary gave the first public reading of seven of her own poems. After hearing them, Newbolt remarked: 'I had no inkling of such a gift as this, and these poor verses f mine have lived in complete retirement ever since' (Newbolt, My World as in My Time, 179).
Mary Coleridge had been a published writer since the early 1880s when she began to write drama reviews and essays under a nom de plume for a publication called The Theatre. One of her earliest published works for this magazine was an essay called 'Her Grace, the Duchess, in 1884. She also produced items for the Times Literary Supplement and short stories and essays for magazines such as The Cornhill. However, Mary's first major literary publications came in the mid to late 1890s. In 1893, her first novel, The Seven Sleepers of Ephesus was published by Chatto and Windus. Set in Germany, it is a dark tale of secret societies, literary rebellion, romance, disguise and brotherhood. The Seven Sleepers laid the foundations for Mary's future novels, with its secret and interchangeable identities. It was well received on publication and was praised by Robert Louis Stevenson.
The publication of Mary's poems came about when a friend plotted to have them read by a wider audience. Violet Hodgkin's cousin was married to the poet Robert Bridges. Violet arranged for the small white book of poems that Mary had copied out for her to be left where Bridges would see them, knowing that he would be unable to resist giving an opinion. He did so and insisted upon meeting Mary to give her advice prior to publishing the small collection. Mary, initially reluctant, eventually agreed to publication, but only if she could use a pseudonym. She chose 'Anodos', meaning 'Wanderer', the name of the hero in George MacDonald's 1858 novel, Phantastes. Bridges advised her to make alterations to most of her poems, but diffident though she was, Mary only accepted those changes which she thought would improve her work. Fancy's Following was published privately by the Daniel Press in 1896. In 1897, several of the poems were then re-printed along with some unseen works in Fancy's Guerdon.
Mary's second novel, The King with Two Faces was also published in 1897. It was an immediate success and earned its author £900 in royalties. It focussed upon the life and death of the controversial King Gustav of Sweden, who reigned between 1792 and 1809. It is a story replete with masks and theatrical imagery. There is also the hint of a homoerotic subtext running through the story. Coleridge was influenced by the work of Sir Walter Scott and her first three novels are very much in his style of historical adventure stories. The Fiery Dawn was the last of this type of story. Yet again, it had a real-life historical figure as its main protagonist, focussing upon the rebellion in France in 1832, led by Caroline, Duchess of Berry (1798 - 1890).
Coleridge's fourth novel, The Shadow on the Wall, was published in 1904, and pastiches Oscar Wilde's The Picture of Dorian Gray (1890). Murder, mystery, art and homoerotic pursuit are all brought together in this occasionally mischievous retort to Wilde. In 1900, Coleridge produced her collection of essays, Non Sequitur, a fascinating collection of personal reminiscences and views on art and literature. Even today, these essays resonate with wit and humour. In 1906, The Lady on the Drawing Room Floor became Coleridge's last published novel. It is a gentle tale of two lovers who swear to meet again after being separated for many years.
In 1907, Coleridge continued to write poetry and was working upon a medieval romance, which she titled Becq. She was also writing a short biography of the artist Holman Hunt, at the personal request of Hunt himself. In the summer of 1907, the Coleridges travelled to Harrogate in the north of England, a place Mary disliked, for their annual holiday. During their stay there, Mary was taken ill with appendicitis. An operation to remove her appendix took place, but Mary contracted blood poisoning and died on 25th August 1907. Unusually for the time, she was cremated and her ashes buried in the cemetery just around the corner from where she died. Her grave is still there, inscribed with her dates and a short quotation from St. Paul, which reads simply, 'Pure love'.
Coleridge, Mary. The Collected Poems of Mary Coleridge. London: Rupert Hart-Davis, 1954.
Coleridge, Mary. Non Sequitur. London: J. Nisbet & Co, 1900.
Newbolt, Henry. My World as in My Time. London: Faber and Faber, 1932.
Last modified 15 March 2006