It must be vanishingly rare for anyone—least of all myself—to be able to say they know more about a middlebrow British woman novelist than Nicola Beauman does. But this may be my one chance…
As most readers of this blog already know, Beauman's book A Very Great Profession: The Woman's Novel 1914-1939 (1983) is one of the seminal texts in the study of middlebrow writers, and the publishing house she began in the late 1990s, Persephone Books, has been an enormous force in the rediscovery of lesser-known women writers. Suffice it to say she knows what she's talking about.
Beauman's subsequent biography of Elizabeth Taylor in 2009 was also a rich source, for me, of offhand mentions of little-remembered writers—I first came across Elizabeth Montagu, Kathleen Farrell, Kay Dick, and several others there. But there was also an intriguing reference to "someone called Celia Buckmaster," with whom Beauman seemed to be unfamiliar. Naturally, my obsessive nature led me to a fruitless Google search and then the discovery that the British Library showed two novels by Buckmaster.
A bit more poking around revealed a few additional tidbits, which, since Buckmaster seems to have no other web presence whatsoever, I'll share here:
She was born in 1915 (at least her obituary reports that she was 90 at her death in 2005). Her father's name was Henry Stephen Guy Buckmaster.
I haven't found anything significant about her early life, but by the 1920s she was close friends with acclaimed poet-to-be Lynette Roberts and set up a florist's business with her in the late 1920s or early 1930s. At some point during these years, biographical information about Roberts mentions that Roberts and Buckmaster took time off from the shop and sailed via a cargo boat to Madeira, where they stayed for a time in a small house high on a hill. Roberts began seriously writing poetry here. At the time of her marriage a few years later, Buckmaster would be described as a talented painter, so one presumes that she may also have taken the opportunity to do some painting (and perhaps some early writing?) during this time.
Buckmaster was a bridesmaid at Roberts' wedding in 1939, and Dylan Thomas, a guest at the wedding, reportedly commented that the wedding was particularly notable for the beauty of its bridesmaids.
Buckmaster was married to renowned anthropologist Edmund Leach (later knighted) in 1940. They lived initially in Burma, where Leach was in the military. Their daughter Louisa was born in late 1941, and she and Celia apparently had a narrow escape from Burma as the war intensified. Leach said that Louisa's birth saved Celia's life, as nursing mothers were evacuated from Burma by air in early 1942, while others escaped as best they could and many tragically died. Celia and Louisa were separated from Leach for the remainder of the war.
In 1946, the couple had a son, Alexander, and Buckmaster turned (briefly) to writing in earnest. She published two novels with the prestigious Hogarth Press—Village Story in 1951 and Family Ties the following year, after which she published no more books. Perhaps there were short stories in magazines or journals, but I have not yet located them. Unjustly, it does not appear that her novels received a great deal of attention and neither has ever been reprinted.
Buckmaster's later life can only be glimpsed in biographical information about her husband. In the early 1960s, they spent an academic year in Palo Alto, California and Celia is described as embracing the nature and weather of California and as intensifying her painting during this time.
Back in England, the couple made their home in Barrington, a village near Cambridge, where Leach was Professor of Anthropology until 1978 and then a Provost at King's College. Leach died in 1989, and Buckmaster remained in the Cambridge area until her death in 2005. Her brief obituary in the Telegraph notes several grandchildren and great-grandchildren but makes no mention of her writing or painting.
So why have I taken the time to dig for information on a writer that even Nicola Beauman hasn't rescued from the shrouds of obscurity? And why should anyone reading this blog care about her?
Well, in my first flurry of interest in Buckmaster, I submitted Interlibrary Loan requests for both novels, uncertain of whether the San Francisco Public Library would even be able to locate them. But I should have more faith in the hard-working folks at SFPL, because last weekend both novels arrived—one from Minnesota and the other from Pennsylvania, no less!
On Saturday afternoon, I dived immediately into Village Story, and the rest of my weekend was spent lost in the hypnotic company of Buckmaster's fascinating villagers. I was unable to put it down, and already (coming so close on the heels of my rave review of Mary Bell's Summer's Day) have a new favorite obscure novel.
You're going to start thinking I'm a pushover. (And perhaps I am.) But you can judge for yourself when I post a review of the novel in a few days. (Sorry, this was just a teaser…)
As for Family Ties (which, glancing at the library card inside, may not have been checked out since 1953), well, I am waiting until the weekend arrives to so much as open it. I was afraid that otherwise I might have to call in sick to stay home and finish it!