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Hepburn [née Harper], Edith Alice Mary [pseuds. Anna Wickham, John Oland]free

(1883–1947)
  • Jennifer Vaughan Jones

Hepburn [née Harper], Edith Alice Mary [pseuds. Anna Wickham, John Oland] (1883–1947), poet, was born on 7 May 1883 at 5 The Ridgeway, Wimbledon, Surrey, the second and only surviving child of (William) Geoffrey Crutchley Harper (1859–1929), piano shop keeper and tuner, and his wife, Alice Martha, née Whelan (1857–1937?), teacher, hypnotist, and ‘character reader’. Her father's family was a mix of lapsed and practising Methodists originally from Shropshire. Her mother's family, of Irish, English, Belgian, and Italian stock, were Anglican. Her own affiliation was variously listed as Wesleyan or Anglican. Her autobiographical 'Prelude to a Spring Clean' (published in The Writings of Anna Wickham, Free Woman and Poet, 1984), describes an early conversion experience at a chapel Sunday school. She moved often during childhood: her parents' marriage was disrupted when her unconventional mother suddenly embarked for Australia with her infant daughter. The venture lasted a year, until her mother contracted pneumonia and Edith was placed in an institution. Her father arranged their return to England about 1885, and encouraged Edith to write from an early age. About 1890 the family emigrated to Australia. Her mother's teaching and character-reading career as a clairvoyant, Madame Reprah (‘Harper’ spelt in reverse), and her father's various positions led to an unsettled life. In Maryborough, Queensland, she attended the local convent school, where she was praised for her singing. She later attended All Hallows' School, Brisbane (1894–6) and Sydney Girls' High School (1897–9); according to her own account she was outstanding at neither. But she learned much from the philosophical arguments which her father loved and vowed to him that she would become a poet. Drilled in grammar and elocution by her mother, Edith developed a commandingly resonant, pleasing speaking manner. Later the mother and daughter taught elocution and dramatic-reading classes, and Edith wrote two plays for children: The Seasons: a Speaking Tableau for Girls (1902) and Wonder Eyes: a Journey to Slumbertown (1903).

When she returned to England in August 1904, Edith Harper studied acting at Beerbohm Tree's academy, London, and singing technique and operatic repertory with Alberto Randegger in London, and Jean de Reszke in Paris. However, a promising professional career was checked when she married Patrick Henry Hepburn (1873–1929), a solicitor and amateur astronomer, on 9 February 1906. She accompanied her husband on strenuous treks and sailing trips until they interfered with her pregnancies. After a sailing accident she gave birth to a premature daughter, born at their flat, 22 Tavistock Square, London, who lived only a few minutes. She also suffered a miscarriage but by 1909, when the family moved to 49 Downshire Hill, Hampstead, she had borne two sons, James (1907) and John (1909).

In Hampstead, Edith Hepburn befriended David Garnett and D. H. Lawrence (she wrote an essay on him called 'The spirit of the Lawrence women'). She was active in such causes as women's suffrage and improved health for poor women and children through the School for Mothers; these causes and her own experiences as wife, mother, and woman, formed the basis for her first mature poetry. Writing under the pen name John Oland, she privately published Songs (1911?) with the Women's Printing Society; this brought her attention, some of it personal. Her husband, angry at this, had her placed in a private asylum for the summer of 1913. Despite her feelings of betrayal, they later were reconciled and had two more sons, Richard (b. 1917) and George (b. 1919), conceived while Patrick was home on leave from war service in the Royal Naval Air Service and RAF.

Edith's incarceration in the asylum actually hardened her resolve to commit herself to poetry, and during and just after the First World War she found acclaim as Anna Wickham, naming herself after Wickham Terrace, Brisbane, where she had vowed to be a poet. She published poems, which aired her feminist concerns, in journals such as Harold Monro's and Alida Klementaski's Poetry and Drama. Further poems and books followed in quick succession. The Contemplative Quarry (1915), published by Monro, created a stir, some reviewers referring to her poetry as 'fresh', 'unconventional', 'piquant' (The Poetry Bookshop's booklets of verse, unsigned, BL). Grant Richards published her third book, The Man with a Hammer (1916), but with her next book of verse, The Little Old House (1921), she returned to Monro. However, she thought this book a 'domestic exhibit' (letter, 21 Sept 1921, Untermeyer MSS, Indiana University), complaining that her friend Monro, with whom she was increasingly dissatisfied, printed her too 'innocently' (Jones, 70). In America, Louis Untermeyer, the distinguished critic who once referred to her as 'this magnificent gypsy of a woman', arranged publication in 1921 of a combined American edition of The Contemplative Quarry and The Little Old House (From Another World, 340). It was enormously popular. In 1922, after the death of her son Richard from scarlet fever, Edith stopped trying to publish her work and took herself and her eldest son to Paris, where she continued to write. Here she mingled with various American expatriates, among them the wealthy lesbian writer and arts patron Natalie Clifford Barney, who referred to her as 'dear and incorrigible Anna' (Jones, 244). She and Barney maintained a lifelong correspondence.

