Biographical / Historical
Aelfrida Catherine Wetenhall Tillyard was born on 5 October 1883 in Cambridge at the family home, Fordfield (now Hope House) in Brooklands Avenue. The Tillyards were a strongly non-Conformist family from Norwich. Aelfrida’s grandfather, Henry Wetenhall, was a Cambridge hop merchant. Her father, Alfred Isaac Tillyard, one-time Mayor of Cambridge, was a Classics master at the Leys School. He also owned and edited a Liberal newspaper in Cambridge, the Cambridge Independent Press, founded in 1809. Her mother, Catharine [Katie] Sarah Wetenhall, attended the Lectures for Women in Cambridge and was one of the first candidates to take the Higher Local Examination. After her marriage she devoted herself to education, politics and temperance. Both of Aelfrida’s parents were ardent Liberals. Her brother Julius became an expert in Byzantine liturgy and music and her brother Eustace became Master of Jesus College in 1945.
Aelfrida attended school briefly, until the age of about eight and a half. She was then educated with Helen Verrall [Newnham 1902] and Silvia Myers by Mrs Verrall [Margaret Merrifield, Newnham 1875 and Lecturer in Classics 1880] and Miss Mary Ricket [Newnham 1882 and Lecturer in Mathematics 1886]. She finished her education with a period in Switzerland 1900-1901.
Aelfrida was a Sunday School teacher from 1899. She also undertook some school teaching and teaching of undergraduates, chiefly in French and Italian, from around 1906.
Her main occupation, however, was writing. She published novels, including two of science fiction (pre-dating, but in the mould of, 'Brave New World'), a biography, works on religious and mystical subjects, books for children, and poetry, including an anthology she edited entitled Cambridge Poets 1900-13. Her father had encouraged her to write from her early teens onwards, and she herself claimed in her diaries in 1899 'I wish to be a celebrated authoress'. She accomplished her first paid writing in 1905 (for The White Ribbon Magazine).
In 1904 she met Constantine Cleanthes Michaelides, an undergraduate at King’s College, Cambridge (he changed his surname to Graham in 1906). They became engaged in May 1904 and married on 19 January 1907. She accompanied him from 1907 on his travels as a diplomat to Russia, the USA and Germany but ceased to accompany him regularly after 1910. Their daughters, Alethea and Agatha, were born in 1908 and 1910 respectively. First signs appear as early as 1910 that all is not well within the marriage, and they divorced in 1921. He remarried in 1923 and died in 1934.
Aelfrida had a number of significant relationships with male friends after her divorce but turned down proposals of marriage, partly because of being a divorcee and partly because of the increasing attraction of a religious life.
Aelfrida’s religious and spiritual pilgrimage was ultimately the most important aspect of her life. As a small child she attended the Baptist Church on St Andrew’s Street in Cambridge with her parents, though as a family they later regularly attended St Columba’s Presbyterian Church on Downing Street. Her first mention of a personal interest in things supernatural and spiritual is made in 1897 and she records her first spiritual experience in 1900. She began to address church and chapel congregations and meetings as early as 1903.
An interest in comparative religion begins in 1902 with a visit to a synagogue. In 1904 she mentions a 'thirst for mysticism'. She begins to deliberate Roman Catholicism while being nursed in a convent in 1905. Meditation and mysticism appear to have become much more important to her after she had a stillbirth in 1912. An interest in Buddhism arose in 1916, and in 1917 she began to attend Quaker meetings. In 1924 she developed an academic interest in Christian Science, delivering lectures on 'Christian Types' at Cheshunt College, Bateman Street. In the 1920s she began to attend a number of different churches in Cambridge - St Botolph’s, St Giles, St Columba’s, St Edward’s, St Andrew’s and St Paul’s, satisfying different religious needs through each one. In 1925 she turned to Anglo-Catholicism and had her first thoughts of joining a religious order. 1929 saw the beginnings of a major interest in meditation and she delivered a number of lectures in Cambridge on mysticism.
Thoughts of the religious life were largely in abeyance during the late 1920s and the early 1930s while Aelfrida concerned herself with other major matters: the education of her daughters at Girton College; the running of the family home as her parents were aging and becoming incapacitated; and the running of the Cambridge Steam Laundry Company Ltd in Cherry Hinton Meadows on behalf of her father, who was a director of the company.
In 1931, however, Aelfrida visited St Mary’s Abbey, Leiston, Suffolk, for a retreat, and the longing for solitude and meditation which permeates most of the rest of her life appears to begin at this time. Her older daughter, Alethea, entered St Mary’s Abbey, West Malling, Kent, as a postulant in 1933: it is possible that Alethea’s vocation spurred Aelfrida on in her longing for the religious life. Aelfrida was clothed as an oblate at West Malling in May 1934.
From 1934 to 1936, Aelfrida kept a simple rule as an oblate at St Benedict’s Convent, Osney Lane, Oxford, her desire for solitude, silence and meditation increasing constantly. It was during this period that her younger daughter, Agatha, took her own life in February 1935.
From 1936-1946, Aelfrida lived at the Convent of the Sacred Cross, Tymawr, Lydart, Monmouthshire. She entered as an oblate and was admitted as a tertiary on 31 October 1937. She kept a relatively strict rule, her solitude and silence constantly increasing for most of her 10 years there, and she made her final promises as a life-tertiary on October 5th 1939, when she became known as Sister Placida. This appears to have been the most deeply spiritual phase of her life.
The years 1946-1952 were spent at Lolworth, Cambridgeshire, a High Anglican parish, to 'pray for the work of the incumbent', encourage parishioners’ church attendance, and take part in parish work. Similar work ensued at Southea Vicarage, Parson Drove, near Wisbech in Cambridgeshire, from 1952-53. However, increasingly poor health caused her to spend her final years, from 1953 to 1959, at St John’s Home, St Mary’s Lane, Oxford, where she continued to lead the contemplative life as far as possible till the very end.
There is little writing during the Tymawr years, but novel writing, largely on religious and spiritual themes, reappears from the late 1940s to the mid-1950s (none of these novels was published). Aelfrida continued writing until very shortly before her death. From 1953 to 1959 she produced a number of 'Memory Pictures' for 'The Watchword', a monthly paper published by the Society of Watchers and Workers.
A general tendency to poor health appears as early as 1905 and continues throughout the rest of Aelfrida's life. She died on 15 December 1959. Her connection with Girton College began in the 1920s when both daughters attended Girton, and it was for this reason that her diaries and manuscripts were donated to the College.