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:

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