In November 1902 the Illustrated Sporting and Dramatic News invited “Diana up-to Date” to describe her visit to St Lawrence Lodge on the Isle of Wight. The house’s owner, writer Pearl Craigie, was about to set out on a tour of India with her friend Mary Leitner who had recently married Lord Curzon. It was American author Pearl, however, who interested the readers.
The visit to the house overwhelmed “Diana”. She was barely able to find words to do justice to the building for Pearl, assisted by her friend, the ‘clever artist’ Walter Spindler had created a ‘perfect gem.’ She toured the house in delighted astonishment; from music-room to dining-room from nook to nook, from study to study, there being, in fact, two studies, as the author ‘cannot work all day in just one’. Her working room was a veritable library decorated in the Empire style and green in tone, the dining room was in crimson, purple and blue, all deep, rich, sonorous shades while the music room was pale gold, ivory white and a pure deep Eastern sky blue. Despite its remote location, the house sported a telephone. It was not only the house that inspired. Outside, the Italian terraces stretched down to the sea, the work being in the hands of Major Theumann, an officer in the Russian Army and a relation of Algernon Swinburne.
Pearl had owned the St Lawrence house for three years and an unhappy marital interlude apart, her life looked to have just about everything that one could wish for.
She was born in Boston Massachusetts on November 3, 1867, to John and Laura Morgan Richards. Although American by birth she was hardly out of the womb when her go-ahead father moved the family to London so that he might promote his business. Promote it he did. Carter’s Little Liver Pills. Williams’ Pink Pills for Pale People, Lacto-peptine to aid digestion, were among the health remedies he offered. Even if they worked, the effect was probably counteracted by his supply of Richmond Gems American cigarettes but the demand continued to grow. He conducted his business from Holborn Viaduct and in the course of time, his sons were taken into the business.
Pearl was John Morgan Richard’s first child and the wonder of his life. His wife Laura went on to provide him with three sons and another girl, Dorothy, known as Bouchie who was twelve years younger than her sister but it was Pearl who stole the limelight. Meanwhile, JMR worked hard to make a niche for himself in London Society despite being nouveau-riche, a self-made tradesperson and an American. He succeeded in so far that in 1886, Pearl was presented at Court, already an arcane event reserved only for the cream of British womanhood.
In London the family attended the City Temple, Britain’s largest congregational church, being close friends with the preacher the Rev Joseph Parker. Parker was charmed by the precocious Pearl developing a lengthy pen-friendship with her. When she was only nine, he published one of her stories in the church publication, the Foundation. She had already decided to be a writer and at seven was contacting publishers with her offerings. Meanwhile, father joined London’s Reform Club and in 1901 became Chairman of the American Society. He also grew fabulously rich.
Having earlier lived in Kennington and Bayswater, father’s wealth then provided the family with the largest, most palatial townhouse at Lancaster Gate. Expensive carriages, the best horses, in fact, they had everything that they could want. l
Education, of course, was also of the best and as a child, Pearl had tutors until in 1876/7 she attended the Misses Godwins’ Boarding School at Newbury followed by various day schools in London. Later her education took her to Boston and in 1885 to Paris to study French and Music. She became an accomplished pianist and with a good voice. Her brothers went to Eastbourne College before entering Trinity Hall and then joining the family firm.
At home, things were not always so rosy. There were no doubt sibling rivalries but worse, Laura, an eccentric and emotional mother and wife, and a religious fanatic; was jealous of the attention piled upon Pearl by her indulgent father. In fits of anger, she was known to hit her daughter with her shoe. Quite unpredictable, social occasions could be fraught with worry as to how Laura might behave. Despite the luxury, it was not a happy household.
JMR had discovered the Isle of Wight in 1872 and fallen in love with it. Thereafter, the family spent extensive holidays at various venues around the Ventnor area, including Steephill Castle. In 1903 he purchased the Castle outright, a mock fortification with towers and turrets.
