Saturday, May 24, 2014


By the time my Overwhelming List had grown to about five hundred writers (at least six months and several hundred writers ago), it had become apparent that, although the list was, I hoped, of some interest to researchers and to obsessive fans like myself, it was getting a bit too big to be of practical use for readers who simply enjoy reading British women's fiction and would like to find one or two new authors to explore.

So I started thinking about a "short list."  The list could, I thought, focus mainly on the "feminine middlebrow," as Nicola Humble called it, and would contain a selection of writers still hefty enough to allow readers to discover new authors they might like or find interesting, but limited enough to be manageable for readers less obsessive than myself (i.e. most reasonably well-adjusted people).  It should include writers who are already widely read and enjoyed, as well as those who are perhaps less famous but have been discussed by scholars as representative of middlebrow themes and concerns.  And I definitely wanted to include some of the "cozy" or "gentle" writers who routinely get excluded from critical studies despite the fact that they often explore the same kinds of middlebrow themes and concerns as those more readily acknowledged by critics (as well as being widely loved by readers for being darn good storytellers).  Inevitably, I figured I would be unable to resist adding a few more subjective selections—writers I've come across in my own reading whose themes, styles, and entertainment value seem to fit well on the bookcase next to their better-known contemporaries.

That seems simple enough, right? 

But I hesitated for a long time, and have done quite a lot of agonizing about it.  First, and most obviously, I have heard a persistent voice in my head repeating, in my most insecure moments, “Who am I to even attempt such a list?”  Furthermore, the whole point of the Overwhelming List was to be completely, ridiculously, objectively inclusive, so that no writer is excluded for not being popular enough (or for being too popular), nor for being too highbrow (or not highbrow enough), etc., etc.  Because, as I and a whole lot of other readers and scholars and bloggers before me have realized, there are a lot of really interesting, thoughtful, eloquent, funny, provocative, or otherwise worthwhile writers out there that are covered with cobwebs and deserve to be dusted off.  Creating a more subjective list—even if the core would be a relatively obvious selection of widely read and discussed authors—seemed a bit too much like saying "these are the writers who really count, and there’s no need to bother with the rest."  Which is the opposite of my intent.

On the other hand, now that the number of authors on the Overwhelming List is into quadruple digits, even I am just a bit overwhelmed by it, so I have decided to fight my resistances and insecurities and make a stab at a "starter kit" of middlebrow writers.  Below, at long last, is my first attempt.

This list includes fewer than 10% of the writers from the full Overwhelming List as it stands as of this writing.  Even at that, I’ve at various times wavered between feeling that I’m being too inclusive and feeling I’m not inclusive enough.  I’ve tried to work within the guidelines described above—looking at overall themes, critical attention, popularity, and readability.  With some notable exceptions who shed light on middlebrow concerns in striking ways, I've not included most authors of romance, mystery, historical, or children's fiction (though I am currently beginning to work on lists focused on those genres).  I've excluded some lesser-known authors who published one or two very interesting works but were otherwise inconsistent (i.e. Ruby Ferguson), and, alternatively, included authors who may have been inconsistent but who achieved major success or influence with one or two titles (i.e. Dodie Smith).

As for my qualifications for making such a list?  Well, absolutely none—apart from being an obsessive fan of this particular area of literature.  That will, I suppose, have to count for something.  Obviously, though, the list is not intended to be in any way definitive, and I'd love to hear your suggestions, criticisms, or comments.  Revisions may well follow, and since the list is so much shorter, numbers-wise, I've been able to flesh out the information for each writer.  In the meantime, I hope some of you may find the list helpful.

And relatively un-overwhelming?

