The Life of Viscountess Rhondda
The life of Lusitania passenger Margaret Haig Thomas Mackworth, later known as Lady Rhondda or Viscountess Rhondda, includes important affectionate, romantic, and perhaps sexual relationships with women.
Born in 1883 to Welsh coal magnate David Thomas and his wife, Margaret struggled to leverage the opportunities of her class against the constraints of her sex. Educated at Notting Hill High School and St. Leonard’s School at St. Andrews College, followed by Oxford University’s Somerville College, Margaret was expected only to marry and bear children, not use her knowledge professionally.
Marriage, the Women’s Movement, and Jail
Margaret did marry, but in 1908, at age 25, she also became actively involved in England’s women’s movement, campaigning for women’s right to vote.
She even endured a short stint in jail for having attempted to blow up a mailbox. This was part of a militant campaign waged by the Women’s Social and Political Union between 1912 and 1914, to draw attention to their cause. Sentenced to a fine and one month's imprisonment, Margaret began a hunger strike as soon as she arrived at the jail. Because of the brutality, and subsequent publicity, involved in the force-feeding of hunger-striking prisoners, the WSPU strongly encouraged its incarcerated members to follow this path. Weak and delirious from lack of hydration and nutrition, Margaret was released in five days due to authorities' concerns about her health. Her fine was paid, likely by her husband, and she never returned to complete her sentence. The fact that she was allowed to do so was likely a function of her social class.
In 1915, Margaret, her father, and his secretary Arnold Rhys-Evans, were returning on the Lusitania from United States where they had surveyed some of David Thomas’s mining interests.
In spite of the luxurious accommodations that awaited Margaret as a first-class passenger, she was in “a fog of gloom and depression,” unable to shake the thought of returning to a country scarred by war. David Thomas, a loving and supportive ally to his only daughter, asked Margaret about her depressed demeanor, but she shrugged it off, telling him, “Let’s not worry, father. It’s nobody’s fault but mine.”
Her malaise was probably partly due to her troubled marriage to Sir Humphrey Mackworth. Margaret’s parents had deemed this baronet a good match for their daughter, in spite of the couple’s lack of shared interests. Her husband largely disdained Margaret’s intellectual pursuits and feminist activism. Early in their marriage he had refused to allow Sybil Pankhurst, daughter of well-known feminist activist Emmeline Pankhurst, entry into the home that he and Lady Mackworth shared. His wife had invited Pankhurst to address a group of suffragists gathered there.
Floating in the Cold Sea
In 1915, the unfulfilling union left the then-32-year old Margaret the choice of tolerating her unhappy circumstances or enduring social censure for divorcing her husband. It is unclear whether Margaret was contemplating divorce when she stepped aboard the Lusitania. What is more certain is that her near-death maritime experience struck her later as the moment she changed from a timid young girl to a confident, assertive adult woman.
The ability to stand up for herself may have, in fact, saved Margaret's life. In her 1933 autobiography, This Was My World, she recalled floating in the cold sea, battling hypothermic unconsciousness and clutching a wooden board in order to stay afloat. She remembered
a man with a white face and yellow moustache came and held on to the other end of my board. I did not quite like it, for I felt it was not large enough for two, but I did not feel justified in objecting. Every now and again he would try and move round towards my end of the board. This frightened me; I scarcely knew why at the time (I was probably quite right to be frightened; it is likely enough that he wanted to hold on to me). I summoned up my strength - to speak was an effort - and told him to go back to his own end, so that we might keep the board properly balanced. He said nothing and just meekly went back. After a while I noticed that he had disappeared.
Time and Tide
By the time she was rescued by the Bluebell, Margaret had fallen unconscious from hypothermia in the cold Atlantic. She was relived to learn that her beloved father and his secretary had jumped into a Lusitania lifeboat and survived the sinking. She spent several months convalescing from her traumatic voyage.
Margaret’s experience on the Lusitania convinced her that her life was “spared” to allow her to strive toward a “greater purpose.” By 1920, Margaret had identified that purpose, and was devoting the majority of her resources to Time and Tide, a weekly magazine that she founded. It promoted feminist and left-wing causes, literature and the arts.
Margaret appointed Helen Archdale, a divorced mother of three, as Time and Tide’s first editor in 1920. The two women had traveled in the same feminist political circles years earlier, and had worked on the same committees during World War I.
