[This was my original version of this list, which has since been massively revised and massively expanded. Please see the new version of the list HERE. Please do not rely on the version below, as it has not been updated in years. I'm leaving in on the blog only for archival interest. It's difficult to believe that the current list, which encompasses 26 different interlinked blog posts, was once contained in a single post!]
As I mentioned in my introductory post, I’m starting out with a list of some of the writers I have come across in my obsession with (mostly) lesser-known British women writers actively publishing in the years 1910 to 1960. It is pretty much limited to those categories, except that I am including more famous writers as well—“lesser-known” writers are my main interest here, but I decided it would be ridiculous to try to develop a measurement of “well-known-ness” and, since literary fame has always tended to favor male writers, there are alarmingly few women writers who are really so well known that they wouldn’t constitute an exciting discovery for at least some readers. In fact, I could really only think of one British woman writer in this time period who is so ubiquitous that you’d absolutely have to have lived your life under a rock not to know of her—and I even included her here because it seemed hurtful to exclude only Virginia (even if she was mean to her servants).
I only have sparse knowledge of some of the writers here—sometimes nothing more than a vague interest in them or a note that someone mentioned one of their books somewhere and it sounded interesting—while others I have read in depth. As of this writing, the list contains nearly one hundred writers, but I hope it will grow, since I have a list of around a hundred more writers that I’d like to add. (And the “to add” list will probably grow too.)
But I suppose enough traces of the eccentric English professor I might have been remain for me to value inclusiveness and sharing of information. Some of the writers shown here have only a slight web presence, or even none at all. For some, I’ve had to scrounge in obscure reference books, contemporary reviews, or other sources for what information I have, which may still be very little. Moreover, even the ones who are famous and widely-read are interesting to think about in relation to their lesser-known colleagues who were publishing at the same time.
In short, I would have found an extensive list of British women writers from the early part of the 20th century useful and enjoyable for my own interests, but since I didn’t find one, I decided I might as well create one myself.
After all, a writer who might not be my cup of tea (such as—to take an example whose reputation can’t possibly be hurt by little old me—Daphne Du Maurier, whose classic Rebecca I find impossibly tedious—there, I’ve confessed! oh, the relief!) might well be someone else’s absolute fave. That’s one of the great things about reading, after all—we all approach what we read from different life experiences and different ways of thinking and therefore get different—sometimes pretty wildly different—things out of it.
I hope you find the list interesting as well as overwhelming!
Ruth Adam has the perhaps dubious distinction of having had (only) one of her books reprinted by Virago—her 1938 novel I'm Not Complaining—and (only) one of her books reprinted by Persephone—her fascinating 1975 history, A Woman's Place, 1910-1975. But my personal favorite of her works is the long out-of-print A House in the Country (1957), an autobiographical novel about her attempt, along with several friends, to set up a commune in a former manor house. That novel wonderfully balances the social concerns of Adam's other work (for example, detailing how the very layout of the house demands the slavery of a domestic staff—she imagines she sees the ghost of a scullery maid forever washing dishes in the kitchen), a striking sense of postwar conditions in England, and the hilarity surrounding the group's attempts to support themselves by raising pigs or hosting guests seeking idyllic country holidays. Adam's other works include an intriguing but impossible-to-find WWII mystery, Murder in the Home Guard (1942), and several novels about troubled children and social work, including Fetch Her Away (1954) and Look Who's Talking (1960).
ROSE ALLATINI (1890-1980)
Most famous for her pacifist novel Despised and Rejected (1918), which also stands as one of the earliest clear and sympathetic portrayals of homosexuality in modern fiction, Allatini wrote dozens of other novels as well, including many under the pseudonyms Lucian Wainwright and Eunice Buckley.
Best remembered for her fascinating and hilarious WWII memoir, Spam Tomorrow (1956), Anderson also wrote several other memoirs, including the wonderful Beware of Children (1958), about her attempts to run a children's holiday camp with her husband, made into a movie in 1960, The Flo Affair (1963), about her family’s adventures with an elderly but lovestruck horse, and Scrambled Egg for Christmas (1970), about her attempts to follow a friend’s advice to “make the most” out of living in London. She also published several biographies and works for children.
Perennially famous for her third novel, National Velvet (1935), which she reportedly did not consider a children's novel at all, Bagnold wrote four other novels, as well as a diary of her WWI nursing experience called A Diary Without Dates (1917), an autobiography, and numerous plays—some highly successful and others distinctly not. She was a controversial figure because of her infamously pro-Nazi views in the years leading up to WWII, but despite those unpalatable beliefs, I find her to be a daring and eloquent novelist. Her fourth novel, The Squire (1938), is a particular favorite of mine, dealing in unprecedentedly frank and unsentimental ways with childbirth, labor, breastfeeding, and a 44-year-old mother's feelings about her fifth pregnancy and the four children she already has—as well as the very mixed and fascinating feelings of the women around her. It strikes me as a rather radical novel even today, when motherhood remains so sentimentalized that its realities are rarely examined in any depth. (Happily, it has just been announced that Persephone will be reprinting The Squire in the autumn!) Bagnold's other novels are an interesting Modernist novel about her WWI experiences called The Happy Foreigner (1920), an elegiac late novel about aging aristocrats called The Loved and Envied (1951), and last (and certainly least), Serena Blandish (1924), a truly terrible novel of the Roaring Twenties which Bagnold (understandably) published under a pseudonym.
LILLIAN BECKWITH (1916-2004)
Primarily known for her humorous memoirs about her relocation to an isolated community in the Hebrides, starting with The Hills Is Lonely (1959), Beckwith later wrote several novels, a memoir, and a Hebrides cookbook.
FRANCES BELLERBY (1899-1975)
Best known as a poet who achieved particular popularity during the 1950s, when her poems were often read on the BBC, Bellerby was also the author of two novels and three story collections. Her first novel, Shadowy Bricks (1932), which has been described as an “educational tract,” is an earnest portrayal of a young teacher at a progressive school. Her second novel, Hath the Rain a Father? (1946), is a partially autobiographical novel about the loss of her brother in World War I. Her short story collections include Come to an End (1939), The Acorn and the Cup (1948), and A Breathless Child (1952). Bellerby suffered from poor health for much of her adult life, facing a back injury, breast cancer, and depression (in part as a result of the early loss of her brother and her mother’s suicide). She reportedly worked on several autobiographical works or journals in her later life, but these were never completed.
SYBILLE BEDFORD (1911-2006)
Bedford published four novels, A Legacy (1956), A Favourite of the Gods (1963), A Compass Error (1968), and the Booker Prize-nominated Jigsaw: An Unsentimental Education (1989), as well as the memoir Quicksands (2005), a travel book called The Sudden View: A Mexican Journey (1953) (later republished as A Visit to Don Otavio: A Traveller's Tale from Mexico), and a well-received biography of Aldous Huxley.
STELLA BENSON (1892-1933)
High on my long list of authors to read, Benson was one of several writers in the late 1910s and 1920s, such as Sylvia Townsend Warner, David Garnett, and Edith Olivier, who used fantastic elements to explore serious issues. Her novels include This Is the End (1917), which deals with World War I, Living Alone (1919), Goodbye Stranger (1926), and Tobit Translated (1930—published in the U.S. as The Far-Away Bride), about which I have a note that it was a favorite of Dorothy Bowers, though as I haven't read any Dorothy Bowers either this is perhaps not as meaningful as it might be! Benson also published two collections of travel articles, The Little World (1925) and Worlds Within Worlds (1928), as well as short stories and poetry.
THEODORA BENSON (1906-1968)
A versatile writer of both cynically humorous and more serious novels, travel books, and, rather surprisingly, short stories of suspense or outright horror, Benson is best remembered today (to the extent that she is remembered at all) for three popular humorous works published with her close friend and fellow novelist Betty Askwith, which seem to be hilarious, inane, or outright offensive depending on the reader's particular perspective. These were Foreigners, or, The World in a Nutshell (1935), Muddling Through, or, Britain in a Nutshell (1936), and How to Be Famous; Or, The Great in a Nutshell (1937). She also collaborated with Askwith on two novels, Lobster Quadrille (1930) and Seven Basketfuls (1932). Benson's other early, cynically funny novels, which received substantial critical acclaim, include Salad Days (1928), Glass Houses (1929), Which Way? (1931), which, the Orlando Project says, "seems to imitate or even foreshadow certain effects used by Virginia Woolf," Shallow Water (1931), Façade (1933), and Concert Pitch (1934). After the war, she returned with two final novels, the more serious and psychologically complex The Undertaker's Wife (1947) and a mystery novel, Rehearsal for Death (1954). Benson's travel books include Chip, Chip, My Little Horse: The Story of an Air-Holiday (1934), featuring her sharp observations about much of what would soon be Nazi-occupied Europe, The Unambitious Journey (1935), about Greece, Yugoslavia, and Albania, and In the East My Pleasure Lies (1938), about a trip to Asia.
ELIZABETH BERRIDGE (1919-2009)
Like many other writers on this list, Berridge came to my attention through Persephone's republication of one of her books—in this case the story collection Tell It to a Stranger (1947—originally published as Selected Stories). The title story in particular makes powerful use of the Blitz, and several of the stories have a surprising edge, including "Lullaby," a little nugget of horror that would have made Shirley Jackson proud. More recently, several of Berridge's later novels have been revived by Faber & Faber, including Upon Several Occasions (1953), Rose Under Glass (1961), and Across the Common (1964). Her earliest works, such as The House of Defence (1945), Be Clean, Be Tidy (1947), and It Won't Be Flowers (1949), remain out-of-print. Definitely a writer to explore further.
Another writer about whom information seems to be sparse. She published only two novels, Saraband (1931) and Luminous Isle (1934), both reprinted by Virago in the 1980s. Virago's bio says that she was born in Jamaica to English parents and in London she numbered Dorothy Richardson, Vita Sackville-West, and Jean Rhys among her friends.
Mary Borden published numerous novels over the course of more than fifty years, but is most famous for The Forbidden Zone (1929), a work composed of sketches and poetry concerning her experiences running a mobile hospital in France during World War I. That book was called by the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography "one of the greatest of all wartime books by a woman." In World War II, Borden ran another hospital, this time in the Middle East, and she wrote about that experience in Journey Down a Blind Alley (1946). Her most famous novel was Jane: Our Stranger (1923).
PHYLLIS BOTTOME (1884-1963)
Though a successful writer for several decades, Bottome descended into obscurity after her death. Her best-known novels are probably Old Wine (1926), which portrays post-World War I Austria, Private Worlds (1934), a tale of mental illness made into a movie starring Claudette Colbert and Charles Boyer, and The Mortal Storm (1937), a bestseller about the rise of the Nazis. I came to her as a result of Elizabeth Maslen's discussion of women writers of World War II, in which London Pride (1941) and Within the Cup (1943—published in the U.S. as Survival) are discussed. Both novels deal with the Blitz; the latter is still on my "to read" list, but the former was an enjoyable portrayal of the Blitz through the eyes of a working class family, particularly the young son and a neighbor girl he befriends. Although sometimes veering towards sentimentality, Bottome doesn't shy away from the realities of war—the children in London Pride gleefully loot bombed out houses until their parents catch them, and the boy's mother wrestles with the issue of evacuation of children and navigates the sometimes conflicting roles of women in the war effort.
ELIZABETH BOWEN (1899-1973)
Considered in her time to be a middlebrow writer, Bowen’s reputation has been ascending for the past decade or two, to the extent that she is now regularly mentioned alongside Virginia Woolf as one of the major writers of the early and mid twentieth century. Her novel The Heat of the Day (1949) is one of the best of the many literary depictions of World War II London and one of my favorites. The Death of the Heart (1936) is another classic in Jamesian style. Other novels include The Hotel (1927), The Last September (1929), Friends and Relations (1931), To the North (1932), The House in Paris (1935), A World of Love (1955), The Little Girls (1964), and Eva Trout (1968). Bowen was also well-known for her short stories, and her Collected Stories were published in 1980. Several of her stories also deal powerfully with life in wartime England.
Yet another on my "to read" list, Bridge has been recommended to me by several people. She wrote many novels set in exotic locales combining historical perspective, romance, and the excitement of travel, including Peking Picnic (1932), Illyrian Spring (1935), and Four-Part Setting. Her novels written during and after the war tended to be more anchored in recent historical events, including Frontier Passage (1942), about the Spanish Civil War, The Dark Moment (1952), about Ataturk's national revolution, and The Tightening String (1962), set in Budapest in 1940, just before the Nazi invasion. Many of her works have recently been republished in ebook format by Bloomsbury.
VERA BRITTAIN (1893-1980)
Author of the classic Testament of Youth (1933), a devastating memoir of losing everyone closest to her in World War I and of her subsequent involvement with pacifism, Brittain also wrote several novels, including The Dark Tide (1923), a thinly-veiled version of her post-war experiences at Oxford with close friend Winifred Holtby, Not Without Honour (1924), Honourable Estate (1936), and Born 1925 (1948). She also published a memoir of Holtby, Testament of Friendship (1940), and a memoir of her later life, Testament of Experience (1957). Her diaries from both World War I and World War II were published after her death.
