Violet Needham's Life
Violet Needham was born on 5 June 1876 at 9 John Street (now Chesterfield Hill), Mayfair, London, as Amy Violet Needham, the younger daughter and child of Captain Charles Needham, 1st Life Guards, and his attractive (and rich) Dutch wife. The 1881 Census, taken when Violet was not yet five, shows the family in the house of her birth and living in considerable style, with a butler and footman, cook, kitchen-maid and housemaid, lady’s maid, nurse and French nursery-maid – and we may guess at a stable establishment elsewhere. Charles Needham took part the next year in the Egyptian campaign which culminated in the battle of Tel-el-Kabir, rose to command his regiment and served as military attaché in Rome between 1895 and 1901. On his retirement the family bought a country house and spent summers there with winters in London. It is all very much as we might have imagined Violet Needham’s background – privileged, leisured and cosmopolitan. But it is not the whole story.
To begin with, Charles Needham was both more and less than he seemed. Superficially we see an aristocratic, quick-tempered soldier (his nickname with his troops was ‘Blastofino’), remarkably cultured, speaking French and Italian, well-read in English literature with a beautiful voice. But he had spent his early years labouring under the dual handicaps of illegitimacy and an eccentric father, handicaps which might easily have warped his character. He was the result of a union which was not merely unlawful but was downright scandalous, for his father, Francis Jack Needham, 2nd Earl of Kilmorey, had run off with the young Priscilla Anne Hoste when he was already a grandfather and she his ward. Charles Needham was two years younger than his half-nephew, the eventual 3rd Earl of Kilmorey (who was to become Violet’s god-father). Priscilla Hoste was one of the daughters of Admiral Sir William Hoste and his wife Lady Harriet Walpole. Her father died when she was a small child and her mother allegedly was careless of her relations with Lord Kilmorey. He had been born in 1787, been M.P. for Newry from 1819-26, succeeded his father in 1832, and was notorious for his eccentricity and bad reputation. He bought or leased large houses in bewildering succession, built (and twice moved) his own mausoleum – now in Isleworth – is said to have dabbled in black magic and housed his wife and mistress in adjoining houses with an underground passage between them. All in all he was the antithesis of 19th Century respectablity. But to his credit, although his relationship with Priscilla Hoste was scandalous it was not transitory. He set her up in her own establishment, acknowledged her son (born on 19 July 1844) as his, gave him his name, and after Priscilla’s early death from heart disease on 21 October 1854 had her buried in the mausoleum and commemorated as ‘Priscilla, the beloved of Francis Jack, Earl of Kilmorey’. On his own death in 1880 he was buried beside her, beneath the bas-relief showing her lying dead on a couch mourned over by himself and the ten-year-old Charles.
After Priscilla’s death Kilmorey took Charles everywhere with him, going first to Rome on what must have seemed an interminable journey to a terrified little boy. For in Priscilla’s lifetime Kilmorey had been jealous of her love for her son, wanting all her love for himself, and evidently at this stage in their lives he was a severe and frightening father. That Charles was to become the apple of his eye shows the depth of his passion for Priscilla, and eventually he must have been able to show the boy affection. Yet nothing could removed the stigma of illegitimacy, and Charles’ youth on that account alone cannot have been easy. However he soon overcame the hostility he encountered when he first joined the Life Guards – he attributed this to having friends already, but surely some of it must have been due to his own character – and became popular. Violet remembered her father with deep affection, and that he was a charmer is surely borne out by his marriage in 1874 to his Dutch heiress.