The Six Point Group
A year later, in 1921, Archdale and Margaret founded the Six Point Group of Great Britain, an organization focused on resolving what they perceived as the six most pressing issues for women. These included legislation on child assault, for widows, and unmarried mothers and their children, as well equal rights of guardianship for married parents, equal pay for teachers, and equal opportunities for men and women in the civil service.
Divorce and a New Relationship with Helen Archdale
In 1922 Margaret divorced Sir Humphrey Mackworth and began living with Helen Archdale both in a London apartment and in a country house in Kent. The two women shared space with Archdale's children when they were not at school. The two women enjoyed a productive professional relationship for several years. But by 1926, Margaret’s habit of overruling Archdale’s editorial decisions, and of bypassing her altogether in matters related to Time and Tide, caused significant friction between the two. Archdale was effectively discharged from her responsibilities at Time and Tide. In spite of this, the two women continued to share a home until March of 1931, when they put it up for sale.
Margaret intimated to a friend that the decision was an economic one, not a sign of a troubled relationship with Archdale. But a few months later Margaret admitted that she and Archdale had drifted apart. One early biographer of Margaret Mackworth notes that, “By April 1933, the two were barely on speaking terms.” The biographer adds: “the reasons for split, like the true nature of the relationship, remain obscure.”
More recent historical research on Lady Rhondda (as Margaret came to be known after her father's death in 1918), unearthed correspondence that sheds light on the reasons for her split with Archdale. A biography of Lady Rhondda published in 2014 reveals how early their relationship troubles emerged.
In 1926, soon after Archdale was dismissed from Time and Tide, Lady Rhondda wrote her an emotional letter, asking:
"I wonder if you too are realising how near the end we are getting? I don’t know whether you ever ask yourself why we live together; if you ever go back to the time when we first came together. We began it…because we were very fond of one other."
She added, somewhat bitterly, “I have paid heavily for believing that your love…was real, when in fact it can only have been a passing surface schwärm [passion], much as I’ve seen you several times.”
The letter suggests the nature of Lady Rhondda’s feelings for Archdale and hints that they may have been, to some extent, unrequited. Lady Rhondda recalled, “When I tried to tell you I cared, you sneered. I imagine you despised me because I was too ready to give—but you see you had been ready enough at first and I couldn’t believe for a long while that you had changed.”
While Archdale’s emotional fickleness may partially account for her acrimonious personal and professional split from Lady Rhondda, it is also possible that Lady Rhondda’s interest in a new female friend might have caused some friction in their home.
In 1924, almost a decade after her voyage on the Lusitania, Lady Rhondda developed a close friendship with Winifred Holtby, a writer fifteen years her junior. Holtby had submitted an essay on education to Time and Tide that impressed Lady Rhondda, who took the younger woman under her wing, professionally and personally.
Two years after their first encounter, Lady Rhondda appointed Holtby to Time and Tide’s board of directors, and the two women shared a deep rapport. One scholar suggested that Lady Rhondda’s relationship with Holtby was “probably the deepest and most caring she was ever involved in.” 
At the time of their meeting, Holtby was living with her close friend and fellow writer, Vera Brittain, in London, where both women pursued literary careers. Some historians have characterized the relationship between Holtby and Brittain as romantic or sexual, based on the affectionate and sometimes passionate content of the women’s large correspondence. Brittain, who married in 1925, would later vehemently deny any suggestion that her relationship with Holtby was, or ever had been, sexual in nature.
Lady Rhondda was in many respects similar to Vera Brittain. Both women were slightly older than Holtby, both were committed feminists, and both were ardent supporters of literary culture. Both women supported Holtby’s career as a writer. Lady Rhondda, however, encouraged Holtby to focus her efforts on political journalism like Time and Tide published, rather than on novels and short stories.
Holtby simultaneously maintained intimate friendships with each of her elders, making her the object of much jealousy between Lady Rhondda and Vera Brittain. The tensions between Brittain and Lady Rhondda became especially strong when Holtby’s health began to fail in the early 1930s. She was given a terminal diagnosis of Bright’s disease (known today as “nephritis,” a disease of the kidneys), and told she had only a few years to live.
In 1931, Brittain criticized Lady Rhondda for asking too much, professionally, of the ailing Holtby, who was still working for Time and Tide. But it was Lady Rhondda, not Vera Brittain, to whom Holtby dedicated a book of short stories, published just before her death in 1935. The book, Truth Is Not Sober, contains the inscription, “For Viscountess Rhondda: To the leader, with homage, to the editor, with gratitude, to the friend, with love.”