BRYHER (aka Annie Winnifred Ellerman) (1894-1983)
Bryher is perhaps the most famous of all virtually unread writers. Known most widely as the partner of American poet and novelist H.D. (Hilda Dolittle), she is also sometimes remembered for her marriage of convenience with openly gay writer and publisher Robert McAlmon; for helping McAlmon finance the Contact Press in Paris, first publisher of an extraordinary array of young modernists—including Ernest Hemingway, Gertrude Stein, Djuna Barnes, and William Carlos Williams; for supporting James Joyce and his family before Joyce became world famous; for starting the experimental film company POOL, which produced the early avant-garde film "Borderline," in which she also appeared; for helping Jewish refugees escape from Germany in the years before the war; and for lending financial support to Freud and the early psychoanalytic movement in Austria. What Bryher is not often remembered for is her own writing. Her first two novels, Development (1920) and Two Selves (1923), appear to be the first novels openly exploring a young woman's coming out as a lesbian. West (1925) was inspired by a trip she and H.D. made to America. Her later novels, The Fourteenth of October (1954), The Player's Boy (1957), Roman Wall (1955), Gate to the Sea (1959), The Coin of Carthage (1964), and This January Tale (1968), have primarily ancient settings, though in 1956 she published Beowulf, a very interesting novel set in London during the Blitz. She also published two memoirs, The Heart to Artemis: A Writer's Memoirs (1963) and The Days of Mars: A Memoir 1940–1946 (1972).
ANNA BUCHAN (aka O. DOUGLAS) (1877-1948)
Sister of thriller writer John Buchan, Anna Buchan wrote under the name "O. Douglas" and was the author of numerous popular novels about Scottish village life. Like D. E. Stevenson and Elizabeth Cadell, she is sometimes called a "cozy" writer—comforting and light reading for rainy days—but I also find that such writers can provide some of the most interesting details of day-to-day life in their places and times, and Buchan is high on my list of writers to explore further. Her novels include several early works available in free ebooks—Olivia in India (1913), The Setons (1917), and Penny Plain (1920). Others include Pink Sugar (1924), Eliza for Common (1928), Priorsford (1932), and People Like Ourselves (1938). She published a memoir, Unforgettable, Unforgotten (1945), which includes details about her early family life and her bestselling brother.
Butts was widely acclaimed (if not widely read) in her lifetime for her highly experimental modernist novels and stories, but following her premature death her work fell into obscurity until the 1990s, when her works began to be reprinted and reassessed. She published six novels—Ashe of Rings (1925), which uses elements of fantasy to explore the devastation of war; Imaginary Letters (1928), an epistolary novel which deals with homosexuality and was illustrated by Jean Cocteau; Armed with Madness (1928), a modernist retelling of the Grail myth; The Death of Felicity Taverner (1932), an experimental murder mystery; and two historical novels, The Macedonian (1933), about Alexander the Great, and Scenes from the Life of Cleopatra (1935), which presents Cleopatra as an admirable "strong woman" who has been given short shrift by male historians. Butts also published several collections of short stories, including Speed the Plough and Other Stories (1923), Several Occasions (1932), and Last Stories (1938), which contained perhaps her most famous story—the eerie ghost tale "With and Without Buttons." Her memoir, The Crystal Cabinet: My Childhood at Salterns (1937), appeared just months after her sudden death from peritonitis.
Often compared to D. E. Stevenson, Cadell is another popular novelist sometimes labeled a “romance” writer. A Cadell novel usually features a plucky young heroine finding love amidst adversity, sometimes with an element of mystery and suspense thrown in, but always told in a humorous, upbeat tone. Some of her best-loved works include Iris in Winter (1949), The Cuckoo in Spring (1954), Mixed Marriage (1963), The Corner Shop (1966), and a trilogy of novels, The Lark Shall Sing (1955), The Blue Sky of Spring (1956), and Six Impossible Things (1961). A favorite of mine, which includes an element of suspense in its somewhat wacky plot, is The Yellow Brick Road (1960).
ELIZABETH CAMBRIDGE (1893-1949)
Cambridge was the author of six novels, only one of which, Hostages to Fortune (1933), is in print today, thanks to Persephone Books. Her other works include The Sycamore Tree (1934), Susan and Joanna (1935), The Two Doctors (1936), Spring Always Comes (1938), Portrait of Angela (1939), and Mrs. Dufresne (1940). (Persephone's short bio about Cambridge mentions that she wrote only five novels after Hostages, so one of the above, about which I've uncovered only sparse information so far, may be either a collection of stories or one of the novels republished under a different title in the U.S.)
JOANNA CANNAN (1896-1961)
Joanna Cannan’s work has experienced something of a revival in the past decade or so. A popular and prolific writer of mysteries and children’s fiction as well as mainstream fiction, her works include Princes in the Land (1938), a novel about motherhood revived by Persephone Books a few years ago, High Table (1930), set among Oxford dons, and a family saga extending across two novels, Little I Understood (1948) and And All I Learned (1952). Her mysteries, several of which have been reprinted by Rue Morgue Press, include They Rang Up the Police (1939), Death at the Dog (1940), and Murder Included (1950). In addition, Cannan is credited with creating the girls’ pony story with the acclaimed A Pony for Jean (1936) and several sequels and variants.
A. M. CHAMPNEYS (????-????)
Author of the 1926 novel Miss Tiverton Goes Out, one of the titles suggested by readers as "possibly Persephone" at Persephone Books' event of that name, little other information about Champneys is readily available. Miss Tiverton is definitely on my "to read" list, though.
HESTER CHAPMAN (????-????)
Jenny Hartley mentions Hester Chapman's 1943 novel Long Division in her survey of British women writers of WWII, Millions Like Us. Barbara Pym reports in her wartime diaries that she's been reading the novel in a café. So far that's the extent of my knowledge about Chapman. To be continued?
MOLLY CLAVERING (????-????)
I haven't had much luck tracking down information on Clavering, but her novel Mrs. Lorimer's Family (1953) was great fun and the fact that, so far, all of her other novels have to go on my Hopeless Wish List is disheartening. These include Because of Sam (1953), Dear Hugo (1955), Near Neighbours (1956), Results of the Final (1957), Dr. Glasgow's Family (1960), and Spring Adventure (1962).
IVY COMPTON-BURNETT (1884-1969)
Surely one of the oddest of 20th century writers and one of those whose reputation has usually been higher than her book sales, Compton-Burnett is a favorite of mine—albeit one that I take in small doses and recommend to others only with disclaimers. Most of her novels have the same basic plot—dysfunctional upper-class Victorian family life. They have large casts of characters and unfold almost entirely in ridiculously stiff, formal, and unrealistic dialogue, with characters splitting hairs and nitpicking ad nauseum about the meanings of events—which, in Compton-Burnett novels, may include marriage, death, re-marriage, adultery, conflicts with servants, jealousy, spite, hatred, emotional abuse, manipulations, machinations, and even murder—virtually all of which occur "offstage" and are only endlessly discussed after the fact. And yet, bizarre and claustrophobia-inducing as they are, these novels are also brilliantly dark, funny, and incisive. There is probably more of the dark side of human nature encapsulated in one of Dame Ivy's novels than in the complete works of Freud, Nietzsche, and Agatha Christie combined. Until recently, only two of her best works, A House and Its Head (1935) and Manservant and Maidservant (1947), were in print from New York Review Books Classics, but now Hesperus has reprinted Pastors and Masters (1925) and Bloomsbury has released e-books of several more, including Men and Wives (1931), Parents and Children (1941), and A Family and a Fortune (1939). Happily, they have also made available, for the first time since its original printing, Compton-Burnett's disowned debut novel, Dolores (1911), which is written in a much more traditional style and is reputedly autobiographical. All in all, by no means a "cozy" writer, but a very enjoyable one if you can acquire the taste.
BARBARA COMYNS (1907-1992)
Black humor, tragedy, and childish innocence characterize Comyns' odd little novels. Although Our Spoons Came from Woolworth's (1950) and The Vet's Daughter (1959), which tone down the more fantastic and surreal elements of other works, are reputedly her "best," for me they can't hold a candle to Who Was Changed and Who Was Dead (1955), with its descriptions of a horrific flood in an English village and the outbreak of a suicidal madness that follows, all related in a deadpan, hilariously morbid, and yet strangely life-affirming tone. Other works, such as Sisters by a River (1947) and The Skin Chairs (1962), also explore the humorous and horrific from the even, nonjudgmental perspective of children. Her later novels include Birds in Tiny Cages (1964), The Juniper Tree (1985), and The House of Dolls (1989). Comyns may not be for all tastes, but she is certainly unique—if you like a little edge to your humor and don't mind a few floating animal corpses strewn about, then definitely give her a try.
LETTICE COOPER (1897-1994)
Cooper is now best known for her 1936 novel The New House, the story of a family’s move from a spacious country estate to a small house in less desirable surroundings, which is one of the few works to have the distinction of being reprinted by both Virago in the 1980s and Persephone in the 2000s. She had a bestseller with National Provincial (1938), a large-scale saga of Leeds in the 1930s, which was perhaps influenced by Winifred Holtby’s South Riding. Another novel, Fenny (1953), about an English governess living in Florence, was also reprinted by Virago, and Black Bethlehem (1947), briefly discussed by Jenny Hartley in Millions Like Us, is on my reading list for its portrayal of World War II. Cooper’s career as a novelist was impressively long, extending from The Lighted Room in 1925 until the appearance of her final novel, Unusual Behavior, in 1986.
DOROTHY COWLIN (1911-????)
I haven't yet done more than very general research on Cowlin, but the fact that Kirkus Reviews begins its discussion of her novel Winter Solstice (1942) with the disclaimer, "Strictly from Freud, and for a limited audience, this bizarre psychopathic novel…" does give me pause. However, I'm keeping an open mind. Other novels include The Slow Train Home (1951) and Draw the Well Dry (1955).
RICHMAL CROMPTON (1890-1969)
Although she wrote thirty-nine novels for adults, Crompton is still best remembered as the author of dozens of books about William Brown, a rebellious boy from a well-to-do family—stories which were first written for adults reading the popular Home Magazine, but which became immensely popular with all ages, spawning movies and radio and television shows. Her novels remain almost entirely out of print, except for Family Roundabout (1948), a wonderful saga surrounding two matriarchs and their families who are joined by marriage, Leadon Hill (1927), about the repressiveness of an English village toward a young woman raised in Italy, and Matty and the Dearingroydes (1956), about an eccentric woman in her sixties trying to fit in with her rediscovered relatives. The first was reprinted by Persephone, the latter two by Greyladies
CLEMENCE DANE (1888-1965)
Dane began her career with a bang, publishing a groundbreaking but controversial novel about lesbianism in a girls’ school, Regiment of Women (1917), republished by Virago in the 1990s. The work is perhaps autobiographical, but was seen as unsympathetic, even being recommended by a Catholic advice book as a means of discouraging girls from too-close “friendships.” Dane lightened up with her next two novels, First the Blade (1918) and Legend (1919)—the latter a vicious but highly entertaining satire of a pretentious circle of literati coming together for the funeral of one of their own. She was perhaps best known in her time as the author of numerous successful plays—Vera Brittain reports in Testament of Youth on seeing Dane’s A Bill of Divorcement (1921)—and she wrote several mystery novels with Helen Simpson. Her later novels include Broome Stages (1931), a popular saga about a family of stage actors, The Arrogant History of White Ben (1939), an allegory of Hitler’s rise to power, and He Brings Great News (1944), set during the Napoleonic wars. Dane also wrote motion picture screenplays, essays, and criticism.
E. M. DELAFIELD (1890-1943)
Delafield is today best known as the author of the hilarious Provincial Lady novels, which include Diary of a Provincial Lady (1931), The Provincial Lady Goes Further (1932) (also published as The Provincial Lady in London), The Provincial Lady in America (1934), and The Provincial Lady in Wartime (1940). Another book, Straw Without Bricks: I Visit Soviet Russia (1937), was later published under the title The Provincial Lady in Russia, though Delafield clearly intended it as a more serious, journalistic work, humorous at times and very interesting, but definitely not a true Provincial Lady. Delafield published many other novels as well, including more serious works like Consequences (1919), a tragic story about the position of women, The Way Things Are (1927), a semi-autobiographical novel about marriage, and Nothing Is Safe (1937), about children scarred by divorce. Her final novel, Late and Soon (1943), deals with the effect of World War II on life in a decaying country house. Many of these works have been reprinted in recent years by Virago, Persephone, or Bloomsbury, though most of her other novels remain out of print and difficult to find.
MONICA DICKENS (1915-1992)
Great-granddaughter of that Dickens, Monica Dickens was a popular and prolific novelist and writer of children’s fiction. Her novels combine humor with a more serious and at times biting social observation. Her first book, One Pair of Hands (1939), was an entertaining memoir of her time spent as a cook in several large London houses. During the war, she published a second memoir, One Pair of Feet (1942), about her wartime nursing experience, which, either due to the harsh conditions described or to the wartime mood, is bleaker and less humorous. Her first novel, Mariana (1940), about a young woman flashing back to her early life while waiting to hear if her husband has been killed in the war, has been a popular Persephone reprint, and Persephone has also published her later novel, The Winds of Heaven (1955). Many of her other works are now available as e-books from Bloomsbury. An unusually bleak work was The Nightingales Are Singing (1953), about an English spinster who marries an American military man and moves to Washington with him, only to face frustration, misery, and tragedy. In later years, Dickens wrote the popular children’s series Follyfoot, which was adapted for television.