Hendrika Amelie Charlotte Vincentia de Tuyll de Serooskerken (the cosmopolitan form of her surname preferred by her family over the Dutch van Tuyll van Serooskerken), usually known as Amy, was the third daughter of Baron Vincent de Tuyll, who had made a fortune out of the tin concessions on the island of Billiton in the Dutch East Indies. He died in 1860, when his eldest child was only twelve, and his Anglo-American wife seems to have brought her family up at least partly in England. A photograph of Amy as a young woman shows her as distinctly attractive. She is described in contemporary memoirs as ‘piquante’, and she must also have had a sturdy and resilient character. For it was clearly she who had to bear the brunt of Charles Needham’s underlying handicap – he was a compulsive gambler. That is the other secret concealed beneath the veneer of the apparently prosperous household in Mayfair. The life-style of a young Guards officer with an indulgent father lent itself all too easily to constant attendance at race-meetings, and an early stupendous success confirmed his addiction. Violet was quite candid about her father’s gambling in her account of her early life, and recounts in a matter-of-fact way how their life-style switched from affluence to (comparative) indigence depending on his success. The 1881 Census clearly caught him at a high point, but in the next years the family moved from ‘comfortable big houses to small shabby ones’, or, when the Life Guards were at Windsor, from ‘a country house with a big garden’ to ‘a semi-detached villa with a patch of lawn and straggly shrubs’. One year their home was a small house at Hampton Court called Park Waste, which gave the little girls the freedom of Bushey Park instead of the dullness of London parks – was this also the year that economy dictated the dismissal of their French governess, when Amy undertook her daughters’ education herself ? The Life Guards were stationed at Windsor in the years 1878, 1881, 1884, 1887 and 1890 – perhaps the most likely years for the Hampton Court house are 1884 and 1887, when Violet was 8 and 11. The girls were apparently little affected by the family ups-and-downs (though perhaps it is little wonder that so many of Violet’s young heroines are rescued from precarious financial situations), but it must have been heart-breaking for Amy to pay her husband’s gambling debts again and again – as she loyally did. Whatever the difficulties, this was a marriage which worked, and lasted. Charles Needham died on the day of their Diamond Wedding.
Violet’s memoir mentions a French governess, her father reading aloud and teaching his daughters to ride and drive and love poetry. She says little about her mother, though this may simply be because we only have part of her memoir. We know from other sources that Amy contributed a cosmopolitan element. Summers were spent abroad, and the girls learned to speak and read French, German and Italian. Two of Amy’s sisters had also married Englishmen, but one married an Austrian and one a Dutch nobleman. This last was the owner of Clingendaal, immortalized by Violet as ‘the house athwart the dark canal’, and here multi-national family gatherings took place – and here Violet told stories to children ‘Dutch, French, Austrian and English’. No wonder so many of her books seem European rather than English !
When Violet and Evelyn were nineteen and twenty – and presumably already out in society – their father was posted to Rome. They spent the next six years leading the same social life as young ladies were doing all over Europe in that privileged golden evening of the aristocracy. Photographs show that neither girl inherited their mother’s looks (perhaps they took after grandfather Kilmorey, who once described his features as ‘injudiciously heaped together’), but evidently neither of them was short of character. Evelyn ended up as a country lady, but Violet remained urban and stylish in appearance and habits, with beautiful (if, by the end of her life, outmoded) clothes and smoking Turkish cigarettes in a special holder.
The Needham family returned to England permanently in 1902, although a year earlier they were in the country at the time of the Census and then had a London home at 59 Lowndes Square, Chelsea. It must have been one of their reasonably affluent periods, for the domestic establishment ran to a butler, a French chef, two housemaids, a kitchen-maid and a boy. A stable establishment may have been elswhere, and as Charles and Amy were away from home – staying at Badminton with the Duke and Duchess of Beaufort (her first husband had been Amy's brother and her own brother was to become their son-in-law) they probably had with them his valet and her maid. A lady's maid is listed at Lowndes Square but was probably for Evelyn and Violet. This London home was retained until 1906, but after the return to England, the Needhams – perhaps really Amy – bought Tylehurst, Forest Row, a relatively modest (but still sizeable) country house with a small estate. In 1903 Evelyn married and went to live in Gloucestershire with her husband and (soon) four small sons, but Violet in Sussex found a new friend. Douglas William Freshfield, explorer and alpinist, was a near neighbour at Forest Row. He was Charles Needham’s contemporary, but he still became Violet’s friend, for she seems to have shared interests which his daughters did not. He was cultivated and cultured as well as adventurous, and we can see both him and Charles Needham in many Violet Needham heroes. Although gossip said that Violet and Freshfield would have married after his wife’s death in 1911 had it not been for his family’s opposition, this seems to have been merely gossip. But their friendship is undoubted.