Edith's husband legally separated from her in 1926. She and her children rented Harold Monro's house for a while. She was briefly reunited with her husband before he died as a result of a hiking accident on Christmas day 1929. She had predicted his death in her poem 'The Homecoming' in 1921. In the 1930s she welcomed an exciting and sophisticated circle of friends to her London home at 68 Parliament Hill, Hampstead. Writers such as Malcolm Lowry date their lasting friendship with her from this period when, as one visitor wrote on the wall devoted to poetry, a visit to her home was 'Better than a Continental holiday' (Writings of Anna Wickham, xx). Her precise, imaginative descriptions and aphoristic sayings were often quoted in her wide circle of those in the arts, dance, and theatre. During this period her eldest sons became a well-known tap-dancing duo known as the Hepburn Brothers.

In 1936 John Gawsworth persuaded Edith to publish Thirty-Six New Poems. Her relationships with Gawsworth and others were full of laughter, but on occasion could be confrontational. During her last ten years she threw Dylan Thomas out of her house over a disagreement and threatened others with both her fists and her curses. However, memoirs of the times abound with remarks about her kindness and her personal interest in her friends. In 1938 she helped organize a group of feminists called the League for the Protection of the Imagination of Women. During the Second World War she gave her support to her sons in the army and RAF. Her house was bombed and she lost several manuscripts and all of her correspondence.

In stature, Edith Hepburn was striking and imposing. With a noble head, and long arms and legs, she stood almost 6 feet tall. She was willowy and beautiful in her youth, statuesque in middle age, but in later years had a somewhat dishevelled appearance. Throat and lung problems plagued her. A strong believer in self-sufficiency, she had said she never wanted to die under the care of others. On 30 April 1947 she hanged herself at the door leading into the garden at 68 Parliament Hill and, characteristically, left a poem instead of an explanation. In mid-life she had looked into spiritualism, and wittily found failings and deficiencies in religion (she said in a poem that she 'built god a breast'). She was buried on 6 May in the churchyard extension of the Hampstead parish church, Church Row, Hampstead, London. Wickham left behind more than a thousand unpublished poems. Some of these were published in a selection of her poems edited by David Garnett in 1971, and her writings were collected in 1984. Forgotten for decades, her work now receives renewed attention.

Sources

  • The writings of Anna Wickham, free woman and poet, ed. R. D. Smith (1984)
  • A. Wickham, ‘I & my genius’, Women's Review, 5 (March 1986), 16–20
  • J. V. Jones, ‘The poetry and place of Anna Wickham, 1910–1930’, PhD diss., University of Wisconsin-Madison, 1994
  • private information (2004)
  • BL, Anna Wickham papers, Add. MSS 71877–71896
  • J. Hepburn, ‘Anna Wickham’, Women's Review, 7 (May 1986), 41
  • A. Wickham, ‘The spirit of the Lawrence women: a posthumous memoir’, ed. D. Garnett, Texas Quarterly, 9/3 (autumn 1966), 33–50 [ed. with introduction by D. Garnett]
  • L. Birch, ‘Anna Wickham: a poetess landlady’, Picture Post (27 April 1946)
  • N. Barney, Adventures of the mind, trans. J. S. Gatton (1992), 144–50 [trans. with annotations]
  • A. Mitchell, ‘Anna on Anna’ [unpublished play (opened 15 Aug 1988)]
  • From another world: the autobiography of Louis Untermeyer (1939)
  • b. cert.
  • m. cert.
  • d. cert.

Archives

  • BL, papers, Add. MSS 71877–71896
  • priv. coll., papers
  • priv. coll., collection
  • Ransom HRC, MSS collection
  • State University of New York, Buffalo
  • Bibliothèque Ste Geneviève, Paris, Fonds Littéraire Jacques Doucet, Natalie C. Barney papers
  • BL, Harold Edward Monro corresp., diaries, literary papers, MSS 57734–57768
  • Indiana University, Bloomington, American Literature Collection, Louis Untermeyer MSS
  • priv. coll., John Kershaw collection
  • U. Reading, T. I. F. Armstrong (John Gawsworth) collection
  • University of Chicago, Poetry Magazine papers

Likenesses

  • B. Abbott, photograph, 1926, priv. coll.
  • pencil or charcoal drawing on paper, 1938, U. Reading
  • K. Hutton, photographs, 1946, Hult. Arch.
  • P. Hepburn, photographs, priv. coll.
  • C. Morris, portrait, priv. coll.
  • photograph, Bibliothèque Ste Geneviève, Paris, Fonds Littéraire Jacques Doucet, Natalie C. Barney papers
  • plaster life mask, priv. coll.

Wealth at Death

£1334 4s.: administration, 18 Sept 1947, CGPLA Eng. & Wales