A thorn in the flesh of traditionalists, a feminist whose closest friends numbered men almost old enough to be her father, the author of a biography of Marie Bashkitrseff warmly praised by Mr Gladstone, Mathilde Blind (1841-1896) spent certain years of her life in this vicinity despite her peripatetic habits.
Born to a Mannheim family in comfortable circumstances, Mathilde lost her father early. Her mother, intelligent, handsome and vivacious, married as her second husband an impecunious journalist only a few years older than her daughter. When Karl Blind found himself on the wrong side of the revolutionary barricades in 1848 he took his family away with him to France and Holland before migrating (in the same boat as Karl Marx) to London in 1849. The Blinds settled into rented quarters in Swiss Cottage and decided to send Mathilde, whose mother had taught her what she could during two years of exile, to an Educational Establishment for Young Ladies in the Wood.
Here, in Mathilde’s words, is what she found. Mrs Smythe [olim Smith] undertook to teach Hebrew, Harmony and the use off the Globes with all the ordinary curriculum thrown in. She had a look of chronic tiredness. She was engrossed in the composition of a Universal History to prove that every event since the Babylonian Captivity had been foretold in the prophetic vision of Daniel. Instead of imbibing the useful knowledge for which our parents sent us there we passed a considerablepart of our time in writing novels and verses, in editing a journal and in acting Dickens.
Mathilde developed a ‘crush’ on an older girl of statuesque calm so remote from my nature. Invited to her home, she found an ordinary, gimcrack suburban villa between Primrose Hill and the fields stretching to Hampstead. Whenever I think of that house in Adelaide Road I am again conscious of its atmosphere. A scent of sandalwood and lavender is faintly perceptible. The partially drawn blinds diffuse a mellow half light. The air from an open window puffs out the muslin curtains; lilac bushes and clematis cling to the wall outside. A girl sits at the piano playing Mendelssohn’s Songs without Words. The whole place breathes purity and peace.In Spring we took long walks through the fields and lanes to Hampstead, still a rural village. But Mathilde’s rebellious nature and capacity for free thinking led to a non-conformist minister on a visit to the school labelling her a firebrand and Mrs Smythe expelled her for putting agnostic ideas in other pupils’ heads.
Mathilde continued to hold her head high. Aged 18, she wrote a German ode to be recited at the Bradford Schiller centenary gathering. She took much pleasure in her friendship with Kate Freiligrath, the daughter of a minor poet and like the Blinds/ fellow immigrants. Kate remembered in particular three successive Sundays when she and her parents visited the Blinds at their new genial and hospitable home, 23 Townshend Road, when she and Mathilde read their own poems. She also remembered Mathilde’s passion for dancing – in fact the two first met at one of the annual German public balls, given by the German Liederkranz, that were such a feature of immigrant social life in these days. Then the Blinds decided to send Mathilde to stay with the family of their friend the poet Herwegh in Zurich. Here she learned the Old and Middle German that helped her prepare a lecture on William Morris’s translation of the Volsunga saga, an address delivered a few years later to a highly intellectual audience in the Wood. With typical self-reliance, she went walking alone in the Alps, only to encounter a former school friend and her family so appalled at her brown skin and tiny purse that they packed her off back to the Herweghs.
Returned to London, she felt more adequate in dealing with visiting republicans and the free spirits who frequented her stepfather’s salon. She met Garibaldi, but her especial hero was Mazzini to whom she dedicated her first book of poetry in 1867. He it was who drew up a course of reading for her which included all of Dante, to be added to the Shakespeare and Goethe which she already knew well. Her poems, now mostly unread, lack learned references and even exhibit a certain sub Tennysonian fondness for the local: Essex flats are pink with clover, / Kent is crowned with flaunting hops, / Whitely shine the cliffs of Dover, / Yellow wave the Midland crops. In company, though, Mathilde was already showing the intellectual snobbery identified by Richard Garnett, Superintendent of the British Museum Reading Room in his posthumous tribute to her as a fault that may occasionally have overborne superior and mortified inferior people.’
We cannot ignore the possibility that Mathilde knew her time would be short. She suffered from recurrent depression and persistent bronchitis, to escape which she would retreat, sometimes for days or even weeks, to the country or the hills. She delayed leaving her parents’ home until the 1870s (her stepfather outlived her until 1907) and developed amities amoureuses with at least two notable figures, Ford Madox Brown and Rossetti’s brother William Michael. As Angela Thirlwell writes in her studies of the two men, Mathilde did what she could to maintain her independence during the periods of her relationships with these two, but their families certainly resented Mathilde’s proven power of attracting male attention. Only in the family of Ludwig Mond, all of whose members had a sincere affection for her, did she at last find a thoroughly assured place. Mond thought her poem The Ascent of Man, in praise of Darwin’s Origin of Species, captivating. The Monds, originally also immigrants, took her up, asked her to their famous Sunday afternoons at Avenue Road and to Winnington, their country home situated in a wing of their alkali factory in Cheshire. When they wintered in Italy Mathilde would be invited to move across to Avenue Road, and twice accepted. The Monds, together with Kate Freiligrath, paid for the handsome memorial to her in East Finchley cemetery that is well preserved to this day. Seldom has the Wood been home to so restless, but conversationally so animating, a lady.