The First World War seems to have disrupted the Needhams’ pattern of life very little. Charles served with the Red Cross in Boulogne, Egypt and Paris, but afterwards life apparently went on as before. Things seem to have been on a more even keel financially – perhaps Amy had finally got the upper hand – and there was the new interest of Evelyn’s sons. To Mark, Arthur, Charlie and Tony (born in 1904, twins in 1905, and 1909) Violet told bed-time stories which became the adventures of the Stormy Petrel. In about 1918 they made her write them down, and the manuscript was sent to publishers. All rejected it as too difficult for children and it was put away and forgotten. Violet continued to live with her parents at Forest Row, though the London season was given up, no doubt pursuing what she once said were her hobbies: gardening and chopping wood!
In 1934, however, life changed drastically. Both Douglas Freshfield and Charles Needham died, to be followed in 1936 by Amy. Tylehurst was given up and Violet removed to London, to 1 Spanish Place, St. James’s. Perhaps it was at this point that the manuscript of The Black Riders (then apparently called Far-Away Moses) came to light again. One of the Harford nephews had married a connection of William Collins and showed it to him … and the rest is history: Collins was at first no more enthusiastic about it than the earlier publishers had been, but took the manuscript home to try on his own children, who 'enjoyed it tremendously'.
The Black Riders was published in 1939, and from then until 1957 there were only two years which saw no new Violet Needham story. The cache of Needham-Collins letters recently discovered among the publisher's archives have cast a fascinating light on their relationship: it is always 'Mr Collins' and 'Miss Needham', but they corresponded on socially equal terms and there was a tantalizing proposal that one of Collins' daughters should act as the model for Anastasia – unfortunately we don't know if this was carried out. Certainly Violet Needham was closely involved in the illustrations of the great majority of her books, for after the first two and until they very last they (despite Collins' repeated misgivings) were illustrated by Joyce Bruce, a Glourcesterhsire neighbour. Many of the characters have been identified as friends and relations, and we may even wonder whether Violet herself was the model for Miss Tufton. Clingendaal sat for its own portrait as 'the house athwart the dark canal', and it seems likely that the other houses depicted may have their origins in reality.
Early in the 1950’s Violet gave up her London house and moved permanently to Gloucestershire to join her sister, who had long been widowed. Although the two seem to have been so unalike in character they remained devoted, and died within twenty-four hours of each other, Violet on 8 and Evelyn on 9 June 1967. Violet was 91: not a bad age for a baby who had been so delicate that she had been christened at two days old for fear that she might not survive! Her published career as a writer did not begin until she was over sixty, and even though it seems likely that many of her books had evolved as stories much earlier, to produce nineteen books (twenty if we count The Sword of St.Cyprian) in eighteen years is pretty good going even for someone much younger. Only after a motor-accident did she really give up writing, though her last published works and St Cyprian show a falling-off from her best, and An Accursed Heritage is pathetically bad. Of course she was privileged: her life-style gave her both the background for her books and the leisure to write them. But it could not have fostered a non-existent talent. Twenty books in eighteen years is an achievement equalled by other writers, but when we consider that eight or nine of those books are outstanding we can see that Violet Needham’s achievement is remarkable. She was a cosmopolitan Victorian lady, but as a story-spinner whose work is both distinctive and distinguished she both transcended and transmuted her own experiences.
This article originally appeared in The Sword of St Cyprian and other stories by Violet Needham, published by the Violet Needham Society in 2003.