Following Brittain’s and Lady Rhondda’s quarrel, and in spite of their shared distress over the imminent death of the woman they both loved, the two women maintained a frosty distance. They reconciled only briefly, following Holtby’s death, in a collaborative effort to ensure that her literary work was posthumously published.
The evidence is limited that suggests Lady Rhondda had romantic or erotic feelings for Holtby. In one letter (which one scholar observes she kept in a folder marked “PRIVATE"), LadyRhondda refers to having previously written Holtby a “love letter.”
"A Piece of Maidenhair”
Another document, an ecstatic missive from Lady Rhondda to Holtby on the occasion of visiting Delphi, has been read by some scholars as covertly erotic. Catherine Clay points particularly to two passages in this letter, one in which Lady Rhondda implores Winifred Holtby to visit Delphi with her, writing: "Somehow or other you must just come and spend a holiday there, dear woman. I can't bear that you shouldn't see it and I just want to be there when you do." In another passage Lady Rhondda speaks of having sent Holtby "a piece of maidenhair picked from the very lip of the (sacred and inspired and pure) Castalian Spring." Because of the resemblance between the maidenhair and female genitalia, Clay interprets this offering as bearing "the erotic nature of a kiss, drenched by the waters that 'come' in the Sapphic imaginary."
In addition, in 1935, Lady Rhondda promised Vera Brittain that she would be discreet in choosing which of Holtby’s letters to quote in her own writing. This promise suggests that the two rivals for Holtby’s affection (platonic or otherwise) were both aware that some of Holtby’s correspondence might be unsuitable for publication.
By 1935 those in Rhondda’s intellectual, political, and social circles were familiar with the notion of the “lesbian,” thanks to the high-profile 1928 legal prosecution of Radclyffe Hall’s The Well of Loneliness. Both Brittain and Lady Rhondda agreed on the need to be circumspect in an effort to memorialize and protect the reputation of their deceased friend.
In the years before Holtby’s death, Lady Rhondda had become acquainted with writer Theodora Bosanquet, the woman with whom she would “set up home” in 1933. Lady Rhonnda spent the last twenty-five years of her life with Bosanquet.
Described by some as “boyish” in appearance, Bosanquet was Time and Tide’s literary editor from 1935-43. After that she became the magazine’s director. She had already published several books of her own writing, as well as essays on Henry James, to whom she had been a secretary until his death in 1916.
The “Cover Story”
In 1933 Lady Rhondda wrote to Winifred Holtby from Greece, where she and Bosanquet were enjoying a brief vacation. She shared the news that she and Bosanquet had decided to live together upon their return to England. Lady Rhondda asked Holtby to do her best to quell the rumors that she anticipated would emerge about the unorthodox living arrangement. The “cover story” concocted by Lady Rhondda and Bosanquet suggested that Lady Rhondda had found her dream home, but that its size was excessive for just one resident. Since Lady Rhondda and Bosanquet were collaborating on a book, Bosanquet was persuaded to rent out a few rooms.
Changes in English cultural awareness of lesbianism likely explain why Lady Rhondda, who’d lived with Helen Archdale from 1921-1931, now felt the need to fabricate a socially acceptable explanation for cohabitating with another woman.
In 1928, Radclyffe Hall’s novel, The Well of Loneliness, had been the subject of public trial in England, where it was derided as obscene. Catherine Clay, in a study of British women writers during the inter-war period, argues that the book, its trial, and the subsequent publicity served to “produce [the ‘lesbian’] as a single, identifiable image.”
Prior to this, Clay notes, there were several frameworks that women may have used to conceptualize their relationships with each other. One of these was a “Boston marriage”—a term popularized by Henry James in his 1886 novel The Bostonians. It described the relationship between two educated, unmarried women who shared a home and, often, a professional or political “calling.”
Another model is that historians Carroll Smith-Rosenberg and Lillian Faderman called “romantic friendship” or “intimate friendship.” This describes a relationship featuring all the qualities of a devoted and committed romantic relationship except for those which could be called sexual or “erotic.”
Regardless of whether Lady Rhondda perceived her relationship with Helen Archdale as a “Boston marriage,” a “romantic friendship,” or as something altogether different, her lack of effort to hide it from her friends and professional colleagues suggests that she did not think of it as abnormal, or as indicative of any type of sexual pathology.
There is no evidence that Lady Rhondda ever thought of herself as exclusively same-sex oriented, “homosexual,” “lesbian,” or “sexually inverted,” though these terms had been circulating among intellectuals since the early 1900s. She certainly had been introduced to all the terms that purported to explain same-sex attraction.
