THE MEMOIRS OF ETHEL SMYTH

Abridged and introduced by Ronald Crichton

Viking. 393 pp. $19.95

Wrote Virginia Woolf to Quentin Bell in January 1930: "An old woman of seventy-one has fallen in love with me. It is at once hideous and horrid and melancholy -- sad. It is like being caught by a giant crab." Woolf was later to describe Ethel Smyth as "a game old cock." The game old cock, in turn, wrote of Virginia Woolf in 1933: "I don't think I ever cared for anyone more profoundly." Woolf's friend Vita Sackville-West thought that "although often a nuisance, Ethel was never a bore."

Who was Ethel Smyth? An extraordinary Englishwoman, born in 1858 to an army officer ("choleric in the old-fashioned military 'damn-your-eyes' style") and a musically gifted, French-educated mother. She was strong-willed and ambitious, leaving England alone at 19 to study music in Germany -- a daring move at the time. Early she had learned that she much preferred the company of women to men, although she was briefly engaged to Oscar Wilde's brother Willie and had a longtime platonic friendship with the writer and philosopher Henry Brewster.

She was a charismatic woman whose acquaintances included Brahms, Clara Schumann, Mahler, Sir Thomas Beecham, the poet Anna de Noailles, the great violinist Joseph Joachim and many other famous persons in society and the arts. She was presented to Queen Victoria, was an avid hunter and golfer, loved large dogs, and was fond of bicycling and walking. Her creative energy was poured into the composition of six operas and many other musical works, from 1876 until 1938, and 10 autobiographical books, six of them written with the encouragement of Virginia Woolf. Her fine, aristocratic face was painted by John Singer Sargent; the work is reproduced on the dust jacket of this book.

"The Memoirs of Ethel Smyth" is an abridgment, done by Ronald Crichton, of six of her books. He has connected the selections with informative notes, so they read like a smooth account of her life, or at least parts of her life. We are privy to the way she saw herself and her intriguing Victorian times, to her ambitions and achievements and frustrations, her extraordinary joie de vivre and incurable optimism, and her "inordinate flow of passion in three directions -- sport, games and friendship."

I would like to report that Smyth's memoirs are consistently interesting, but unfortunately this is not so. Too often the pages are a heavy compendium of famous names, and the events chosen for reconstruction not terribly interesting in themselves. Smyth can write wittily, but not always. Her most persuasive observations are about the place of women in society and in the musical world of her strait-laced time:

"I have found in women's affection a peculiar understanding, mothering quality that is a thing apart. Perhaps too I had a foreknowledge of the difficulties that in a world arranged by man for man's convenience beset the woman who leaves the traditional path to compete for bread and butter, honours and emoluments ... Even among the conformists I saw good, brave women obliged because of their sex to give way before dullness, foolishness or brutality."

If her private passions were reserved for individual women, her public sympathies were enlisted in the cause of women's rights. She worked hard for suffrage and was sent to Holloway Prison with Emmeline Pankhurst. The sorry fortunes of women in the musical world concerned her. They were totally excluded from membership in the symphony orchestras of Europe and England, so that valuable early musical training to be composers was denied them. Only after World War I did the English conductor Sir Henry Wood start what Smyth calls "mixed bathing in the sea of music."

The narration of her own lack of progress in getting her operatic scores read and then produced is horrifying. Bad luck, or perhaps male prejudice against English women composers, dogged her at every turn. One conductor was fired just before he was to conduct a Smyth opera. The war with Germany broke out before arrangements could be completed for another in Leipzig. An opera that was finally produced was savaged by the critics; another, in Prague, was withdrawn before its second performance because of a disagreement over changes.

Knowing from other sources (Quentin Bell's biography of Woolf and Volume 6 of "The Letters of Virginia Woolf") about the part she played in Woolf's life, we wait in vain for Smyth to write about the years from 1931 until Woolf's death 10 years later, years in which their correspondence flourished. If she ever recorded anything in her memoirs concerning their friendship, there is nothing in these pages except a passing mention of Woolf's name in a list of "friends old and new."

As for Smyth herself, she ended her life gamely but much inhibited by the afflictions of old age. She began to lose her hearing after 1914 and at the end could not hear her own music. The gallant, indomitable old Dame announced that she intended "to die standing up." This she did not accomplish. Her talented, fighting spirit finally was put down by death in 1944 at the age of 86.

The reviewer's books include the novels "Chamber Music" and "The Magician's Girl."