Ada Leverson (1862-1933)
by Eleanor Fitzsimons
Ada Leverson (née Beddington) was a friend and disciple of Oscar Wilde’s who became a widely respected satirist and novelist in her own right. Born in London, England, on 10 October 1862, she was the eldest of nine children born to Samuel Beddington, an affluent Jewish wool merchant, and his wife Zillah, who was an exceptionally talented pianist. From an early age, Ada demonstrated a passion for literature and a particular enthusiasm for the poetry of John Keats. Since her enlightened but authoritarian father arranged for her to be instructed in Latin and Greek as well as the more commonplace French and German, she was also an accomplished linguist with a deep understanding of the origins of language.
Although the Beddingtons encouraged their daughters to become educated, they were also strict disciplinarians and Ada found family life stifling. At nineteen, in a bid to find some measure of independence, she married Ernest Leverson, the son of a prosperous diamond merchant. Her father opposed the match, and with good reason; Leverson, aged thirty-one, was a compulsive gambler and philanderer who had neglected to mention that he had a daughter, Ruth, who was being raised in a convent in Paris while he courted Ada.
Ada and Ernest had little in common and theirs was not a particularly successful marriage. Yet she embraced her fate with good humour, declaring that it was: ‘better to have a ‘trying’ husband than none’. She had an exceptionally clear-eyed view of Victorian marriage and understood that, while it was imperative for a woman, marriage offered no real advantage to a man: ‘Marriage is not his profession, as it is his wife’s,’ she declared. ‘He is free in every way before marriage, tied in every way afterwards – just the reverse with her’. The Leverson’s marriage was blighted by tragedy in 1888 when their infant son George died of meningitis. A daughter, Violet, was born eighteen months later.
Although Ada was witty and exceptionally clever, she lacked confidence in her ability as a writer. For years she seemed content to contribute anonymously to publications like Black & White, The Yellow Book and Punch, while acting as a muse to more prominent, and generally male, writers. In his Memories of a Misspent Youth 1872-1896 (1933), English publisher and writer Grant Richards, who would publish the novels Ada wrote from 1907 onwards, saluted her as:
…the woman whose wit provoked wit in others, whose intelligence helped so much to leaven the dullness of her period, the woman to whom Oscar Wilde was so greatly indebted.
Ada’s friendship with Oscar Wilde was valued greatly by both. While Wilde, who nicknamed her Sphinx, praised her wit and encouraged her to write, she inspired dialogue found in some of his best loved plays: ‘Your dialogue is brilliant and delightful and dangerous,’ he declared. ‘No one admires your clever witty subtle style more than I do’. Celebrating their matched temperaments, he quipped: ‘Everyone should keep someone else’s diary; I sometimes suspect you of keeping mine’. Although she was fond of Wilde’s wife, Constance, Ada encouraged him to bring his young lovers to dinner at her home. She always enjoyed the company of witty and exuberant gay men.
Through her writing Ada helped publicise Wilde’s work. Although she detested the ‘plethora of half-witted epigrams and feeble paradoxes by the mimics of his manner’, both she and he regarded skilful parody as a form of homage: ‘One’s disciples can parody one,’ Wilde insisted, ‘nobody else’. In a letter to writer Walter Hamilton, he listed the ingredients for a worthy parody: ‘a light touch, and a fanciful treatment and, oddly enough, a love of the poet whom it caricatures’. Ada had each in abundance. She delighted in parodying her friend’s work in Punch magazine, and she displayed an uncanny talent for sending up any hint of pomposity. Her parodies can be read in the Punch archives.
Retaining the sharp characterisation and keen ear for dialogue that she had exhibited when parodying Wilde’s work, Ada was hailed as a witty social satirist and documenter of English society who demonstrated a healthy disregard for societal conventions. She was well respected in the literary and artistic circles of 1920s London and befriended T.S. Eliot, Somerset Maugham, Ronald Firbank, and Percy Wyndham Lewis among others. When Ernest Leverson died in Canada in 1922, Ada sold her London home and divided her time between London and Florence. In 1930 Letters to the Sphinx from Oscar Wilde, with Reminiscences of the Author, which she had compiled and written shortly after Wilde’s death, was published by Gerald Duckworth and Co. Ada Leverson died in London on August 30, 1933. Her work is all but forgotten today. For more on Ada Leverson and her work read Wonderful Sphinx by Julie Speedie.