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Netta Syrett (1865-1943)

By Melissa Purdue.

Netta Syrett (or “Janet,” as her parents named her) was born on March 17, 1865 in Ramsgate, Kent to Ernest Syrett, a silk merchant, and Mary Ann née Stembridge. She had twelve siblings—four sisters and eight brothers—and she was a niece of author Grant Allen. Syrett was initially educated at home by her mother and a governess, and she then attended North London Collegiate School at the age of eleven with her sister Dora. She went on to Hughes Hall, Cambridge where she “took the Cambridge Local Certificate, which normally took three years but she did in one, then went to the Training College for Women Teachers at Cambridge with students who had already taken a degree at Girton or Newnham” (Adams 210). Syrett was a prolific author, publishing short fiction, novels, historical fiction, plays, and children’s literature over the course of her career. Her “success as a writer of children’s fiction and histories in particular might be a key source of posterity’s amnesia regarding this prolific writer”; however, in her day she was certainly a respected and popular author who associated with an influential aesthete circle (Ardis, Modernism 122).

Syrett’s first teaching job after graduating from Cambridge was at Swansea High School where she taught English for two years from 1886-88. She found the experience to be tedious and boring.  As she claimed, “No one who has not endured it knows what it means to be a young creature full of life and at the same time a teacher living alone in lodgings” (qtd. in Adams 211). After Swansea, she taught at the London Polytechnic School for Girls.  It was while “she was at Swansea she made her first practical steps to becoming a professional writer” (212). She sent one of her stories, “That Dance at the Robsons,” to her uncle Grant Allen who passed it on to Longmans who published the piece in Longman’s Magazine in 1890. Syrett went on to publish in other magazines like Macmillan’s, Temple Bar, and The Yellow Book.

Instead of living at home with her parents during this time, Syrett lived in a flat with her sisters (with approval and some financial help from their father). Her writing began to take off and she developed friendships with influential authors and artists of the day like Ella D’Arcy, Evelyn Sharp, Somerset Maugham, and Max Beerbohm. Syrett was also acquainted with the Beardsleys and was particularly good friends with Mabel Beardsley. This circle challenged artistic expectations and traditions in new and exciting ways. Like other New Woman writers, Syrett returned repeatedly to the theme of working women in her fiction. She wrote “ about young middle-class women who struggle with their own as well as their culture’s deep conflicts about women’s entrance into the public labor force at the turn of the century” (Ardis, “Toward a Definition,” 260). Many of her female protagonists are also “often writers and journalists” who are “either unmarried or escaping from bad marriages” (Shelley par. 19).

In addition to writing fiction, Syrett was an accomplished playwright. In fact, she won a competition sponsored by the Dramatists’ Club in New York and the Playgoers’ Club in London against 400 other contestants in 1902. Her winning play, The Finding of Nancy, was produced by George Alexander. It tackles the tricky subject of a woman who enters into a relationship with a married man (whose wife is in an asylum, of course). Because of its “immoral” content, it received mixed reviews. A critic for the Daily Telegraph suggested that the play was based on Syrett’s own experiences, which it was not, and she subsequently lost her teaching position shortly after the play was performed. After losing her job and grieving the death of her father that same year, “she supported herself almost exclusively for ten years by writing plays for children and short stories for journals” (Ardis, “Toward a Definition,” 259). She was quite prolific and “produced roughly a book a year for the last thirty years of her life” (260). Her other plays included, Might is Right (1909), about militant suffragettes, and Two Domestics (1922).

Some of Syrett’s earliest publications appeared in The Yellow Book, edited by Henry Harland. Her first story included in the magazine, published in 1894, was “Thy Heart’s Desire.” It is about a desperately lonely woman living in India who is trapped in a loveless marriage. She falls in love with another man and feels tremendous guilt when her husband dies. Although she is now single, she does not allow herself to marry the other man, insisting that she has fallen out of love with him, and reflects, “It is a mistake to think our prayers are not answered—they are. In due time we get our heart’s desire—when we have ceased to care for it” (254). She proceeded to publish two more stories in The Yellow Book—“A Correspondence” (October 1895) and “Far Above Rubies” (January 1897). Her sisters, Nellie and Mabel, were also contributors closely involved with The Yellow Book and its aesthete community, as were many other female artists and authors.

Syrett published many novels. Her first, Nobody’s Fault, was published by John Lane in the Keynote series in 1896. Its heroine Bridget is the daughter of tradespeople, but she is given an education beyond her class and proceeds to struggle with her identity. Like many New Woman novels, Bridget suffers in an unhappy marriage and wants to pursue a writing career. A review of a later novel Rosanne (1902) in The Speaker said that Syrett had “a true gift for exhibiting and developing character” and that she had “the power of unfolding an interesting story in an interesting way” (79). Aside from The Finding of Nancy, Syrett’s work was usually quite well-received and favorably reviewed throughout her career.  Her numerous other novels include Rose Cottingham (1915), originally published as The Victorians. It pits the young heroine Rose against her outdated grandmother: “In her day no gentlewoman worked. ‘Professions’ for women were still in the womb of time, and even later on, when she heard of their existence, were to her always monstrous births. Marriage, in fact, was the only career open to women…” (21). Like many of Syrett’s other novels, this one is a coming-of-age story—it begins on Rose’s ninth birthday and follows her into young adulthood. It is a typical New Woman novel in many ways, but it does end on a fairly happy note—sometimes a rare occurrence in the genre. Rose is not married, turning away from her grandmother’s vision for her life, but she does publish a successful book. Syrett continued to write and publish throughout the 1920s and 1930s and her novel Portrait of a Rebel (1930) was adapted into the 1936 film A Woman Rebels featuring Katherine Hepburn.

