The Write Sisters: Women of Wednesday: The Women of Arthur Sullivan
From: THE WRITE SISTERS
June 27, 2012 at 12:55PM
Sir Arthur Seymour Sullivan. Partner of William Schwenk Gilbert. Together, the two created fourteen operatic works; H.M.S. Pinafore, The Pirates of Penzance, and The Mikado among them. Sullivan produced many other works on his own or with others. The first of these pieces was an anthem composed when he was eight years old.
Sullivan never married, but he was a handsome son-of-a-gun, and charming, too. He had his share of love affairs, including one with the daughter of a renowned naval engineer. Her father didn’t approve, which didn’t stop Sullivan from starting a simultaneous affair with her sister. Such a rogue!
He had his one great love, the married-yet-separated Fanny Ronalds, an American socialite, amateur singer, and noted friend to the notables — among them, Winston Churchill’s grandfather and that skirt-chasing royal, King Edward VIII. Fanny was well-respected, and much-loved. She used her voice to raise money for charitable causes, including aid to American Civil War troops. She was, of course, drop-dead gorgeous. One contemporary account describes her like this:
“Her face was perfectly divine in its loveliness, her features small and exquisitely regular. Her hair was a dark shade of brown – châtain foncé [deep chestnut] – and very abundant… a lovely woman, with the most generous smile one could possibly imagine, and the most beautiful teeth.”
Sullivan and Ronalds carried on their affair in secret for more than thirty years. To do otherwise would cause a scandal, of course. The relationship was not without some internal scandals itself. The rakish Mr. Sullivan had an eye for the ladies, and Fanny became aware of some of them. The two regularly ‘broke up’, but Sullivan always returned to his Fanny. In their later years, the sexual heat died out, and he began to refer to her as Auntie, and the tick marks he used to keep track of their sexual activity disappeared.
Sullivan died at ate fifty-eight of heart failure after an attack of bronchitis and a long-standing kidney disease. He had wanted to be buried with his family, especially his dear mother, at Brompton Cemetery, but Queen Victoria was having none of that. She ordered him to be buried at the Victorian Embankment gardens along the Thames.
My favorite of Arthur Sullivan’s many women, is the last one, The Muse. She weeps at his grave, and catches up the wanderer (like me) with her emotion. The text on the monument are Gilbert’s from The Yeoman of the Guard:
“Is life a boon? If so, it must befall that Death, whene’er he call, must call too soon.”