If People magazine can do its periodic "fascinating people" cover stories, then why can't I? Of course, mine are rather more obscure than People's selections…
But at any rate, following is a quite varied selection of authors added to my Overwhelming List in the most recent update, with the only unifying characteristic being that I found them particularly intriguing—quite apart from whether I actually want to read their books (or, in a couple of cases, whether I could possibly find their books even if I wanted to).
Most intriguing of all—for me at least—are a trio of daring women who all seem to have resisted the traditional roles laid out for women early in the 20th century. MILDRED BRUCE was a pioneering aviator and automobile enthusiast who also started her own business which specialized in air deliveries of newspapers and freight and, eventually, passenger shuttles between airports. She participated in car races and motorboat races as well as making several pioneering solo flights. Perhaps not coincidentally, Bruce was also reportedly the first woman convicted of a driving offense in Britain. Her memoirs of her various exploits, including Nine Thousand Miles in Eight Weeks (1927) and The Bluebird's Flight (1931), would no doubt make interesting reading, but she's really on my list because of the semi-autobiographical humorous sketches she published as The Peregrinations of Penelope (1930). If this book didn't sound intriguing enough, it was also illustrated by the wonderful Joyce Dennys. Unfortunately, a Worldcat search reveals that the book is now virtually nonexistent outside of the British Library. It's hard to know if it warrants a reprinting, but surely, surely a compilation of Joyce Dennys' always charming and humorous illustrations is long overdue?
|Dorothy Mills, 1924|
DOROTHY MILLS began as a novelist, but by the mid-1920s had established herself as a daring and popular travel writer as well. Not for her picturesque travelogues of routine destinations; Mills wound up in Arabia, Venezuela, and various parts of Africa, and claimed to have been the first white woman to visit Timbuktu. By the 1930s, she was attempting to trace the source of the Orinoco River. While some of her claims about her own exploits may have been exaggerated, there's little doubt she led a fascinating life. Her novels, at least some of which are romantic adventures making use of these exotic locales, seem to have received largely positive reviews and may be (perhaps?) a cut above the norms of the genre. As an aside, Mills' Wikipedia page includes the delightful tidbit that when she married in 1916, her wedding ring was made from a bullet removed from the groom's ankle after his injury while in combat in France. Romantic? Or a bit creepy?
Mills' marriage—despite her lovely bullet ring—perhaps suffered from her frequent absence on glamorous exploits, and ended in divorce. FLORENCE RIDDELL, by contrast, was practical enough to wait until after she was widowed, at a fairly early age, before she started her adventuring. She ended up living at various times in India, East Africa, and Zanzibar, and she too incorporated her knowledge of exotic locales into her fiction. About Dream Island (1926), Kirkus Reviews gave this description, which doesn’t necessarily make me want to rush right out and buy a copy:
Tropical palms, low lying reefs, luxuriance in nature's offerings, a man who hates women, a woman who has foresworn man, and each with a book to write. What more can you ask, if you have imagination and a romantic nature? There are some new pieces in the old jigsaw puzzle, however,—a native girl who is an adept at the mystical arts of love, a white man brought up among the natives, voodooism or its South Sea island equivalent, human sacrifice, hurricanes, and murder. Circulating library appeal, almost exclusively.
Not that I mind books that originally had "circulating library appeal, almost exclusively," but I might give that one a pass. I'm slightly more tempted by 1929's The House of the Dey: A Tale of Algiers, which features this blurb: "Prim Grandmother Anne was captured by Algerian pirates at twenty two, sold to the Dey of Algiers, lived in a Turkish harem and had a Turkish scimitar on which she had carved 'my luck and my aid ever'!" But Riddell's 1935 "travel biography" I Go Wandering shows that at least she had a sense of humor about her unconventional forays: "I have faced hydrophobic dogs & prowling lions, but I have never been in any of those perilous situations in which a woman has to fight desperately for her virtue. My sex-appeal, you will perceive, must be limited."
