“Miss Elaine Limouzin’s recital at the Salle Erard on Thursday evening, May 4th, drew a large audience, which thoroughly appreciated the very agreeable entertainment… Miss Limouzin has an effective way of writing drolleries for herself, and her bright fun in telling one of her own pieces – “Henry Sees Life” – an account of a country boy’s first visit to the theatre with his more knowing Cockney friend – went with rare effect.”
The Stage, 11th May, 1905
Orwell’s biographers have recognised that Ellen Kate Limouzin (1870-1950) was his favourite aunt, the most intellectual member of his immediate family, a “militant suffragette” and someone who introduced her nephew to the theatre, writers, editors and literary agents.
There is much more to Aunt Nellie aka Elaine Limouzin; E.K.L., Mrs Adam; and E. Limouzin than currently understood. As more detail is uncovered about her professional life, it is becoming evident that Nellie’s reputation needs to be re-positioned in the story of Orwell.
It is important to understand that Bernard Crick’s widely-read biography of Orwell, first published in 1980, framed Aunt Nellie – and her Esperantist comrades – as “crankish”. He posited that Orwell himself suppressed information about her for this reason, suggesting that “when George Orwell emerged from Eric Blair, he wore the clothes of common sense”.
This has become a trope in Orwell biography from which Nellie has never really recovered. Ellen Kate Limouzin is deserving of more consideration for her role in Orwell’s development but also, as an interesting figure in her own right.
Several years ago, my research emphasised that Nellie, always an avid writer of letters to the editors of a wide-range of newspapers and journals, wrote articles in Esperanto, under the pseudonym, E.K.L. Archival digitisation has resulted evidence about her commitment to the suffragette movement – although scattered throughout disparate journals and newspapers – becoming more accessible.
Nellie had a gift for recitation and public-speaking. She gave talks about being made a “prisoner” due to her feminist beliefs and active participation in political protest. She was an actress and many of her performances were in the radical theatre that challenged convention, for example, re-imagining social roles for men and women. She made good use of her theatrical skills, regularly reciting poems and stories at suffragette meetings.
Most of this research was undertaken to deepen my understanding of Orwell’s time Paris. I emphasised Aunt Nellie’s intellectual influence on Eric Blair’s first published article on censorship and that she lived with an important Esperantist, Eugène Adam, who wrote using the pseudonym of “Lanti“. My focus was largely on the political and ideological influence this had on Eric Blair – freshly-resigned from the Indian Imperial Police – and on Orwell’s creation of Newspeak, in Nineteen Eighty-Four.
The jigsaw pieces continue to be assembled and a picture is forming which strengthens any thesis that posits Limouzin’s influence on Orwell is more significant than previously suspected.
Nellie, the Activist
The network of Nellie’s connections – political, theatrical and literary – are becoming more visible. She had friends and associates who can be identified as belonging to the British Esperanto Association (BEA), Independent Labour Party (I.L.P.) and the Women’s Social and Political Union (W.S.P.U.). It was not uncommon for members of the I.L.P. to be interested in both radical theatre and artificial languages. Francis and Myfanwy Westrope, friends of Nellie’s who employed Orwell at their London bookshop in the mid-1930s, were Esperantists and members of the I.L.P.. Another example, Sylvia Pankhurst, a founding member of the W.S.P.U. (it formed at the Pankhurst family home) was a particularly committed Esperantist and a member of the I.L.P..
Sylvia Pankhurst (1882-1960) was Nellie’s contemporary and much more radical than the other members of the Pankhurst family. There are may intersections (more than I can elaborate on in this piece) where Nellie and Sylvia can be located. Pankhurst famously wrote about her experiences of being imprisoned and force fed in Holloway Gaol. We know from multiple sources that Nellie also went to prison for her suffragette activities. Limouzin is is not listed on the Roll of Honour: Suffragette Prisoners 1905-1914 (which was compiled in the 1950s and is an incomplete source) and I have been unable to find her prison records which must exist. Somewhere.