On July 16 1887, just after her 19th birthday, Pearl married. The bridegroom was Reginald Walpole Craigie of Scottish descent and described variously as handsome, well connected and employed in the Securities Section of the Bank of England. The pair set out to honeymoon in France but returned early because Pearl was unwell. The nature of her illness was kept very quiet but she apparently arrived home with her leg in plaster. Something had clearly changed and it soon emerged that in addition to his handsome looks and good connections, Craigie was a philanderer, a drunkard, a bully and violent. To somebody like Pearl who had all her life been pandered to and praised, the discovery must have been shattering. Meanwhile, she sought escape by writing a series of art and theatre reviews for the journal Life. She was also writing a novel and made frequent escapes to the Isle of Wight.
In May 1890, Pearl found that she was pregnant. It came with a devastating revelation, that Craigie had syphilis and he had probably passed it on to his wife and in all likelihood to the unborn baby. For the happy event, both Pearl and her husband came to stay with the Richards in their house, Rock Cottage, at Ventnor. Here, Pearl spent time galloping dangerously across the countryside in the secret hope of procuring a miscarriage or perhaps even a fatal accident but in both, she failed. On August 16, a healthy son was born. He was named John for his grandfather. In October, the couple and their son returned to London.
Pearl increasingly began to lose herself in writing, in addition attending University College London to study Latin, Greek and Literature. Her tutor, Alfred Goodwin was particularly impressed with her depth of knowledge and encouraged her to continue writing. The friendship resulted in bitter jealousy on the part of Craigie who burned her efforts. In May of 1891, she left him, taking her baby son and fleeing to her parents at Ventnor.
Buoyed up by her father’s wealth and connections, in 1891 her first novel was published in Mr Fisher Unwin’s Pseudonym Library. Being female, Pearl had had to choose a male nom-de-plume and the author of Some Emotions and a Moral was Mr John, Oliver Hobbs. The name was selected as a tribute to her father and to two men she particularly admired – Oliver Cromwell and Thomas Hobbs. It was the first of a dozen books to appear in a dozen years.
The year 1895 was of huge significance for Pearl. After much soul-searching, she joined the Catholic Church, adding the forenames Mary Theresa to her own. Her vows included an intention to remain celibate for the rest of her life.
The second landmark event was that Pearl sued Craigie for divorce. It was a harrowing experience and sixteen charges of infidelity, rape, physical violence and mental cruelty were laid against him. On July 4, the Scotsman published the details. The Times had decided not to do so, as, in their view, they were too filthy.
Those who had read her novels and enjoyed the gentle, sardonic mockery of her style must have been surprised at the tone of her early love-letters read out to the court. Extracts included: My own precious Regie…be a good little boy and keep out of mischief…you sweet little thing …my sweetest, darlingest and belovedest with a thousand kisses. On another occasion she wrote that she was terribly lonely and wanted her dearest lamb, signing her letter from your troublesome, extravagant, deceitful, stupid old wife. In this, her former confidence sounds sadly damaged. Her sometimes child-like letters were read out in her presence and the solicitor challenged the truth of her claims of cruelty when she could write to him in this way. She was also forced to detail how, in bed, in spite of her strong objections, she was forced to do ‘filthy and unspeakable’ things. Unsurprisingly, she was in tears and at one point she fainted. Details of how he had threatened her by toying with a pistol and had burnt her books were also revealed.
Pearl admitted that she had told him she could only love him as a brother and had tried to make the marriage work. A nurse was called as witness and she said that the pair were always quarrelling and that personally, she was surprised that Craigie had not murdered his wife. The torment came to an end when he admitted to the truth of her claims and she was granted a decree nisi and sole custody of baby John.
At the end of 1899, Mr C Lewis Hind, erstwhile editor of the Pall Mall Gazette, published some of his Reminiscences of the Nineties, (reprinted in the Sphere magazine of Oct 4 1924). He recalled how he first came to read Pearl’s debut novel. Recommended by a friend, he enjoyed the work sufficiently to write to Mr Hobbs to tell him so. To his surprise, he received a reply from Pearl inviting him to tea at her parents’ house at 56, Lancaster Gate. Struck by the magnificence of the drawing room and the life-size statue of Joan of Arc, he was also amazed by the huge placard on the mantelpiece asking: “What Would Jesus Say?” When he managed to get round to the subject, Pearl dismissed it, saying “Oh, that’s Mother’s.”