Although the other women in this post could all have been completely fascinating and inspiring people in their own right, none of them make quite such good copy as those three daring souls. ANNE TRENEER's day-to-day life as a schoolteacher in Cornwall might sometimes have seemed almost as harrowing as a search for the source of the Orinoco, but it just doesn't sound as glamorous on paper (or, er, on a blog). Nevertheless, her three volumes of memoirs seem like a potentially fascinating record of life in one of the professions most open to women early in the 20th century and offering the most independence. (And I'm even more intrigued having read Barb's reviews of two of the volumes over at Leaves & Pages, and I might just as well add that the cover pic above is blatantly stolen from Barb!)
|A title by the 1908 vintage of Mary Nicholson|
It's not often (or ever, in fact) that I find myself adding two authors by the same name to a single update of my list, but it happened quite coincidentally this time. MARY NICHOLSON (1906-1980) and MARY NICHOLSON (1908-1995) really are quite discernibly different women. The older of the two has the added interest of a close connection with one of my favorite authors—she chose the name as a pseudonym, but was in fact Ursula Frankau, sister of Pamela. Sadly, however, when the Frankau sisters—along with father Gilbert and grandmother Julia—were discussed over at Reading 1900-1950, the consensus on Mary/Ursula was that she was "unbelievably bad." Rats. Meanwhile, the 1908 vintage of Mary Nicholson is described in considerable depth here and sounds rather intriguing. Her debut, Sublunary (1932), written under the pseudonym L. E. Martin, was praised by L. P. Hartley, and her four novels of the 1950s, under the pseudonym Mary Crawford, seem to have great potential as well. Have any of you read either of the Mary Nicholsons?
|Minnie Louise Haskins in 1939|
Several of the women in this post are intriguing in more modest ways. For instance, MINNIE LOUISE HASKINS is now remembered primarily for one poem, "The Gate of the Year," written way back in 1908 but immortalized when George VI selected it for his first Christmas broadcast of World War II. You can read the entire poem here. The poem was apparently read again at the Queen Mother's funeral in 2002, and is still widely remembered. Not so much Haskins' two novels, Through Beds of Stone (1928) and A Few People (1932), however. The Spectator dismissed the latter as "a sympathetic story … which would have been even better without an improbable small boy, too much dialect, and too much hazy sentiment."
|Illustration by Quentin Crisp from Olive Hawks' Life Lies Ahead|
Another author with a World War II connection, if not the most positive one, is OLIVE HAWKS, who was a committed member of Oswald Mosley’s British Union of Fascists and spent most of the war interned. You can read a bit more about her here. After the war, she wrote four novels, about which I've been able to find very little information. Rather incongruously, she also co-wrote Life Lies Ahead (1951), which was described as "a practical guide to home-making and the development of personality" and which, more intriguing still, was illustrated by a young Quentin Crisp.
I know very little about PHYLLIS MARIE WADSWORTH, but her output is so peculiar and interesting that I had to include her here. Author of only two novels, she wrote Young Miss Isotope (1959) about a young women writing a book on the "chemistry of love," and Overmind (1967) is described as a science-fiction novel about aliens proclaiming a new messiah via telepathy. You have to admit they both sound rather "off the beaten page."
And finally, before I began work on my Overwhelming List a couple of years ago, it would never have occurred to me that there was a whole sub-list of particularly precocious literary scribes. Quite early on in my research, I came across Daisy Ashford, who surely had the most phenomenally successful bit of juvenilia with her novel The Young Visitors, which became a massive bestseller (18 reprints in its first year alone) and in the years since has been a play, a musical, and a movie, as well as being constantly reprinted and remembered.
|Mary Nicholson's pseudonymous debut|
But although Ashford was clearly the most precocious of literary prodigies, having penned her novel at the ripe old age of 9, she is hardly, it turns out, the only one. Moyra Charlton wrote her first pony story, Tally Ho: The Story of an Irish Hunter (1930), at the age of 11. Perhaps, honestly, Charlton has a claim to superior precocity, since she published four more children's books before she turned 18! By comparison, Pamela Brown, famous for penning her debut, The Swish of the Curtain (1941), when she was only 15, was rather slow off the blocks. And that's not all: Mary Rhys seems to have written Mr. Hermit Crab (1929)—published under her family nickname, Mimpsy Rhys—when she was only 13 or 14. The manuscript was then tucked away in a chest in the rectory where she was living, only to be rediscovered a couple of decades later and published. And fantasy writer Jane Gaskell wrote her debut, Strange Evil, at the age of 14, no doubt applying all the wisdom and experience of her age to its tale of a young girl who discovers some of her family are fairies engaged in a war.
