Thurrock musical history

Alice Diehl, musician and novelist

Alice Diehl was born Alice Mangold in her grandfather's house at Aveley in 1844. Her grandfather was Charles Vidal, the village doctor, and her parents were Eliza and Carl Mangold who lived for most of the year in London where Carl earned a precarious but moderately successful living as a teacher of music.

Throughout her childhood Alice regularly spent long summer holidays at Aveley and her memories of these happy carefree days fill many pages of her Autobiography, 'The True Story of My Life' which was published in 1908 when she was 64. This very readable and interesting book is the source for much of the information in this article, but not the only one, as she was sufficiently well-known to merit an entry in 'Who's Who?'. From 'Who Was Who? 1897-1915' we learn that she died on June 13th 1912 and that shortly before her death she was living in Ingatestone, Essex, in a house named 'Rosalie', where her recreations were 'Garden life in the country' and 'reading'.

In her rural seclusion she was able to look back on an extraordinary life full of drama and incident, and (perhaps before the move to Ingatestone) was able to fill out the narrative of her book with numerous anecdotes about the people she had met, many of them famous names in the musical and wider cultural world that she inhabited.

Alice's autobiography is particularly fascinating about the Victorian musical scene, a topic she explored in greater depth in another of her books, 'Musical Memories' of 1897, which is regarded by musicologists as an important source of information about performers and performances in the second half of the nineteenth century. In 'The True Story' there are also some interesting personal reflections on nationally significant events such as the Great Exhibition of 1851 and the death of Prince Albert in 1861, but the Thurrock references will be the main area of interest for many local readers.

There is much to engage their attention - a double dose in fact, since Alice tells the story of her mother's younger days as well as her own. The family's link with Aveley began about 1804 when Alice's grandfather, Charles Vidal ( born in Jamaica in 1782 and an interesting character in his own right ) was encouraged to set up his medical practice in Aveley village by Sir Thomas Barrett-Lennard, lord of the manor, who made available one of the Belhus estate properties, known simply as 'The Cottage'. It was situated on the west side of Park Lane, the road leading northwards from the village to the gates of Belhus Park.

Charles Vidal had a daughter named Eliza (Alice's mother) whose youthful social circle included several of the local landowning families: the Barrett-Lennards of course, the Whitbreads at Purfleet, and the Webbs at Belmont Castle Grays. It was through her friendship with the Webbs that she met Carl Mangold, a young German musician of aristocratic origins ( his name anglicised from 'von Mangoldt' ) who had been a pupil of Hummel. He was based in London and there is an interesting mention of his use of the steamboat service for his visits to Aveley in those pre-railway days.

Eliza Vidal and Carl Mangold married and Alice, born in 1844, was their second child. Charles Vidal gradually became concerned about the mental stability of his son-in-law and it seems to have been decided that he could not be relied upon to adequately provide for his family. The solution proposed was that the elder sister, Etta, and when this proved impossible, Alice, would have to be trained as a pianist in order to make enough money to support them. Alice certainly believed that this was expected of her.

Carl Mangold arranged for her to have lessons in Germany with a former fellow student, Adolphe Henselt, a somewhat eccentric pianist and composer who lived in a castle in Silesia - a long way to go for piano lessons ! Alice is very interesting on Henselt and his piano teaching method - particularly as Henselt is currently being 're-discovered' as a composer after many years of obscurity.

Alice's own performing career was launched in 1861, in Paris, in a way that seems carefully calculated for maximum impact on the musical world. (She had been advised to have a Paris debut so that she could be introduced to the London public as 'From Paris'). The Paris concert is described in some detail, but the most essential aspect is that it was attended by the great French composer Hector Berlioz who subsequently wrote about it in glowing terms in his musical and artistic journal; his seal of approval was a tremendous boost to her reputation as a pianist.

A successful London debut followed later that year at the Hanover Square Rooms, and Alice became well-established on the English music scene through London recitals, provincial tours, and appearances at some grand occasions. Her marriage to the violinist and song composer Louis Diehl in 1863 was strongly opposed by her mother but it proved successful and she eventually accepted it.