Some idea of the power that comes from being wealthy is underlined when Hind describes his first contact with Richards. He had left his latest editing position and was on holiday in Cornwall when he received a message from JMR saying that if he wanted to get back into journalism, he would buy a newspaper and Hind could be the editor. Richards instructed him to go out and find one that was available and Hind discovered the Academy. Richards approved his choice and with his favourite word “Admirable,” went out and purchased it. Hind went on to edit it for seven years. The de facto editor, however, was Pearl “quite a girl, prettily shy until she was intellectually excited”. Hind soon realised that if he pleased witty, accomplished, handsome ambitious Pearl, then he pleased his employer. If ever the pair disagreed, Hind accepted that he was the one in the wrong, and an apologetic call on her at Lancaster Gate or Steephill Castle always resolved the problem.
The public humiliation of her divorce must have been hard to live down and for a while, Pearl withdrew from London to Steephill Castle to write but she was resilient. Before long, she was both writing and travelling, staying at places as diverse as Aberdeen, Bayreuth, Berlin, Biarritz, Barcelona, Granada, Calcutta, New York, Paris and London. On the Island, she worked at both Steephill and Norris Castles.
The decade of the 1890s saw Pearl frantically busy with both novels and plays. From 1891, when her first novel, Some Emotions and a Moral was published, to 1902 when The Vinyard appeared, she was almost on a treadmill, turning them out year by year. 1892 saw The Sinner’s Comedy, followed by A Study in Temptation, 1893 and A Bundle of Life, in 1894. There then followed: The God, Some Morals and Lord Wykenham; The Herb Moon, School for Saints; Robert Orange; The Flute of Pan; A Serious Wooing; Love and the Soul Hunters; Tales About Temperament.
In addition, her plays were performed on the London stage, the first entitled Journey’s End in Lovers Meeting, produced by Ellen Terry in 1894. Her plays were not as successful as her novels. On August 14, 1906, the Pall Mall Gazette described them as witty and epigrammatic with a sharp salt of irony and here and there touches of poetical imagination, adding, which constituted their nearest approach to emotion – not an unreserved commendation.
In 1901 she was expected to be the author of Benjamin Disraeli’s biography, causing some raised eyebrows, but it did not happen, prompting her to comment on the fuss about something she didn’t write as opposed to the things that she did.
While recovering from her divorce, she had developed a very close friendship with Lord Curzon and many expected that she would marry him for they made a handsome couple. As with her fictional heroes, Curzon was tall, dark and sophisticated, described as “the elitist’s elitist” with a passion for pomp and ceremony. He shared a passing resemblance to JMR. As it was, Curzon married her good friend Mary Leitner from Washington. In the role of family friend, Pearl accompanied the pair on a tour of India where Curzon became Viceroy. In the course of the tour, they took part in endless dinners, balls and pageants, Pearl writing home about her experiences for both the Daily Graphic and the American Collier’s Weekly magazines.
With their love of fashion, Pearl and Mary also returned with a wealth of expensive material to fashion into gowns. One dress worn by Mary caught the eye of the future Queen Alexandra who expressed a wish to have similar material in her forthcoming wedding dress so that for a while the Queen and Mary Curzon co-operated in choosing the right patterns.
Pearl’s name was linked to two other men, neither of whom showed a particular desire to marry, the first being erstwhile Prime Minister Arthur Balfour, that “invincible bachelor.” The second was Walter Spindler.
In terms of background, Pearl and Walter had a lot in common. Like her, he was a foreigner on the Isle of Wight, in his case a German. Like her his father had made a fortune, William Spindler being an industrial chemist. Both fathers planned to retire to the wild, exotic south-easterly coast of the Isle of Wight, known as the Undercliff. Whereas Richards was sociable and generally popular, however, William Spindler had a rather brusque manner that alienated the locals. Young Walter was artistic having a passion for theatre and art. His most memorable achievement was a portrait of actress Sarah Bernhardt. It was only natural that he and Pearl should become close. On February 2 1897, the Aberdeen Press and Journal announced that: Mrs Pearl Craigie (John Oliver Hobbs) is before long to be married to Mr Walter Spindler who is the owner of a large estate in the Isle of Wight. Walter’s interest in women was probably always platonic which would have suited celibate Pearl and had she stayed around longer, then indeed they might have wed. As it was, things were to change.
