[J.A. Spender,] ‘The Late Victoria Lady Welby’ (1912)

The article is not signed, but Schmitz 1985 names the author: John Alfred Spender, editor of The Westminster Gazette – based on the style of writing, I believe Schmitz is correct. Schmitz was mistaken in the volume number, he gives 34 (and Petrilli 2009 copied the mistake), it is 39.

[J.A. Spender,] ‘The Late Victoria Lady Welby’, The Westminster Gazette, No. 5,899.—Vol. XXXIX. Saturday, April 20, 1912, page 7.


In Victoria Lady Welby, we have lost one whose name will surely be found upon the roll of illustrious Englishwomen. It may be that in the days to come the import of the message she so bravely endeavoured to convey to an indifferent world will be realised to the full. Should it be found possible to work out the conceptions upon which her doctrines of “The Mother Sense,” “Translation,” and “Significs” are based, the consequent revolution in intellectual thought would be comparable only to that produced by the Novum Organon. “Reading maketh a full man,” and to few women could the epithet be applied with greater justice. In her reading she was untiring, omnivorous. Her books are scored from cover to cover with marginal notes—terse, pungent, and to the point. In numberless instances she added complete and often extremely skilful analyses of the subject matter. There seemed to be no limit to the extent of her interests. But at the same time she was fully aware of her limitations. The circumstances of her upbringing had been adverse to a training in consonance with the bent of her intellect. Some of her experiences were curiously like those of another member of her great house—Lady Mary Wortley Montagu. In her earlier years she travelled wide and far with her widowed mother, and was left an orphan at Beirut at the age of eighteen. Strange indeed must have been the change to the new life upon which she then entered as Maid of Honour to Queen Victoria. But in her time she played many parts. The happiness of married life was hers in full measure. The duties of the wife of a country gentleman she performed with grace and distinction. She found an outlet for her energies in the support she gave to the Royal School of Needlework. But occupations such as these were soon to be superseded by work in other fields. Her intellectual faculties were ripening. She was more and more drawn to the society of those who were identified with the various movements of human thought. Soon there were few men of eminence in the world of intellect with whom she had not either been in correspondence or talked face to face.

Gradually she felt less and less the lack of education, in the ordinary sense of the word, which at one time she may have deplored. We may say of Lady Welby, as De Quincey said of Miss Wordsworth, that she was content to be ignorant of many things. This was largely due to the fact that she had developed to an almost uncanny extent the gift of interpreting and translating into terms which she herself could appreciate the achievements of her contemporaries in the most diverse fields of investigation. “Translation” from one sphere of thought into another was to emerge as part of her “message”. To continue the Baconian adage, “Conference maketh a ready man.” Few were more ready, more full of imagination and insight. Here is a fragment from a conversation with her old friend John Tyndall:

    T. : Do you or do you not believe in the Resurrection?
    V. : Do you or do you not believe in heat? (silent hand-clasp).
    Then V. : Whether He is risen or no in your sense I know not. But one thing I know—that in mine He is risen; for when you speak of Truth I see Him in your eyes.

In the give-and-take of ordinary badinage she was as witty and as whimsical as any. But to those who were priviliged to know her–and more than one of those can say as an Addison might have said: “to know her was a liberal education”—the moments that will linger longest in the memory are those in which, like a Sibyl of old, she would pour forth with an arresting intensity of earnestness her message of Significs and her doctrines of the Mother Sense and Translation. The stream would grow steadily until it would become merged in a seemingly ordered flood of stately eloquence. Gradually the listener became conscious of a series of beautiful glimpses, of distant horizons beyond peaks and passes, of Pisgah sights of a world of promise in which a bewildered humanity had at last come to its own, its powers of interpretation multiplied myriadfold, thanks to the development of a divine Mother Sense and to a complete recognition of the value and Meaning of Expression. The sheer power and intensity of the utterances of the seer held the listener almost spellbound, even when but dimly grasping whither all this might lead or how it might be brought about. To the close of a long life this astonishing activity of mind endured. To complete here message was her one thought, and her sole reason for wishing the allotted span of life to be protracted but a little longer. Well, it was not to be! And now among our most precious possessions is the remembrance that we have been present at some of these prophetic visions, and that from her lips we have heard “thoughts that breathe and words that burn.”