For several years I have unsuccessfully tried to identify precisely when this photograph was taken and who exactly is in the frame. It was originally supplied to Orwell biographer, the late Gordon Bowker, by “Lyndell”, an “Esperantist contact” who told him that Nellie’s face is obscured by her hat. It is likely to have been taken sometime between 1906-1909 at the Embankment in London (the Sphinx had been removed by 1910).
One possibility is the 19th February 1906. Sylvia Pankhurst led a procession of over three hundred women, who marched in the rain, carrying red banners, to Parliament Square. Some of the wealthier participants reportedly dressed in their maids’ clothing to avoid recognition. Another less likely possibility was the ‘Mud March’, the first large procession organised by the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies (NUWSS), on the 7th February 1907. More than 3,000 women trudged through the muddy streets in the rain to advocate for women’s suffrage.
The 8th March 1907, when the Women’s Enfranchisement Bill (the ‘Dickinson Bill’) was introduced to parliament for its second reading, is a strong contender. Many suffragettes were arrested when the W.S.P.U. attempted to storm the Houses of Parliament. The strongest possibility – Sylvia Pankhurst, who lived nearby, later remembered the carnival atmosphere on the day – is “Women’s Sunday” on the 21st June, 1908.
My focus on Nellie (and this is the name Ida Blair prefers when writing in her diary during 1905) has always focused on her commitment to Esperanto and political radicalism. Primary source materials are now revealing much more about her literary, scholarly and performance career.
Limouzin, writer & comedic performer
During this period of intense political activity, by women seeking electoral and social reform, Nellie’s professional career was blooming. Now in her mid-30s, she was performing her own comedic material on the London stage, as Elaine Limouzin. These dramatic recitals were advertised widely – Daily Telegraph & Courier; Morning Post; London Evening Standard – and reviewed glowingly, earning great accolades in both the theatrical and mainstream press.
Several reviews in 1905-1906, of performances at the Salle Erard, on Great Marlborough Street, provide evidence that she composed her own “drolleries” which had a “rare effect” on the “large audience”. “Henry Sees Life” is the story of a “country boy’s first visit to the theatre” and two other original performance pieces – “Why I left” and “A Future Fireman” – caused “much amusement” and pleased her audiences greatly.
“The Widow in the Window” may be one of her own compositions too. “The Morte de Guinevere” – described as “an epic of modernity, dealing with the craze for shop bargains” – is possibly an original piece delivered with “quiet and pointed sarcasm”. It appears to be the most obviously feminist performance piece in her repertoire.
Charles Follen Adams, a now forgotten name, was well-known to Limouzin’s audience and she was able to recite “Leedle Yawcop Strauss” effortlessly as an encore. Tom P. Morgan was another widely-published American writer of humorous stories and verse who rendered a cast of eccentric characters for a popular audience. “Speakin’ of Men” is a good example of his wit and it is easy to imagine Limouzin delivering it live:
The only man I ever knew to die for love starved to death after bein’ refused by an heiress. The average man is both a success and a failure—he is a success as a failure and a failure as a success—and then he has the face and impudence to declare that his wife made him all that he is. The ordinary man, no matter if he is as homely and rickety as an old saw-horse, secretly cherishes the sneakin’ hope that some beautiful adventuress will come along and turn his head, when usually, as a matter of fact, the first woman that turned his head would twist it clear off.
The choice of Nellie’s material clearly plays to her strengths. She was very successful at entertaining the audience with her “very amusing character sketches, in which she displays equal facility in presenting dialects of so varied character as the Cockney and the American”.
It is likely, as more newspapers and journals from the late 19th and early 20th century are digitised, other reviews will become available.
The Salle Erard
Considering that these reviews show Nellie to have been a talented writer, as well as a performer, it is worth examining more closely where she was performing and the milieu on stage with her during 1905-1906.
