Friday, August 9, 2013

Middlebrow tidbits

I must be an even bigger geek than I realized, because I found these little coincidences or discoveries quite interesting, even if they all pertain to writers who are completely unknown to most readers.

In the past couple of weeks, I've been doing a lot of research on new writers for the Overwhelming List.  Two of the following result from skimming magazines and reading book reviews from the 1920s and 1930s.  The third is a rather interesting conjunction of the lives of two writers I happen to have just been reading.  I'm not sure if anyone else is enough of a geek to find these interesting, but for what they're worth…

Norah Hoult on Edith Olivier

Most of you know (because I've repeated it ad nauseum) that the two obscure writers I think are most criminally neglected are Norah Hoult, author of the Persephone reprint There Were No Windows (1944), but also of several other equally brilliant works that deserve more attention, and Edith Olivier, whose first novel The Love-Child (1927) was reprinted by Virago in the 1980s (and has been out-of-print ever since) but whose other four novels—and a wonderful memoir that I'll write about here soon—have been ignored by publishers.

So I was intrigued to find a 1932 review in The Bookman, written by Norah Hoult, and including a discussion of Edith Olivier's final (and, in my opinion, best) novel The Seraphim Room.  Admittedly, it's not a particularly scintillating review, but apparently it doesn't take much to intrigue me!

Miss Edith Olivier has given us a book whose plot is a novel one, since it is concerned with the lack of a proper drainage system to one of the old houses in a cathedral close. It is not that Mr. Chilvester is neglectful of his house which he loves and serves as others love and serve more human idols. But he holds very decided views upon the modern spirit, and includes in his dislike not only electric light, telephones and bath-rooms, but modern sanitation. He has two daughters—one, Lilian, is an invalid who lives for her painting, and is by way of being a saint ; the younger, Emily, wishes with all her heart to be more modern, to be allowed freedom; but when a young man kisses her she cannot help taking it for granted that he must necessarily want to marry her.

Miss Olivier has made a decorative and appealing pattern of the three lives, the angry old man struggling to fight against ministries of health and corporations to preserve his own ideals, the unhappy young girl, and the elder sister painting peacefully in her attic bedroom.

I'm cutting the final two sentences of the review, which in my opinion give away all too much of this wonderful novel's plot.  I would definitely give The Seraphim Room a stronger adjective than "appealing," but at least Hoult does a better job of summarizing the novel's plot than I could!

Elizabeth Lomond (aka ????)

Since this tidbit is about a book I've never read and a writer I only recently heard of, it's pretty arcane.  And in all truth it may really be about the pleasure I take from the fact that my obsessive database of women writers helped me make a connection about which I could find nothing online (probably because no one else cares enough to write about it???).  But here goes:

Another review in The Bookman discusses the 1932 novel I Have Been Young, by Elizabeth Lomond.  And the reviewer certainly seems to have some inside knowledge about its author—or at least believe that he does:

I Have Been Young is labelled a novel. It may be. But it has a ring of truth—the truth of life which lacks the truth of art—which makes one wonder whether it is not autobiography in more than form. It tells the story of a girl reared in a lunatic asylum of a home by a pious mamma and a drunken papa ; who is early left an orphan to fend for herself; who goes first to London and then to Australia, where she marries a man to save him from drink. Now out of my own unhappy experience I passionately protest that the only thing to do with an habitual drunkard is to bash him on the head with one of his bottles and leave him cold—in the slang if not the literal sense! It cost Helen Forsyth the best years of her life to learn that remorseless truth. She tells her story with a passionate truthfulness of self-revelation which makes it both moving and convincing. If this book is fiction, then "Elizabeth Lomond" is a writer of quite unusual powers; if it is not, then one is bound to wonder under what name her earlier books appeared. Does the clue lie perhaps in her initials, reversed?

Hmmmm.  Naturally, I thought I'd check my database to see what writers with initials L.E. I might find.  And there actually was one. 

I've never actually read Leonora Eyles, but this excerpt from the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography seemed promising when compared to the above review:

Forbidden to take up a place at a teachers' training college to which her matriculation results had entitled her, Leonora ran away to London where, at the age of eighteen, she scraped together a meagre living by addressing envelopes in a basement office. She sold one or two things left by her mother to raise the passage to work as a domestic servant in Australia. There she married Alfred William Eyles, who left her to bring up their two daughters and son on her own; she eventually obtained a divorce.