RUTH ADAM (1907-1977)
(née King)

Author of nine novels which tend to be socially conscious and often incorporate a concern for the welfare of children.  These include War on Saturday Week (1937), which analyzes the causes of war; I'm Not Complaining (1938), about a schoolteacher in the Depression, which was reprinted by Virago in the 1980s; There Needs No Ghost (1939), "about the effects of the Munich crisis on Bloomsbury Bohemians and English villagers"; her one mystery novel, Murder in the Home Guard (1942), which is, sadly, now impossible to find; Set to Partners (1947); So Sweet a Changeling (1954), described as an "amusingly told story of the unauthorised adoption of an illegitimate baby"; Fetch Her Away (1954) and Look Who's Talking (1960), both dealing with girls in care and the women social workers who attempt to help them; and A House in the Country (1957), the humorous tale of a group of friends living together in a former manor house.  She published two well-received girls' stories, A Stepmother for Susan of St. Bride's (1958) and Susan and the Wrong Baby (1961), which CallMeMadam discussed last year (with lovely cover images).  But Adam is probably best known today for her final work, the unique and important historical survey A Woman’s Place, 1910-1975 (1975), about the changing roles and expectations for women, which is available from Persephone.

HELEN ASHTON (1891-1959)
(married name Jordan)

Ashton was the author of several popular hospital dramas, such as Doctor Serocold (1930), about a day in the life of a country doctor, Hornets' Nest (1935), about the problems of a doctor and nurse, and Yeoman's Hospital (1944), set at a hospital in the early days of World War II and making effective use of wartime conditions.  A Background for Caroline (1928) makes use of Ashton's own experiences as a VAD in World War I.  But Ashton was more than a writer of hospital melodrama.  Her earliest novels, Pierrot in Town (1913) and Almain (1914), deal with bohemianism in London, while later works like Bricks and Mortar (1932, reprinted by Persephone) and Belinda Grove (1933), show her knowledge of architecture and sensitivity to setting.  She also published several fictionalized biographies of famous figures, including William and Dorothy (1938), Parson Austen's Daughter (1949), and Letty Landon (1951).  Other novels include People in Cages (1937), Tadpole Hall (1941), The Captain Comes Home (1947), Footman in Powder: A Panorama (1954), The Half-Crown House (1956), and The Hedge of Thorns (1958).

Enid Bagnold

ENID BAGNOLD (1889-1981)
(married name Jones)

Novelist, memoirist, and playwright whose first published work, A Diary Without Dates (1917), was an instant success but got her fired from her job in a wartime London hospital for being a bit too honest about her experiences there.  Her first novel, The Happy Foreigner (1920), deals enthusiastically and in modernist style with Bagnold's experiences as an ambulance driver in France during the war, and was praised by the likes of Katherine Mansfield and Rebecca West.  Her second novel, Serena Blandish, or, The Difficulty of Getting Married (1924), a sort of modernist experiment of rather tedious or outright offensive Roaring Twenties-type scandalousness, was—understandably—published pseudonymously (as a line from my favorite movie The Awful Truth goes, "It was probably easier for her to change her name than for her entire family to change theirs").  A proper children's book, Alice and Thomas and Jane, appeared in 1930, followed by her most famous novel, National Velvet (1935), which, though marketed to children for decades, was never intended by Bagnold to be a children's book.  The Squire (1938) deals 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’s a lovely novel, controversial in its time but now widely appreciated, thanks to reprinting by Virago in the 1980s and by Persephone in 2013.  Bagnold's final novel, The Loved and Envied, didn't appear until 1951, and its tale of an aging beauty was reportedly based on the life of Lady Diana Cooper.  By this time, Bagnold was an established playwright, and she focused primarily on plays for the rest of her career.  In 1969, her Autobiography appeared and received considerable acclaim. 