Reading Studies in the Psychology of Sex
In her 1933 autobiography, This Was My World, Lady Rhondda tells of reading Havelock Ellis’s Studies in the Psychology of Sex (translated into English in 1897). She had obtained the books through her membership in the women-only, suffragist-friendly Cavendish Bentinck library. This was, in and of itself, unusual. As she recalled in her autobiography, individuals were often unable to purchase Ellis’ volumes from a bookseller without a statement from a doctor or lawyer testifying to one’s character (and ostensibly one’s motivations for wanting to read the books). Even Lady Rhondda’s father had been denied access at first. She wrote, “I still remember his amused indignation that he was refused a book which his own daughter had already read.”
“Hints of Homosexuality”?
An 1985 biography of Lady Rhondda observed that her "close association with females combined with the failed marriage to Humphrey Mackworth led frequently to hints of homosexuality." The writer cautioned that "the scarcity of private papers and Lady Rhondda's natural reticence make it difficult to ascertain with any certainty the validity of such charges."
What can be reasonably inferred from Lady Rhondda’s assiduous efforts to head off rumors of a romantic or sexual relationship with Theodora Bosanquet is her awareness that being perceived as a “lesbian” was a potential liability, socially and professionally. The “cover story” about their co-authored book (a book which one scholar notes was “never intended to be completed”) provided a plausible explanation for their cohabitation, elevating it from a personal preference to a professional obligation.
Remarkably, and in spite of the fact that the twenty-five year duration of their living situation surely rendered that cover story implausible, Lady Rhondda and Theodora Bosanquet never felt the need to alter their arrangement, sharing a home until Lady Rhondda’s death in 1958, 43 years after she survived the sinking of the Lusitania.
1. Shirley Eoff, The Life of Margaret Haig Thomas Mackworth, Second Viscountess Rhondda (Unpublished doctoral dissertation, Texas Tech University, 1985): 28.
2. Erik Larson, Dead Wake: The Last Crossing of the Lusitania (New York: Random House, 2015): 49.
4. Lady Margaret Rhondda, This Was My World (London: Macmillan and Company, 1933): 24
5. Margaret Rhondda to Doris Stevens, 8 March 1931, Doris Stevens Collection. Quoted in Eoff: 228-9.
6. Margaret Rhondda to Doris Stevens, undated (May 1931?), Doris Stevens Collection. Quoted in Eoff, 229.
7. Angela V. John, Turning the Tide: The Life of Lady Rhondda. eBook. Parthian Books, 2014: 10. On the letter from Delphi, see Catherine Clay, British Women Writers, 1914-1945: Professional Work and Friendship (Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2006): 67-8; on the “love letter” and Rhondda’s promise of discretion, see Eoff, 228.
8. Eoff: 224.
9. Catherine Clay notes that Vera Brittain’s Testament of Friendship (1940), a book honoring her relationship with Winifred Holtby, is extremely defensive on the topic of their potential romantic or sexual connections. Clay: 15, 163.
10. Marion Shaw, The Clear Stream: The Life of Winifred Holtby. eBook. Hachette, 2012.
11. Eoff: 228.
12. Clay: 68. Other scholars, however, have disagreed with this interpretation, including Angela V. John, who in her Turning the Tide: The Life of Lady Rhondda (2014) suggests it is merely a "holidaymaker's wish to share a sublime experience with a close friend who could not be there."
13. Eoff: 228.
14. Pamela Thurschwell, Literature, Technology, and Magical Thinking, 1880-1920 (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2001):108.
15. Eric L. Haralson and Kendall Johnson, A Critical Companion to Henry James: A Literary Reference to His Life and Work (New York: Facts on File, 2001): 370.
16. Margaret Rhondda to Winifred Holtby, 17 October 1933, Winifred Holtby Papers. Quoted in Eoff: 230.
17. Clay: 29.
18. See Caroll Smith-Rosenberg, “The Female World of Love and Ritual: Relations Between Women in Nineteenth Century America.” Signs, Vol. 1, No. 1 (1981): 1-29, and Lillian Faderman, Surpassing the Love of Men: Romantic Friendship and Love Between Women from the Renaissance to the Present (New York: Morrow, 1981).
19. Rhondda: 126
20. Eoff: 223.
21. Margaret Rhondda to Winifred Holtby, 17 October1933, Winifred Holtby Papers. Quoted in Eoff: 230.