The not-so-great and the not-so-good, no. 28: Naomi Royde-Smith

Good grief, Malcolm! It looks as if we haven’t seen one of these in an age! Are you sure of the count?

Thought not! So it’s E&OE.

It’s also something of an apology. And those are certainly in vogue this week.

In Malcolm’s case it happened because he indulged in a bit of fact-checking. He had fixed in his mind the attribution of:

I know two things about a horse
And one of them is rather coarse.

He knew, for sure, that was a Hilaire Belloc gem. No question. Except, of course, it’s not. It’s, as he noted previously, Naomi Gwladys Royde-Smith, circa 1928,

Who she?

Well, she was more than a small literary celeb in her day — and her day stretched from being born in Halifax, Yorkshire, in 1875, until her kidneys gave up, and she was planted in Hampstead cemetery as late as mid-1964.

She was the eldest of six daughters of Michael Holroyd Smith (so the later double-barrelled surname is an affectation) and Anne Williams of Penybont. He was the electrical engineer who in 1889-90 fettled up the City and South London Railway, the first deep bored “tube” in the world, which we now know — if not love — as the Bank branch of London Underground’s Northern Line. She was the God-fearing, Bible-reading daughter of a Welsh divine.

After schooling at Clapham high school and a Swiss finishing school, Miss Royde-Smith was living in Chelsea, and writing for the Saturday Westminster Gazette. A small-circulation “clubland” publication, the Gazette  was, to some, “the most powerful paper in Britain“. It had the patronage of Lord Roseberry at a time when Liberalism was riding high.

Almost a national treasure

From being a contributor, Royde-Smith was soon editing (with her sister, Leslie) the ‘Problems and prizes page’ and from there, and writing reviews, in 1912 she became literary editor — the first woman in Britain to attain such a position. And it was no small distinction: she promoted the work of a galaxy of rising literary stars — Rupert Brooke, DH Lawrence, Graham Greene.

At this time she was the inamorata (or bit-on-the-side) of Walter de la Mare who wrote her hundreds of love-letters. Reviewing Theresa Whistler’s biography of de la Mare, Jeremy Treglown was somewhat caustic about the reality of this involvement:

Another supporter was the beautiful Naomi Royde-Smith, literary editor of the Saturday Westminster Gazette – the only woman who held such a position at the time. They fell in love. De la Mare wouldn’t leave his family and wasn’t much interested in sex, although he was exasperatingly jealous of Royde-Smith’s other friendships. She continued to read, heavily edit and publish his stuff, and in other ways helped along the possessive and increasingly hypochondriacal author. It is clear, although Whistler is tactful about this, that there was a good deal of tough, instinctive calculation behind de la Mare’s Skimpole-like infantilism. Devoted to his own children (he was a pioneer of male nappy-changing), he was sulky and obstructive when his daughters came to marry. A generous man when he could afford to be, the balance sheet always remained in his favour.

‘Beautiful’ Royde-Smithmay have been but, as implied there, she seems to have swung both ways. She had a ‘close relationship’ with Rose Macaulay; and together they ran a coterie of literary lions ( Arnold Bennett, Yeats, the Sitwells, the Huxleys) at Royde-Smith’s Kensington flat. Virginia Woolf came visiting and recorded Royde-Smith:

… dressed à la 1860; swinging earrings, skirt in balloons … sat in complete command. Here she had her world round her. It was a queer mixture of the intelligent & the respectable.

Read into that what you wish.

When Rose Macaulay put Royde-Smith into her 1926 novel, Crewe Train, it was as ‘Aunt Evelyn’. The central character, Denham Dobie, is brought to London by her maternal Aunt Evelyn and seeks to come to terms with this alien literary sophistication. Macaulay, though, makes Evelyn Gresham both incisive and smart (in every sense) but also interfering, waspish and a gross gossip.

A man and a quieter life

The Liberal hour passed and gone, the Westminster Gazette expired on its 35th birthday, 31st January 1928. Royde-Smith needed new worlds to conquer.

One was the accession of a man into her life. At Lynton, in Devon, ten days before Christmas 1926, she married Ernest Gianello Milton, a mixed (in all kinds of ways) Italian-American actor, a regular with Tyrone Guthrie’s Old Vic company. Milton’s finest few minutes were to be as Robespierre in Alexander Korda’s 1934 The Scarlet Pimpernel.

Quite what the marriage involved is open to prurient speculation. The bride was aged 51, and a full fifteen years older than her new husband (though she continued to massage the age difference). When Theresa Whistler, writing that study of de la Mare, described the liaison, it was:

a triumph over unlikeliness by the strong-minded, romantic woman she was, and the histrionic, highly-strung, generous-minded actor. He placed her, for life, on a pedestal of admiration, though not by temperament drawn to her sex.

Ahem! Again, read between the lines.

Later years

Naomi Milton (as she now was) forwent the social life, and effectively “retired” — at one time the Mitons were living in a house which had once been Nell Gwyn’s: 34 Colebrook Street, Winchester (as above). She did a bit of art-criticism for Queen magazine, but her main occupation became the authoring of a string of some forty largely-forgotten novels, a couple of biographies, and four plays. Only one of the novels, The Tortoiseshell Cat, “a Good First Novel“, seems to have stayed in print (and that intermittently).

Her niece, Jane Tilley, described Naomi Milton in her later years  — first at Winchester, then a permanent resident of the Abbey Court Hotel in Hampstead’s Netherhall Gardens, as:

hugely amusing, chain-smoked, was large and uncorseted, and wore large patterns

The final novel, Love and a Birdcage, was published in September 1960, when she was in her eighty-fifth year, possessed of very poor eye-sight. Ernest Milton survived her by a decade.


Filed under Britain, fiction, films, Hampstead, History, Literature, London, WB Yeats

2 responses to “The not-so-great and the not-so-good, no. 28: Naomi Royde-Smith

  1. Pingback: Illiterature | Malcolm Redfellow’s Home Service

  2. Pingback: Nice one, Mister Ed! | Malcolm Redfellow’s Home Service

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