The Memoirs of Ethel Smyth

abridged and introduced by Ronald Chrichton. Viking, $19.95. Those familiar with the papers of Virginia Woolf will recog nize Ethel Smyth as the aging and in her own opinion underappreciated composer whose lesbian devotion Woolf found something of a trial. In addition to being a musician, Smyth (1848-1944) was a traveler, an impassioned suffragette (she once went to jail for the cause), and a gadabout whose connections ranged from Brahms to the Empress Eugenie. She also produced a voluminous autobiography, and Mr. Chrichton’s abridgment of these memoirs reveals a character rather different from the faintly comic “battling dame” described elsewhere. Smyth was a woman of exceptional courage and determination and a constant observer of the world around her. Her descriptions of a provincial German ball or a performance before Queen Victoria bring the horrors of the first and the starchy peculiarities of the second vividly to life. She wrote so well, in fact, that the shortened version of her memoirs tempts one to hunt up the complete text—all nine volumes of it.