The Victorian School
King Edward VI School, Stratford-upon-Avon


Notable women writers of the day
Mrs Laffan interviewed for the Ladies Pictorial journal in 1893

Mrs Laffan/Mrs Leith Adams
Mrs Laffan

It is a lovely day in early springtime. A gentle south-west wind is just stirring the meadows, and the young birds are chirping gaily in the hedgerows which are beginning to put forth their tiny buds. All nature seems awake and smiling; truly a fitting morn on which to visit Stratford-on-Avon, the place so fraught with memories of the immortal bard. You have been so fortunate as to make the long journey from London in the company of the well-known and popular Captain Gerard, late of the 23rd Welsh Fusiliers, and as he has been for some years a resident in these parts, he has given you the carte du pays and much useful and interesting information.

The town of Stratford-on-Avon is beautifully situated on the south-west border of Warwickshire on a gentle eminence rising from the bank of the Avon. As the train glides into the station, Mrs Leith Adams [Mrs Laffan's pen-name] is seen standing on the platform. She has come to meet you, accompanied by many dogs, who insist on jumping into the carriage as an escort home. On leaving the station the road runs past the hospital, down the wonderfully broad High-street of the town with its venerable houses on either side, and as the beautiful old porch of the Guild Chapel (of which Mr Laffan is incumbent) comes into view, the pony turns down Chapel-lane and draws up at the School House.

The Guild Chapel The Guild Chapel, in the early twentieth-century

Entering the porch into the hall you face the head master's study, to the left, a charming room and evidently the haunt of a scholar. The next room on the same floor has two French windows opening on to the garden. In a nook by one of these windows Mrs Leith Adams does her writing with the shades of George Eliot looking down on her, and a fine photograph of her youngest son now in Australia. Wandering about the grounds into which these windows look are six beautiful peacocks, a comical cockatoo, a seagull, so tame that it comes to when called, two white broken-haired terriers, and a wise-looking pug. On the left stands a tree with cocoanuts tied upon it, where countless blue-eyed tits congregate all day long. The wide winding staircase leads up to the drawing-room, where you find yourself among shades of olive green, and a roving glance is caught by two magnificent old china jars, standing on either side of the fireplace, once full of unguents belonging to the Knights of St. John of Jerusalem, and found in the vaults under the palace at Malta, The side window looks across the school gardens to the Memorial Theatre, a fine denied building on the banks of the river, and the three windows in the front look over New Place Gardens where lie the foundations of the house where Shakespeare died, and where in 1643 Henrietta Maria, Queen of Charles I, was hospitably received and entertained for three days by Shakespeare's daughter.

It was as the wife of the late Surgeon-General A Leith Adams, FRS, LLD, MD, that the author of "Aunt Hepsy's Foundling" (by which story the name of Mrs Leith Adams is best known to the public) entered on her career as a novelist. Having been much struck during a visit to Scotland by the character and personality of a venerable minister of the Presbyterian Church, she resolved to attempt to make him the centrepiece of a short story. Of this resolve the result was "Keaney Malcombe's pupil" since republished under the title of "Mabel Meredith's Love Story." Her first essay in fiction met with instant success. Without any previous acquaintance with, or introduction to, the present Mr Charles Dickens, the author offered her MS. to All the Year Round. It was at once accepted and published in the year 1876, from which time up to the present Mrs Leith Adams has been continuously a member of Mr Dickens's staff.

A more ambitious effort followed in the year 1877 when "Winstowe," her first three-volume novel, was brought out. It bore marks of great inexperience, but had a certain limited sale in England and a wider one in America. In the following year "Madelon Lemoine" was issued, a book which has made its way steadily among a section of the community, and is looked upon by many critics as the foremost among the author's earlier works; but it was not until the publication of "Aunt Hepsy's Foundling" that her name came prominently before the public. A remarkable notice in a leading journal resulted in a second edition being promptly called for. This has been followed by two other editions, each in one volume, also one in America and one in Germany. In writing this book Mrs Leith Adams was inspired by the recollections of life in New Brunswick, in which country she had spent nearly five years with her husband's regiment - the 1st Battalion "Cheshire." The novelty of the scene and the freshness of its treatment secured for the work a prompt success, and it was spoken of by a weekly review as "an almost perfect novel of its kind."

