Saturday, July 18, 2015

Disraelis and Mayors: more convenient deaths

I have written elsewhere about the convenient – and possibly suspicious - deaths of the men who were engaged to be married to Jane Austen’s sister Cassandra and J. M. Barrie’s sister Maggie.

In both cases, the bereaved young women remained available to their siblings as their main source of companionship, emotional support and admiration. In other words, both Jane Austen and J. M. Barrie benefitted from the deaths of the men who would have been their brothers-in-law.

I have found two more cases of interest, with similar elements.

Alice Mayor and F. M. Mayor
Flora Macdonald Mayor wrote novels and short stories under the name F. M. Mayor, mostly between 1913 and 1929. She had an identical twin sister, Alice. Just like Jane Austen, Flora had brothers but only the one sister.

Flora spent some time at university, where she did not do particularly well. She spent the next seven years looking for an occupation. She hoped to succeed as a professional actress, but that too did not turn out very well. The life was hard, the glamour faded, and she became tired of the lifestyle and the squalid lodgings.

People in such situations often dream of deliverance. Salvation came in the form of a young architect called Ernest Shepherd, who, just like Cassandra Austen’s fiancé, could not afford to get married immediately so hoped to make his fortune overseas. He was accepted for a well-paid job in India, and this enabled him to propose to Flora. He then left for India. Although she was not happy at the prospect of being separated from her family, Flora agreed to join him later in the year: they would then get married.  Unfortunately, he died of typhoid fever out there while she was still in England.

Alice MacDonald Mayor had not been in favour of the marriage. She was desolate at the thought of losing her twin to India. Just like the Austen sisters, the two Mayor girls lived closely together for their remaining years. Flora died at the age of 59; Alice lived on for another 29 years.

Benjamin Disraeli and Sarah Disraeli
Benjamin Disraeli was very attached to his loyal and devoted sister Sarah. He relied on her for support. Like Jane Austen, he did not have a particularly good relationship with his mother, who refused to recognise his talents. In later life he had almost nothing to say about her; Jane Austen also rarely mentions her mother in her letters. 

Cassandra was two years older than Jane Austen; Sarah was two years older than Benjamin Disraeli.

Sarah became informally engaged to a young man called William Meredith, a friend of Disraeli’s, who died of smallpox in Cairo after going on a tour with her brother. Sarah’s fiancé died when she was 29 years old and she never married, spending much of the remainder of her life looking after family members. Sarah Disraeli died at the age of 57.

Accidents, coincidences and just plain bad luck?
These deaths can be explained away as the results of tragic accidents or fatal illnesses. Smallpox, typhoid fever and yellow fever are diseases that were often deadly.

And yet… both Alice MacDonald Mayor and Benjamin Disraeli benefitted from the deaths of men who would have been their brothers-in-law. Alice M. Mayor was dead against her twin sister’s marriage; it is likely that Disraeli did not want to lose his sister either.

To return to Cassandra Austen’s case, Thomas Fowle’s patron said that he would never have taken the young man out to the West Indies if he had known that he was an engaged man. If he had thought to ask, it would not have mattered that no one informed him; if someone had told him, it would not have mattered that he didn’t think to ask. It might seem that something sinister was at work, something that prevented this subject being raised, but a devil’s advocate would say that until Thomas Fowle had made some money overseas he could not afford to get married, so perhaps he deliberately kept quiet about his commitment to Cassandra because he knew that it would be held against him.

The man Maggie Barrie was going to marry died in a fatal riding accident – involving a horse that he bought with money that J. M. Barrie had given him.

Such accidents could have been almost as common then as fatal car crashes are now. Maggie did in any case marry – and with J. M. Barrie’s blessing. She became the wife of the dead man’s brother. And yet… the horrible deaths of the Llewelyn Davies boys’ parents were also very convenient for J. M. Barrie. D. H. Lawrence said, “Barrie has a fatal touch for those he loves. They die.”

