Mayne, Ethel (Ethelind) Frances Colburn (1865–1941), novelist, short story writer, biographer and translator, was born on 7 January 1865 in Johnstown, Co. Kilkenny, the second of eight children of Charles Edward Bolton Mayne and Charlotte Emily Henrietta Sweetman. Her father’s family had come to Ireland in Elizabethan times; the Sweetmans had catholic Irish roots, with Mayne’s maternal grandfather converting to marry her grandmother. Charles Mayne entered the Royal Irish Constabulary (RIC) in 1858 and became a resident magistrate in Cork in 1892. After postings in Johnstown, Skibbereen and Kinsale, the family settled in Cork city. They lived in downtown Cork, on Tuckey Street and at College View Terrace on Western Road, before settling in ‘Rockmahon’, a large house in Blackrock, where Mayne was a neighbour of Katherine Cecil Thurston (qv). Privately educated, Mayne read a lot, became proficient in French and German and learned, by her own account, to play the piano very well.
Still, judging by her fictional depictions of Anglo-Irish girlhood, Mayne chafed at the restrictions of genteel life in small-town Ireland. In December 1895 she gladly accepted Henry Harland’s offer to become sub-editor of The Yellow Book, a high-profile literary magazine that had also published work by George Egerton (qv). Mayne had sent a story, ‘A pen-and-ink effect’, to Harland, who accepted it for the July 1895 issue (it was published under the pen name of Frances E. Huntley) and subsequently invited her to London. Although Mayne’s literary apprenticeship at The Yellow Book would be short-lived, it had a formative impact on her career. Mayne assimilated Harland’s proto-modernist aesthetics, acquired first-hand experience of editing and publishing, and became acquainted with many writers, including novelist Violet Hunt, who would become a lifelong friend. The experience also gave her the confidence to start on a literary career even as she had to move back to her parent’s home in Cork.
In 1898 Mayne published her first collection of stories, The clearer vision, with Fisher Unwin in London. The collection received promising reviews, with one noting ‘There are phrases – sentences – on these pages positively startling in their unshrinking fidelity … more than sufficient to justify the somewhat ambitious title of the volume’ (The Bookman, 1898, 87). Her first novel, Jessie Vandeleur, published by George Allen in 1902, was less well-received. Its clever and ambitious heroine leaves small-town Ireland to move in artistic circles in London, where she is not content to be admired for her beauty but wants to succeed as a writer as well. Rather unscrupulous in pursuing this aim, Jessie is no conventional feminine heroine and reviewers denounced her as a ‘feminist’ and a ‘monster’.
Frustrated by the poor sales of the novel and the difficulty of accessing London’s literary networks from her home in Cork, Mayne engaged an agent, Charles Frances Cazenova of the Literary Agency of London, who placed some of her stories in The Pall Mall Magazine and secured a supportive publisher, Chapman and Hall, for her remaining three novels: The fourth ship (1908), Gold lace: a study of girlhood (1913) and One of our grandmothers (1916). The novels offer astute depictions of the lives of (mostly Anglo-Irish) girls and women as they seek to negotiate gendered expectations and the marriage market in the rather depressing confines of Irish naval and garrison towns. Although they received positive press coverage, the novels – which prioritise psychology over plot – did not become bestsellers. Their Irish context may have been too specific for English readers, nor did Mayne’s realist, almost naturalist, portrayals of the protestant gentry in small-town Ireland sit well with the concerns of the Irish Revival in Ireland.
In 1905, Mayne and her father – her mother had died in 1902 – left Cork for London, where Mayne carved out a versatile literary career. She took on translation projects, including some bestselling German and French novels and, through her friendship with Joan Riviere, several of Freud’s essays for the five-volume Hogarth Press edition of Freud’s collected papers (published 1924–5). Her interest in psychology also led Mayne into the field of biography. In 1909 Methuen published Enchanters of men, portraits of foreign women who wielded considerable influence through the men in their lives. On the back of the success of this book, Hutchinson & Co. commissioned Mayne to write a study of the royal house of Monaco, (published as The romance of Monaco and its rulers (1910)), while Methuen contracted her to write a biography of Lord Byron, which was published in two volumes in 1912. Byron received widespread acclaim and became the work for which Mayne is best remembered. Browning’s heroines, a work of literary criticism published by Chatto and Windus in 1913, had a more ambivalent reception, chiefly because Mayne called Browning a ‘feminist’ on the basis of the strong female characters in his work. Mayne’s biography of Byron received a sequel in 1929, when Constable published her biography of Lady Byron, for which she was given access to unpublished family papers. Leonard Woolf praised it as ‘one of the most fascinating and important biographies which have appeared for a long time’ (Woolf, 478). Mayne then set to work on a biography of Lady Caroline Lamb, but the project was abandoned when another biography appeared in 1932. She nevertheless managed to channel some of her research into a biography of Lamb’s mother, Lady Bessborough, which came out in 1939 as A Regency chapter.
Alongside these demanding research projects, Mayne continued to write short fiction. Previously criticised for being too symbolic and implicit, her subtle stories found a more receptive audience in the modernist context of the 1910s and 1920s. Mayne placed stories in several mainstream periodicals, including The Nation, Vanity Fair, Land and Water and The Westminster Gazette, as well as in short-lived modernist magazines such as The Golden Hind and The Transatlantic Review. She also published five more story collections, the first three with Chapman and Hall, the final two with Constable: Things that no one tells (1910), Come in (1917), Blindman (1919), Nine of hearts (1923) and Inner circle (1925). The collections were well received, and Mayne was often favourably compared with Katherine Mansfield. Mansfield herself wrote a positive review of Blindman, perceptively noting that Mayne is interested in ‘not the event itself, but what happens immediately after’, in the effect of the event on the character’s mind (Mansfield, 48).
A well-respected literary figure in interwar London, Mayne sustained friendships with Ford Madox Ford, Mary Butts and Christopher Isherwood. In the 1920s she was involved in two prominent literary organisations: from 1919 to 1939 she was a member of the Femina Vie Heureuse Prize Committee, serving as its president in 1924 and 1925; in 1921 she was one of the founding members of Poets, Essayists, Novelists (PEN), the international writers organisation. Mayne also knew fellow Irish writers Elizabeth Bowen (qv) and Norah Hoult (qv) in London. Hoult created a fictionalised portrait of Mayne in her novel There were no windows (1944), which depicts Violet Hunt’s slow decline into dementia. Bowen included Mayne’s prize-winning story ‘The man in the house’ in her 1936 anthology The Faber book of modern short stories, noting in her preface that Mayne ‘never quite [received] the prominence she deserved’. In 1927, however, she did receive an annual Civil List pension of £85 for her contribution to literature.
In September 1940, the Twickenham home where Mayne lived with her invalid sister, Edith Violet (1871–1941), was bombed. Mayne was hospitalised for six weeks and afterwards moved with her sister to Torquay, Devon, to be closer to two of their brothers, Edward Colburn (1869–1959) and John Theophilus Colburn (1874–1947). She died there on 30 April 1941, aged seventy-six.
Mayne’s literary output was prolific, and her fiction especially notable for its sensitive and honest portrayals of the lives of girls and women around the turn of the twentieth century. Her short stories reveal her as one of the few writers to straddle the divide between fin-de-siècle aestheticist and naturalist movements, on the one hand, and the new modernist writing on the other. Finally, her female – and subtly feminist – perspective on the protestant gentry in Irish garrison and naval towns mark her as a unique voice in Irish literature.