DAPHNE DU MAURIER (1907-1989)
Best known for her classic and enormously successful modern Gothic novel Rebecca (1938), which was made into an equally classic film by Hitchcock, du Maurier remains a popular writer. Two of her other works, the novel Jamaica Inn (1936) and the short story "The Birds" (1952), also became well-known Hitchcock films. Other works include biographies, historical novels like Frenchman's Creek (1941) and The King's General (1946), and various novels with contemporary settings which combine suspense, romance, and adventure, such as The Parasites (1948), My Cousin Rachel (1951), The Scapegoat (1957), The Flight of the Falcon (1965), and The House on the Strand (1969). Du Maurier published a memoir called Myself When Young in 1977.
Ertz was a popular writer of what were often referred to as “romance” novels (though apparently of a very different type than those of Elizabeth Cadell or D. E. Stevenson, as, from what I can tell, Ertz’s romances mostly seem to end badly). I haven’t yet had a chance to research her work in any depth, but novels like Now East, Now West (1927), which contrasts British and American culture, Anger in the Sky (1943), set in an English village during the Blitz, and Charmed Circle (1956), which deals with unhappy family relationships, seem potentially of interest.
MARGIAD EVANS (1909-1958)
Peggy Williams (née Whistler), who wrote under the pseudonym Margiad Evans, is known as a regional novelist, as her work is closely centered around the Herefordshire countryside where she grew up and in nearby Wales. Her debut novel, Country Dance (1932), influenced by the work of the Brontës and Mary Webb and set in 19th century Wales, was a success, and Evans quickly published three more novels—The Wooden Doctor (1933), based on her own childhood, Turf or Stone (1934), which received less favorable reviews, and Creed (1936), which Evans described as a retelling of the story of Job. Evans worked for a time on a fifth novel, but it was apparently never completed. She also published an impressionistic memoir, Autobiography (1943), and The Old and the Young (1948), a story collection. In 1952, A Ray of Darkness appeared, a memoir about her epilepsy, which had first manifested itself in 1950. In her final years until her death from a brain tumor in 1958, Evans continued to write, but many of those writings remain unpublished. In recent years, there has been some renewal of interest in Evans, with new editions of her first two novels and of her stories. Evans was also known as an illustrator, and most of her novels were first published with her own original artwork.
ELEANOR FARJEON (1881-1965)
Best known in her lifetime for her children's fiction and poetry, Farjeon is on my "to do" list for her several adult novels, including Humming Bird (1936), Miss Granby's Secret (1940), and Ariadne and the Bull (1945). There seems to be a rich (and mostly neglected) selection of adult novels by "children's authors"—Noel Streatfeild, Richmal Crompton, E. Nesbit, and others—and I'm looking forward to seeing if Farjeon belongs in their ranks.
RACHEL FERGUSON (1892-1957)
Ferguson is another writer whose current reputation largely results from revivals of her work by Virago and Persephone. The Brontës Went to Woolworth’s (1931) is a wonderfully surreal variation of a Dodie Smith-style story—of three eccentric sisters in an artistic, bohemian family—but in this case there is an odd blurring of reality and fantasy that makes for highly entertaining reading. Ferguson’s passionate concern for impoverished gentlewomen comes out in The Stag at Bay (1932) and Alas Poor Lady (1937), the latter of which, published by Persephone, is a fascinating portrayal of an unmarried Victorian girl’s gradual descent into poverty and humiliation. But my personal favorite so far, A Footman for the Peacock (1940), about the gradual realization of wartime conditions by a hilariously pretentious upper-crust family, features a judgmental and apparently Nazi-sympathizing peacock who seems to be the reincarnation of a footman who died of exhaustion at the hands of the family’s ancestors. According to Elizabeth Maslen, Margery Allingham criticized Ferguson for making light of wartime conditions, but what might have been too edgy for the time is now richly deserving of a reprint of its own—are you listening, Persephone? Ferguson’s other novels include False Goddesses (1923), A Harp in Lowndes Square (1936), Evenfield (1942), and A Stroll Before Sunset (1946). She also published two well-regarded books about Kensington, Passionate Kensington (1939) and The Royal Borough (1950). One of my favorites and one I will certainly be revisiting.
RUBY FERGUSON (1899-1966)
Ferguson is the author of two of my all-time favorite novels—Lady Rose and Mrs. Memmary (1937), a Persephone rediscovery that's like a Cinderella story in reverse, and Apricot Sky (1952), which should be a Persephone rediscovery and is surely the best approximation of a D. E. Stevenson novel not written by Stevenson herself, a family comedy (with serious elements) set in the Scottish countryside. Ferguson began as a mystery writer, penning novels (now quite rare) such as The Moorland Man (1926), Death on Tiptoe (1931), He Arrived at Dusk (1933), and Out Went the Taper (1934), the latter of which is notable for the fact that supernatural, ghostly happenings seem to assist in the solving of the mystery. Starting in 1949 with Jill's Gymkhana, Ferguson was also famous for her series of horse stories for girls, which appeared regularly throughout the rest of her life. Of her later novels, I tracked down three—the postwar Our Dreaming Done (1946), about a war widow's new romance, For Every Favour (1956), about a perfect butler who…sadly, I'm not quite sure, as I couldn't get past the first 50 pages, and the late novel The Wakeful Guest (1962), which again is set in the immediate postwar period and can't seem to decide whether to be a murder mystery or an odd social novel about war refugees coming into contact with superficial young girls. After that, I'm afraid I lost momentum for tracking down other of her works…but I still can't help wondering if there might be one more Lady Rose or Apricot Sky out there to find—is it Winter's Grace (1948)? The Leopard's Coast (1954)? Maybe Doves in My Fig-Tree (1957)?
PAMELA FRANKAU (1908-1967)
Incredibly prolific (20 novels published by the time she was in her thirties) and well-regarded in her day, Frankau is best-known today for three novels reprinted by Virago in the 1980s—The Willow Cabin (1949), a subtle and compulsively readable tale of the actress second wife of a surgeon attempting to come to terms with her predecessor; The Winged Horse (1953), about a family tyrannically ruled by a successful newspaper mogul; and A Wreath for the Enemy (1954), a gorgeous novel about a young girl’s life-altering experiences one summer in the bohemian Riviera hotel owned by her parents, which for me seems like a brilliant and touching variation on Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye, from a girl’s perspective. Frankau’s own favorite of her novels, The Bridge (1957), which is high on my “to read” list, deals with Catholicism and bisexuality; it is perhaps somewhat autobiographical and an attempt to work through the conflicts between religion and sexuality, since Frankau herself was a passionate Catholic whose most successful romantic relationships, including the one that lasted for the final decade of her life, were with women. Also intriguing is Frankau’s late trilogy, called Clothes of a King’s Son—comprised of Sing for Your Supper (1963), Slaves for the Lamp (1965), and Over the Mountains (1967)—which is set in the 1930s and World War II and which focuses openly and matter-of-factly on several gay and lesbian characters.
STELLA GIBBONS (1902-1989)
Stella Gibbons remains best known for her classic debut novel, Cold Comfort Farm (1932), which parodied a genre of rural melodrama popular in the novels of writers like Sheila Kaye-Smith and Mary Webb. That work became a critically-acclaimed bestseller, with one critic declaring with certainty that it must have been written by Evelyn Waugh. She published “Christmas at Cold Comfort Farm” (1940), a short story that was a sort of sequel, and then an entire novel, Conference at Cold Comfort Farm (1949). Gibbons also wrote several excellent novels with World War II as a backdrop—The Rich House (1941), The Bachelor (1943), Westwood (1946), and The Matchmaker (1949). Other prominent novels include Enbury Heath (1935), Nightingale Wood (1938), and Here Be Dragons (1956). Although Vintage has reprinted several of Gibbons's less familiar works in the U.K., some of her late works, in which she explores issues of middle and old age, remain out of print, including A Pink Front Door (1959), The Snow Woman (1968), and The Woods in Winter (1970). Although she stopped publishing after 1970, she reportedly wrote two more novels, The Yellow Houses (completed around 1973) and An Alpha (completed around 1980), which remain unpublished.
Although most of her works seem to be out-of-print again in the U.S. (though, happily, no longer in the U.K., where Virago has recently reprinted a whole wonderful slew of them), Rumer Godden retains a devoted following. Several of her novels have been adapted for film or television, and two in particular, Black Narcissus (1939) and The River (1946), were made into highly-acclaimed films—by the likes of Michael Powell and Jean Renoir, no less. Many of her best works deal with children facing up to suffering, death, divorce, war, and other harsh realities of life—these include Kingfishers Catch Fire (1953), The Greengage Summer (1958), The Battle of the Villa Fiorita (1963), and my personal favorite, An Episode of Sparrows (1955), which deals with children in the aftermath of World War II and utilizes the stark settings of bombed-out London ruins and the difficulties of “delinquent” post-war youths to powerful effect. Godden led a fascinating life, spending much of her childhood in India, then adapting to life in a British girls’ school, before being taken back to India again. During the war, abandoned by her husband, she took her two daughters to live in an isolated house in rural India, facing the hostility of locals to the extent that servants tried to kill her and the children by grinding glass into their food. The incidents of this time recur in various ways in her writings—fictionalized in Kingfishers Catch Fire, and powerfully recounted, along with numerous other fascinating events, in her wonderful memoirs, A Time to Dance, No Time to Weep (1987) and A House with Four Rooms (1989).
ELIZABETH GOUDGE (1900-1984)
For better or worse, Elizabeth Goudge is probably best remembered today as the author of J. K. Rowling’s favorite children’s book, The Little White Horse (1946), but she also wrote numerous popular novels and stories. Her best-known works include the international bestseller Green Dolphin Country (1944), which was made into a movie, and her trilogy The Eliots of Damerosehay, about family life on a large country estate. This trilogy included The Bird in the Tree (1940), The Herb of Grace (1948, also published as Pilgrim’s Inn), and The Heart of the Family (1953). My only reading of Goudge so far was The Castle on the Hill (1943), which I picked up because it was set during World War II, and I was surprised—expecting a sort of light, romantic style of writing—by the seriousness and philosophical depth of the story of an impoverished spinster with a sort of hopeless love for her employer, but who also touches the life of a Jewish refugee violinist. It struck me as almost a precursor to Iris Murdoch’s more postmodern explorations of good and evil, joy and suffering, and made me want to explore more of Goudge’s work.
RADCLYFFE HALL (1880-1943)
Hall's 1928 novel The Well of Loneliness (1928) is one of the most famously scandalous novels of all time, with a dramatic and highly-publicized obscenity trial at which the likes of Leonard and Virginia Woolf and John Buchan came to the work's defense. It is known as one of the first sympathetic portrayals of lesbianism—though more recent critics have pointed out that it may really be one of first sympathetic portrayals of transsexuality, and Hall herself reportedly felt herself to be a man trapped in a woman's body. Hall was an early advocate for gay and lesbian rights and lived openly with her partner, sculptor and translator Una Troubridge, and the pair was famously portrayed in Djuna Barnes's satire of the lesbian community in Paris, Ladies Almanack (1928). She also wrote several other novels, from comic works like The Forge (1924) and A Saturday Life (1925) to later mystical novels like Adam's Breed (1926) and The Sixth Beatitude (1936), a couple of which are on my "to read" shelves now. Many of her works were reprinted by Virago in the 1980s, though most (except for the perennially popular Well) are out-of-print again.
CICELY HAMILTON (1872-1952)
Hamilton began her career as a playwright focused on feminism and women’s suffrage, with plays like Diana of Dobson’s (1908), How the Vote Was Won (1909), and The Pot and the Kettle (1909), which used comedy to put across a serious political purpose. With the advent of World War I, the focus of her plays shifted to war themes, and she published Senlis (1914), a non-fiction account of the tragic German invasion of the French town of Senlis. Hamilton is best known for her first novel, William: An Englishman (1919), an early Persephone selection, about an English couple on honeymoon in Belgium who find their bliss turned to horror as the war begins and they are trapped in the German invasion. Hamilton’s other works include another anti-war novel, Theodor Storm (1922), various works of journalism, a successful series of travel books, and a memoir, Life Errant (1935).
GEORGETTE HEYER (1902-1974)
Best known as a successful and prolific writer of Regency romance novels—including The Corinthian (1940), The Grand Sophy (1950), Cotillion (1953), and Bath Tangle (1955)—Heyer also wrote biographies and mystery novels. The latter include Why Shoot a Butler? (1933), Behold, Here’s Poison (1936), and Envious Casca (1941). Both her romances and her mysteries remain popular today. Intriguingly, Heyer also wrote four novels with contemporary settings, which she apparently tried to suppress in later years as being too autobiographical and too revealing of her own life. These are Instead of the Thorn (1923), Helen (1928), Pastel (1929), and Barren Corn (1930).
Discussed by Jenny Hartley in Millions Like Us, Holden was a novelist and short story writer from the 1920s until the 1950s, though she is now mentioned primarily in relation to her close friendships with more famous writers, such as George Orwell and Anthony Powell. I’ve tracked down two of her novels, Night Shift (1941)—a powerful episodic portrayal of life in a wartime aircraft factory which seems ripe for reprinting—and There’s No Story There (1944), a more traditional novel also set in a factory and wrestling with the scars of anti-Semitism. Holden’s pre-war and post-war works are more difficult to find, including Sweet Charlatan (1929), Born Old, Die Young (1932), It Was Different at the Time (1943), The Owner (1952), and The Adults (1956).
