Friday, January 10, 2014

The Mystery of Mary Bell

A few months ago, I reviewed Mary Bell's wonderful novel Summer's Day, one of my favorite discoveries of 2013.  The post, in which I speculated about the tantalizing mystery of Bell's real identity, has been a fairly popular one (and I don't think that's just because there was an adolescent serial killer of the same name in the 1960s—though that certainly may have been the reason some befuddled Googlers found themselves on my blog), and I have continued to obsess about who Bell might have been.  Hope springs eternal…

Shortly after the first post, I followed up on one possible lead regarding Bell.  A reader suggested that perhaps Collins, the British publishing house (now part of HarperCollins) which originally published the novel, might be able to trace Bell’s identity.  I emailed them, and received a very friendly response from Tricia, but Tricia gave me the rather puzzling news that she could find no trace of either the novel or the author in their records.  Since the book was published before the existence of ISBNs, she had no other way of searching or following up.  I don't know enough about how publishers keep records to know just how odd this is, but it seems a bit unusual to me.

Dead end there.

Next, it occurred to me to look more closely at the other book listed in the British Library catalogue that could be by the same author—a novel called Broken Bonds, published in 1946 by William Stevens, Ltd., in something called the “New Moon Series.” That series appears to have been comprised of relatively short romantic novellas in book form, laced throughout with advertising aimed at women readers.  Broken Bonds was also published under the name “Mary Bell,” and appeared only five years before Summer’s Day, making it plausibly—though by no means certainly—the same writer.

Alas, my attempts to track the whereabouts of rights and records for William Stevens, Ltd. have failed.  The publisher clearly no longer exists, but in most cases—I assumed—titles and rights would have been acquired by another publisher.  If that happened in this case, however, I wasn’t able to trace it.  And whether such an assumption even applies to what might have been a very small publisher of romance stories might be an open question.

You might recall that Summer's Day was reprinted by Greyladies a few years back, but they had had no luck in tracing the copyright owner either.  Shirley at Greyladies told me she concluded the name must have been a pseudonym—probably of a writer who published other books as well—but she had no idea who it could be.  That conclusion also rang true for me.  I mentioned in my original review that the novel seemed too polished and mature to be a one-off—its author, I thought, simply must have written other fiction.

I was, I confess, just about to launch into what would certainly have been an embarrassing wild goose chase involving wild speculation as to what other writers could possibly have "been" Mary Bell, based on the authors' experience in girls' schools and the likelihood that the novel was a significant departure from their usual work (hence the pseudonym).  My speculations were already including, I am embarrassed to say, the likes of Gladys Mitchell, who had been teaching at a girls’ school in the years immediately before the publication of Summer's Day, Ursula Orange, whom I had just happened across and in whom I had noted a keen interest in girls' education, and Joan Coggin, who had just published the last of her girls' school novels two years before Summer's Day appeared.  I even wildly poured over my information about Mary Hayley Bell, thinking that perhaps it was all just a name mixup to begin with.

But then, thankfully, before I could thoroughly humiliate myself…

…entered John Herrington, a fellow researcher into lesser-known writers, but one who makes me feel like the greenest amateur.  You can find acknowledgements of his assistance on websites all over the place, including Author and Book Info and Crime Fiction IV, both of which are, by the way, sites for book geeks to lose themselves in for days, and both have provided me with new writers for my list and more detailed information on some of the writers already on the list. 

John very kindly emailed me because he came across my blog in one of his searches and had information to share about one or two writers on my list (he has since shared much more of his vast wealth of research and knowledge).  He mentioned that if there were any writers I particularly wanted to know about, he'd be happy to check his research or have a go at finding out more.

How could I pass that up?

And in less than 24 hours, I had a response from John which included this:

I can help you with Mary Bell, A quick search turned up an entry for her in the Library of Congress copyright files. The name was apparently the pseudonym of one Emma Mary MacDonald. She must be the Emma M Bell who married Colin T MacDonald in Aldershot in 1943 (her marriage to Arbuthnot mentions both surnames). He remarried in 1958 in Newcastle, but obviously no idea who divorced who. An Emma M Bell/Emma M MacDonald married an Archibald H G Arbuthnot (died 1959) in 1955 in Suffolk, his second wife. She was born here in Suffolk 17/1/1913 and died in Brighton 26/9/1994.

(Obviously, a rookie error to have consulted the British Library but not the Library of Congress.  I have since learned the error of my ways.)

I immediately searched the library catalogues for every variation of Emma Bell/Emma MacDonald/Mary MacDonald/Emma Arbuthnot/Mary Arbuthnot, but alas, the search yielded no additional titles.  If Mary (it seems that she did go by her middle name) wrote any other fiction, she either never published it, published it only in periodicals, or used an entirely different pseudonym.  Or, perhaps, she was that rare creature who produces a fully-developed, beautifully-written, mature novel practically right out of the gate.  (The Library of Congress, unfortunately if unsurprisingly, has no record for the earlier romance, Broken Bonds, so I still can't confirm or disprove that it's by the same Mary Bell.)

Of course, I'm thrilled to know the real identity of the author of one of my favorite novels, and I'm very thankful to John for taking the time to help me (and to give me advice on how to do such a search myself). 

But I'm still hungry for more.  What is the back story of Emma's two marriages?  Divorced the first time and widowed after only four years the second.  What became of her in the 35 years she lived after her second husband's death?  And could the brilliant, hilarious, soulful, poetic author of Summer's Day really never have written another novel?  It's rather heartbreaking to imagine (though she would obviously not be the only author to have produced one brilliant novel and then fallen silent).

I couldn't locate an obituary online, though if anyone reading this is in or near Brighton and enjoys visiting their local library...

Perhaps, as I suggested in my original post, there really are relatives who have no idea that their Aunt Mary once published a novel. Perhaps one day one of them will stumble across this post.

So, where to go from here?  More digging?  Hmmm...


  1. What fun to solve a mystery. Did you find and see that she seems to have had one child, Violet, who died in 2011. Maybe you can find a bit more.

    1. Oh, Kristi, how wonderful! This is getting quite exciting. I am going to see if I can find out anything more. Thanks so much!

  2. There is information about Mary Bell here

  3. On the Arbuthnot family website, the following is stated : Emma Mary Bell Arbuthnot (married Archibald Hugh Gough Arbuthnot in 1955). She was the daughter of the Rev Gilbert Ambrose Bell, MA, of Stowupland, near Stowmarket, Suffolk. " She wrote several novels under the pen-name Mary Bell. Her address 4 Jesmond Rd, Hove, Sussex." Her daughter (Viola) Jane (" Janie") Arbuthnot, 1957-2011, had Downs Syndrome.
    Regards, Kate Peacocke (New Zealand)


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