Olive Malvery, c.1903. Elliot & Fry.

Student Days - Royal College of Music

“So I left my native country, and crossed the seas to what was, for me, a foreign land. I came with a humble heart and absolute faith in everything that was English.”

– Olive Malvery, The Soul Market.

 

And so in 1898 Olive Malvery came to Britain, crossing over from France probably on the 28 February. On arrival, she boarded a direct train to London, from which she caught her first glimpses of the city:

“The train slowed down, and we began passing over what seemed to me a black-looking wilderness, strewn with disused flower-pots of strange shapes. I had never seen an English chimney-pot in my life, and when confronted with miles of them for the first time, I was absolutely puzzled to know what they were. It was growing dark, and was very cold when we reached London Bridge. The guard came to my carriage door and said: "This is London, miss."

My heart sank like lead. This London! This horrible, black place, the city of a thousand dreams! A place I had thought of almost night and day while travelling 8,000 miles to reach it!

…I was a stranger, alone, very young, very inexperienced, and already more than a half disappointed.” 

Armed with a few recommendations, she had arranged to stay that night with a family in a small home in Kent. Years later she would write of her deep gratitude for her hosts for their warm welcome on her arrival.

It is likely that Olive took the opportunity of her journey between continents to make what was the first of many discreet adjustments to her reported age throughout her lifetime. On her arrival to England the 26-year-old presented herself as 20. The reasons for doing so are most likely tied up with her intentions to study at the Royal College of Music, either to help present herself as a musical prodigy or simply to help her better fit in amongst the younger students.

Alternatively, she might have been concerned about the potential negative impact of her age on launching a performing career. We only have one brief comment from Olive herself about her age.  When discussing her birth during an interview, she laughed saying "I won't say how long ago, although I am not ashamed of it yet, but still there might be a time when the date might be used against me." 

Whatever her motives, she was aided in the deception by her very youthful appearance. Even five years later when aged 31 the American press would still describe her as ‘looking a mere child.’ Her claims of youth and childlike appearance helped inspire kindness towards her in first days in a strange new country. This can be seen in her enrolment at the Royal College of Music in London, just three days after her arrival in Britain.  

‘Sir Hubert Parry, the most genial, accomplished, and charming of directors, met me himself and took me into a practice-room, and asked me what I could do.

I said : "Nothing."

He said : "Will you sing something for me ?"

I felt I could not sing a note to save my life. However, he played a scale on the piano, and asked me to sing the notes for him. I did so, and after several other exercises he said:

" You have a singing mouth and a musical voice; we must see what we can make of you."

He took me to Mr. Henry Blower, whom I came later to know and love for his many kindnesses to me. The director said:

" I have brought you a little girl who has come thousands of miles to us; you must take care of her..." ‘

 ‘There were several other students in the room at the time I was introduced, and I remember well sitting in a chair by the fire, with a big furry cloak on, feeling, and no doubt looking, the picture of abject misery.’

Part of her misery may have been adjusting to the English climate. She would later tell audiences:

“England was a marvellous land; it was summer one day and the depth of winter the next, so that she never knew what to wear. She had such a cold she could hardly speak…”

Having successfully passed her exams Olive enrolled at the college that day to study singing, joining late in the Easter term. She would go on to add elocution and Italian to her studies the following year. 

For Olive, student life was full of happiness, with her earliest college days being ‘certainly some of the happiest I have had in my life’.  She would often make references to her ‘joyess and rather irresponsible student days’ in her books, and it would appear she was well integrated into social life at the college. The Royal College of Music was very cosmopolitan, with a teaching staff drawn from all over Europe and 500 students coming ‘from every part of the universe’ and she found herself warmly accepted.  She was certainly familiar with popular student haunts such as Hill’s tea rooms on Kensington High Street, the atmosphere of which she would later recreate within her 1913 novel ‘Love’s Soldier’:

 “They entered the room frequented so largely by students. It was already full, and it was clear from their possessions and very dress to which calling they belonged. They were mostly music and art students – a crowd of happy and enthusiastic young people – striving hard towards some goal which their ambition desired.”

Throughout her student days, she had the opportunity of attending many concerts and performances around the country, experiencing a full spectrum of British culture. At times, as an outsider, she struggled to enjoy the enjoy the unfamiliar forms of entertainment.

“I had been to a pantomime at Drury Lane, and had enjoyed the lights and colours, … I could only laugh occasionally, and wasn't educated up to the exquisite humour of the clown's falls, and the thumping of one clown by the other. My first impressions of the opera were of this same crude kind.”

 

Whilst still ‘new to English fashions’, Olive was taken by friends to experience opera for the first time at a gala performance. The party she was with was happy and fashionable, they had a box for the event, and as a keen music lover she was excited for what was for her a ‘big night.’ However, she was less than impressed.