CONSTANCE HOLME (1880-1955)
Influenced by writers such as Thomas Hardy and Joseph Conrad, Holme was a successful "regional" writer whose works mainly focused on rural Westmorland, where she was born and spent most of her life. Widely acclaimed during her lifetime, she has since fallen into such obscurity that even after several years of researching lost women writers, I only recently stumbled across her. Her works are serious and realistic portrayals of country life. Her most acclaimed novels include The Lonely Plough (1914), The Old Road from Spain (1916), Beautiful End (1918), The Splendid Fairing (1919) (which won the prestigious Femina Vie Heureuse prize later won by the likes of Mary Webb and Virginia Woolf), The Trumpet in the Dust (1921), The Things which Belong (1925), and He-who-Came (1930). In the 1930s, most of her works were reprinted in the Oxford World Classics series—which apparently did little to guarantee their future readership…
WINIFRED HOLTBY (1898-1935)
Best known for her final novel, South Riding (1935), a large-scale examination of life and politics in Yorkshire that has been adapted for film and television, Holtby wrote six novels in all. The others are Anderby Wold (1923), The Crowded Street (1924), The Land of Green Ginger (1927), Poor Caroline (1931), and Mandoa, Mandoa! (1933). She also published two collections of stories, a satirical work about British life called The Astonishing Island (1933), and an early critical study of Virginia Woolf (1932). Holtby’s close friendship with Vera Brittain is described by Vera Brittain in Testament of Youth and, in more depth, in Testament of Friendship.
Despite Persephone's reprint a few years ago of her WWII novel There Were No Windows (1944), which deals beautifully and tragically with an elderly woman's descent into dementia during the Blitz (reportedly based on the final years of novelist Violet Hunt), Hoult remains more or less a "lost" writer, rarely mentioned in reference works, in blogs, or in library card catalogs Admittedly, her works are dark and she doesn't shy away from the unsavory aspects of her characters (and virtually all the characters do have their unsavory side). Another novel set during WWII, House Under Mars (1946), portrays the residents (mostly women) of a boarding house in the late years of the war—exhausted, lonely, sad, and/or bitter—and Hoult gleefully reveals the characters' petty jealousies, self-righteousness, and spiteful actions while evoking a wartime England as un-idealized and un-romanticized as Marghanita Laski's in To Bed with Grand Music. In A Death Occurred (1954), a similar examination of life in an apartment building details the sudden death of one the building's occupants and its effects on her neighbors, most of whom disliked her for one reason or another. Hardly situation comedy material. But for me—and maybe I'm just a cynical type of guy?—the characters seem more real for their weaknesses, and if it's hard to like them as wholeheartedly as a Dodie Smith or D. E. Stevenson heroine, it's also easier to see them reflected in my fellow commuters every morning. Hoult's literary world seems realistic in a way that most writers don't even attempt—though perhaps for good reason, since it obviously didn't lead Hoult to a lasting literary reputation! Still, a major favorite of mine.
Now remembered as much for her literary salons (featuring the likes of D. H. Lawrence, Joseph Conrad, Wyndham Lewis, Ezra Pound, and Rebecca West) and literary affairs (Somerset Maugham, H. G. Wells, and, most famously, Ford Madox Ford, as well as a more platonic early friendship with Oscar Wilde) as for her own literary output, Hunt nevertheless wrote steadily and prolifically from the 1890s to the 1920s. Her early novels were part of the “New Woman” movement, but her later work, including her most famous novel, White Rose of Weary Leaf (1908), contained frank (for their time) explorations of sexuality. Their Lives (1916) contains a character modeled on Oscar Wilde, and Hunt collaborated with Ford on Zeppelin Nights (1917), a sort of World War I Canterbury Tales, in which a group of friends trying to forget the zeppelins overhead tell stories to pass the time. Hunt also published a memoir, The Flurried Years (1926, published in the US as I Have This To Say). Reportedly, Norah Hoult’s novel There Were No Windows, reprinted by Persephone, was based on Hunt’s tragic final days in London during the Blitz.
STORM JAMESON (1891-1986)
Author of an incredible forty-five novels (she herself said the quality of her work suffered from the sheer volume of writing she did), Jameson is best remembered for her Mary Hervey Russell novels, which includes an initial trilogy—Company Parade (1934), Love in Winter (1935), and None Turn Back (1936), later supplemented with three more novels, The Journal of Mary Hervey Russell (1945), Before the Crossing (1947), and The Black Laurel (1947). She also published several significant novels of World War II, such as Cousin Honore (1941) and Cloudless May (1943). She also garnered praise for her memoir Journey from the North (1969).
ELIZABETH JENKINS (1905-2010)
Although the author of more than a dozen novels, Elizabeth Jenkins is best known for The Tortoise and the Hare (1954), which Nicola Beauman called “one of the outstanding novels of the postwar period.” (I have to take Beauman's word for it, as I was unable to finish it, but others seem to love it!) Her horrific earlier novel Harriet (1934), based on a true story of a rich girl starved to death by relatives, has recently been reprinted by Persephone. Other novels include The Winters (1931), Doubtful Joy (1935), and Dr. Gully (1972), reportedly Jenkins’s own favorite among her works. Jenkins also wrote several successful biographies, including one of Jane Austen (1938), and a memoir, The View from Downshire Hill (2004).
E. B. C. JONES (aka EMILY JONES) (1893-1966)
Nearly forgotten now, Jones wrote several well-received novels in the 1920s. Her debut, Quiet Interior (1920), was warmly praised by Katherine Mansfield and Rebecca West. Her other novels are The Singing Captives (1922), The Wedgwood Medallion (1923), Inigo Sandys (1924), Helen and Felicia (1927), and Morning and Cloud (1932). Helen and Felicia, praised by Cyril Connolly, seems to have gotten the most attention (though very little at that) in recent years, dealing with the close relationship between two sisters and the three-way relationship that results when one of them marries. It’s on my “to read” list.
SHEILA KAYE-SMITH (1887-1956)
Reportedly one of the writers parodied by Stella Gibbons in Cold Comfort Farm, Kaye-Smith wrote many novels of rural life in Sussex and Kent, strongly infused with her Christian faith. Among her most well-known novels are Sussex Gorse (1916), Tamarisk Town (1919), Joanna Godden (1922), The End of the House of Alard (1923) and The History of Susan Spray, the Female Preacher (1931). Like so many writers of her time, she also co-authored two books about Jane Austen. She published a memoir, Three Ways Home, in 1937. I always recall that E. M. Delafield’s Provincial Lady speaks rather disparagingly of Kaye-Smith as a writer one might not care to know in real life, but not having read her yet, I remain intrigued as to why that was.
From the 1920s to the early 1950s, Molly Keane published eleven novels under the pseudonym M. J. Farrell. These novels, including Taking Chances (1929), Mad Puppetstown (1931), Full House (1935), The Rising Tide (1937), and Two Days in Aragon (1941), were most often set in Irish country houses and feature witty portrayals of family life, albeit with serious undercurrents. Her 1934 novel Devoted Ladies is also known for its portrayal of a lesbian relationship. Following her husband’s death in 1946, Keane stayed mostly out of the limelight until her friend, the actress Peggy Ashcroft, helped her to publish a new novel, Good Behaviour (1981), which was widely acclaimed, nominated for the Booker Prize, and adapted for the BBC, after which Virago reprinted all of her earlier novels. Keane subsequently published two more novels, Time after Time (1983) and Loving and Giving (1988).
MARGARET KENNEDY (1896-1967)
Margaret Kennedy scored a tremendous bestseller with her second novel The Constant Nymph (1924), perhaps a precursor (albeit a bit darker in tone) to later novels of eccentric families such as Dodie Smith's I Capture the Castle and Diana Tutton's Guard Your Daughters. The novel was made into a successful play—the male lead was performed by both Noel Coward and John Gielgud—and later into a movie. Although this lightning never struck again, Kennedy remained a popular novelist and playwright. Other novels include The Fool of the Family (1930) a sequel to Nymph, A Long Time Ago (1932), and Return I Dare Not (1931), which has been on my “to read” shelf since stumbling across it at a book sale a couple of years back. She became active again after World War II, with novels such as The Feast (1950), Lucy Carmichael (1951), and Troy Chimneys (1953).
MARGHANITA LASKI (1915-1988)
Possibly the most significant of all of Persephone's rediscoveries (in the sense that it's truly amazing that her novels weren't in print until Persephone started reprinting them), Laski was by turns harrowing and humorous, but always socially and politically aware and always a compelling storyteller. Persephone has reprinted To Bed with Grand Music (1946), her disturbing wartime novel of an unfaithful wife, Little Boy Lost (1949), about a man searching for his lost son in the ruins of postwar France, The Village (1952), a wonderful social comedy with an edge, about class relations broken down by war and re-formed afterward, and The Victorian Chaise-Longue (1953), a harrowing novella about a woman travelling in time to the Victorian age. In addition to the Persephone works, Laski wrote two early novels satirizing wartime and post-war conditions—Love on the Supertax (1944), which deals with class relations and the black market, and Tory Heaven (1948, inexplicably published in the U.S. as Toasted English), a comedy about a group of people rescued from a desert island following the war and discovering that all the traditional class relationships are now legally enforced. I wonder if Persephone will also tackle these two wonderful novels, or if they are perhaps too clearly a product of their time and place? Laski also wrote “The Tower” (1955), a ghost story of sorts set in Italy, Apologies (1955), a collection of her satirical magazine pieces, The Offshore Island (1959), a play set after a nuclear holocaust, and several works of criticism, including works about George Eliot, Jane Austen, and Rudyard Kipling. Interesting, she later also published several works about religious “ecstacy.”
ROSAMOND LEHMANN (1901-1990)
Seen as the quintessential “women’s writer” during the time she published most of her best works, Lehmann’s critical reputation has improved significantly since many of her novels, including Dusty Answer (1927), Invitation to the Waltz (1932), The Weather in the Streets (1936), The Ballad and the Source (1944), and The Echoing Grove (1953), were reprinted by Virago Modern Classics. Following the sudden death of her daughter in 1958, Lehmann only rarely published, moving toward spiritualism in her life and her remaining works. Her memoir, The Swan in the Evening, appeared in 1967, and she published one final novel, the poorly-received A Sea-Grape Tree (1976). Lehmann also published one story collection, The Gypsy’s Baby and Other Stories (1949).
DORIS LESSING (1919- )
Winner of the 2007 Nobel Prize in Literature (and embarrassingly forgotten by me when initially composing this list), Lessing is an enormous figure in 20th (and 21st) century British literature. Her major work includes The Golden Notebook (1962), her classic experimental novel about a woman attempting to unite her political, emotional, sexual, and creative lives as a member of the Communist Party and struggling writer in the mid-twentieth century. Her other novels are innumerable, but include her debut, The Grass Is Singing (1950), about race relations in Southern Rhodesia; two series of novels, the semi-autobiographical Children of Violence series (1952-1969) and the science-fiction series Canopus in Argos: Archives (1979-1983); Memoirs of a Survivor (1973); and The Good Terrorist (1985). She has also published numerous volumes of stories and several acclaimed volumes of autobiographies and memoirs. On a personal note, Lessing's 1971 introduction to The Golden Notebook was so meaningful to me in one particular way, as a young reader who felt constrained by what I "should" read, that I'll quote it here, because it somehow still feels radical today:
There is only one way to read, which is to browse in libraries and bookshops, picking up books that attract you, reading only those, dropping them when they bore you, skipping the parts that drag — and never, never reading anything because you feel you ought, or because it is part of a trend or a movement. Remember that the book which bores you when you are twenty or thirty will open doors for you when you are forty or fifty — and vice versa. Don’t read a book out of its right time for you.
That I first put Lessing's liberating advice into action by abandoning The Golden Notebook halfway through doesn't detract at all from its wisdom. In fact, it was proven correct, because several years later I finished the novel and was deeply affected by it.
ROSE MACAULAY (1881-1958)
Macaulay published more than 20 novels over her 50 year career, but she is most widely remembered for the last, The Towers of Trebizond (1956), a brilliant comedy about eccentric Brits travelling in the rougher parts of Turkey. The opening line of Towers (“’Take my camel, dear,’ said my aunt Dot, as she climbed down from this animal on her return from High Mass.”) is surely one of the greatest first lines in literature, and concisely reflects the novel’s concerns with eccentricity, culture shock, and religious conflict and doubt. Since her career spans so many years, Macaulay is notable for having written widely-acclaimed novels about both World Wars—Noncombatants and Others (1916), about a young woman’s growing pacifism during World War I, and The World My Wilderness (1950), about a seventeen-year-old girl’s difficulty in adjusting to bomb-ravaged London after years of working for the French underground. The latter, along with Rumer Godden’s An Episode of Sparrows, is among the earliest and most interesting explorations of the causes of postwar delinquency—both are among my favorites. Macaulay’s other novels include The Making of a Bigot (1914), Potterism (1920), Dangerous Ages (1921), Told by an Idiot (1923), Crewe Train (1926), Staying with Relations (1930), and Going Abroad (1934). After WWII, she wrote two popular travel books, They Went to Portugal (1946) and The Fabled Shore (1949). Many of Macaulay’s letters were published in the 1960s.