The emotions generated by the events in Alice's life are analysed in some detail, but alongside these personal details there are many references to famous public figures she met in the course of her career, including, for example, Jenny Lind, the celebrated 'Swedish Nightingale' who admired her playing. Some might regard this as 'name-dropping' but it really is interesting to read about Frederic Lord Leighton's advice to Alice's artist son, Arthur, and her meeting with the explosives inventor, Alfred Nobel.

After her notable performance of Chopin's E minor piano concerto at the Crystal Palace in 1872 (when she would have been 28) there is little mention of public appearances, and by about 1875 she was making a good income from teaching. It was about this time too that she began to develop her literary career with short stories at first and then the novels which seem to have started with 'The Garden of Eden' in 1882 and continued until shortly before her death. (Certainly until 1911).

Alice seems always to have felt that writing was her true vocation, and her literary talent became evident at a very early age. She was only eight years old when her book of poems, 'Wild Spring Flowers', was published under a pseudonym in 1852. More of her poems were published as 'Wild Rosebuds' in the following year. The musical career that was chosen for her by her parents never quite achieved the fame and fortune that was probably anticipated and she seems happy to have returned to literature in her thirties. For 16 years from 1875 she lived in Regents Park Terrace, well-placed to promote her work to the London publishers.

As well as the early poems and the many novels, Alice Diehl also wrote some non-fiction works; alongside 'Musical Memories' stands her 'Life of Beethoven' and there is also 'The Story of Philosophy', an attempt to make philosophy intelligible to the ordinary reader. It is however the novels that make up the bulk of her output, and a list of all the titles I have been able to discover is given below.

When, in her sixties, Alice M. Diehl (the M for Mangold) looked back on her eventful life, determined to tell 'The True Story', the time she spent at Aveley took on the warm glow of a golden age when for a few months every spring and summer she left the noisy city and moved to that quiet rural retreat. She was allowed considerable freedom to roam around the countryside, often alone, even as a very young child, and she met an interesting selection of local 'characters' who are vividly depicted.

A particular fondness for her grandfather was at the heart of her love of Aveley, and after his death in 1862, she spent less time there. It may perhaps be argued that Alice Diehl's residence in the village was not long enough to merit a commemorative plaque, or that she was not famous enough. This is easily countered by a look at her autobiography which really does have the ring of truth about it and contains so much to interest and inform the historian.

Novels by Alice M. Diehl

The British Museum (now British Library) printed catalogue lists 38 novels by Alice M. Diehl, and 'The True Story of My Life' mentions a further 3 which are not in the BM catalogue, making a total of 41. There may be more. I have to confess to not having read any of them and still hope to find one in an antiquarian bookshop. It would be interesting to see if some of the drama of Alice's own life found its way into her fiction. In the list below dates have been given from the BM catalogue but these are not necessarily dates of first publication ('The Garden of Eden' for example was first published in 1882).

  • 1908 - An Actor's Love Story
  • 1909 - A Born Genius
  • 1905 - Bread upon the Waters
  • 1912 - The Confessions of Perpetua
  • 1903 - The Desborough Mystery
  • 1893 - Dr Paull's Theory
  • 1893 - Elsie's Art Life
  • 1907 - The End of a Passion
  • 1904 - Entrapped
  • 1882 - Eve Lester
  • 1888 - Fire
  • 1914 - From Pillar to Post
  • 1907 - The Garden of Eden
  • 1908 - Her Ladyship of the Season
  • 1908 - Her Three Lovers
  • 1912 - Incomparable Joan
  • 1892 - In Human Shape
  • 1889 - Iris Dacre
  • 1911 - Isola
  • 1897 - A Last Throw
  • 1905 - A Lonely Fight
  • 1904 - Love and Liars
  • 1905 - The Love of Her Life
  • 1906 - Love - with variations
  • 1901 - Love's Crossways
  • 1907 - A Lovely Little Radical
  • 1903 - A Man in Love
  • 1911 - The Marriage of Lenore
  • 1909 - Miss Strangeways
  • 1896 - A Modern Helen
  • 1908 - A Mysterious Bohemian
  • 1911 - A Mysterious Lover
  • 1910 - The Secret of Sir George Hartley
  • 1905 - The Temptation of Anthony
  • 1912 - Their Wedded Wife
  • 1904 - A Woman Martyr
  • 1896 - A Woman's Cross
  • 1890s - A Woman's Whim
  • A Woman's Love Story
  • Passion's Puppets
  • Griselda