The author has enjoyed very exceptional advantages as preparation for a literary career. Married at an early age, when the impression of a girl's life are peculiarly vivid, she was but six months in Ireland with the "Cheshire" when that regiment was ordered on foreign service. Her presentation at the Irish Vice Regal Court, over which the scholarly Lord Carlisle then held sway, the brilliant festivities at the Castle, reunions at the house of Sir Henry and Lady Marsh, where she met all the men of letters in Dublin, the happy camaraderie of regimental life; all these things, so new to her passed like a flash, and were exchanged for the troopship, and ultimately for lands and societies strangely differing the one from the other.

The sunshine, orange groves, and military pomp and glitter of life in Malta were succeeded by the sound of the sleigh bells over the snow, the wonders of the sudden springtime, and the gorgeous "fall" of New Brunswick, and, after nine years' wandering, the beautiful coast scenery of Guernsey; then once again the delights of soldiering in Ireland, this time in the South, where the lovely climate, devoted friends, and the charm of being near home once more, have, as your hostess expresses it, "all made the memories of those days most dear to me."

School House School House, in the early twentieth-century

Mrs Leith Adams did not begin to write whilst still a very young woman. She says of herself that although the idea may have been in her mind she wished to wait until she had great stores of experience and observation upon which to draw. Some of these experiences have been of an intense and exceptional character. During the great cholera epidemic which visited the island of Malta in 1866 - after sending home to England her only little child for safety - she devoted herself to the care of the sick and dying in her husband's regiment, in company with a band of soldiers' wives, who gladly and fearlessly gave themselves to the good work. Many of her experiences during this awful time are to be found in the pages of "Madelon Lemoine," but in one instance (not there alluded to) it may be said that Mrs Leith Adams ran extraordinary and perilous risk, such as rendered her entire immunity front harm little short of miraculous whilst she also had the satisfaction of seeing the woman whom she was attending gradually recover from the fatal disease that so seldom spares the victim that it has once attacked.

After twenty-five years' service with the old regiment, Dr Leith Adams obtained a Staff appointment connected with the recruiting department at the Horse Guards, and this brought himself and his wife to London, where they continued to reside for some years. It was during this period that her literary career began. At the time of her husband's death she was under an agreement to supply a serial story to a leading magazine, in fact she had one, and only one, chapter written towards that weekly instalment of "copy" necessary during such a process, "but," she says, "I shall ever remember with the deepest gratitude, the prompt generosity with which the editor, on hearing of my bereavement and of my subsequent illness, made arrangements to give me time." As soon as she was able to resume her pen, Mrs Leith Adams completed and published "Geoffrey Stirling," first in the pages of All The Year Round, and then in three-volume form. This story has had its share of popularity, and a "picture-board" edition of it has been issued lately.

"Amongst the many other advantages I enjoyed," she remarks, "I rank by no means least the society of the many eminent and scientific men that my husband's tastes and attainments opened to me. I can look back upon gatherings round the hospitable board of Sir Joseph and Lady Hooker at the Royal Society Gardens, which included such men as the late William Spottiswoode, PRS, Professor HuxIey, Professor Flower, and of foreign savans not a few, occasions on which I would gladly have found myself possessed of not two ears alone, but twenty, and when to listen to the conversation of the charmed circle was indeed a liberal education. At the soirees of the Royal Society I used to delight in meeting all the talent of this and many another country, and I hold the very strongest opinions as to the unspeakable advantage that it is to a woman to listen to highly gifted and deeply learned men discussing questions and knowledge of the greatest and most vital importance."

School House School House, in the early twentieth-century

In the autumn of 1883, Mrs Leith Adams married, en secondes noces, the Rev R S de Courcy Laffan, MA, eldest son of the late Lieut-General Sir Robert Michael Laffan, KCMG, RA, Governor of the Bermudas. Mr. Laffan is head-master of King Edward VI. School at Stratford-on-Avon, the school at which Shakespeare received his early education. He is a refined scholar, a most able preacher, and on his staff are men of high university degrees and much culture, so that, as Mrs Laffan, the author's lines are still cast among intellectual surroundings.