OLIVIA MANNING (1908-1980)
Manning is best known for two trilogies, The Balkan Trilogy (comprised of The Great Fortune , The Spoilt City , and Friends and Heroes ) and The Levant Trilogy (comprised of The Danger Tree , The Battle Lost and Won , and The Sum of Things ), now sometimes collectively referred to as "Fortunes of War," after the BBC mini-series based on the trilogies. These novels follow a young married couple working in various ways for the British government, as the progression of World War II repeatedly displaces them from their work and homes in such vividly-portrayed locales as Bucharest, Athens, Cairo, Alexandria, and Jerusalem. They are addictive reading, and are at least loosely based on Manning's own experiences during the war. Her other novels, mostly much less well-known, include The Wind Changes (1937), set during the Irish "troubles," Artist Among the Missing (1949) and The School for Love (1951), both set in Jerusalem, The Doves of Venus (1955), which utilizes some of her experiences as a struggling young writer in London, The Play Room (1969), a controversial novel which includes themes of rape and lesbianism, and The Rain Forest (1974), which deals with a troubled marriage.
Mavor is the author of the well-known biography The Ladies of Llangollen (1971), about Eleanor Butler and Sarah Ponsonby, two 18th century women who eloped together in 1778 and lived together as, for all intents and purposes, a married couple for more than 50 years. She followed this with a selection from Eleanor Butler's journals, A Year with the Ladies of Llangollen (1987). But Mavor is also a novelist, and her Summer in the Greenhouse (1959) came to my attention (and my "to read" list) as a recommended title at one of the "Possibly Persephone" events. Other novels include The Temple of Flora (1961) and A Green Equinox (1973), the latter of which was nominated for the Booker Prize.
Mayor’s quiet, brilliant novels of spinsterhood still seem to be underrated, perhaps because they are seen as rather bleak—unlike many other writers, Mayor never allows her spinsters to achieve easy happiness. The Third Miss Symons (1913), in particular, features a woman who is truly unloved and unlovable, and who is tragically unable ever to understand either the social or the personal causes of her condition. In The Rector’s Daughter (1924), however, considered to be Mayor’s masterpiece, Mary Jocelyn is a strong, intelligent, and dignified woman whose impossible love is for me one of the most interesting and gut-wrenching in all of literature. Mayor’s later novel, The Squire’s Daughter (1929), tends to be spoken of dismissively, but also has its interesting elements. Mayor also produced a collection of stories, The Room Opposite (1935), which includes several notable ghost stories.
Not a lot of information seems to be available about Betty Miller, whose novels Farewell Leicester Square (1941), about anti-Semitism in the British film industry, and On the Side of the Angels (1945), which explores gender roles and the effects of war on both men and women, were revived by Persephone and Virago respectively. Her five other novels, The Mere Living (1933), Sunday (1934), Portrait of the Bride (1936), A Room in Regent’s Park (1942), and The Death of the Nightingale (1948), seem to have virtually vanished from the face of the earth. The quality of the two works available would seem to argue for reprints of Miller’s other works.
HOPE MIRRLEES (1887-1978)
After receiving much acclaim for her fiction and poetry in the late 1910s and early 1920s, Mirrlees vanished for most of the rest of her life. Her debut novel, Madeleine, One of Love's Jansenists (1919), was a partly autobiographical account of Mirrlees' contact with Natalie Barney and her famous salon of lesbians in Paris—later and more famously portrayed in Djuna Barnes' Ladies Almanack. Soon after, she published an experimental poem, Paris (1920), which has in recent years garnered attention as an important modernist work. Two more novels followed—The Counterplot (1924), which was praised by Christopher Isherwood among others, and Lud-in-the-Mist (1926), a work of fantasy about a town invaded by madness-inducing fairy fruit, which has been regularly reprinted and has been cited as an influence on more recent science-fiction and fantasy writers. In the late 1920s, Mirrlees and her partner, classical scholar Jane Harrison, collaborated on translations of work of Russian literature, but after Harrison's death in 1928 Mirrlees largely faded from public view. She reportedly worked on a biography of Harrison for much of the rest of her life, but the book was never completed. Apart from two late collections of poetry, Poems (1962) and Moods and Tensions (1976), Mirrlees published only one additional book, A Fly in Amber: Being an Extravagant Biography of the Romantic Antiquary Sir Robert Bruce Cotton (1962).
NAOMI MITCHISON (1897-1999)
An enormously prolific and versatile writer, Mitchison began her career writing historical novels like The Conquered (1923), set in Roman Britain, The Corn King and the Spring Queen (1931), set in ancient Sparta and Egypt, and The Blood of the Martyrs (1939), set in Nero's Rome. These novels often used historical situations to comment on contemporary social and political issues, and Mitchison was sometimes rather daring in her portrayal of sexuality, which was accepted because her historical settings made it more palatable. However, she ran into controversy when she attempted the same edginess in novels such as We Have Been Warned (1935), set in the present time. The Bull Calves (1947), which commented on war and gender issues, is perhaps her best-known novel. Virago reprinted several of Mitchison's novels in the 1980s, and some of her works remain in print today. In later years Mitchison explored other genres, including science fiction—in her novels Memoirs of a Spacewoman (1962) and Notably Not by Bread Alone (1983)—several acclaimed works for children, and three volumes of memoirs, Small Talk (1973), All Change Here (1975), and You May Well Ask (1979). Her wartime Mass Observation diary was published as Among You Taking Notes in 1985.
NANCY MITFORD (1904-1973)
Famous for her postwar novels The Pursuit of Love (1945) and Love in a Cold Climate (1949), Nancy Mitford is also well-known as part of a particularly eccentric and widely varied family (which she used as models for those novels), including her sisters Diana, who married British fascist Oswald Mosley and was interned with him for most of World War II, and Jessica, who was a prominent member of the Communist Party. Nancy Mitford's other novels include Highland Fling (1931), about generational discord; Christmas Pudding (1932), a romantic comedy; Wigs on the Green (1935), which mocks the British Fascists led by sister Diana's husband; Pigeon Pie (1940), set during the "Phoney War"; The Blessing (1951), about an English woman married to a philandering Frenchman; and Don't Tell Alfred (1960), a sequel to Love in a Cold Climate that was considerably less well-received. She also published successful biographies such as Madame de Pompadour (1953), Voltaire in Love (1957), and The Sun King (1966).
ELINOR MORDAUNT (1872-1942)
I first came across Mordaunt’s name when Elaine Showalter, in A Literature of Their Own, briefly mentioned her novel The Family (1915) in relation to Ivy Compton-Burnett. I still have that book on my “to read” list, but Mordaunt was an enormously prolific novelist and travel writer. Her other novels, such as A Ship of Solace (1912), The Rose of Youth (1915), Short Shipments (1922), and Mrs. Van Kleek (1933), were often inspired by her many travels, and her travel works include On the Wallaby Through Victoria (1911), The Venture Book and The Further Venture Book (both 1926), and Purely for Pleasure (1932), the last of which became known for its effective exposé of child prostitution in Singapore.
Joan Morgan began her career as a successful actress in the silent film era in the 1910s and 1920s. When that career slowed, she began writing screenplays, stage plays, and novels. Although I haven't come across a lot of in-depth information about her writings, her novels include Camera! (1940), a portrait of the early British film industry that was suggested as "possibly Persephone" at one of Persephone's events, Citizen of Westminster (1940), Backwater (1942), Many Sided Mirror (1944), Toad Beneath the Harrow (1946), The Lovely and the Loved (1948), The Hanging Wood (1950), and Gentleman's Relish (1962). Sadly, I have to add her wartime novel, Ding Dong Dell (1943), about evacuees, to my Hopeless Wish List, as if doesn't seem to exist in the U.S. anymore. But I hope to track down Camera! via Interlibrary Loan. Morgan's most famous play was This Was a Woman (1944).
Widely known for such children’s fiction as The Wouldbegoods (1901), Five Children and It (1902), and The Railway Children (1906), Nesbit also wrote numerous novels for adults. Since there’s a strong precedent for children’s writers producing really interesting adult fiction as well (see Noel Streatfeild and Richmal Crompton, among others), I’m looking forward to trying out Nesbit’s The Incomplete Amorist (1906), about an art student in Paris, Daphne in Fitzroy Street (1909), and, in particular, her final novel, The Lark (1922), about two women struggling to run a boarding house together, which sounds fascinating but is apparently—like so many of the books that sound fascinating to me!—impossible to find. One more for my Impossible Wish List…
Along with Norah Hoult (from whom she could hardly be more different), Edith Olivier is one of my very favorite (horribly, inexplicably) underread writers. Like Hoult, only one of Olivier's novels, The Love-Child (1927), has ever been reprinted—in this case, by Virago back in the 1980s—but even that edition is out-of-print and scarce now. It's a striking companion-piece to Sylvia Townsend-Warner's wonderful Lolly Willowes, published the year before, which also deals with an unmarried woman's middle-aged eccentricities—perhaps supernatural, perhaps delusional, but certainly startling. The Love-Child presents the coming to life of the main character's childhood imaginary friend—still a playful child though the woman herself is middle-aged. It's a wonderful lark, but for me, Olivier's other novels, less fantastic in plot but every bit as quirky, unpredictable, and entertaining, are the real treasure. In particular, The Seraphim Room (1932) (published in the U.S. as Mr. Chilvester's Daughters), which centers around the maniacally old-fashioned Mr. Chilvester, who refuses any and all changes and upgrades to his 18th century house, is a peculiar examination—according to Olivier's journals—of the ways in which houses impact and form personalities. This may sound dull, but is in fact hilarious and fascinatingly strange. Among other oddities, it emerges that the deaths of Mr. Chilvester's two wives—and the lingering illness of one of his daughters—have resulted from his failure to upgrade the drains (i.e. sewers) in his house. Never has raw sewage figured so centrally in a novel by a "lady" writer! Olivier (a cousin of Sir Laurence, by the way) warrants full posts of her own, but suffice it to say I highly recommend these and her other novels—As Far as Jane's Grandmother's (1929), The Triumphant Footman (1930), Dwarf's Blood (1931), and her fictionalized WWII diary, Night Thoughts of a Country Landlady (1943). If you can find them, that is…
MOLLIE PANTER-DOWNES (1906-1997)
Best-known for many years as the author The New Yorker's "Letter from London," which she wrote from 1939 until 1984, Panter-Downes also wrote several novels and contributed numerous short stories to The New Yorker as well. In recent years, many of those excellent stories have been collected by Persephone Books in two volumes, Good Evening, Mrs. Craven and Minnie's Room. Her fifth and final novel, One Fine Day (1947), which takes place just after the end of World War II and evokes Virginia Woolf's Mrs. Dalloway in meditatively tracing one day in a woman's life, was revived by Virago in the 1980s and remains in print. Her earlier novels, the first published when she was only 17 years old, were successful but more or less disowned by Panter-Downes and never seem to have been reprinted. I have yet to track any of these down, though I would like to. However, I found her wartime "Letters from London," published in 1971 as London War Notes 1939-1945, to be a fascinating chronicle of the wartime home front.
EDITH PARGETER (aka ELLIS PETERS) (1913-1995)
Internationally famous for her Brother Cadfael and George Felse mysteries, both written under the pseudonym Ellis Peters and the former of which was the source of phenomenally successful television adaptations, Edith Pargeter also wrote numerous non-mystery novels. The autobiographical She Goes to War (1942), incorporating her own time in the WRNS during World War II, was a bestseller, and her wartime experiences also informed her first trilogy, The Eighth Champion of Christendom, comprised of Lame Crusade (1945), Reluctant Odyssey (1946), and Warfare Accomplished (1947). Pargeter’s later Heaven Tree trilogy, set in 13th century England, included The Heaven Tree (1961), The Green Branch (1962), and The Scarlet Seed (1963). Other novels of interest include Ordinary People (1941) (also published as People of My Own), which deals with the Blitz, By Firelight (1948) (also published as This Strange Fire), a sort of ghost story about a widow having visions of witchhunts, Lost Children (1951), a love story set in the immediate postwar years, and Means of Grace (1956), about a young refugee returning to postwar Germany to attempt to rebuild her life.
FRANCES PARTRIDGE (1900-2004)
Something of a Samuel Pepys for the 20th century, Frances Partridge is known primarily for her diaries and her memoirs of the Bloomsbury group. She was a close friend of novelist Julia Strachey, Lytton's niece, who introduced her to the circle, and during the 1920s and early 1930s she was enmeshed in a complicated relationship with Lytton Strachey, Dora Carrington, and Carrington's then-husband/Frances's future husband Ralph Partridge. She wrote about some of this drama in her fascinating memoir Love in Bloomsbury: Memories (1981). Her diaries of the years 1939-1975 have been published in seven volumes—A Pacifist's War (1978), covering the years of World War II; Everything to Lose (1985), covering 1945-1960; Hanging On (1990), covering 1960-1963; Other People (1993), covering 1963-1966; Good Company (1994), covering 1967-1970; Life Regained (1998), covering 1970-1972; and Ups and Downs (2001), covering 1972-1975. She also published a memoir of her friendship with Julia Strachey, Julia (1983).
WINIFRED PECK (1882-1962)
Now best known for her humorous World War II novel House-Bound (1942), about a middle-class woman’s struggles to survive without servants in wartime Edinburgh, which has been reprinted by Persephone, Peck wrote numerous other novels and memoirs. Her novels include The Skirts of Time (1935), Bewildering Cares: A Week in the Life of a Clergyman's Wife (1940), Tranquillity (1944), There Is a Fortress (1945), Veiled Destinies (1948), Arrest the Bishop? (1949), and Winding Ways (1951)—some of those titles are tantalizing, but I haven’t yet had a chance to explore her work beyond House-Bound. Her memoirs are A Little Learning: A Victorian Childhood (1952) and Home for the Holidays (1955).
