new zealand electronic poetry centre

Ursula Bethell




Rosemary Brewer

Originally published in Printout 11 (Winter 1996): 68-70.

The love we have for our women intimates may be the most intense and enduring of our lives. Sometimes it is expressed sexually, most often it is not.

Last year I researched the friendships, all of them platonic, of the erudite poet Mary Ursula Bethell (1874-1945) as part of my MA thesis, A Pilgrim in the Library. Bethell was alive at a time when friendships were maintained with letters rather than telephone calls, and she had a correspondence the scope of which is difficult to comprehend today. She kept writing to friends she had made in her youth, and widened her range of contacts throughout her life. Her close relationships were largely with women, although she greatly enjoyed the company of men, including many of the young male writers of the thirties.

Before 1934 Bethell was closest to her sister Rhoda, and to Effie Pollen. The prosperous Bethell women, Ursula, Rhoda and their mother, shared a house in Hampstead, London for a period in 1906-08. Effie was a Wellingtonian, who appears to have met Mrs Bethell on the boat to England. She came at their invitation to live with them, helping Ursula keep house. Ursula also established a garden, as she did later at Rise Cottage, the house she built in Cashmere, Christchurch, and moved into with Effie in 1924. The bulk of her poems were written during the ten happy years they lived together there.

Effie's sudden death in 1934 caused Ursula an enduring grief, recorded in the memorial poems she wrote on its anniversary from 1935 to 1940. She moved alone down into Christchurch, to flat in the house in Webb Street, St Albans, which she had previously donated to the Anglican Church for training Anglican women in social work. In the following years she maintained contact with Rhoda and was close to both Dr Helen Simpson, a Christchurch academic, and Kathleen Taylor, a newly qualified teacher in her early twenties. When Ursula and Kathleen met in 1941, Ursula was 66.

Ursula found accommodation in the main house at Webb Street for Kathleen, and the house occupancy was expanded when, shortly after Christmas 1943, Kathleen married the Cathedral Precentor, Merlin Davies. He too became close to Ursula.

One hundred and two letters from Ursula to Kathleen came out of embargo last year, and may be read by researchers in the Macmillan Brown Library archives, in the Davies Papers at the University of Canterbury Library.

The following are extracts from them.

     It's curiously natural to have you about – Katya, I felt it almost from the first.... [25.6.41]

     ... about two years ago it must be, – yes, just before the war – I ventured to put in my prayer – seeing that life was going on – that, if it were possible, three things might come to me again – love, & poetry, & a home. And then how strangely and unexpectedly your dear little love came! It was something like my Effie coming, 37 years ago, because before I knew her I felt sorry about her being lonely, désoeuvré, and Rhoda and I planned a home and occupation for her. Similarly, I didn't take you in at all the first evening. I asked you to come again because Paul said you were lonely in yr. lodging & I asked him whether you wd. care to come – The second time I remember seeing that you were a very right-minded young woman! & then I was charmed by your being hungry! – like a boy.... There remain poetry & a home! One may depend on the other, because my poetry only seems to happen in peace & quiet. [8.1.42]

     If I were 'getting poetry' & you came up [to Kaikoura, where she was holidaying] you'd have to settle several yards off as Effie did – at our picnics. No, we must not scheme for that. All your appearances so far have been so sweetly miraculous – we must leave it to Providence – If we schemed, they might all be wet days & we might get on our nerves each other's I mean & quarrel! [2.7.41]

     ... there are bits of yr letter which are you! Don't let yourself congeal on paper – if you feel yourself stiffening swear loudly and ask Would I say this in hot blood?

     ... To think that something bad must happen to counterbalance the good is much too Celtic & primitive for you! No, no, no. (I cry this because of the struggle in my own mind between faith and unfaith) more than ever we must, mustn't we – trust and pray to the God who is love or we shall be done for – we women, especially – and more especially must a woman who's got a bit past active works exercise herself in these matters. [25.6.41]

     The spectre of lonely old age asserts itself – and then, when I came back to our familiar things, there's an intolerable longing for my little Effie & our home – the air, the view, the garden – Michael [Effie and Ursula's cat at Rise Cottage] – all that's lost – it hurts so much – but it drives me to take refuge in the holy will of God, which is ultimate reality & truth ... [8.1.42]

     I think a great deal about Europe ... this terrific invasion battle. How ghastly it will be – but how tremendous. Worst of all in war (I feel as I did in the last war) – the lies.... The whole world seems to be infected with falsity.... Sincerity & candour & trust in personal relationships shine all the better – Islands of security!

     ... [written while Kathleen and Merlin were on their honeymoon, considering her own life-long celibacy] Not that it's everything, this two-sided sexuality. I think my poetry shows that pretty clearly, don't you – There was peace & happiness (for all the blemishes) at Rise Cottage, and fun, such fun! & you don't have fun without peace – Lots of anxiety too, & therein perhaps the maternal constituent was having its day.... [3.1.44]

     [From hospital, where Ursula had had two teeth removed] Back from dentist, there lay yr. letter on my dressing table – best possible Restorative. I read it while gustating cautiously (there's no such word but I had the noun yesterday in Wotherspoon about Mystery Religions) ... the two noxious tusks have gone (I rather miss them!) & that's an experience I can't have again – as Effie said, when the poor little darling had, so mistakenly, all of hers, at once wrested from her.... [18.1.44]

This is from an unpublished piece called 'Aspirations' written at Rise Cottage:

I don't want to be neat like my Effie
With everything tidied away,
And not to be found when called for
And consequent heat and delay ...

But I want to be tidy like Rhoda
(A really orderly soul)
I want all my note books & papers
Each in its pigeon hole

I love all her natty arrangements –
The outfit for tending the sick –
The bottles all carefully labelled
With labels quite certain to stick –

... Ah, to reduce one's wardrobe
To one hat, two coats, & a skirt,
All to be made of material
That no kind of weather will hurt!

But I know I shall never stifle
The wish to be hatted and shod
And clothed to suit the occasion
And more or less à la mode!

I cannot be tidy like Rhoda
Until I am less like Mama.
And curb my unfortunate weakness
For objets vertu et d'art.

Mary Ursula Bethell died of cancer of the cheek bone on 15 January 1945.


Last updated 10 April, 2005