She has thrown herself into the interests of school-life as earnestly as she did into that of a regiment, and of social life in London, and amidst all the claims of her literary work contrives to find time to give the most minute care to the health, comfort, and happiness of the boys under her husband's roof. It is impossible to see her in their midst whether they be tall striplings preparing to become defenders of their country or little fellows in sailor suits just introduced to the surroundings of school, with its pleasures and its trials without recognising, as they cluster about her in their own sitting-rooms, or in her drawing-room, that she has completely won their hearts and that her influence among them is one of the factors in the rapidly increasing success of the school. At the annual speech day, Mrs Laffan personally designs all the costumes of the play, Shakespearean or otherwise, and on the last occasion of this kind wrote the play for the junior boys and composed the music incidental to it.

One of the later novels by Mrs Leith Adams (who prefers to retain her former name in her literary capacity) is "Louis Draycott," in which the reader will find many traces of the influence of school life, and the study of the characteristics of boys. "No one but a woman could have filled in these tiny canvases," remarked a critic; "nor are evidences wanting of her being surrounded by the classic traditions of Stratford-on-Avon. Thoroughly imbued with Shakespeare, she has judiciously, to a certain extent allowed him to influence her diction, but never obtrusively."

It is only natural that the author should miss in her country home the literary, musical and artistic society of London, where she has so many friends, but she has made acquaintances too in Warwickshire, where she has the privilege of meeting men and women eminent in the world of letters. Stratford-on-Avon is of itself a shrine to which so many distinguished pilgrims, especially Americans, are drawn, that charming, unexpected meetings often take place and friendships are cemented when she takes her many visitors to see the interesting places in the town.

"Bonnie Kate, A Story from a Woman's Point of View," was the writer's next work. It had a successful career, and was followed by "A Garrison Romance," wherein military reminiscences figure largely and many characters are sketched from life. A story in the same line, entitled "Colour-Sergeant No. 1 Company," is shortly to appear and also a novel in three volumes called "The Peyton Romance." A late small volume, "The Cruise of the Tomahawk," was written by Mrs Leith Adams in collaboration with her husband and a friend; the poems with which it is interspersed and the small illustrations are from the pen of Mr Laffan. At the Church Congress held at Cardiff in 1889 she read a paper upon "Fiction viewed in relation to Christianity," and she says that she has some intention of giving a lecture during the present year on the subject of "Literature as a Profession for Women."

As regards her mode of work, she remarks: "The plots which I find the easiest to work out are those which have been thought over the longest: the word 'long' here stands for a great deal. The plot and characters of 'Bonnie Kate' have been under consideration, and the subject of the accumulation of constant notes for the last eight years, dating from a visit to a Yorkshire farmstead for the express purpose of obtaining the colouring and atmosphere necessary to the delineation of 'Low Cross Farm.'"

Of Mrs Leith Adams' minor works, it may be said that "My Land of Beulah" has had a quite exceptional popularity, and "Cosmo Gordon," with its delightful self-made man, Mr Japp, has had its full share of admirers. "Mathilde's Love Story," published two years ago in the spring number of All The Year Round, is a memory of Guernsey, and "Georgie's Wooer" is a reminiscence of life in the South of Ireland.