Sébastien Erard (1752-1831), the celebrated harp and pianoforte manufacturer, founded a small instrument factory in London during the late 18th century as a result of the ongoing uncertainty caused by revolution and counter-revolution in France. His ancestors continued to develop the business he established on Great Marlborough Street. They commissioned Percy G. Stone, whose office was next door at No. 16, to design a new building for the firm with workshops, showrooms and a concert hall. It is worth digressing to describe the extraordinary building:
The front was built in buff-pink brick, banded and dressed with terra-cotta, was an elaborate design in a mixture of the ‘François Premier’ and ‘Flemish Renaissance’ styles. The composition was of three lofty storeys, divided by narrow panelled pilasters into three bays, each crowned with a gable. The porch projecting from the middle bay had a segmental pediment, which was broken by an arched niche and rested on two groups of three stumpy Doric columns raised on high pedestals with panelled dies. In the left bay was an arched doorway leading to the concert room, and a window. In the right bay was a large window of three lights, the middle one arched. Each bay of the first-floor face contained a large window, divided by pilaster-mullions and transoms to form three arch-headed lights below smaller lights, each divided by a central mullion of paired balusters. The apron panels below these windows were adorned with medallion portraits of musicians, and two similar medallions flanked the royal arms above the middle window. In each bay of the second-floor face was a large square window, divided by mullions and a transom into two tiers of three lights. The window in each side bay had a shaped apron and a scrolled pediment, but the middle window was finished with a semicircular pediment filled with fan ornament. The gables, too, had different profiles, those above the side bays rising in ogee curves to finish with a segmental pediment, whereas the middle one was concave-sided and had a triangular pediment, originally with a finial in the form of a harp. SOURCE
Stone had a growing reputation in his field and American Architect and Building News published a lithograph of the building in late 1895.
The walls of the concert room were lined with lincrusta above a high dado of neo-Jacobean panelling. In the centre of the north side was an elaborately framed double-doorway with a swan-necked pediment, and in the windows of the south side were medallion portraits in stained glass of famous composers and pianists.
The Graphic (July 1894) announced the opening of “Messrs. Erard’s new concert hall” with some of the newspaper’s characteristic illustrations. The new performance space is described as part of a “handsome building that has just been erected upon the site of the historic house in Great Marlborough Street”. The article is particularly useful for contextualising the space:
The new Salle Erard is intended for the use of those who desire to Show their talent before a select rather than a large audience. The room will, indeed, comfortably hold 300 people, that is to say, as many as an ordinary pianoforte recital giver is likely to attract without dispensing free tickets.
The author approvingly notes the “excellent sound” in a well-proportioned space tastefully decorated with portraits of pianists and composers – including Thalberg, Saint-Saëns, Liszt, Madam Schumann, Rubinstein, Chopin and others – on the stained-glass windows and ventilators.
Due to council licensing laws, it appears the concert hall was never officially legally sanctioned until 1898. It closed in 1910.
The musical performers accompanying Limouzin’s dramatic recitals were a talented ensemble, most at the very beginning of their careers.
One review notes that “additional aid” was rendered by Miss Norah Drewett (1882-1960) who we now know was in the early stages of a stellar career. Mr. Sydney Brooks, who was “responsible for a cello solo”, taught at the London Academy of Music. Another accompanist, Mr Herbert Hughes (1882-1937), had recently completed his education at the Royal College of Music when he performed with Limouzin. He was destined to be the music critic at the Daily Telegraph for more than two decades and it is interesting to reflect on how his expertise made him peculiarly suited to Limouzin’s mastery of the vernacular in her character sketches
Helen Blain was a pseudonym. She was born in in Dunblane in 1878 and recorded many traditional Scottish verses, including the poetry of Robert Burns. You can listen to a recording of her “well cultivated, deep contralto voice“. Mr. Stanley Adams, “who sang very fairly” appears to have been a Canadian vocalist, with a light baritone, in London for the season. He had performed less successfully at the Aeolian Hall, in nearby New Bond Street, the previous evening accompanied by the same Miss Lillian Adam.
