Life of Octavia Hill as told in her letters/Chapter 8

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CHAPTER VIII

1878–1881

Foreign Travels—Management of Her Work at Home

I mentioned, in an earlier chapter, the way in which Octavia’s difficulties had, on more than one occasion, called out the help and sympathy of new friends. This good fortune was remarkably exemplified when she broke down in 1877. Miss Yorke, who now came forward to give her sympathy and help, became one of the most important figures in the remaining years of Octavia’s life; and, by her persistent devotion to her comfort and active help in her work, did much to encourage her to new efforts. But, for the moment, her help took the form of accompanying her in a foreign tour, which turned Octavia’s attention away from the troubles which were weighing on her mind, and gave her new sources of interest.

In the letters chosen to illustrate the tour, I have, as a rule, preferred those which show her sympathy with the people and modes of life with which she came in contact, rather than those descriptions of scenery, which often strike readers as familiar. But her strong artistic sense gave her so great a power of realising and describing natural beauty, that I have occasionally made exceptions to this rule.

As the final decision to go abroad was only accepted after considerable hesitation and delay, Octavia had to make all her provision for her time of absence in the course of a week. Under these circumstances, her sister, Mrs. Lewes, consented to undertake the guidance of the fellow workers in this emergency. As, however, Mrs. Lewes could not assume all the responsibility which had fallen on her sister, a certain amount of decentralisation was effected, and greater power entrusted to the fellow workers.

The capacity and disposition possessed by each thus became more manifest; and, while some showed administrative power, but with little real sympathy, others, who had felt more of Octavia's personal influence, threw themselves, with hearty delight, into the life of the poor people. I have chosen letters from two of these sympathetic workers, as best illustrating Octavia's purpose. One was a lady whose name I do not venture to quote, because I have not been able to find out where she is now, or obtain her consent to the use of her name; but I am sure that she cannot be offended that her cheery, and rather unique influence should be remembered. The other is Miss Emily Harrison, to whom I have already alluded in an earlier chapter; whose little painting room near the playground was the scene of much friendly intercourse, and much more useful guidance than a more conventional teacher could give. At the same time Octavia's personal influence on the tenants was shown by such experiences as Mrs. Lewes relates. One tenant said to her, "We shall be all right now you've come. We do understand Miss Hill and Miss Cons." And again Mrs. Lewes writes, "At the D.'s I began with a locked door, a barking dog, and a notice to quit, and ended with a gentle interview, a promise to pay up largely, as soon as ever he is in work, and a withdrawn notice."

It will be seen that one victory, though of a temporary kind, marked this period. The public-house, which had been so bitter a bone of contention at an earlier stage of its existence, was turned into a coffee-house; and, under Miss Cons' energetic guidance, succeeded in holding its own for some time.

Still more cheering news came to Octavia during her absence. Her example had been producing effect in other towns; movements for housing reform had begun in Liverpool, Manchester, and Dublin; and a very efficient worker, who had come to Octavia for advice and training, was carrying on a satisfactory scheme in Leeds.

January 10th, 1878.

Miranda to Mary Harris.

As to Octavia's work, she means to get Gertrude to be the centre, as far as she can, but each of the volunteers to be put in direct communication with the owners, and to be answerable immediately to them ; and she will ask the owners to understand that she expects them to look into the balance sheets, each quarter, and to see how things are going for themselves ; not to hold her responsible any more just now. Meanwhile she leaves all the work in train ; and Gertrude will advise and help the volunteers, and direct the assistants as far as she can, but will not take Octavia's responsibility to the owners. Of course she could not, as the work cannot be her first duty ; and she might have to break off any time. 0. thinks the plan will make the volunteers splendidly independent, and will answer very well wherever there is a good worker ; also that the worst can do little else than not make any great improvements in their properties. The management of the Donation Fund she leaves with Minnie, whose judgment she trusts very much.

Hotel D'Holland, Cannes,

January 24th, 1878.

Octavia to her Mother.

We reached here last night. Miss Yorke is kinder, brighter, and with subtler sympathy than I had imagined. She is an excellent manager, and prevents one's feeling forlorn in travelling. It is an immense comfort that all my work is so well started, and that I am anxious about nothing. ... I hope dear Gertrude found all as easy as could be ; but one feels how
Life of Octavia Hill - 1877.jpg

Octavia Hill.

From a Drawing by Edward Clifford, 1877.

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Harrogate, August 25th, 1880. To MRS. SHAEN. I have been very much delighted lately with some correspondence with some of my fellow-workers about the Artizans' Dwellings Acts. We had a great blow about the work itself just as I left town, one likely to create dissension and call up bad feeling ; and somehow the correspondence about it has, instead, shown how nobly men respond, when they manage to find the right way to look at things. I often wonder how men manage to get into such messes, when human hearts ring so true if struck rightly. It has been really quite beautiful to see how men will put temptation and bad feeling (even when almost justified) under their feet, when reminded of the cause for which they should work. I don't even know that it is a question of reminding. The good men see nobly and act ac- cordingly. I am obliged to keep very much out of all (even thought of) work. The home claims are very strong just now, and my own strength not very great. It is very strange to have to put the old things so wholly second. I do not know, however, how to be entirely sad about it. I often think that now people want more to see how noble private life should be, and can be, than to take up public work, at any. rate exclusively. Harrogate, September 4th, 1880. MRS. HILL TO MRS. EDMUND MAURICE. If you were to spend all your time from now till Christmas in guessing what Octavia was doing last Friday afternoon you would never guess aright, so I ill tell you. She was acting to a Harrogate audience the part of Piety in the MacDonald's "Pilgrim's Pro- gress." On Thursday we had spent the day at Hare wood, and on our return found Lily and Bob here waiting to ask if she would act for poor Grace, then lying seriously ill of hæmorrhage, at Ilkley. The rooms for the per- formance were engaged, and it seemed impossible to postpone it. Octavia agreed and learned her part (eight pages) that night. I cannot tell you how beautiful she looked, and how lovely her voice sounded. It was most pathetic to see the MacDonalds so brave and energetic ; but all so pale and feeling-full. Poor Mr. Jamieson acted Mr. Brisk. MacDonald was so chivalrous and beautiful to his poor wife and to us, forgot no tender- ness to her, or politeness to Miss Yorke and to me.


September 20th, 1880.

To MR. BLYTH.

I was grieved to hear of so much wrong in the court, and to think of you in the lovely autumn, trying to stem it. But, in one sense, one is never lonely in one's efforts to stem wrong. So mighty is the Power that fights with us.

Do you ever think that the want you feel in the people is due less to the amount than to the kind of help. Part of it is due to their own selves, there is no denying it ; but is it not also due, in part, to many of the present workers acting rather from a supposed height, than face to face, and heart to heart, from real human sympathy and friendship ? I think so. The outward gift never wins gratitude, or calls up the gracious sense of affection. The human sympathy always does. Do you know, by the way, Lowell's "Sir Launfal" ?