Rare Interview with Tennessee Claflin Cook

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Tennessee ClaflinDear Readers- As you know,  I’ve been working on purchasing rare magazines and newspapers that feature Victoria and Tennessee. I was fortunate enough to stumble upon this interview with Tennessee Cook (Tennessee married wealthy Sir Francis Cook in England) from 1893. This was published in Woman at Home magazine. I’m sure you will enjoy not only what Tennessee has to say, but also the interviewer’s attitude.

Illustrated Interviews

Lady Cook

The wife of Sir Francis Cook, the well-known Head of the Alexandra School for Music in Kensington Gore, has for years past, both in England and in America, been engaged in the rather uphill work of the advancement of her sex. A good and thoroughly earnest woman, she has spared herself no personal sacrifice, she has never faltered for a moment in her endeavours to bring about what in many respects she considers would be for the good of her sex. Whether she is right or wrong is quite another matter. There are many—even of quite “advanced” people—who would certainly find themselves in violent opposition to many of her opinions in this special connection.

However that may be, she herself, no less than her sister Mrs. Biddulph Martin—who by-the-bye once offered herself as a candidate for the Presidency of the United States—is earnest and courageous enough in the tremendous task which she set herself many years ago, and to the accomplishment of which she has devoted vast ability, great sums of money and the whole of a very single-minded life. I thought of all this as I gazed upon the pretty room in which I sat awaiting her arrival. The windows looked out upon one of the loveliest views of which there are so many to be obtained in Richmond Park. The corresponding spaces at the opposite ends of the room looked out upon the first of the series of galleries built by Sir Francis Cook, and in which are placed some of the priceless art treasures which are here heaped in such rich profusion. Between these two openings stands a superb Greek statue upwards of 2,000 years old, “The Marble Thrower,” the figure of a boy dropped upon one knee, who is in the very act of throwing the marble which he holds in his right hand. Buried in the reflection that whatever else may change yet boyhood is eternal, I had not noticed the entry of a slight, graceful woman, apparently in the prime of life, who came forward to give me a kindly welcome. This was my hostess, Lady Cook, and I noticed with a keen pleasure that, however extraordinarily advanced she may be in her opinions, yet she is absolutely womanly in herself; in fact, her sympathy and her gentleness are very remarkable, and so she exercises on all who come in contact with her a fascination which is no less mental than physical. “Well,” said she, smiling very amiably, “what is it I am to tell you?” “Really,” I replied, “you know best. In a life so varied and so absolutely different from the ordinary, you must have much of interest to speak about.” “Then I’ll begin at the beginning,” was her simple mode of getting out of the difficulty. “I was born in Ohio, and for many years I lived in New York. Do you know,” she went on very earnestly—and she and her sister are nothing if they are not earnest—I can assure my readers they take themselves very seriously indeed—“Do you know that I began life as a doctor. I was consulted as a doctor as early as eleven years of age.” “Well, but,” I incredulously observed, “surely you had not studied for a medical life at that ridiculous age!” “No; it came to me that I should be allowed to cure people. I used to pray and put my hands upon people who were ill, and they got well. You know we are told to do so in the Bible. I kept it up for nine years, and made half a million of money at it. At nineteen years of age I made a speech in German to my German-American supporters who nominated me for Congress. I would have taken my seat if I had been a man.” I could scarcely refrain from an expression of my pleasure that she had failed in the carrying out of this ambition at any rate, but Lady Cook went on, quite undisturbedly, “Then my sister and I ran a bank in Wall Street and made heaps of money. We could have been the Burdett-Coutts of America had we chosen, but that was not our wish or intention. All we cared was for the emancipation of our sister women. And may I ask you why we women should not be as good business people, or make as eloquent clergymen or barristers or members of Senate, or be as good doctors or engine-drivers as you men? No, sir; wait a little, and you will come to realise what this movement means, however little you may be inclined to believe in it now. In the early days of which I am speaking women were much more restricted even than they are now. We strove that they should be treated and regarded as being on a perfect equality with men. For,” she continued with wonderful vigour and flow of language, “women should be, and they are, the equals of men. My theory is this—and I am at this very time writing an article upon it with this as my text—Eve was made from a rib taken from Adam’s side. Now, if she had been intended to lead the race, she would have been taken from the front of him; if to be trampled upon, from his feet; if to follow him, from his back; but as she was taken from his side, it shows clearly enough that men and women were intended to go through life hand in hand, side by side, on a perfect level of equality. We ran a paper—my sister and I—specially to promulgate these doctrines. We preached it everywhere, we lectured on hundreds of platforms, we have fought for the good cause, we have suffered for it, we have been imprisoned for it, but now at last we are triumphing. But even today woman is not free. The shackles of her ancient slavery still cling to her and retard her mental, moral, and physical development. Reformers suggest that she should have the right of voting; they talk of woman suffrage, the liberty to engage her abilities in any sphere of employment for which she may be capable. All these, of course, are right in their way, but we want far more than these. Even if they were granted she would be left in almost as much servitude as before. We claim for her infinitely more. We demand for her perfect equality with man in all things—that she should be free even as he is free. And we do this not in her interests alone, but in his also. For the absolute freedom of the woman will be the dawn of the day of man’s regeneration. In raising her he will elevate himself. Why, do you know that I go so far as to say that the women should have the same right to propose to men as men have to women. The mariage de convenance is horrible. It was Canon Liddon, if you remember, who at St. Paul’s one Sunday condemned ‘the bevy of mothers, like generals in a campaign, who will complain of no fatigue if they can only marry their daughters, not to high-souled and generous men, but to those who have a fortune;’ and don’t you remember, surely you must—how he went on to speak of those who degraded ‘to the brutal level of an affair of cash the most sacred of all human relationships, both for time and eternity’? He was one of the most attentive and appreciative of listeners at a lecture I gave at St. James’s Hall on this very subject in 1877. No, I repeat it, sooner than this dreadful selling of girls in the markets of this modern Babylon, I should prefer that girls chose their own husbands, and proposed to the men they liked best.”

