Biography, Women's History

LGBT History Month: Bessie Craigmyle (1863-1933)

On 27 February 1933, Bessie Craigmyle was sitting by her fireside reading a newspaper. Two days earlier she had observed the forty sixth anniversary of the death of “the friend of her life” Maggie Dale.  Possibly she dozed off; at any rate the newspaper slipped into the fire, caught alight and set fire to her skirts.  Neighbours heard Craigmyle’s cries for help and smothered the flames. She was badly burned and taken to hospital. There her heart failed and she died in the early hours of 28 February. Her death certificate was signed by Dr Mary Esslemont, the daughter of Craigmyle’s close friend, Clementina Esslemont.

Elizabeth (Bessie) Craigmyle was born in Aberdeen in 1863. She was the fourth of a family of five daughters, one of whom died in infancy. Her father, Francis, was an English teacher.  Aged 63 when she was born, he retired whilst Bessie was very young, and devoted much of his time thereafter to his daughters’ education.  In particular, he shared his love of books and botany; his daughters had the run of his extensive library, and of his greenhouses.

Craigmyle and her sisters attended McBain’s School, where her father had taught.  This school later became the Aberdeen High School for Girls. Craigmyle’s academic abilities were spotted quickly, in particular her use of English and her facility for languages.   However in her teens, Bessie was starting to question her life. There seemed few outlets for an intelligent and ambitious woman in the 1880s in Aberdeen. Moreover, she questioned her faith. She had been brought up a Presbyterian; indeed her father was a church elder, but now she felt herself overwhelmed with doubts.  Much of her adolescent angst was resolved when she met Margaret (Maggie) Dale.

Like Craigmyle, Dale was a schoolmaster’s daughter. Her father taught at Aberdeen’s Robert Gordon’s Hospital (now Robert Gordon’s College). Dale was three years older than Craigmyle and wanted to become a doctor.  This was an unusual ambition; the first woman from Aberdeen to become a doctor, Mary Anderson, had graduated in 1879 from the University of France, Paris.  Mary Anderson, too, was a schoolmaster’s daughter, and it’s possible that the Craigmyle, Dale and Anderson families knew each other. Certainly, Dale could not have been unaware of the tremendous difficulties which had faced Anderson in her quest to qualify.  Inspired by Dale, Craigmyle also decided to become a doctor, and the two women planned a future together, studying, qualifying and ultimately living and working together. Dale apparently sought only friendship but Craigmyle was in love with her and wanted more. Craigmyle wrote poems which reflected this tension.

In The Morning
Love, I am here.
Wild words passed yesterday ‘twixt me and you,
My careless hands wrought the deep wrong I rue,
You swore I should repent it.  Was it true?
Close, come more near.
Shuddering and white?
Why?  Let your lips press close and warm to mine.
Ah, sweetheart! has my beauty lost its shine?
Was not this woman pledged for ever thine
Who died last night?
So.  Turn away.
We did not think to meet again like this.
A lover’s quarrel should end in after-bliss:
Last night our lips were hungering for a kiss,
Give it today!

In 1884 Dale accepted a well-paid three year post at St Andrews Scotch School, Buenos Aires. She hoped this would enable her to earn enough to pay for her medical studies. Back in Aberdeen, Bessie attended teacher training college. Her first volume of poetry, Poems and Translations, dedicated to Dale, was published in 1886.

Once qualified as a teacher Craigmyle moved from Aberdeen, firstly to take a post at Dr Williams School, Dollgellau, Wales and then to become a lecturer at Bishop Otter’s College, Chichester.  It was there that she received the news, firstly, of Dale’s engagement to be married and then of Dale’s death in Argentina. The shock caused a complete breakdown in her health, both mentally and physically. Craigmyle then formed a new relationship with a woman whose identity remains unknown.  Together, the two women travelled to Florence as part of Craigmyle’s convalescence. However, Craigmyle’s devotion to Dale’s memory cast a shadow over the new relationship and it ended. Craigmyle’s second volume of poetry A Handful of Pansies was published in 1888 and was dedicated to Dale’s memory.

Craigmyle returned to her family home in Aberdeen, where she was to remain for the rest of her life. She taught in several private schools, including St Mary’s School which was run by Episcopalian nuns for the children of Episcopalians living in India. The nuns, and the Mother Superior in particular, so impressed her that she became an Episcopalian and worshipped with their community. Craigmyle also became active politically, as a member of the Women’s Liberal Association. She supported female suffrage, but distanced herself from the militant tactics of the suffragettes. She was an enthusiastic member of the High School for Girls F.P. Club, donating a chain of office (still in use today). She enjoyed her garden and became interested in antiques.

However, from 1892 on, her literary output dwindled away. She wrote occasional poems, but failed to achieve the promise of her early years. She did, however, live to see a younger generation of women achieve the academic successes which were virtually unattainable for women of her generation.

We shall not know, when we are fallen on sleep,
If o’er our silent hearts March violets blow,
Or if above us couch and darnel creep
We shall not know.
Senseless through summer shine and winter snow,
No sweet earth-memories have we power to keep,
Yet, well for us that this thing should be so,
When at our names no more the swift tears leap
To eyes that loved us in the long ago,
Thank God, death’s slumber is so dear and deep,
We shall not know.

Further reading

Alison T. McCall,  The Poetry and Life of Bessie Craigmyle (1863-1933), the Sappho of Strawberry Bank  Aberdeen University Review, Autumn 2005, pp109-121.

Alison T. McCall, There is Room for Roses in God’s World; Selected poems of Bessie Craigmyle (North East Genealogy Services, 2008)

Sue Morgan, The Word made flesh”: women, religion and sexual cultures, in Morgan and de Vries (eds) Women, Gender and Religious Cultures in Britain, 1800-1940 (Routledge, 2010)

(re Dr Mary Anderson)  Catriona Blake The Charge of the Parasols; Women’s Entry to the Medical Profession (The Women’s Press, 1990)

Alison McCall  is a PhD student at the University of Dundee.  Her son claims that he has learned the art of leaving essays to the last minute from her. 

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