Anyone who can assist with identifying Miss Adele Haas, “whose piano solos appeared acceptable”; Mdme. Margaret Izat, “who sang songs by Linley, Gounod, and Liddle”; Agnes Stewart Wood, “who was responsible for violin solos”; Miss Palgrave-Turner, who rendered Secchi’s “Lungi del caro bene” so delightfully; or Mr. Reginald Clarke, it would be much-appreciated. Were any of these performers suffragettes?
Limouzin, the scholar
A decade later, aged 46, Limouzin’s intellectual and literary talents, as a scholar and writer, were put to good use by Oxford University Press. In 1916, new editions of two novels were published with “notes by E. Limouzin”: George Eliot‘s first novel, Scenes of Clerical Life, with an introduction by W. Warde Fowler (1847-1921); and Elizabeth C. Gaskell‘s, Cranford, which included an introduction by Clement Shorter (1857-1926).
Warde was an ornithologist and historian with an established reputation as an expert on ancient Roman religion and festivals. He was a tutor at Lincoln College, Oxford. After the carnage wrought during the First World War he “declared his sympathy with the international outlook of Labour” (ODNB). Shorter was a journalist interested in popularising literature with a talent for finding wealthy patrons. He founded The Sphere, an illustrated weekly in 1900 and The Tatler, a year later. He contributed a weekly “literary letter” in the former, on whatever he pleased, until he died (ODNB).
During the same year these novels were published, Limouzin was being reviewed positively in All-of-a-Sudden Peggy, a “farcical comedy” at the Ipswich Lyceum. One reviewer noted her “amusing monologues” were received before the play commenced. Limouzin clearly had talent and a reputation for dramatic recitals over a period of time.
Contextually, Eric Blair was studying hard at St Cyprians, preparing for the entrance examinations to Eton College while his Aunt Nellie was working on the notes for these works of literature and performing on stage.
During Orwell’s childhood and youth, Nellie was an actress, literary scholar, suffragette, prisoner, comedic performer, student (and then teacher) of Esperanto. While he was serving as a policeman in Burma, she moved to Paris during the period popularly known as les Années folles, to work on a radical journal. It seems significant that in 1928, her nephew had resigned, joining her in Paris on his own journey to become a writer.
We know from Ida Blair’s 1905 diary and the letters her sister wrote, in Esperanto, towards the end of her life, that Nellie was a part of Eric Blair’s life from the time he left Motihari in 1904 until his funeral in 1950. The ongoing characterisation – commenced by Crick over fifty years ago – of Nellie, as “crankish” not only seems unfair, it is an inaccurate judgment. Even if, as Orwell aged, he made this judgement on his aunt, she was a significant influence in the period before Down and Out in Paris and London was published in 1933.
Many of the traits that make Orwell a significant writer are evident in his aunt. She followed her own path. Limouzin spent a lifetime performing reliably and professionally in the theatre and was politically engaged with the significant political injustices of her time. Nellie’s advocacy and support for George Orwell, built on a lifetime of literary, linguistic and creative endeavour, provided her nephew with the kind of intellectual support that few aspiring writers would ever receive from a relative.
The first record indicating Ellen Kate Limouzin pursued a theatrical career is the 1901 census. She is listed as a thirty-year-old “actress” and “visitor” at the Walmsley home (28 King George Avenue in Fulham, London). We have no records about her activities during the 1890s, when she must have been commencing her career on the stage.
Orwell wrote to his literary agent, in 1935, enclosing two short stories from an “aunt”. It would appear that that Nellie harboured literary pretensions herself. Maybe she was published in a magazine at some stage in her long life?
There is still much to learn about Orwell’s Aunt Nellie aka Elaine Limouzin; E.K.L., Mrs Adam; and E. Limouzin.
American Architect and Building News, December 14, 1895
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Daily Telegraph & Courier, 13th June 1906
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Limouzin, Nellie, Letters, SAT Archive
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