I sat breathless for a moment.

This was the new era with a vengeance! Then I ventured, “And how do you think our women compare with American women?” “I think the English women,” she replied, “have advanced most amazingly within the last few years, but there is still a great deal to be learned in both countries.” And she sighed heavily as she spoke.

“Well, but what is it that you would wish chiefly to teach them?” “I want them to be strong, self-helpful, and independent. At present they are weak and utterly dependent on men. I want them to learn a little less of foreign languages and Latin and Greek, and learn more common-sense and hygiene, so that they may be able to take care of themselves and of their own interests in after life. I would have them work to support themselves, and live single if they cannot meet the man who would suit them in the highest and best sense of the word. Too many of them nowadays marry merely for a home.” “There is an outcry nowadays,” said I, “in certain quarters against the harmless, necessary chaperone. Do you approve of girls being chaperoned?” “I think,” replied my hostess with considerable amusement, “I think that a girl who can’t take care of herself is not fit for anything. Girls as a rule take much better care of themselves than boys. Many boys require a chaperone infinitely more than girls.” “And what does your husband say to all these ideas?” I queried. “Well, he built the Royal College of Music for the express purpose of translating these views into action. His college is the outcome of my theories, which I can see,” she smilingly added, “you regard as mere dreams.” “No, I don’t,” I replied, “not altogether. There is, of course, much truth in what you say, but I earnestly trust and believe that women will never go all the lengths you desire they should go.” At this moment Lady Cook was called from the room.

“It seems extraordinary to think of a woman having been a doctor and a banker before she was twenty years of age,” I remarked to a young lady, Miss Thornton, who had been sitting listening to our conversation. “Oh, but she has been more than that,” was the reply; “she has been, as she told you, an editor, a politician, a lecturer, and a colonel! Now,” continued this bright young Canadian, “I will show you the galleries if you care to see them, and I can assure you that if you are fond of art they are well worth going through.” And so indeed they were. In the first gallery, which we entered immediately from the drawing-room, I noticed a very fine painting by Cuyp, “The Burgomaster and Town Council receiving the Captain of the Guard.” Opposite this beautiful work of art is the original of the “Rape of the Sabines.” “But here,” said Miss Thornton, “is one of the most beautiful things I have ever seen, and it is a picture with a romantic history attached to it;” and as she spoke she led the way to a picture in which only an exquisite head—the head of a Madonna—was visible. “No one knows what the subject was,” she went on, “but the story goes that at the sacking of Vigo there was one French soldier more refined than his comrades. He was so much struck with the beauty of this picture, which they had just discovered, that he carefully cut the head as you see it out of the canvas, and hit it in his knapsack. He was afterwards taken prisoner by the English. One of the officers, who was standing by when this head was discovered amongst the man’s possessions, bought it of him and asked him where he got it. The soldier told him the whole history, adding that the name on the frame was that of Correggio. The picture remained in the officer’s family for many years, and was at length presented by his widow to the clergyman of the parish.” The galleries were crammed with objects both of “bigotry and virtue.” Napoleon’s watch lay there, much as it must have lain upon some beautiful table in far-away, romantic Fontainebleau, or as it may have ticked away the slow hours in St. Helena. Beautiful crucifixes hung upon the walls, silver cups glittered in the bright sunshine. A magnificent bronze statue of Fame stood boldly out from all the rest. Here, too, are some very fine Sir Joshua’s. The original portrait of him by Dr. Johnson, from which so many copies have been made, is to be seen in these charming galleries. The collection of miniatures is specially interesting, whilst the Grecian statue of a little baby carved more than two thousand years ago was almost more beautiful than anything I had yet seen. Here, too, are specimens of the work of Rubens, Vandyck, and Snyder. Nothing more impressive can be imagined than Vandyck’s “Betrayal of Christ,” which Lady Cook pointed out to me as being singularly beautiful and valuable. Passing through the gallery which Sir Francis calls “The Room of the Babies,” because here are collected so many pictures of children and Madonnas, we came—Lady Cook, Miss Thornton, and myself—to the last gallery, which gives one the impression at first of being a chapel, its ecclesiastical style of architecture and the magnificent altar-piece which Sir Francis recently bought from the Dudley collection lending themselves well to such an impression. As I stood before this beautiful altar-piece, in which was vividly depicted the love and adoration of the Virgin for the Infant Christ, Lady Cook said, clasping her beautiful hands together—and she has the long, exquisitely-shaped hand you so often see amongst the American women—“If only people realised the awful responsibility they have with those pure, innocent little lives, life would soon be very different, and we should have less of sin and drunkenness, disease and prostitution. The bringing up of children at present is, to my way of thinking, absolutely wrong, and especially the bringing up of girls. Girls from childhood have no liberty of movement as their brothers have. They may not even walk out alone, they must not talk the same language, learn the same lessons, nor indulge in the same sports. Boys may be careless and boisterous, girls must be prim and demure. Boys may range field and forest, and go shooting and fishing and hunting, girls must walk the pathway two and two as they do in ladies’ schools at Brighton. Boys are natural, girls must be artificial. And yet girls could rival boys in play and work, and beat them too,” she added, as who should say, “I dare you to contradict that.”

