Sir James ‘Golden Bough’ Frazer & his wife Lilly—a devoted couple to the very end

Few wives in literary history can have been as devoted to their famous husbands as Lilly Frazer was to the great anthropologist James Frazer, author of The Golden Bough.

Born around 1854 in Alsace, Elisabeth Adelsdorfer came to England after she had married an English mariner named Groves, with whom she had two children.  When he died she found herself the mother of two teenagers and turned to writing in order to support them. Although having little or no knowledge of the subject she somehow persuaded editors at the Badminton Library to give her a commission to write a book on the history of dancing. In 1894, while researching the subject of dance among the primitives she sought the help of James Frazer (1854 – 1941), then an obscure Cambridge don, and the author of the first part of The Golden Bough (1890). The couple were married in 1896, not long after Lilly’s Dancing appeared.

Realising that her husband was unlikely to promote himself as a writer, she decided that she would do everything in her power to organise his life and raise his profile. She vetted those who sought his advice and organised a panel of translators to make his work better known in France. She even translated some of his writings herself. Moreover, in Cambridge she began her mission to improve the teaching of foreign languages in schools, was the first to use the phonograph in education, and wrote stories and short plays in French for use in the classroom.

Frazer’s growing international reputation, thanks in no small part to the efforts of  Lilly, was crowned by the award of a knighthood in 1914, which was also the year in which the couple moved from Cambridge to London. Frazer’s new fame and increasingly prosperity enabled the couple to travel widely in Europe following the end of hostilities. However, the two letters from Lilly featured here date from a period of crisis in Frazer’s health, when he was in danger of losing his sight. They were written to a Cambridge colleague, Canon McCulloch, from the Allan Water and Spa Hotel in Stirlingshire and date from July and August 1931. In the first letter, Lilly explains her husband’s plight to the Canon:

…My husband, Sir James Frazer, would indeed enjoy a quiet talk with you and he knows about your deep learning. No doubt we have friends in common at Cambridge and elsewhere-----
Sir James had very serious eye trouble ---but does not like to refer to it. He may shortly be operated upon at Zurich for double cataract. However, that subject is taboo—at present. We have never parted---- barely for a few hours—in 35 years!—so I trust I may accompany my husband whenever you allow us to call. I am a Frenchwoman, but have lived long in Gt Britain and have translated the one vol Golden Bough into French as well as other volumes of Sir James and superintended the whole 12 vol. edition into French—doing 2 vol of that Cycle ( as it is called in France) myself.
Yours very truly,
And with Sir James’s respectful regards,
Lilly Frazer

The meeting with McCulloch took place and on August 5th Lady Frazer reported back to the Canon the immense pleasure that this encounter had given her husband. The letter continues:

‘…I hope to bring him to you tomorrow, Thursday morning for a short walk, but I think he feels the heat, though he will never own to any fatigue. I trust you will not think us ungrateful when I say that in the long run we had to give up Mrs Richardson’s rooms and stay on at this hotel! Where they expressed such sorrow at the idea of our leaving that they made very special & very generous conditions for us, thus inducing us to stay on----I tried to compensate slightly, Mrs Richardson, on Sunday last—so she could have scarcely lost a let through us---the reasons for continuing at this hotel, besides their so kind consideration, & besides the fact that I have treatment at the Spa—are of another order.
Our brother in law brought depressing news, and tho’ at first, these spurred me on to economy, my greater aim is to keep up my husband in full serenity. I feared that if shut up in one room alone with me he would begin to fret at his forced inactivity, which finds some variety at this larger place. As a matter of fact he ought not to read at all! For he was ordered a six month’s eye-rest—but I let him read a little. There is a complication besides the cataracts---but the oculists say he must not be told and must not worry. Our relation was rather tactless last Saturday and as the terms here are now barely more than they would be at lodgings I decided to stay on , especially as they will be further reduced for us in September!...’

Although the remainder of the letter appears to be missing, one can surmise that Lilly would have had little good news to report. In fact, the oculists were correct to warn Lady Frazer of ‘complications’. Sir James was to lose his sight completely later in 1931, which forced the couple to return home to Cambridge.

The Depression saw Frazer’s royalty income plunge drastically but the ever resourceful Lilly applied successfully for various grants-in-aid in order for them to live comfortably in their final years together. Despite herself suffering from respiratory illness in this period, Lilly soldiered on, determined to keep her husband healthy and content. However, he died on May 7th 1941 and she followed him just a few hours later. They were buried together in St Giles cemetery, Cambridge. [R.M.Healey]

One thought on “Sir James ‘Golden Bough’ Frazer & his wife Lilly—a devoted couple to the very end

  1. Tommi Uschanov

    Also buried at St. Giles is Ludwig Wittgenstein, who at this very moment, July and August 1931, was in Austria, writing down the first of his wonderfully exasperated critiques of Frazer (published as Remarks on Frazer's Golden Bough). He had just been on holiday in Norway with the only woman he would ever have liked to marry, Marguerite Respinger, but nothing came of that.


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