‘What was my amazement, therefore, to see a group of fat women with whitened noses come out and dance and sing. Then a very large lady, with quite a distinctive figure, came out and made impassioned sounds to carefully arranged gestures. First she put out her right arm, then her left, then held both arms out together, and lastly clasped her hands over her star-spangled bosom. All her musical phrases ended with a terrifically high note, and she got very red each time. After this there appeared from a side door a podgy man who turned out to be a great tenor. He trotted with little steps towards the lady and began to sing. As he sang they both moved apart. He also had his particular gestures. I was not educated enough to know what they meant. He began by putting his right hand on his heart, then he flung out the arm and placed his left hand on his heart; this done, the left arm was thrown out, and finally, both hands were clasped over the heart. This ending, the lady began to sing: it was a duet. They came together, the large lady threw herself into the podgy tenor's arms, he staggered several feet, there was a great clash of instruments, a wild shriek of human voices, and a storm of applause.

"Isn't he divine?" asked my hostess..."How did you enjoy it ? " she asked, turning to me.

"Don't they ever tumble down?" I said disappointedly. "They do at the pantomime. That always happens at the end doesn't it happen in the opera?"

The whole party laughed, much to my amazement.’

Olive, having no shortage of ambition, seems to have initially thrived within the driven and competitive environment of one of the best music schools in the world. Practicing six hours a day, she worked alongside talented classmates that would go on to become celebrated famous performers. To her, ‘each day seemed to bring some new and delightful knowledge.’

The college also provided her with prized opportunities. In her second Summer term at the college, Olive witnessed the laying of the foundation stone of the Victoria and Albert Museum by Queen Victoria on the 17 May 1899 in what would by the monarch’s last official public appearance. The Queen had specially requested the College’s choral class to perform, much to the excitement of the students.

The event was suitably elaborate. Gathered crowds cheered and waved handkerchiefs as an escort of Royal Horse Guards came clattering through the gate followed by the procession of four carriages bearing the Queen with various dignitaries. Waiting for her to arrive, Sir Hubert Parry made a ‘charming and courtly figure’ as he addressed his pupils – the girls dressed in all white in line with the Queen’s wishes.

"Now mind you all do your best” he told them eagerly.

The Queen arrived in an open horse drawn carriage in which she stayed propped up on a cushion in an throughout the ceremony. Only days from her eightieth birthday, she appeared tired and somewhat feeble as she threw back her black veil and looked around smiling.

With Parry conducting, the students sang the National Anthem and later a madrigal written specially for the occasion, with music by Sir Alexander Mackenzie and words by the Poet Laurette Alfred Austin:

With wisdom, goodness, grace she filled

For sixty years the throne,

And whatsoe’er her people willed

That will she made her own.

 

More long, more loved, she reigned than all

The king of days gone by;

Sceptre may fade and empire fall –

Her name will never die.

 

Victoria! Victoria!!

Long may she live and reign;

The Queen of our inviolate isles,

And Empress of the main.

 

The Queen bowed and smiled repeatedly, and thanked Sir Hubert for the pleasure his students' singing had given her. 

It is worth noting that Olive’s phrasing is curiously vague in describing the day. She never claimed to have been in the choral class (a class in high demand among students for the privilege of attending State Concerts at Buckingham Palace). It is highly out of character for her to be shy when discussing her own honours and accomplishments. Also, she was certainly no stranger to being ambiguous in her story telling in a way that might lead the audience to certain assumptions that would present her in a more impressive light, so it is advisable to approach her anecdotes with caution. It is possible that she was a witness to the event, and her use of ‘we’ refers to the collective student body of the college, and that she herself did not perform. Either way, the experience of being so close to see and hear the ‘little lady in black’ stayed with her.

By December of that year Olive would perform in the chorus for a student performance of The Flying Dutchman at Royal Lyceum Theatre, hopefully having reached a more favourable opinion of opera by this point.

Olive’s time at the college were a period in which she became aware of the harsh realities faced by many living in London, and introduced to the philanthropic networks at work in the city.

For her first few months in Britain, Olive was very much living within the pleasant and protective bubble of student life, with little engagement with wider city she had settled in. By summer she had moved in with another student, presumably a classmate, near to Sloane Square.

Potentially homesick for the beautiful grounds of her childhood estate, Olive and her roommate took to decorating their home with flowers, the result of 4am treks to Covent Garden where these could be purchased by the basket for a fraction of the shop prices.  