“And then when the girl is grown up she knows nothing of life, nothing even of her own womanhood, nothing of the motherhood which is awaiting her. Mothers should encourage entire confidence between their daughters and themselves, for the mother is the fittest teacher of her daughter. And yet how few mothers ever talk to their girls as they ought to talk to them; how many girls would have been spared miserable lives had they not been cursed with foolish or mock-modest mothers.” And then Lady Cook wandered into a lengthy and a vigorous attack on the present system of marrying and giving in marriage, in which I am bound to acknowledge she said much that, though not repeatable in an article of this description, was yet full of truth and wise common-sense. “Why don’t you work,” said she, turning upon me with a gentle enthusiasm, “why don’t you work might and main for the cause of the women, women in all ranks, for we all suffer alike? Owing to their exclusion from the higher grades of employment, women of the better classes are given over to useless and frivolous pursuits. Dress and fashion, amusements and flirtations, mainly make up the giddy round of their occupations, and bar all solid intellectual work. What is such a life but a protracted debauch? Yet who can blame these gilded butterflies of society for being what their fathers and husbands have made them? The women of the middle classes are no better. Take the wife of a country attorney or of a provincial chapel deacon, and see how hard, how narrow, how conventional and unsympathetic are their lives, and how remorselessly they would attack any woman who might venture to wander ever so little from the beaten track.

“But it is the women in the ranks of the Proletariat who suffer the most. Their maternal instincts are crushed out of them by their vicious and squalid surroundings. No, no, no! Don’t talk to me of keeping women in their place! Deep-seated and widespread abuses require heroic remedies. There must be no flinching at any process, however abhorrent to our pre-conceived ideas and prejudices, provided a cure can be effected, and it is for this I have been working all my life. And now,” said she, “I must introduce you to Sir Francis. We have been married for eight years, but we are more of lovers to-day than even we were at first. Ours was a marriage of the soul, and I am a companion to my husband in all his life, his ambitions, his pursuits, his religion.” And this was evidently true, for I found Sir Francis echoing the opinions of his wife. “I know about a hundred girls,” he said to me, “to whom I always preach the same thing. ‘Work, study, and improve yourselves. Take up some means of making a livelihood, learn it thoroughly, and so be independent. You can then afford to wait for the right man. And even if misfortunes do come after your marriage, you too can be a breadwinner.’” It was to help women to carry out these ideas that Sir Francis, at a cost of £80,000, built and presented to the nation the Royal College of Music, of which the Princess of Wales is the President. We all strolled back to the drawing-room, in which some beautiful views of Sir Francis’ home in Cintra caught my eye. “That is where my wife and I go to rest,” said Sir Francis to me. “These water-colour sketches will give you a good idea of the beautiful landscape gardens which I have made there.” It was in acknowledgment of the service he had done to their country by his importation of most exquisite tropical plants, which have added so materially to its beauty, that the Portuguese conferred the title of Viscount of Montserrat upon Sir Francis Cook. “I bought the estate of Montserrat from Beckford; he had begun laying out the grounds and gardens. There are still some cascades of his formation; but as he was unable to purchase the freehold, a good deal of his work relapsed into ruin. Since the purchase of Montserrat, I have added many surrounding properties, and the whole forms now one large landscape garden. But I have kept the quaint old gardens, trees, and terraces of Montserrat intact.”

We had been wandering about as Sir Francis talked, and at this moment we stood in one of the galleries. An open door revealed a lovely garden, over which the rays of the setting sun cast a crimson glow. Bright flowers, beautiful trees and shrubs and creepers were on all sides, a perfect old English garden. But glancing through a window a little lower down upon the other side, I thought myself in tropic lands. For there I beheld a perfect forest of palm trees and of waving ferns; exotics of rarest beauty—and rarest price too, I should imagine—from distant countries; a very glimpse of Paradise!

 

Raymond Blathwayt.

 

 

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