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The Free-Wheeler : Composer Ethel Smyth buys a new-fangled ladies’ bicycle, and scandalises the neighbours.
The Free-Wheeler

Abridged from ‘Impressions that Remained’, by Ethel Smyth (1858-1944).

Ethel Smyth (to rhyme with ‘Forsyth’) was a successful composer of opera and orchestral music, whose lightly-written memoirs – she was acquainted with Brahms, Grieg and several other public figures in music – were also well received. Here, she recalls her scandalous purchase of a ladies’ bicycle in 1894.

IN the Illustrated London News were to be seen pictures of wild women of the usual unprepossessing pioneer type riding about Epping Forest, and I at once decided to buy a bicycle.

Aunts, cousins, and friends were horrified ... never has the word indelicate been bandied about with more righteous conviction. But my mother said this was perfect nonsense; ‘When we are dead’ she would reply to objectors, ‘she won’t be able to keep horses, and I can think of nothing more sensible than her buying a bicycle.’ And buy one I did, and though for many a long day to come no nice women rode bicycles, I pursued my solitary course with enthusiasm.

By degrees, as we know, the thing caught on, and one day, about eighteen months later, when I met Mrs R., the arch-prude of the neighbourhood, wobbling along the high road, and beheld her fall off her machine at my feet to explain that she had taken to it in order to avoid having out the horses on Sunday, it was clear that the indelicacy ghost had been finally laid.

Abridged from ‘Impressions that Remained’, by Ethel Smyth (1858-1944).

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Music and Musicians (33) Victorian Era (61)

Picture: By Henry Summer Watson, via Wikimedia Commons. Licence: Public domain. View original
‘Slowly and dreamily she pushed the wheel up the road’, a drawing in ‘Outing’, an illustrated magazine of sport, travel and recreation (Vol. XXIII, October 1893), for a story entitled ‘A Century Ride’. The heroine is ‘dear little yellow-haired, dainty-featured maid Maude Mannering, the successful girl-graduate and medical student’. Like Ethel Smyth, the fictional Maude was a cyclist, to the consternation of her aunt and other relatives, though her chosen career was to be a surgeon.

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