Here she would encounter a prominent city character (and one with whom her fame would be intimately associated) - the Flower Girl. For Olive, these women were a shocking contrast to the romantic images she had been raised on:

 “my disappointment on finding that the flower-girls of fiction had absolutely no connection with the flower-girls of the London streets was most keen. I expected to find flaxen-haired, blue-eyed, innocent-looking children pleading with the passers-by in an irresistible manner, instead of which I found wet, draggled flowers thrust under my nose in crowded thoroughfares, by dirty and untidy women; most of them were ugly, and some of them were fat and old. Indeed, the romance of London life soon faded away, and I was brought into actual contact with things as they are, in place of things as they are written about.”

She soon became aware of the tricks that typical Covent Garden "hands” would play on their customers, especially American tourists. On one occasion her roommate was interested in some lilies being sold by an old woman:

“The appearance of these lilies struck me as being extremely odd, and looking down at them closely, I asked the old lady if they were painted.

" Painted! " she said disgustedly. " O' course not! they grows like that there."

My companion insisted on buying some.

"Don't," I said. " Can't you smell the paint?" There was a big dash of green in the centre of each white lily.

" Nonsense ! " said my companion, " of course they are not painted."

She bought a bunch of the lilies for sixpence, and stuck her nose into one to inhale the scent; then she withdrew it, a brilliant spot of green adorned the organ. The more she rubbed with her handkerchief, the more the paint seemed to settle into her nose. It was oil-paint, and I laughed myself nearly into hysterics over her plight. Even the policemen, as we passed them, had sympathetic jokes to make on my companion's appearance.”

Beyond these superficial interactions, Olive initially had little to do with these women’s lives. However, there is one notable exception:

"One late autumn evening, on my way home from the College, a poorly-clad woman, with a child in her arms, followed me for a little way, begging that I would buy some flowers she had. I told her I did not want the flowers, but she still followed me, and when I turned to speak to her, I saw that she looked very thin and miserable. She noticed that I hesitated and tears filled her eyes.

 

" I have not taken a penny to-day, miss," she said. " Buy 'em, and you won't regret it."

The flowers were quite wilted, and as I had been most seriously warned never to give money in the streets, or to believe stories told to me by such people, I refused to buy the flowers.

 

"Indeed," I said again, "I don't want them," and walked quickly away. But I had not gone more than a few yards, when a horrible feeling came over me. I was hurrying home to a comfortable, warm room and good food, and here was a poor creature, with a little child, out in the wet streets. I turned back and joined the woman. After walking along with her for some way, and hearing her story, I said to her:

 

" If you care to come with me to my rooms, I will give you some tea for yourself and some milk for the child, and then I would like to go with you to your lodgings and see if what you tell me is true."

 

" It ain't the kind of place that's fit for you to see, miss," she said reluctantly.

 

" Oh! that doesn't matter at all," I argued. " I shall be quite ready to go if you will take me."

 

I decided that if the woman's distress was as genuine as she said it was, she would not object to come to my lodgings and wait till I was ready to accompany her to her place later on. She followed me to my room, where I changed my dress for an old one, and leaving my watch and rings there, we set out for the woman's home. We walked westward again. I did not at that time know the locality, and could not have found my way alone. From the outskirts of a well-to-do neighbourhood, we plunged suddenly into a vile and narrow street, where the gutters were thick with refuse. Into a house opening on to this lane, the woman led me. We stumbled up some dark and rickety stairs to the fourth storey, where, in a miserable little room I found, lying on the floor on a heap of rags, a man who, as far as I could judge, seemed dying.

 

Looking back through the years at my first introduction to London's ugly places, I always feel glad of the prompting that took me back to that poor woman. Many a time and often, since then, I have been deceived and cheated by clever liars. But from what I know of the lives of the poor, I would rather have it so, than labour under the burden of passing a starving woman and a suffering, dying child in the streets, having myself a home and food, and all things necessary to make life livable.

 

There was nothing in this miserable room save a tiny saucepan on an empty stove. There was no fire, no warmth or light, and no furniture. Not a quarter of a mile away were streets of splendid houses, whose waste would have kept many such a family as this.”

Olive was raised by philanthropic women, so it no surprise that she followed their example. To her delight she found at the college a community of students who – though often poor themselves - would ‘go at least once a week to some East End Club or hospital or workhouse to cheer up the heavily-burdened folks there.’ Shortly after her visit to the Flower Girl’s home, she accepted a friend’s invitation to help with a club for girls at Lambeth by singing for them, which became “my first introduction to a class of people whom, since those days, I have come to know exceedingly well.”

It is also during her student days that we have her first know association with the temperance movement. During the celebrations of the twenty-third anniversary of the National British Women's Temperance Association in London May 1899, she was introduced by Lady Somerset as part of a group of delegates from the National Women's Christian Temperance Unions, representing Bombay. 

 © 2020 Rebecca Odell

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