By Richard J. Mammana
Anglicans around the world know the name of Percy Dearmer (1867-1936), author of The Parson’s Handbook (1899), earnest Christian socialist, vicar of St. Mary the Virgin, Primrose Hill, prime mover of the Warham Guild, and ultimately Canon of Westminster Abbey. His work is a landmark in Anglican liturgical method and attitude: a happy, deliberate, and gentle effort at establishing a definite course in the late 19th-century battles over following pre-Reformation models or continental Roman Catholic patterns in Anglican worship enrichment and elaboration. He remains an arbiter of taste and practice even 80 years after his death.
Very few know the name of Percy’s first wife, Mabel Dearmer (1872-1915), a Welsh-born graphic artist, dramatist, novelist, war nurse, translator, women’s suffrage supporter, pacifist, and Christian educator.
In the course of looking in recent years for illustrated Anglican children’s books for my daughters, I have discovered Mabel Dearmer as an overlooked and delightful figure in the history of Anglicanism. Her illustrations are bright, striking, and clear. She integrates her work in creative ways into the texts she is illuminating in color, combining her knowledge of church doctrine, nursery rhymes, English culture, and graphic design in ways that have been subsequently overlooked despite their original widespread influence. Mabel Dearmer’s novels are close character studies of domestic life in small quarters with meager finances, rooted in her experience of life as a Bohemian woman in fin de siècle London, married to a clergyman of limited resources and highly developed taste. Her plays imitate the medieval Mystery Play genre, inviting young persons to experience the shapes of the Paschal cycle and the Nativity as living participants.
Mabel Dearmer (born Jessie Mabel Pritchard White) was a minor figure in the Bloomsbury Group of London-based writers, trendsetters, and esthetes, working as an illustrator for playwright Laurence Housman, and decorating her first home with William Morris Arts and Crafts wallpaper. A telling anecdote about the early Dearmer household notes that so much money had been spent on exquisite wallpapers and drapery that funds for furniture were insufficient, meaning that visitors sometimes had to sit on luggage or their own bags instead of chairs and couches.
Mabel undertook a career of commercial illustration and dramatic writing to support her husband after their 1892 marriage, when she was a 20-year-old art student and he was a penniless 25-year-old deacon who had yet to establish his abilities as an author, organizer, and lecturer. She rose in the next decade and a half in European prominence as a poster illustrator, children’s book author, designer, and author. Her work found its way into epoch-defining Art Nouveau/Decadent publications like The Yellow Book (1894-97), The Savoy (1896 only), and The Studio (1893-1964). In 1896, Mabel was the first woman to have an illustration on the cover of The Yellow Book, situating her well within the circle of Aubrey Beardsley (her illustrations are often reminiscent of his work) and Oscar Wilde.
The great tragedy of Mabel’s life was her unnecessary but sacrificial decision to follow her two sons and husband into the Great War. Mabel offered herself for service on the Front after learning that her sons had volunteered, and finding out in a sermon that her husband had been appointed as a chaplain. Her first and only major biographer — her friend Stephen Gwynn — describes the paradox of her pacifism and her volunteering to support the British forces in a Serbian field hospital:
That permeation of common sense by Christianity, and of Christianity by common sense, which she describes was well illustrated in the fact that her attitude to the war alienated no friend. Yet there was another reason for this. She who condemned war loved courage and loved self-devotion. The war was there, and with it the call to action and to sacrifice … [and] the courage she most valued — the courage to die but not to kill. … [I]f the world had enough of this courage, then, she thought, there would be no wars.
Without medical qualifications or training, Dearmer’s lot as a volunteer was as a hospital orderly. Her duties included sorting and packing clothing bales and linen used in an English Red Cross field hospital. Her letters and telegrams to friends are highly evocative of daily life:
I am sitting in Percy’s little tent with a lamp I have stolen from the dining tent. […] It is like being at school — a very happy and delightful school, but still school — and one’s virtues are school virtues, and one’s sins are the sins of school girls.
I am sitting in the little green tent in a sea of mud, with my trench full of rivers of water, the water pouring all around me.
The night nurses are now coming in for their midnight meal. We have got a tin of turtle soup which we are heating up — and then to bed. Good-night. Oh — I am so sleepy and my feet feel like jelly. I was up at five — so my day to-day has been one of twenty hours. — There has also been a dog-fight.
Mabel continued writing, struggling with an injured knee, and assisting the wounded until she succumbed to typhoid fever and eventually pneumonia. She died at Kragujevac, Serbia, on July 11, 1915, at 43, in the prime of her professional productivity as a playwright, Christian author, and illustrator. Her son Christopher died in 1915 from wounds he received in the Gallipoli Campaign. Percy survived the war, remarrying in 1920 and dying of natural causes in mid-1936. Mabel and Percy’s elder son, Geoffrey, died in 1996 at the age of 103 as one of the last surviving poets of the Great War.
When I discover each fresh page of Mabel’s work, my eyes drink glimpses of a world before the great and cold wars of the 20th century. I make a visual and tactile visit to a time when the vastness of the British Empire, the confidence of the Anglican Communion, and their robust and overlapping cultures were happy, firm, committed to beauty as a vehicle for Christian truth. There is a cheerfulness and a sweetness I know in few other 20th-century authors and illustrators. As a dedicated student of The Parson’s Handbook in its many editions, I learn in my periodic meetings with Mabel Dearmer that there was someone else in the room with Percy as he was writing his liturgical treatises and creating his “British Museum Religion”: a woman kind and good and imaginative, perhaps better than he at the necessary project of Christian joy, and definitely more inventive than he at writing popular fiction. I am thankful to know them both.
Richard J. Mammana is the archivist of the Living Church Foundation and a member of the Connecticut Academy of Arts and Sciences. He is a parishioner and vestry member at Trinity Church, New Haven, Connecticut.