Pym remains an enormously loved and widely read novelist, so she certainly needs no promotional work from me. Her novels tend to feature churchgoing spinsters, Oxford academics, and clergymen who are often the source of romance, but such a summary hardly gets to the heart of them. Pym’s writing is subversively funny and tends to highlights and eviscerate the pretentions and self-delusions of her characters. Her earlier novels, such as Civil to Strangers (written around 1936, but not published until after Pym’s death), Crampton Hodnet (written around 1940, but only published after her death) Some Tame Gazelle (1950), Excellent Women (1952), Jane and Prudence (1953), Less Than Angels (1954), A Glass of Blessings (1958), and No Fond Return of Love (1961) tend to be light-hearted, hilarious romps. Her next novel, An Unsuitable Attachment (completed 1963), was rejected by her publisher, and when Pym was “rediscovered” in the late 1970s, her works had a darker edge. These late novels included Quartet in Autumn (1977), The Sweet Dove Died (1978), and A Few Green Leaves (1980). All of them are wonderful—I have never been bored by a Barbara Pym novel. In 1984, Pym’s diaries were published as A Very Private Eye. Another previously unpublished novel, An Academic Question (written in the early 1970s), was also published in 1986.
Mary Renault is still widely popular for her novels set in the ancient world, such as The Last of the Wine (1956), The King must Die (1958), The Bull from the Sea (1962), The Mask of Apollo (1966), and her trilogy about Alexander the Great, Fire from Heaven (1970), The Persian Boy (1972), and Funeral Games (1981). In addition to being bestsellers, these novels frequently dealt openly with male homosexuality or bisexuality in ways that were quite radical for the time. Renault is less remembered for her six earlier novels with contemporary settings—Purposes of Love (1939), Kind are Her Answers (1940), The Friendly Young Ladies (1944), Return to Night (1947), North Face (1949), and The Charioteer (1953). However, The Friendly Young Ladies, which was a Virago reprint and remains in print, is a striking, matter-of-fact portrayal of a lesbian relationship during World War II.
Born in Dominica of a British father and a white Creole mother, Rhys came to England in her teens to go to school and remained for the rest of her life. She had a troubled and conflicted life and this informed her dark, experimental early novels, which were controversial in their day for their "sordid" subject matter—including bold portrayals of alcoholism, abortion, and female sexuality that were unusual for their time, particularly for a woman writer. Thus, Quartet (1928), After Leaving Mr Mackenzie (1930), Voyage in the Dark (1934), and Good Morning, Midnight (1939), received mixed reviews at the time, but today are the subjects of serious scholarly attention. All remain in print. After her fourth novel, Rhys sank into obscurity and personal turmoil for many years, until a renewed interest in her earlier work allowed her to publish one final novel, Wide Sargasso Sea (1966), the story of the first Mrs. Rochester from Charlotte Bronte's Jane Eyre. This novel is widely considered to be Rhys's best work. Subsequently, two collections of stories appeared, Tigers Are Better Looking (1968) and Sleep It Off, Lady (1976). Rhys's unfinished memoir, Smile Please, was published posthumously in 1979.
DOROTHY RICHARDSON (1873-1957)
Now recognized as one of the major figures in early modernist literature—particularly as one of the innovators (arguably the innovator) of the stream of consciousness technique—Richardson remains surprisingly unknown by comparison with Virginia Woolf or James Joyce, with whom she has often been compared. Her major work, Pilgrimage, is a series of thirteen novels tracing the development of its main character, Miriam Henderson, over the course of more than two decades. The works are at least somewhat based on Richardson's own early experiences. The novels included in Pilgrimage are Pointed Roofs (1915), Backwater (1916), Honeycomb (1917), The Tunnel (1919), Interim (1919), Deadlock (1921), Revolving Lights (1923), The Trap (1925), Oberland (1927), Dawn's Left Hand (1931), Clear Horizon (1935), Dimple Hill (1938), and March Moonlight (1967).
E. ARNOT ROBERTSON (1903-1961)
Best known for three early novels reprinted by Virago in the 1980s—Cullum (1928), Four Frightened People (1931), and Ordinary Families (1933)—Robertson continued writing and publishing novels until her death. Four Frightened People, an adventure set in the Malayan jungle, and Ordinary Families, a family comedy set in Suffolk, are widely considered her best works. Other novels include Three Came Unarmed (1929), Summer’s Lease (1940), The Signpost (1943), set during World War II and discussed by Jenny Hartley in Millions Like Us, Devices and Desires (1954), Justice of the Heart (1958), and The Strangers on My Roof (1964), which was published posthumously.
NAOMI ROYDE-SMITH (1875-1964)
An astonishingly prolific novelist who also tried her hand at travel writing, drama, biography, history, and memoir, as well as being a successful critic, Royde-Smith has apparently now fallen into complete obscurity. None of her nearly forty novels have even been reprinted by Virago or Persephone, and none appear to be currently in print (which just makes her all the more intriguing to me, of course). Her first novel, The Tortoiseshell Cat (1925), was well-regarded in its time, and a later novel set in the 1840s, The Delicate Situation (1931), was compared by Betty Askwith to Sylvia Townsend Warner’s similarly odd historical novel The Corner That Held Them. Outside Information (1941), subtitled “a diary of rumors,” was a memoir chronicling Royde-Smith’s experiences of the Blitz. Another work of potential interest is Jane Fairfax (1940), apparently a sort of prequel to Jane Austen’s Emma, but one which mixes in other fictional characters alongside, on occasion, their creators—which sounds ripe for rediscovery as a precursor to later postmodern experiments. Among her other numerous novels are The Housemaid (1926), Children in the Wood (1928, aka In the Wood), The Lover (1928), Summer Holiday, or, Gibraltar (1929), The Bridge (1932), For Us in the Dark (1937), The Altar-piece (1939), The Iniquity of Us All (1948), The Whistling Chambermaid (1957), and How White Is My Sepulchre (1958).
VITA SACKVILLE-WEST (1892-1962)
Possibly as well-known today for her romances with Violet Trefusis and Virginia Woolf (who famously used her as the model for the main character of Orlando) and for her unconventional marriage with the gay or bisexual diplomat and writer, Harold Nicolson, as for her writings, Vita Sackville-West was an accomplished and bestselling novelist, poet, biographer, and travel writer. Some of her most successful novels, such as The Edwardians (1930) and All Passion Spent (1931), have been adapted for television. An earlier novel, Challenge, completed in 1923 but unpublished for many years afterward, was thinly based on her torrid romance with Trefusis (herself a writer—see below). A departure from her usual subject matter of family life and turmoil among the upper classes was Grand Canyon (1941), a dystopian novel about a future in which Hitler has conquered Europe and been appeased by the United States. Other novels included Heritage (1919), Seducers in Ecuador (1924), Family History (1932), The Dark Island (1934), The Easter Party (1953), and No Signposts in the Sea (1960). Fascinatingly, Sackville-West also made one foray into the mystery genre, with Devil at Westease (1947). She achieved bestsellerdom with her poetry, an increasingly rare achievement even in the mid-twentieth century, most notably with two long georgic poems, The Land (1926) and The Garden (1946), and she was also successful as a travel writer, with works such as Passenger to Teheran (1926) and Twelve Days: An Account of a Journey Across the Bakhtiari Mountains in Southwestern Persia (1928). Many of Sackville-West’s works remain in print from Virago and other publishers.
DORA SAINT (aka MISS READ) (1913-2012)
Saint was the author of two sets of novels—the chronicles of Fairacre and the chronicles of Thrush Green—which comprise more than 30 titles in all, many of which remain in print and retain a devoted following today. Written under the pseudonym “Miss Read,” these are quiet, affectionate, and humorous novels of English village life through several decades. The Fairacre series is written in the first-person and began with Village School (1955), while the Thrush Green series, reportedly written in part because Saint wanted to take a break from writing in the first-person, begins with Thrush Green (1959). Saint continued actively publishing novels in both series until the late 1990s. She also published two memoirs, A Fortunate Grandchild (1982) and Time Remembered (1986).
MARGERY SHARP (1905-1991)
A quintessentially “cozy” writer who deserves to be placed alongside D. E. Stevenson, Dodie Smith, and Elizabeth Cadell on any bookshelf, Sharp is best known for her enormously successful children’s series, The Rescuers, but her adult novels too were frequently bestsellers and several were made into successful films. Two of her novels, Cluny Brown (1944) and Britannia Mews (1946), are set during World War II and are of interest for their depictions of life on the home front. Some of the best-known of her other novels include The Flowering Thorn (1934), The Nutmeg Tree (1937), Harlequin House (1939), The Foolish Gentlewoman (1948), The Gipsy in the Parlour (1954), Something Light (1960), and her late trilogy, The Eye of Love (1957), Martha in Paris (1962), and Martha, Eric and George (1964). But my personal favorite (for now, until I read another one), is The Stone of Chastity (1940), a zany but compulsively entertaining tale about a professor’s search for a mythical stone which can determine the virginity or faithfulness of any woman. Who could resist? (Apparently some people can, because it remains out of print.)
Now considered an important figure in modernist literature, both as a writer and as a critic who recognized the significance of early modernist works, Sinclair played a particular role in the development of the “stream of consciousness” technique (she actually coined the term) later and more famously used by Virginia Woolf and James Joyce. Nevertheless, most of Sinclair’s twenty-one novels remain out of print (though many are out of copyright and available in free ebook format). However, two of her most experimental works, Mary Olivier (1919) and The Life and Death of Harriet Frean (1922), have been reprinted in recent years. Sinclair’s first novel, Audrey Craven, appeared in 1897, but it wasn’t until The Divine Fire (1904) that she achieved commercial success. Other novels include The Helpmate (1907), The Creators (1910), The Combined Maze (1913), The Three Sisters (1914), based on the lives of the Brontes, and the World War I novels Tasker Jevons (1916, also published as The Belfry), The Tree of Heaven (1917) and The Romantic (1920). She detailed her own experiences in war-torn Belgium in A Journal of Impressions in Belgium (1915), in which she strongly critiqued the pacifist movement. Sinclair’s interest in the mystical and paranormal is reflected in two story collections, Uncanny Stories (1923) and The Intercessor and Other Stories (1931). In addition to her novel about the Brontes, Sinclair wrote introductions to most of their works and published a biography, The Three Sisters (1914).
Best remembered for her classic children's book The Hundred and One Dalmations (1956) and her perenially-loved debut novel I Capture the Castle (1948), which is probably the classic novel of the eccentric family and is increasingly regarded as a classic in its own right, Smith was also a highly successful playwright and screenwriter. She spent the 1930s writing successful light comedies for the London stage, before leaving for the U.S. in 1939, where she lived mostly in Hollywood as an in-demand screenwriter until 1953. In later years, Smith wrote five more "increasingly fanciful" (in the words of the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography) novels—The New Moon with the Old (1963), The Town in Bloom (1965), It Ends with Revelations (1967), A Tale of Two Families (1970), and The Girl from the Candle-Lit Bath (1970). The first three of these have been reprinted by Corsair in the U.K., and the fourth, I am happy to say, was a recent acquisition of mine at the Friends of the SF Public Library spring book sale. Smith also published two more children's books, The Starlight Barking (1967) and The Midnight Kittens (1978), as well as four memoirs, Look Back with Love (1974, about her childhood), Look Back with Mixed Feelings (1978, about her twenties), Look Back with Astonishment (1979, about her theatrical success in the 1930s), and Look Back with Gratitude (1985, about her years in the U.S.).
Author of one of my newest favorite novels, Miss Plum and Miss Penny (1959), Smith has fallen into serious obscurity, without so much as a Wikipedia page and with not even a whisper about her in any of the reference books I've consulted on British women writers. My best information is a blurb on the back of one of her books, which describes her as the daughter of a Methodist parson, who began writing short magazine fiction as far back as World War I, but didn't publish her first novel, O the Brave Music (1943) until World War II. Her output is widely varied, from melodrama and romance to dark comedy. Her most popular work seems to be He Went for a Walk (1954), in which a young boy made homeless by the Blitz makes his way home to his family across wartime England. Smith's other novels include Huffley Fair (1944), Proud Citadel (1947), My Lamp Is Bright (1948), The Lovely Day (1949), Lost Hill (1952), Beyond the Gates (1956), The Blue Dress (1962), and Brief Flower (1966). Miss Plum and Miss Penny was a suggested title at the Possibly Persephone event hosted by Persephone Books, and for what it's worth I would enthusiastically second the motion!
Best known in her lifetime for her quirky poetry—most famously the much-anthologized poem “Not Waving but Drowning”—Smith also published three highly autobiographical novels, which stirred controversy among real-life friends and enemies who were portrayed in them. The most famous is Novel on Yellow Paper (1936), in which Smith’s alter-ego, a secretary named Pompey, is introduced. This was followed by Over the Frontier (1938) and The Holiday (1949), the latter of which had been written during World War II. Sadly, when The Holiday was finally published, many references to wartime conditions were revised to be more “topical,” though the bleak mood of the novel certainly remains evocative of the dark days of the war. Smith’s remaining fiction and other writings, some from World War II, were published in Me Again: Uncollected Writings of Stevie Smith (1984). Smith’s fiction is written in a highly self-conscious, experimental, referential, and at times just plain “cutesy” style that makes her an acquired taste, but her reputation has grown substantially in the past decade or two and all three novels are currently available from Virago.