I did a Google search for the two names together and came up empty, but that doesn't mean much, since neither name on its own brings up many results.  So I may, basically, have solved a mystery that wasn't that much of a mystery to begin with and about which few people now really care.  Ah, the sense of accomplishment!  :-)

Lucilla Andrews & Elizabeth Montagu

My next proper review—coming this weekend if all goes well—is of romance writer Lucilla Andrews' entertaining memoir of nursing at St. Thomas' Hospital in London during World War II.  One of the more humorous recollections from that book is of one of the last bombing raids of the war, which occurred while Andrews was working in the Casualty ward:

Amongst my many mental pictures imprinted for life is the one of Sister Casualty on my first Saturday afternoon in her domain, when the solitary flying bomb of the afternoon switched off its engine overhead. Sister Casualty, standing straight as a guardsman with her be-frilled cap and the starched, lace bow under her venerable chin in impeccable order, announcing with calm firmness, ‘Will all patients and staff please get down on the floor,’ to a department already crouched on its knees with its head under the nearest bench. The bomb exploded on ruins and brought down every medicine and lotion bottle on every shelf in Casualty, but otherwise did no serious damage. Before getting off the floor, I squinted up at Sister. She was still upright and briskly polishing her spectacles.

A classic "stiff upper lip" kind of story, and a very amusing one. 

I actually finished the Andrews book a week or two ago, and then I started a novel by a writer Nicola Beauman called one of "the most forgotten of all once-lauded post-war novelists"—Elizabeth Montagu.  (Try doing a Google search for her, and you'll find lots of results for the 18th century friend of Samuel Johnson, but nary a one for the 1950s novelist.)  I was reading her novel The Small Corner, which I also plan to write about here soon (she deserves to have at least one Google hit of her own, doesn't she?).  I was enjoying it a lot, so decided to see what I could find out about her.  The most informative source was her obituary from the Telegraph, which includes this striking bit of information:

There are several other disguises [that Montagu wore]. One was the soignée ex-debutante in the 1930s who briefly modelled for Ponds Cold Cream. Another was the wartime sister in charge of casualty at St Thomas's Hospital in London. … She stayed at St Thomas's until 1946…

So?  If Andrews' story was about the head of the Casualty department at St. Thomas', and Elizabeth Montagu was the head of the Casualty department at St. Thomas' at that same time…

I tried to believe that Lucilla Andrews was actually talking about Elizabeth Montagu.  Perhaps she just didn't mention that she had also written novels.  

But, sadly, looking back at the passage, she actually does provide the name of the Sister Casualty in question and also mentions that she is an older woman and on the verge of retirement, while Montagu would have been only in her late twenties.  Alas.

It would have seemed a bit too coincidental or too poetic to be true.  I don't know much about how London hospitals are organized, but obviously either being the head of the department doesn't mean that you are in fact "Sister Casualty" or there was some inaccuracy either in Andrews account or, more likely, in the Montagu obituary.  Perhaps she became head of the department after the older sister Andrews describes retired?

Either way, it was an interesting (almost) coincidence. And what's more, I will say this:

Having read one of Montagu's tough, polished, dark novels, I wouldn't have been surprised to hear that she seized the opportunity of a major bombing raid to polish her spectacles.


  1. A very quick drop in to give you a link to a blog I just discovered, concerned with books more lower middlebrow and a bit earlier in time than yours, but you might find it of interest.

    In one way, you both concern yourselves with the same topic, the books which have been forgotten.......

    1. Oh, that site does look interesting, and I may well get some good ideas from it. Thanks for thinking of me, Kristi!

  2. You need a way to get more titles, right?

  3. I wanted to let you know that I care very much about Elizabeth Lomond. As I was reading "I have been young" found in a thrift shop, I couldn't escape the fact that this was not fiction but memoir. I have not been able to find anything on Elizabeth Lomond except I just found your blog. I think you are spot on in your take on who she was but am now searching for Leonora Eyles books to see if style is at all similar. I can see why she would want to disguise herself for this title in that time period. If they are the same, this may be the last book she wrote. my email is I don't know how to comment on blogs except anonymous. Let me know if you know anything else about Leonora Eyles. thanks for your hard work.

    1. Thanks for your comment. I have always meant to follow up on the tantalizing references I found regarding Eyles/Lomond, but never have. So interested in knowing that you think it's a plausible identification. I do know that Eyles is discussed in a critical work called Rediscovering Forgotten Radicals--one book I've been meaning to look into for a long time. I wonder if it discusses Lomond at all? Do keep me posted if you learn anything else new!


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