In addition to New Woman short fiction and novels, Syrett published a number of children’s books. Magic London (1922), illustrated by Helen Jacobs, is about 11-year-old Betty and her eccentric Godmother Strangeways who has “a magic way of seeing London” (7). She is able to transport her goddaughter in time to Londons of the past—Roman, Medieval, Tudor, Restoration, etc.—where she catches glimpses of William Shakespeare, Charles the Second, Alexander Pope, Samuel Johnson, and other historical figures. Betty learns history through her time travels and can scarcely “walk through any part of modern London without seeing something—if only the name of a street, which recalled a memory of the Past. London had, in fact, become for her what Godmother had once called it—the Magic City” (155). Syrett’s other children’s fiction includes The Magic City and Other Fairy Tales (1903), The Vanishing Princess (1910), and Rachel and the Seven Wonders (1921). Her sister Nellie sometimes worked with her to illustrate her children’s books. The Garden of Delight: Fairy Tales (1898) and The Dream Garden (1905) are two examples of this sororal literary and artistic collaboration.

Although Syrett is not as well-known as other authors of the early-twentieth century today, her contribution to late-nineteenth and early-twentieth-century literature is significant. Part of the reason why she does not have the reputation of the period’s other authors might be her writing style. As Ann Ardis argues in her chapter “Mapping the Middlebrow in Edwardian England,” Syrett’s “realist novels are not prime specimens of the ‘experimental writing’ valued so highly” by literary historians of the 1920s-40s (Modernism 123). Yet, “the fiction Netta Syrett produced during the heyday of the avant-garde ‘pitches a more radical politics’ than might otherwise be considered possible, given our continued valorization of experimental writing; that is, given the familiar assumption that realism is conservative, and that an avant-garde poetics constitutes radical politics” (Ardis, “Toward a Redefinition” 264).

Netta Murray Goldsmith also points out that Syrett’s writing was more radical than might be expected. In her article, “Netta Syrett’s Lesbian Heroine,” Goldsmith argues that “while Syrett took care that the general tenor of her novels would not disturb her conservative readers too deeply, she often inserted into them secondary female characters who did not subscribe to conventional mores” (548). In Judgment Withheld (1934), for example, a minor character named Mimi is a famous cabaret dancer and a lesbian. Goldsmith notes that “Mimi is not neurotic like so many fictional lesbians, such as the one in Elizabeth Bowen’s The Hotel, published seventeen years earlier in1917. Far from it; she is cheerful and well-adjusted to whatever society she finds herself in” (545). Syrett’s novel, The Day’s Journey (1905), tells the story of a betrayed wife who comes to the rescue of her husband’s mistress, flipping societal expectations.

Syrett published her memoir The Sheltering Tree in 1939, a few years before her death, and her final novel Gemini in 1940. She “gave instructions in her will that all her personal papers were to be burned ‘unread’ after her death and this seems to have been done” (Goldsmith 552). Although these personal papers did not survive, The Sheltering Tree leaves a comprehensive picture of her fascinating life: her literary and professional yearnings, and her association with so many important fin-de-siécle figures. Syrett spent her last years in a nursing home, dying of heart failure and broncho-pneumonia on December 15, 1943. In her obituary, The Times celebrated her work as always bearing “the stamp of a woman of education and intelligence” (6). Syrett should be remembered today as a successful and prolific fin-de-siècle author who challenged conventional gender roles and contributed to new artistic movements.


Melissa Purdue is a Professor in the Department of English at Minnesota State University, Mankato. Her current research focuses on late 19th-century supernatural fiction, Human-Animal Studies, and eco-gothic literature. She has been published in book collections and journals such as Reassessing Women’s Writing of the 1860s and 1870s (Palgrave Macmillan 2020), Domestic Fiction in Colonial Australia and New Zealand (Pickering & Chatto 2014), Revenant: Critical and Creative Studies of the Supernatural, and The Wilkie Collins Journal. She is also editor-in-chief and a founding editor of the journal Nineteenth-Century Gender Studies (

Works Cited and Consulted

Adams, Jad. “Netta Syrett: A Yellow Book Survivor.” English Literature in Transition, 1880-1920, vol. 62, no. 2, 2019, pp. 206-43.

Ardis, Ann L. Modernism and Cultural Conflict, 1880–1922. Cambridge UP, 2002, 114–42.

- - -. “Toward a Redefinition of ‘Experimental Writing’:  Netta Syrett’s Realism, 1908-12.” Famous Last Words: Changes in Gender and Narrative Closure, edited by Alison Booth, UP of Virginia, 1993, pp. 259-79.

Goldsmith, Netta Murray. “Netta Syrett’s Lesbian Heroine.” Women’s History Review, vol. 13, no. 4, 2004, pp. 541-57.

“Netta Syrett.” The Times, 18 Dec. 1943, p. 6.

“Rosanne.” The Speaker, Apr. 19, 1902, p. 79.

Shelley, Lorna. “Female Journalists and Journalism in fin-de-siècle Magazine Stories.” Nineteenth-Century Gender Studies, vol. 15, no. 2, 2019, /  10 Dec. 2021.

Syrett, Netta. Magic London. 1922.  Classic Reprints, 2021.

- - -. Rose Cottingham.  1915.  Academy, 1977.

- - -. “Thy Heart’s Desire.” The Yellow Book, vol. 2, Jul. 1894, pp. 228-55. Yellow Book Digital Edition, edited by Dennis Denisoff and Lorraine Janzen Kooistra, . Yellow Nineties 2.0, Ryerson University Centre for Digital Humanities, 2019.,   7 Dec. 2021.