So why all of this reminiscing about youthful authors? Because I now have one more to add to the list, of course. JOAN K. SNELLING remains a bit of a mystery, as far as her personal information goes, but she seems to have been born in 1926 (perhaps the lack of a death date indicates that she is still with us?) and according to contemporary reviews her debut novel, Queen by Proxy (1942) was written at the peak of the Blitz when Snelling was only 14. Described by an online reviewer as "unbelievably nonsensical," it nevertheless intrigues me. (Or perhaps I shouldn't say "nevertheless," since it might well be that dismissal that intrigues me!) Snelling published two more novels that I know about—The Cruise of the Carrier Dove (1946), about two girls on a summer holiday adventure, and Morning Waits (1947), a romance set in the time of Queen Anne.
All of this talk of prodigies makes me feel rather like an underachiever. Perhaps my next focus should be on writers who only began their careers in their fifties…
The short bios for each of these authors are below, and of course they're already included on the main list.
(née Petre, aka Mrs. Victor Bruce)
Pioneering aviator, auto enthusiast, and businesswoman, who wrote memoirs of her various exploits including Nine Thousand Miles in Eight Weeks (1927) and The Bluebird's Flight (1931); her semi-autobiographical humorous sketches were published as The Peregrinations of Penelope (1930), with illustrations by Joyce Dennys.
MINNIE LOUISE HASKINS (1875-1957)
Haskins was rocketed to lasting fame when her poem “The Gate of the Year” was read on BBC by George VI in a Christmas 1939 broadcast; she had also written two novels, Through Beds of Stone (1928) and A Few People (1932), in which the Spectator found “hazy sentiment.”
OLIVE HAWKS (c1917-1992)
(married names Burdett and ?????)
A committed member of Oswald Mosley’s British Union of Fascists, Hawks was interned for much of WWII; after the war, she published four novels—What Hope for Green Street? (1945), Time Is My Debtor (1947), These Frail Vessels (1948), and A Sparrow for a Farthing (1950).
DOROTHY RACHEL MELISSA MILLS (1889-1959)
Adventurer, travel writer, and novelist; she wrote several books about her journeys in Africa and South America, as well as several novels, including some with sci-fi themes; titles include Card Houses (1916), The Tent of Blue (1922), The Dark Gods (1925), Phoenix (1926), and Jungle! (1928).
MARY NICHOLSON (1906-1980)
(pseudonym of Ursula Frankau)
Sister of Pamela Frankau; poet and author of three novels of the 1930s—Ask the Brave Soldier (1935), Horseman on Foot (1937), and These Were the Young (1938)—which received wildly mixed reviews and seem to have focused on social criticism of the wealthy and the status quo.
MARY NICHOLSON (1908-1995)
(full name Eleanor Mary Lloyd Nicholson, née Crawford, aka L. E. Martin, aka Anne Finch, aka Mary Crawford)
An intriguing figure documented in some depth here, Nicholson published two early novels—Sublunary (1932) and Turn Again (1934)—as L. E. Martin, then four more as Mary Crawford in the 1950s—Laugh or Cry (1951), Roses Are Red (1952), Itself to Please (1953), and No Bedtime Story (1958).
FLORENCE [GERTRUDE] RIDDELL (c1885-1960)
An adventurous figure who lived in India and Africa after her husband's death and wrote novels about similarly independent women in exotic locales; titles include Kenya Mist (1924), Dream Island (1926), The Misty Pathway (1928), The House of the Dey (1929), and Wives Win (1931).
JOAN K[????]. SNELLING (?1926-????)
(?married names Catlett and Kite?)
More research needed; author of three novels in the 1940s (the first written during the Blitz when she was only 14)—Queen by Proxy (1942), described by one reviewer as "unbelievably nonsensical," The Cruise of the Carrier Dove (1946), and Morning Waits (1947), set during Queen Anne's reign.
ANNE TRENEER (1891-1966)
Literary scholar, biographer, and memoirist; her three memoirs about life as a schoolteacher—School House in the Wind (1953), Cornish Years (1949), and A Stranger in the Midlands (1952), were reprinted in 1998; her one work of fiction, Happy Button and Other Stories, appeared in 1950.
PHYLLIS MARIE WADSWORTH (1910-2006)
Author of only two novels—Young Miss Isotope (1959), about a young women writing a book on the "chemistry of love," and Overmind (1967), a sci-fi work about aliens proclaiming a new messiah via telepathy.