Mrs Leith Adams is an ardent musician and accomplished pianist, and its there are several good violinists among the masters and boys of Shakespeare's School, concerted music is often the order of the day, more especially at her Thursday afternoon "at homes." There is a long gap between the publication of "Geoffrey Stirling" and that of "Louis Draycott," but various causes combined to make this so, Further very heavy bereavements, variable health, anxiety as to the health of her son (Mr Francis Lauderdale Adams, now well known as poet and journalist in Australia) the necessity for his leaving England, the same anxiety with the same results in the case of her younger son - a most promising boy, whose health broke down just when his prospects seemed brightest: all these causes militated for some years against continuous mental effort. The pen is now, however, once more resumed, and no doubt a group of what may be called "later novels" will be the result. In addition to the high value she places upon long, consideration of a projected novel, Mrs Leith Adams holds that to write well, you must read well. She is convinced that the style and tone of what people read thoughtfully, sensibly affects their own diction. "I am," she observes, "a devoted admirer of Mrs Carlyle, and have read again and again those thrilling letters in which all a woman's innermost life and sorrows, and heart story are laid bare. I am of opinion. that had Jane Welsh Carlyle seen fit to make literature a profession, that she would have taken rank second only to that apostle of female culture and ambitions, George Eliot. Shakespeare, Browning, Tennyson, and all biographies of great men, are the reading that I love best. Carlyle himself only comes second to his wife in my estimation, and at the feet of Charles Dickens I worshipped in my girlhood. (This influence is distinctly traceable in much of her work.) Mrs Gaskell, Miss Austen, Charlotte Bronte's 'Jane Eyre,' and many of Miss Broughton's works, George Meredith, Baring Gould, and, above all, George Eliot - these among English fiction are my favourites, whilst in French, Dumas' Chevalier de la Maison Rouge, and many of Octave Feuillet's are my companions. If I like a book I read it again and again; if I like a play I go to see it again and again. It is like learning to know more and more of one whom you love."

Like most writers, Mrs Leith Adams has had some strange and funny experiences in letters from people unknown and never to be known, and in the calm impertinences - probably not intended - of people absolutely ignorant of literary knowledge, as for instance when a peculiarly banal woman remarked to her, "I'm sure I could write novels quite as well as you if I were not so weak in the wrist," which was assuredly locating the mental rather low down; and another a perfect stranger, who called upon her in London and said with startling candour, "I want to make some money, I'm going to write a novel. How do you begin?"

Later on, a visit to the schools is suggested, and, escorted by your hosts, you make a tour round these interesting premises. The schools, the chapel, and the vicarage house form three sides of a quaint old-world quadrangle, in which it is easy to forget for a moment the nineteenth century, and to dream oneself back into the middle ages. The Guild Chapel, one of the most interesting buildings in Stratford, was founded by the brethren of the Guild of the Holy Cross. The chancel dates from the thirteenth century, but the nave is of more recent construction. The next building bears an inscription, "King Edward VI. School," though its real founder was Thomas Jolyffe, one of the priests of the Guild, who built the Old Latin Schoolroom in 1482. The unpretending exterior scarcely prepares you for the quaint beauty of the interior. On entering, you find yourself in a long panelled room, which is the Old Guild Hall, where the Earl of Worcester's players gave their representations in Shakespeare's day. On the same floor is a classroom called the Armoury with Jacobean panelling, and a fresco of the arms of the Kings of England. A narrow staircase leads to a little room on the left, where a few years ago several 16th century manuscripts were discovered. Then comes the Council Chamber with its splendid oak roof and Jacobean table, and on the wall there are two curious frescoes of roses painted in 1485 to commemorate the termination for ever of terrible Wars of the Roses. Next to it is the Mathematical Room, but it is on leaving that, and entering the Old Latin Room that you feel impressed with the great antiquity and beauty of the building. The roof is one of the finest specimens of the open roof in the country. It was in this and the adjoining room that the poet received his education, and from it the desk which tradition assigns to him was taken. It now stands in the museum at the birthplace, which place you are duly taken to visit and also the Church of Holy Trinity, where at the entrance to the altar, on a slab covering the ashes of the poet, is an inscription written by himself, together with his bust painted into a strict likeness, even to the complexion, the colour of the hair and eyes, and you leave all these interesting relics with a strong conviction that no better cicerone could be found than Mr and Mrs Laffan to do the honours of the ancient and historic buildings of Shakespeare's School and the "sacred places of Stratford-on-Avon " -

"Where sleep the illustrious dead, where lies the dust
Of him whose fame immortal liveth still
And will live evermore."
Related article

Robert Laffan, headmaster 1885-1895


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