Mabel Dearmer - actress, novelist, illustrator, playwright, elocutionist, theatre producer, vicar’s wife, and mother
1. Mabel Dearmer, aged sixteen in 1888
2. Mabel Dearmer, aged eighteen in 1890
3. A short biography of Mabel Dearmer
4. A letter to the Times regarding Mabel's death and other's work in Serbia
5. Pen and Ink Sketch
6. A Poster advertising Mabel Dearmer's Upcoming Dramatic Reading, 1894.
Plus a Gallery of Mabel Dearmer's book illustrations.
Mabel Dearmer’s life was as unusual and striking as her pictures: she was born Jessie Mabel Prichard White in 1872, and was a novelist, playwright, translator and illustrator. She was the wife of the Rev. Percy Dearmer (1867-1936), a liturgist and historian of Christian worship, and the mother of the WW1 poet Geoffrey Dearmer (1893–1996).
Her life and that of her younger son Christopher, who was fatally injured at Gallipoli only months after his mother’s death, are commemorated on the war memorial in Oakridge Lynch.
Mabel Dearmer first meant to be an actress but abandoned this career because “They did not think me pretty enough.” She also studied art and wrote a small number of novels but her greatest successes were in her illustrations and plays.
Her illustrations are instantly recognisable for her use of bright, eye-catching blocks of colour and simple yet imaginative designs. She first experimented with poster-art and moved on to book illustration, maintaining the poster style for many of her pictures. Despite their detail, they can be taken in with a glance and, much like posters, make a vivid and lasting impression on the viewer.
Great energy seems to have suffused any project into which she threw herself; nothing she did was done half-heartedly. In her role as a vicar’s wife, she made it her business to know her husband’s Hampstead parishioners, and, much like Anne of Green Gables, was always able to recognise ‘kindred spirits.’
In spite of her failure to become an actress, she remained heavily involved with the theatre and wrote and produced a great number of plays. In a letter, George Bernard Shaw wrote: “You are one of the few people living who can write plays.” People in the business thought she might one day have her own theatre; with her “combination of tact with driving power” this might have been possible had the war not intervened. She even had a side-line in buying and then leasing theatrical costumes. They were kept in one of the houses that she owned, managed and let out to tenants.
Having become interested in Mabel Dearmer – actress, novelist, illustrator, playwright, theatre producer, vicar’s wife, and mother – I decided to find out more about her life and found a book of her letters, written to a friend just before and after the outbreak of the First World War, and published by that friend in 1915 (Letters from a field hospital, 9537.d.226). These letters chronicle her reactions to the impending war, the news of which reached her while she was recuperating from an exhausting London theatre production in the Cotswolds village of Oakridge Lynch.
Hardly any families were left untouched by horrors of the First World War and the Dearmers were no exception, although at first Mabel Dearmer could see no connection between her own life and the momentous happenings beginning to unfold on the Continent.
“I knew nothing of European complications and cared less. The murder of an Archduke meant no more to me than some tale of an imaginary kingdom in Zenda. … I did not hate the enemy, I hated the spirit that made war possible…”
Then her sons enlisted and suddenly war became a very real threat. “…I envied the proud mother who sends her sons, proud of them, proud of the war that calls them out, proud of the God of battles. But that God is not my God, and my heart was heavy.”
She returned to London and helped with European refugees while continuing with her theatre work until her husband, Percy Dearmer, offered to go to Serbia as an army chaplain. On the same day, she decided to accompany him and accepted a posting as a hospital orderly: “Here was the work for which I had waited. I had no doubt and no hesitation. Every tie that could keep me in England had been cut, every difficulty removed from my path.”
Her husband reacted calmly to her announcement that she too was to go to Serbia. “What fun” was his only comment.
In Serbia, she suffered from overwork, the mud, the fleas, prickly heat and the now intimate knowledge of war. “This war will not bring peace – no war will bring peace – only love and mercy and terrific virtues such as loving one’s enemy can bring a terrific thing like peace.”
Three months after leaving Britain, Mabel Dearmer died of enteric fever. Her friend the editor writes of her: “It is easy to go into danger when convinced that your country’s cause is righteous; she thought that for all countries war was unrighteous, yet she went.”
Her life and that of her younger son Christopher, who was fatally injured at Gallipoli only months after his mother’s death, are commemorated on the war memorial fountain in Oakridge Lynch, near Stroud, Gloucestershire.
who went from Oakridge the place she loved best
to give help in Serbia where she died of fever
at Kragujevatz on July 11th. 1915, and of
who died of wounds at Suvla Bay of Gallipoli
on October 6th. 1915 aged 21
Loathing the war all mournful went the mother.
Each had the same wage when the day was done.
Tell me was either braver than the other.
They knew the parching thirst of wounds & fever.
Here when you drink remember them who died.
Mabel Dearmer, Letters from a field hospital. With a memoir of the author by Stephen Gwynn. London: Macmillan and Co., 1915. British Library shelfmark: 9082.gg.34.
Mabel Annie Saint Clair Stobart, The Flaming Sword in Serbia and elsewhere. London; New York: Hodder and Stoughton, 1916. B.L. shelfmark: 09082.cc.12. -
British Library Blog on Mabel Dearmer and Serbia
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