Emma Marshall, who lived in Woodside 1884 to 1899, was the best known resident of Leigh Woods during her lifetime. Her fame, based on nearly 200 books and short-stories, lasted well into the last century until the taste for romantic but “uplifting” historical fiction began to wane.
Born a Quaker in 1830, Emma came to Clifton as a teenager with her widowed mother, and, described by contemporaries as “bright, witty and beautiful” and “well read”, became part of the circle of the Addington Symonds’ of Clifton Hill House. She wrote to the American poet Longfellow about his works and sent him her efforts: they corresponded till his death in 1881 but never met. Emma was baptised into the CoE by the Vicar of Christ Church, whose son she married in 1851 after four years opposition. by her mother. Longfellow sent poems as a wedding present.
As Hugh Marshall rose as a manager with the West of England Bank, the growing family moved around. Wells 1856-69, Exeter 1869-72, then Gloucester. In each Cathedral city Emma not only produced children - nine in total - but threw herself into the social life of the Closes with its emphasis on good works and in Emma’s case great efforts on behalf of the higher education of women. During her fourth pregnancy she wrote her first published book, and four more (books as well as children) followed in five years. At Exeter she produced eight books, mostly about girls, for girls.
Then, in December 1878, as she recorded “A dark day. The doors of the bank were closed. Mourning and rain" Hugh had bought shares in the West of England Bank; when it crashed he shared liability for its debts; the family was ruined. The household was sold up. They lived in lodgings - Weston - Westbury - Ferncliffe in Leigh Woods - Clifton Hugh could not get a job, so they lived off relatives. A daughter remembered, “to clear him from debt was now the object of my mother’s unswerving literary endeavours”. She “wrote at white heat”, and produced the first historical novel about Tyndale. At Ferncliffe she started a novel about Colston and finished it at Worcester Terrace. When they finally settled in Woodside in 1884 she was well into another one. Hugh had a job again - as Secretary to the CSB Trustees.
Emma wrote from Woodside “with great effort I have furnished a house in a very simple fashion, on the hire system...” In 1888 she recorded in her journal “It makes me sad to look at the list of my books, and think what a nice provision they would have made for old age, now all used up and the fight still going on”. Books poured out, one after the other, with sometimes several on the go at the same time. Emma’s books were popular throughout late Victorian society, and with Anglophile families abroad. Copies specially bound in silver and white were fashionable wedding presents. They told of triumphs through adversity, of devotion to duty and true love.
The Marshalls still needed to supplement their income. They took as boarders girls sent to be educated at Clifton High, so Woodside was always full of youngsters long after their own children had left. With her fame and her “Woodside girls” Emma became a well-loved local figure. Her eldest son gave his first sermon after ordination in 1896 in St. Mary’s. During her final illness, the Bridge Toll Keeper brought her a last bunch of wild flowers from the woods.
Emma’s journal never stops recording her insecurity despite all her success. She worried about having to move again. Hugh was stricken by facial paralysis from which he never really recovered. In May 1899, with three new books being worked on, Emma died suddenly of pneumonia. Hugh followed her to the same grave in Long Ashton three months later. Her memorial in Bristol Cathedral reads “A lover of good men and herself a follower of their faith and patience, she strove by her writings to make others love them.”...
© Derek Smith, St George’s Day 2003