This could apply to three of the Llewelyn Davies boys; another death of someone associated with Barrie comes to mind. The name Wendy was popularised by Barrie: he was inspired by a little girl named Margaret Henley, who adored Barrie and always called him ‘my friendy’. However, because she couldn't pronounce the letter ‘r’, the words came out as ‘my fwendy’.

Margaret Henley died at the age of five in 1894.

More about the Disraelis
William Meredith died in1831. In Mr & Mrs Disraeli: A Strange Romance, Daisy Hay mentions a local man who wanted to marry Sarah: he was her ‘last and secret hope’. He too died; this was in 1836.

Then there is the unexpected death at the age of 57 of the husband of the hugely wealthy woman who not long afterwards became Disraeli’s wife. From a review of Daisy Hay’s book:

 “When Disraeli first met Mary Anne, at a party given by Edward and Rosina Bulwer in April 1832, she was the pretty, lively, voluble, and much-younger wife of the Welsh M.P. and mining magnate, Wyndham Lewis, and he (Disraeli) was a deeply-in-debt dandy, mostly known as the author of a scandalous novel…Wyndham Lewis’s sudden death from a heart attack in 1838, left Mary Anne a wealthy widow."

From another review of Daisy Hay’s book:

“In a letter not quoted in Daisy Hay’s otherwise thorough and engaging account, Disraeli received the following advice from his friend, Count D’Orsay, shortly after his election: “You have your seat; do not risk anything! If you meet a widow, then marry!” The following year, Mary Anne became a widow and the year after that she was Mrs Disraeli.”

Finally, Sir Robert Peel is described as being Disraeli’s nemesis; Peel had a fatal accident: he was thrown from his horse and died three days later.

It is of interest that Benjamin Disraeli was a novelist in addition to being a politician: strange things often happen around creative people.

More about the Austen sisters
The episode in Jane Austen’s life where she received a marriage proposal and accepted it only to withdraw her consent the following day is well documented. The man in question married someone else less than two years later.

I remembered reading something about a man she liked very much who died suddenly, and wondered whether she got back what she put out in the form of a backlash or karmic retribution.

I looked for more information about this incident in her life, and instead of verified and established facts found varying, confusing and conflicting accounts of what happened: there may have been one death, two deaths or no deaths involving mystery men or identified men with similar names. It could well all be speculation, family tradition, hearsay and Chinese whispers. People may have made assumptions and jumped to the wrong conclusions. Cassandra is known to have destroyed or censored much of her correspondence with Jane, so some evidence may be gone for ever.

The episode may have happened in 1801, or it could have been 1804. Both Lyme Regis and Sidmouth are mentioned as places where Jane encountered the mystery young gentleman, possibly a clergyman, who may have died. A possible candidate, Samuel Bicknall, may have been confused with another of Jane’s acquaintances, Samuel Blackall. One article mentions a suitor, an apothecary’s son from Sidmouth, who died in a riding accident. I could not find any other references to such an accident, apart from this in Wiki:

“Anne Brydges Lefroy, wife of Rev. George Lefroy, "became Jane Austen's best-loved and admired mentor, the person she would always run to for advice and encouragement" after the Lefroys moved to nearby Ashe in 1783. Her death in a riding accident in 1804 left Jane grief-stricken.”

A recent biography, Jane Austen: An Unrequited Love by Dr Andrew Norman, suggests that Cassandra forged the letter announcing the death of the mystery man, here identified as Dr Samuel Blackall, out of jealousy: she wanted to sabotage Jane’s possible chance of marrying. This is wild speculation, but an interesting theory.

I stopped my investigations because the more information I found, the more confused I became. The water is muddied and we will never know what, if anything, really happened.

For anyone who wants to find out more about Jane Austen, there are many articles, reviews and comments about the incident to be found online.

I found many more coincidences and connections while working on this article, which I will publish in the near future.