A prolific novelist and journalist whose career spans an incredible 50 years, Stern seems to be best known for her saga about a German-Jewish family loosely based on Stern's own, which spans several novels—Tents of Israel (1924, published in the U.S. as The Matriarch), A Deputy was King (1926), Mosaic (1930), Shining and Free (1935), and The Young Matriarch (1942). Several of these were reprinted by Virago in the 1980s. Among her other novels are Children of No Man's Land (1919), The Dark Gentleman (1927), Little Red Horses (1932), The Woman in the Hall (1939), No Son of Mine (1948), and Dolphin Cottage (1962).
D. E. STEVENSON (1892-1973)
D[orothy] E[mily] Stevenson is the quintessential "cozy" writer. As with Elizabeth Cadell, Anna Buchan, and others, publishers have often marketed Stevenson as a "romance" writer, though most readers agree that she has more depth, more heart, and certainly more humor than the average purveyor of love stories. My favorites of hers are two "series," the Miss Buncle books and the Mrs. Tim books. The first consists of Miss Buncle's Book, (1934), probably Stevenson's most widely-read title—a wonderful comedy about a young(-ish) woman in an English village who writes a novel inspired by her fellow villagers, and then has to try to keep her authorship secret from her outraged neighbors—its sequel Miss Buncle Married (1936), in which Miss Buncle marries her publisher and relocates to a new village, and The Two Mrs. Abbotts (1943), which presents Miss Buncle (now one of the Mrs. Abbotts of the title) during wartime. In a fourth book, The Four Graces (1946), not technically part of the series, some characters from The Two Mrs. Abbotts reappear. The second series of novels, which present the humorous and perhaps somewhat autobiographical diary of Hester Christie, wife of an army officer, include Mrs. Tim of the Regiment (1934), Mrs. Tim Carries On (1941), Mrs. Tim Gets a Job (1947), and Mrs. Tim Flies Home (1952). These books are reminiscent of E. M. Delafield's Provincial Lady novels, and usually involve Mrs. Tim facilitating one or more romances between characters who can't seem to get their act together without her, and simultaneously dodging the advances (never made explicit, and never acknowledged outright by Hester) of one of her husband's fellow officers. Both sets of novels are a rollicking good time, and all the titles are perfect comfort food for the soul. Other of Stevenson's novels are more traditionally romantic stories; some favorites of the Stevenson discussion list on Yahoo are Smouldering Fire (1935), Spring Magic (1942), and Five Windows (1953).
MARY STEWART (1916- )
Already enormously popular for her novels of romantic suspense, in the 1970s Mary Stewart turned her attention to a trilogy of novels of Arthurian fantasy, centered around Merlin the magician, which gained her an enormous following of new fans. The trilogy included The Crystal Cave (1970), The Hollow Hills (1973), and The Last Enchantment (1979), and these were later supplemented by two more Arthurian novels, The Wicked Day (1983) and The Prince and the Pilgrim (1995). Her early novels, which generally deal with beautiful young heroines in peril in exotic locales, are also still widely read and enjoyed. These include Madam Will You Talk (1954), Wildfire at Midnight (1956), Thunder on the Right (1957), Nine Coaches Waiting (1958), My Brother Michael (1959), The Ivy Tree (1961), The Moon-Spinners (1962), This Rough Magic (1964), and Airs Above the Ground (1965). More recent novels like Thornyhold (1988) and Rose Cottage (1997) seem to feature gentler, cozier elements of fantasy and suspense.
DOROTHY STRACHEY (1865-1960)
One of ten children whose siblings included biographer Lytton Strachey and James Strachey, the first English translator of Freud, Dorothy Strachey was also the aunt of Julia Strachey (below), sister-in-law of prominent feminist Ray Strachey, and cousin of Amabel Williams-Ellis (below). Apart from an unproduced play, various short periodical works, and a book of English nursery rhymes for French students, Strachey’s only major work is Olivia (completed in 1933 but not published until 1946), a short novel set in a girls’ school in France and detailing the passionate love of a student for the headmistress, who is herself engaged in a romance with the head of the school. Olivia has been seen as a classic of lesbian and feminist fiction.
JULIA STRACHEY (1901-1979)
Niece of Lytton Strachey and of Dorothy Strachey (above), Julia Strachey is mainly known for her short, somewhat surreal novel Cheerful Weather for the Wedding (1932), about the day of a girl’s marriage to what may be the wrong man, which was first published by the “Woolves’” Hogarth Press and is now a Persephone Classic. Her only other novel was The Man on the Pier (1951, later reprinted by Penguin as An Integrated Man). She was the subject of Frances Partridge’s memoir, Julia (1983).
NOEL STREATFEILD (1895-1986)
Having begun her career as a professional actress (including performing in a Shakespeare troupe with Ralph Richardson and appearing opposite John Gielgud in his debut role), Streatfeild's interest in all things show business permeates much of her later writing. Her greatest success, both in her lifetime and since, was with children's fiction, much of which remains in print, including Ballet Shoes (1936), The Circus Is Coming (1938), Curtain Up (1944, also published as Theatre Shoes), White Boots (1951), and many others. But she also wrote numerous novels for adults, which sadly have fallen into obscurity. Her debut novel, The Whicharts (1931), reflected her disillusionment with acting, and her other prewar novels included Parson's Nine (1932), Tops and Bottoms (1933), A Shepherdess of Sheep (1934), It Pays to Be Good (1936), Caroline England (1937), and Luke (1939). Streatfeild was particularly prolific during World War II, when she began writing light romantic novels under the pseudonym Susan Scarlett as well as continuing to publish more serious novels and children's fiction. She wrote twelve Susan Scarlett novels in all, and although she considered them purely a money-making proposition and never included them in official bibliographies of her work, many of these have now been reprinted by the wonderful Greyladies Press in the U.K., including Clothes-Pegs (1939), Ten Way Street (1940), Summer Pudding (1943), Poppies for England (1948), and Love in a Mist (1951). Sadly, only one of her adult novels from the period has been reprinted, by Persephone—the fascinating Saplings (1945). Other wartime works such as The Winter Is Past (1940) and I Ordered a Table for Six (1942) remain impossible to find outside the British Library. Streatfeild's postwar novels grew fewer and farther between as she began to focus on writing for children—these include Grass in Piccadilly (1947), Mothering Sunday (1950), Judith (1956), and The Silent Speaker (1961). In the 1960s and 1970s, she published a popular trilogy of "memoirs," though fictionalized enough that many critics refer to them as novels—A Vicarage Family (1963), Away from the Vicarage (1965), and Beyond the Vicarage (1971). Obviously, a vast body of work here awaiting further exploration!
Jan Struther achieved literary immortality with her book Mrs. Miniver (1939), which, adapted from a series of newspaper articles, wittily and with sometimes surprising incisiveness details the life of a family in Chelsea in the period immediately before World War II (a final section taking place after war begins was added to a later edition). The book became a hugely successful Hollywood movie in 1942, and Churchill reportedly said it did more for the Allies than a flotilla of battleships. Its success in the U.S. was influential in swaying public opinion and bringing the U.S. into the war. Struther’s other publications include The Modern Struwwelpeter (1936), a volume of humorous verse, and the essay collections Try Anything Twice (1938) and A Pocketful of Pebbles (1946).
ELIZABETH TAYLOR (1912-1975)
Certainly the only writer on this list whose career was hindered by sharing a name with a film star, Taylor was an underrated writer throughout her life and has largely remained so until Virago's staunch advocacy of her work in recent years. A serious writer with darkly humorous undercurrents, Taylor published twelve novels, four story collections, and one children's book. Her debut novel, At Mrs. Lippincote's (1945), is one of my favorite novels of wartime life, and her third, A View of the Harbour (1947), presents a striking view of life in the immediate aftermath of the war. Another particular favorite of mine is A Game of Hide-and-Seek (1951), is brilliantly concise its descriptions of a diverse cast of characters in a tale of star-crossed lovers. The late novels Mrs. Palfrey at the Claremont (1971) and Blaming (1976), are darker but also brilliant. Taylor's other novels are Palladian (1946), A Wreath of Roses (1949), The Sleeping Beauty (1953), Angel (1957), In a Summer Season (1961), The Soul of Kindness (1964), and The Wedding Group (1968). Thanks to Virago, Taylor's gorgeous, polished short stories have finally been made available in a single volume, The Collected Stories (2012), which also includes previously uncollected and unpublished stories. Nicola Beauman, founder of Persephone, has published a compelling biography called The Other Elizabeth Taylor.
EDITH TEMPLETON (1916-2006)
Edith Templeton’s ongoing obscurity can partly be put down to the odd trajectory of her career. In the early 1950s, she published three acclaimed novels, Summer in the Country (1950, also published as The Proper Bohemians), Living on Yesterday (1951), and The Island of Desire (1952), all wonderful and subversive social comedies that were reprinted by Hogarth Press in the 1980s. A fourth novel, This Charming Pastime (1955), deals with a woman travelling in Italy and Sicily who flirts with several men and eventually takes one as a lover. Oddly, although highly entertaining and ahead of its time, this novel has never been reprinted—perhaps because it is seen as a transitional work leading toward her scandalous 1966 novel Gordon, which deals with a woman in a sadomasochistic relationship. Originally published by Olympia Press in Paris under a pseudonym, the novel was only reprinted under Templeton’s name in 2003. About the same time, a collection of her stories, many of which had appeared in The New Yorker, was published as The Darts of Cupid (2002). Templeton’s other works include a fascinating travel book, The Surprise of Cremona (1954) and a poorly-received murder mystery, Murder in Estoril (1992), which also includes sadomasochistic themes. Although her late work is admittedly uneven, it is certainly high time that all four of Templeton’s early novels be reprinted for a new generation of readers.
ANGELA THIRKELL (1890-1961)
Thirkell remains popular today for her enormously successful Barsetshire Chronicles, which take as their setting the fictional county created by Anthony Trollope in the 19th century. Although often criticized for their snobbishness and their fairly obvious suggestion that the upper classes are superior and their decline a tragic one, the novels—especially those from the 1930s and 1940s—so gleefully skewer the pretensions and idiosyncrasies of all characters great and small that it's difficult, at least for me, to take offense. The series begins with High Rising (1933) and continues with Wild Strawberries (1934), August Folly (1936), Summer Half (1937), and numerous others (nearly 30 in all). My personal favorites (so far) are the wartime novels, which incorporate more serious worries and themes in their nevertheless rather daft and hilarious plots—these include Cheerfulness Breaks In (1940), Northbridge Rectory (1941), Marling Hall (1942), Growing Up (1943), The Headmistress (1944), Miss Bunting (1945), and Peace Breaks Out (1946). Thirkell's popularity waned in the 1950s as her politics became more virulently conservative and more explicitly spelled out in her novels. She did publish a handful of non-Barsetshire novels, including the early comedy Ankle Deep (1931), Trooper to the Southern Cross (1934), a semiautobiographical novel about her trip to Australia, and O These Men, These Men! (1935), about an abusive marriage, but she quickly realized that Barsetshire was her forte. In reading the Barsetshire novels, pay particular attention to the character of Laura Morland, a wonderfully ditzy writer of silly mysteries, who is clearly Thirkell's caricaturish alter-ego.
FLORA THOMPSON (1876-1947)
Thompson’s literary fortunes have been on the rise in recent years, since her trilogy Lark Rise to Candleford has been made into a successful television mini-series. The trilogy is comprised of three novels, Lark Rise (1939), Over to Candleford (1941), and Candleford Green (1943), which presented the simpler life of rural turn-of-the-century Oxfordshire for a wartime readership. A fourth volume of the story, Heatherley, was completed in 1944 but not published until 1979. Thompson wrote one more novel, Still Glides the Stream (1948), set in Oxfordshire around the time of Queen Victoria’s Golden Jubilee.
VIOLET TREFUSIS (1894-1972)
More famous for her affair and near-elopement with Vita Sackville-West than for her writing, Trefusis later wrote several novels, including two, Hunt the Slipper (1937) and Pirates at Play (1950) that were reprinted as Virago Modern Classics. She wrote four of her novels in French, including Broderie Anglaise (1935), which features a thinly veiled version of the three-way relationship between Trefusis, Sackville-West, and Virginia Woolf. In 1952, Trefusis published her memoirs, Don’t Look Round, which was not as revealing as readers hoped. The letters Trefusis wrote to Sackville-West were published in 1987.
Every now and then I stumble across a writer I've never heard of and assume that no one else has either, and they turn out to be really interesting, and I get excited out of all proportion to the actual event. (I admit that it can be difficult, at times, for me to remember that, compared to world peace or a cure for cancer, discovering an enjoyable but obscure writer is not a major achievement.) This happened to me when I started reading the novels of Edith Olivier and Norah Hoult that hadn't been reprinted by Virago or Persephone. But in the case of Diana Tutton, the delight of planting my flag in unconquered territory was short-lived, as a Google search quickly revealed about 10 other bloggers discussing her wonderful 1953 novel, Guard Your Daughters, which is now certainly one of my favorite out-of-print books. Obsessive as I am, I quickly went on to track down and read Tutton's other two long lost novels, Mamma (1955) and The Young Ones (1959). Admittedly, no one else seems to be discussing those, which respectively deal with a mother in love with her daughter's fiancé and a woman coping with her brother and sister having an incestuous affair (!!!), but (obviously) Guard Your Daughters is the pick of the litter and I am a latecomer to the picnic. However, I do seem to find the novel much darker than most other readers…which will have to make a future post (even if the ground has already been well-tilled). So far, I haven't located any substantial information about Tutton herself, or about what became of her after 1959. She is truly veiled in obscurity.
