Edwardian Encounters: ‘Happy Houses’ by Mary Ansell

Mary Ansell

Mary Ansell

Mary Ansell, Happy Houses (1912)

Mary Ansell (1868-1950) published three books in her lifetime: The Happy Garden and Happy Houses, both in 1912; and Dogs and Men in 1924. The former two were written three years after she had left her writer-husband, J.M. Barrie, for Gilbert Cannan, an up-and-coming novelist fifteen years her junior.  The adventure was not, in the end, a happy one: Gilbert left her in 1916 for nineteen year-old Gwen Wilson, and she was granted a judicial separation in 1918. But 1912 found Ansell in the midst of beginning the world anew, and her publications of this year express this sense of self-regeneration.

The Happy Garden and Happy Houses are repetitive and (to the critically minded) self-indulgent, yet there is much in them to interest and engage. The former is a tour of her garden at Black Lake Cottage in Surrey, given to a fictional friend who she advises on how best to appoint a country garden. The latter extends this advice to home decoration, and introduces a fuller background of fictional characters and episodes: so much so that the book approached the condition of a novel. Through both she advances a moral theory of aesthetics that, though by no means new, is tailored to reflect her own ideals. Ansell is no philosopher, but this effort to form an ethical code of living, for all its contradictions, vagaries and illogicalities, forms a convincing and often moving portrait of an individual reconciling herself to the world.

At the heart of her ethics is happiness. With respect to houses, the ‘happy’ house is that which exudes “the expression of home, the kind atmosphere”:

Wealth has nothing to do with it: health has something: la bona infinita, infinite goodness, or if you prefer it, love, has everything (p. xvii).

Ansell’s “infinite goodness” consists of a mystical union between various positive qualities. What is here described as ‘love’ or ‘kindness’, or often ‘sympathy’, is one of these qualities, the enemy of which is “rampant egotism” (p. 173) or ‘vanity’.  Ansell illustrates such egotism with various examples, and, though she never explicitly says so, seems to find it a principally male failing. She finds it in bachelors (redecorating the rooms of bachelors becomes somewhat of a hobby), a wealthy father, and, oddly enough, a monk. Her debate with this monk, in the garden of one of her bachelors, is undeniably a symbolic challenging of self-containment, which she blames for much unhappiness in the world:

‘It is impossible,’ said the monk, ‘for women ever to comprehend the hunger of men for spiritual freedom.’

‘Women strongly object,’ said I, ‘to a spiritual freedom which condemns them to slavery and unfulfilment’ (p. 193).

Sympathy and egotism are, in Ansell’s view, strongly reflected in decoration of the home, which she considers to be the arena for one’s interaction with others. The lodgings of her bachelors tend to be neglected rather than badly decorated. With each one their interest is invested in something other than other people – for one it is the works of George Borrow, for another his landlady’s dog – and thus they have no impulse to improve their surroundings. She describes these lodgings as “a prison without moral significance”, a place where one is separated from other people. Once their rooms are redecorated, these bachelors begin to contemplate relationships with others, first becoming friends with each other, and soon marrying. “Where true love is”, Ansell says, “there egoism is not” (p. 41).

Sympathy, it appears, is both another word for goodness and the way in which that goodness is transferred. “There is nothing quite so catching as happiness,” (p. 131) she says, and this term ‘catching’ is intentionally medical, as ‘health’ is another of her positive qualities. Though ‘creativity’ is yet another, and is understandably useful in home decoration, it is ‘health’ that is of primary importance, and a house should seek to attain this before it aims for beauty in the strictly aesthetic sense. “Can the uncreative be made creative by example?” she muses, concluding, “It would seem not, but I am very sure that health is infectious” (p. 117). This health is both “physical and moral”, and she relates the two with Edwardian literality, worrying about certain houses that “since children are to live in them, they should at least be worthy of children, and not hurtful to them” (p. xix), and stating that “nothing can break down the sort of moral hypocrisy from which we suffer save activity, healthy activity” (p. 118). The enemy of health, in her opinion, is stasis, and her model of ‘life’ is of a “struggle”, her ideal house one where “there are children growing up in the battle of life, and men and women in the thick of it, and thoroughly enjoying it” (p. ix).

I could go on, as there is much more to be said about Happy Houses. I have avoided the great similarity with the plot of this book bears to that of J.M. Barrie’s The Little White Bird. This is more deliberate than derivative, as Ansell seems determined to make immediately happy characters that Barrie only gradually allowed to find sympathy. I have left unmentioned also those essays into fantasy that Ansell undertakes through the character of Dempsey, a child who can “see things which are hidden from the ordinary person, and … can make others see them when they are, as she says, ‘loving enough’” (p. 139). Finally, in favour of her ethics, I have sacrificed Ansell’s specific preferences for certain points of decor: her love of whitewashed walls, of green-painted square trellis, and her distaste for anything Victorian. These are rewarding books, and certainly offer a more persuasive portrait of Mary Ansell than those provided by Barrie’s biographers, as a woman hopeful, kind and, above all, eager to love and be loved.

Edition Used:

Mary Ansell, Happy Houses (London, New York, Toronto and Melbourne: Cassel and Company, 1912)

Sarah Green, June 2013

Sarah Green did her BA in English at the University of Cambridge, and MA
by Research at the University of York. Her MA thesis was entitled “ ‘A
secret pleasure in being mastered’: Play, Power and the Morality of Art in
J. M. Barrie’s Sentimental Tommy and Tommy and Grizel.” She will begin a
PhD next year at the University of Oxford, where her research will explore
connections between impotence and art in late nineteenth and early
twentieth century literature.

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