In 1905 Pearl undertook a lecture tour in the United States from which she came back, exhausted, still leaving a number of engagements unfulfilled. She added a new word to the American vocabulary, that of “blimming.” It described perfectly, the young wives in her novels, who developed the art of talking endlessly and pleasantly, without actually saying anything.
During the tour, another book, The Dream and the Business, was already being serialised but it was still to be finished, leaving her under further pressure to do so. This did not stop her on her return from taking part in numerous meetings, symposiums and fundraising events.
At one such discussion about women jurors, she made a damning condemnation of her own sex, claiming that, women did not contain a proper element of justice and that they were by nature, unfair. Cocooned in her own, privileged and liberating world, she was similarly dismissive of the Suffragette Movement, stating that I have no confidence in the honour of women or their brains. Strange that she should retain a confidence in men
During 1906 Pearl regularly commuted between the Island and London, staying in the capital either at the parental home at Lancaster Gate, now empty apart for occasional overnight visits from her father and eldest brother. She also had an apartment in a Kensington convent where she could find some peace and privacy.
In July, she heard the upsetting news that her friend Mary Curzon, with whom she had toured India, had died. In August she planned a two weeks visit to her parents, leaving by August 16th, being the 16th birthday of her son John who was then at Eton. The pair planned to set off that day on a motor tour of Scotland.
Perhaps the month of August is best related through the entries in JMR’s diaries.
– Aug 3rd, Pearl arrives as Steephill Castle.
– Aug 7th she drives up to London on business, returning on the 8th.
– August 9th-12th she remains at Steephill, at midday on the 12th deciding to go home that afternoon to prepare for the holiday. In the morning she attends Mass at St Wilfred’s Church in Ventnor before leaving.
– August 13th her parents receive a telegram sent overnight and reporting that the journey to London was fine, signed fondest love, Pearl.
– Two hours later another message arrives with the devastating news that Pearl has died in her sleep.
One can hardly imagine the disbelief and pain suffered by her parents, even worse, perhaps, young John, all packed up and ready to leave school for a welcome reunion with the mother who wrote to him every day.
Her demise was widely reported on both sides of the Atlantic. There was no suggestion that it was other than a very early and unhappy death. A post-mortem revealed a heart that might have failed at any time.
Her will revealed an estate of £24,502 and 8 shillings. One hundred pounds went to her secretary Zoe Proctor, while her maid Mary Klump was awarded clothes as selected by her sister Dorothy. Brothers John junior and Nelson each received £20. A diamond bracelet was bequeathed to the Hon Miss Mary Irene, daughter of her deceased friend Mary Curzon and royalties up to the value of £3,000 were to go to Monsignor Brown of the Church of St Anne at Vauxhall. The rest was held in trust for John who was to continue at Eton and then Oxford. He was free to choose his own religion and profession.
JMR’s first act was to buy St Lawrence Lodge where Pearl had passed the latter years of her life. He renamed the property Craigie Lodge, by which it is still known today. Pearl’s belongings were then removed to London to be sold while JMR buried himself in writing his daughter’s biography, the Life of John Oliver Hobbs.
Pearl was widely adored, particularly by men, both for her attractive appearance and for her intelligence. Her once brimming confidence had been dented by the experience of marriage however and her witty erstwhile observations on life were shadowed by disillusion.
Novelist George Moore described her, rather bitterly perhaps, as a heartless flirt, social climber and a hypocritical religious sensualist, while the magazine Sphere commented on her discordant personality.
She would, however, have been pleased by the observations of Vincent O’Sullivan. In his opinion, she was (Oscar) Wilde’s sole disciple of any significance among the young writers of the time and also, the only person in London who could sign her name to Wilde’s plays and be believed – commendation indeed…
Pearl was buried according to the rights of the Roman Catholic Church. Her wish to be cremated was not adhered to, her remains, instead, interred in Kensal Green Cemetery.