SUSAN TWEEDSMUIR (1883–1977)
Married to the enormously successful thriller writer John Buchan, Susan Tweedsmuir made a name for herself writing biographies and children's books, as well as several novels including The Scent of Water (1937), The Silver Bell (1944), The Rainbow through the Rain (1950), Dashbury Park (1959), A Stone in the Pool (1961), and her best-known novel Cousin Harriet (1957), an interesting work tackling the story of a pregnant unmarried girl in a traditional epistolary Victorian style. None of her works seem to be in print.
ALISON UTTLEY (1884-1976)
Uttley's 1939 novel A Traveller in Time was recommended on the D. E. Stevenson discussion list, and since I have a weak spot for time travel stories, it's high on my "to read" list. I haven't yet had a chance to research Uttley's other work. To be continued…
HILDA VAUGHAN (1892–1985)
Born and raised in Wales, Vaughan was the author of ten novels, many of which are set in and make use of the scenery of Radnorshire, though she had already married novelist Charles Langbridge Morgan and moved with him to London by the time her earliest work was published. Her early novels, all set in Wales, include The Battle to the Weak (1925), Here Are Lovers (1926), The Invader (1928), Her Father's House (1930), and The Soldier and the Gentlewoman (1932). With The Curtain Rises (1935), Vaughan wrote about a Welsh girl who tries to make it as a playwright in London. The Oxford Dictionary of National Biography somewhat intriguingly (for me, at least) describes her later novels "romantic in theme but realistic and unsentimental in their acute observation of human character, particularly in adversity; compassion is at their heart." These include Harvest Home (1936), Pardon and Peace (1945), Iron and Gold (1948), and The Candle and the Light (1954). Vaughan's most widely acclaimed work, however, seems to have been her 1934 novella, A Thing of Nought, which ODNB describes as "a tale of star-crossed love told with great economy and again set in the hills of Radnorshire."
ELIZABETH VON ARNIM (1866-1941)
Most famous as the author of one of the all-time great rainy day novels The Enchanted April (1922), made into a successful film in 1991, von Arnim was actually born in Australia but moved to the U.K. when she was five. After relocating to Germany with her first husband, she published her first novel, Elizabeth and Her German Garden (1898), a somewhat autobiographical, humorous story of a woman who cares more for her garden than for society, which became a bestseller. Eighteen more novels followed, most of them similarly featuring rebellious heroines who refuse to conform to standards. These include The Solitary Summer (1899), The Adventures of Elizabeth in Rugen (1904), Fraulein Schmidt and Mr Anstruther (1907), The Pastor's Wife (1914), Christopher and Columbus (1919), Love (1925), and Mr. Skeffington (1940)—the last of which became a successful movie featuring Bette Davis. Some of her works had more serious underpinnings, including Christine (1917), written during World War I and partly a remembrance of her daughter who had died of pneumonia in Berlin at the beginning of the war, which was used as anti-German propaganda and caused some controversy. Vera (1921), one of von Arnim's most acclaimed works, was apparently a bitter condemnation of her second husband. In 1936, von Arnim published her memoir, All the Dogs of My Life.
Apart from being the author of my all-time favorite novel, Sylvia Townsend Warner had a genuinely fascinating and widely-varied career. Probably still best known for her debut novel, the wonderful, lovely, brilliant, etc. etc. Lolly Willowes (1926), which was the first selection of the Book-of-the-Month Club as well as an international bestseller, Warner was an acclaimed poet, an expert on early English church music, a prolific contributor of short stories to The New Yorker for 40 years, and a sort of trailblazer in lesbian culture for her 40-year partnership with the prominent poet Valentine Ackland. Her novels are amazingly varied in style and subject matter: Lolly Willowes is a joyful comedy about an unappreciated middle-aged spinster who becomes a witch in the service of Satan; Mr. Fortune's Maggot (1927) is about a missionary having a crisis of faith in the South Seas; The True Heart (1929) is a romantic novel inspired by the myth of Cupid and Psyche; Summer Will Show (1936) is a page-turning tale of an abandoned high-society wife finding liberation with her husband's French mistress in the middle of the revolution of 1848; After the Death of Don Juan (1938) is an odd allegory of the rise of fascism in Spain; The Corner that Held Them (1948) is a strange, plotless, but completely compelling saga of life in a medieval convent; and The Flint Anchor (1954) is another experimental historical saga set in a Norfolk fishing town in the 1840s. Apart from a Selected Stories published by Virago, most of Warner's stories have sadly been long out of print. Collections published in her lifetime include More Joy in Heaven (1935), A Garland of Straw and Other Stories (1943), The Museum of Cheats (1947), Winter in the Air (1955), A Spirit Rises (1962), The Innocent and the Guilty (1971), and a peculiar but widely-acclaimed final volume of fairy stories, Kingdoms of Elfin (1977). One of her oddest and most intriguing works, which I haven't yet laid hands on, seems to be The Cat's Cradle Book (1940), described variously as a novel or a story collection, about a man attempting to collect and catalog feline mythology (i.e. not myths about cats but the cats' own stories of their histories and culture).
WINIFRED WATSON (1906-2002)
Author of Persephone’s most successful revival, Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day (1938), a rollicking Cinderella story about a frumpy governess whose life is transformed when an employment agency accidentally sends her to a glamorous nightclub singer with love troubles, Watson’s also wrote four other novels which no longer seem to exist outside the British Library. These are Fell Top (1935), Odd Shoes (1936), Upyonder (1938), and Leave and Bequeath (1943). In 2008, Miss Pettigrew was made into a film starring Frances McDormand and Amy Adams.
One of the authors whose works were satirized by Stella Gibbons' Cold Comfort Farm, Webb was something of a tragic figure, suffering disfigurement early in life due to Graves' disease, which eventually, along with anemia, took her life at age 46. Her six novels focus on a dark, symbolic, mystical version of rural life. Her most famous and most personal novel was Precious Bane (1924), in which the main character's personal deformity forces her into more independent roles not typical for women at the time. Webb's other novels are The Golden Arrow (1916), Gone to Earth (1917), The House in Dormer Forest (1920), Seven for a Secret (1922), and Armour Wherein He Trusted (1927), the last of which was incomplete at her death but was published posthumously.
Probably as famous in her lifetime for her journalism (Harry Truman reportedly called her “the world’s best reporter”) and her affairs with prominent men (H. G. Wells, Lord Beaverbrook, Charlie Chaplin) as for her literary pursuits, West’s work has achieved greater prominence in recent years. Her debut novel, The Return of the Soldier (1918), about a man with shellshock struggling to remember both his wife and his former lover, is considered a major work of modernism and one of the great novels to come out of World War I. Her later autobiographical bestseller, The Fountain Overflows (1957), about her early family life, has also received attention after being reprinted by New York Review Books Classics. Two sequels to Fountain, intended to form a trilogy, appeared posthumously—This Real Night (1984) and Cousin Rosamund (1985). Other novels include The Judge (1922), Harriet Hume (1929), The Thinking Reed (1936), The Birds Fall Down (1966), and the posthumously published Sunflower (1986), an unfinished autobiographical novel from the 1920s which dealt with her affairs with Wells and Beaverbrook. Much of West’s journalism has been published in book form, and her classic nonfiction work, Black Lamb and Grey Falcon (1941), a massive exploration of the history and culture of the Balkans, also remains in print.
DOROTHY WHIPPLE (1893-1966)
Dorothy Whipple provides a perfect example of how differently even the best and most enthusiastic readers can see the same writer. The majority of her novels have now been made available again by Persephone Books, which has had great success with them, but Carmen Callil, the founder of that other great publisher of lesser-known women writers, Virago, once described the selection process for the Virago Modern Classics this way: “We had a limit known as the Whipple line, below which we would not sink. Dorothy Whipple was a popular novelist of the 1930s and 1940s whose prose and content absolutely defeated us. A considerable body of women novelists, who wrote like the very devil, bit the Virago dust when Alexandra, Lynn and I exchanged books and reports, on which I would scrawl a brief rejection: ‘Below the Whipple line.’” My experience with Whipple so far seems to straddle these two viewpoints. Her final novel, Someone at a Distance (1953), is now one of my favorites, a gutwrenching tale of infidelity and its effects made brilliant by such perceptive and striking insights into characters that it almost seemed to me that I'd never read about infidelity before! But The Priory (1939), which the Provincial Lady, in Delafield's The Provincial Lady in Wartime (1940), recommends strongly to a friend as perfect wartime comfort reading, while overall compulsively readable, seems to veer a little toward melodrama in its portrayal of another unhappy marriage (apparently a favorite Whipple theme!). Whipple's other novels are High Wages (1930), Greenbanks (1932), They Knew Mr. Knight (1934), They Were Sisters (1943), Because of the Lockwoods (1949), and Every Good Deed (1950). She also published a memoir, The Other Day (1950).
ANTONIA WHITE (1899-1980)
White is best known for her classic novel Frost in May (1933), a beautiful account of a young girl enduring life in a Catholic boarding school, which has the distinction of having been chosen as the very first Virago reprint and has been called the female equivalent of Joyce's Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. White was by all counts a troubled soul—she was committed to Bethlem Hospital (i.e. "Bedlam") for several months in 1922, suffered lifelong anguish due to doubts about her Catholicism, and had troubled relationships with men (husbands and otherwise) and with her children. Her personal turmoil prevented her from publishing a second novel until The Lost Traveller in 1950, a sort of sequel to Frost in May. She continued the story in two more novels, The Sugar House (1952) and Beyond the Glass (1954). She also published a story collection, Strangers, in 1954. She worked on but never completed an additional novel, a portion of which was published along with her memoirs in As Once in May (1983). Her diaries were published in the early 1990s.
A cousin of the most famous branch of the Strachey family, including Lytton, James, and Dorothy, Williams-Ellis began writing in collaboration with her husband, architect Clough Williams-Ellis. She later published numerous non-fiction works for children, and several collections of fairy tales because she felt there was “a real need for authentic re-tellings of traditional tales if Disney and Enid Blyton were not to reign supreme." Williams-Ellis wrote five novels, including Noah’s Ark (1925), about a young couple uselessly resisting their instincts to marry and reproduce, The Wall of Glass (1927), about class conflict, The Big Firm (1928), To Tell the Truth (1933), a fable about communism and capitalism, and Learn to Love First (1939). A book of games Williams-Ellis wrote with her husband, In and Out of Doors (1937), was reportedly popular during World War II as a means of entertaining children during long nights in air raid shelters.
VIRGINIA WOOLF (1882-1941)
Probably the British woman writer of the entire 20th century, there’s really nothing I could possibly add to the vast body of work on Woolf’s writings apart from saying that Mrs. Dalloway (1925) has always been one of my all-time favorites. To the Lighthouse (1927), Orlando (1928), and The Waves (1931) are also widely considered to be masterpieces, and Woolf is also known for two major works of non-fiction, A Room of One’s Own (1929) and Three Guineas (1938), as well as her voluminous diaries, essays, and letters.
JOAN WYNDHAM (1921-2007)
Wyndham is best remembered for her important and highly entertaining World War II diaries, Love Lessons (1985) and Love Is Blue (1986), which have been reprinted by Virago. A teenaged art student just coming of age when the war began, Wyndham presents a shockingly different view of the war than we usually see—from the perspective of an oversexed bohemian world not often reflected in works of the time. She takes gay men and lesbians in her stride, obsesses over her inability to achieve orgasm (not for lack of trying), and encounters celebrities from Dylan Thomas to Sigmund Freud, all while casually dodging bombs and, later, coping with life in the WAAFs. Not for conservative readers, to be sure, but a rollicking and amazingly modern adventure. A third volume of Wyndham’s diaries, Anything Goes (1992), continues her story into the post-war years, and at age 82 Wyndham published a memoir of her youth called Dawn Chorus (2004), which reflects on such things as having Oscar Wilde and his lover as houseguests and the story of her aunt, "a perfectly normal upper-class girl devoted to show jumping who ran away with a black lesbian actress and lived the rest of her life in Harlem."
E. H. YOUNG (1880-1949)
Sometimes compared with Jane Austen in her lifetime, Young's novels are usually set in Clifton and make symbolic use of the landscape, blending humor with serious themes of personal freedom and growth, female sexuality, marital discord, and explorations of ethics. Her most successful novel was William (1925), which dealt with a trouble marriage, but others include A Corn of Wheat (1910), Yonder (1912), Moor Fires (1916), A Bridge Dividing (1922, republished by Virago as The Misses Mallett), The Vicar's Daughter (1927), Miss Mole (1930), Jenny Wren (1932), The Curate's Wife (1934), Celia (1937), and Chatterton Square (1947). Many of Young's works were reprinted by Virago in the 1980s. Late in life, she also published two books for children, Caravan Island (1940) and River Holiday (1942).