MARY BELL (1913-1994)
(full name Emma Mary Bell, married names MacDonald and Arbuthnot)

A highly subjective selection.  Happily, with the help of John Herrington, I was able to find some details about this elusive author, but some of the mystery remains.  She was the author of Summer’s Day (1951), a lovely novel, humorous and serious by turns, written for adults but set in a girls’ school.  It's a surprisingly profound but always entertaining meditation on youth and age, hope and disillusionment, life and death, and perhaps even on the decline of the British Empire (!), and it deserves to be much more widely read.  Summer's Day was reprinted by Greyladies in 2008, though it is now out of print again.  A short romance called Broken Bonds (1946), published in William Stevens, Ltd.'s "New Moon Series," is presumably by the same author.  We know that Bell married for the second time in 1955, had a daughter in 1958, and was, sadly, widowed just about two months later, so her personal ups and downs may be the explanation of why she was side-tracked from writing and appears never to have published another novel.

Phyllis Bottome, from the Baltimore Sun archive

(married name Forbes-Dennis)

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, and the boy's mother wrestles believably with the issues of evacuation of children and the conflicting roles of women in the war effort.  Most of Bottome’s fiction has a vivid awareness of social issues, and her interest in psychology comes through in interesting ways.  Other novels include The Kingfisher (1922), Tatter'd Loving (1929), Level Crossing (1936), The Lifeline (1946), and Against Whom? (1954).  She also published three volumes of memoir, Search for a Soul: Fragment of an Autobiography (1947), The Challenge (1952), and The Goal (1962).

(married name Cameron)

Considered in her time to be a quintessential middlebrow writer, Bowen’s reputation has ascended enormously in recent years, to the extent that she is now regularly mentioned alongside Virginia Woolf as one of the major writers of the period.  Her novel The Heat of the Day (1949) is viewed by many as one of the best literary depictions of the Blitz and the World War II home front (and, though admittedly rather dark, it’s one of my favorites), and The Death of the Heart (1936) strongly evokes Henry James.  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, several of which also deal powerfully with wartime conditions, and her Collected Stories were published in 1980.  

ANN BRIDGE (1889-1974)
(pseudonym of Mary Ann Dolling O'Malley, née Sanders)

Bridge has been recommended to me by so many people that I couldn’t leave her off of this list, even if she remains a “to read” for me.  The wife of a diplomat, she wrote many novels set in the exotic locales she visited, combining historical perspective, romance, and the excitement of travel.  Her debut, Peking Picnic (1932), has been compared to E. M. Forster’s A Passage to India, and The Ginger Griffin (1934), Illyrian Spring (1935), Four-Part Setting (1939), and Enchanter’s Nightshade (1937) were all popular successes as well.  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.  Later in life, Bridge used her knowledge of romantic settings for a series of eight spy novels featuring Julia Probyn of British Intelligence, beginning with The Light-Hearted Quest in 1956.  Happily, many of Bridge’s works have recently been republished in ebook format by Bloomsbury.

VERA BRITTAIN (1893-1980)
(married name Catlin)

Memoirist, novelist, and prominent pacifist, best known for the essential classic Testament of Youth (1933), a devastating memoir of losing everyone closest to her in World War I, including her fiancé Roland Leighton.  One of the most crucial works about the impacts of the war, the book also tells of Brittain’s experiences as a nurse in several dangerous stations, of her subsequent involvement with pacifism, and of her gradual healing and return to emotional life.  After the war, Brittain wrote several novels, including The Dark Tide (1923), a thinly-veiled version of her post-war experiences at Oxford with close friend Winifred Holtby, and Not Without Honour (1924) and Honourable Estate (1936), both of which explored feminist and socialist principles in relation to war and pacifism.  During World War II, Brittain focused on her pacifism, publishing books and pamphlets which made her a somewhat controversial figure, and her final two novels, Account Rendered (1945) and Born 1925: a Novel of Youth (1948), were passionate in their indictment of war.  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.

ANNA BUCHAN (1877-1948)
(aka O. Douglas)

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—though for me such writers can often provide the most interesting details of day-to-day life in their places and times.  Her novels include several early works available in free ebooks—Olivia in India (1913), The Setons (1917), and Penny Plain (1920), and several others were reprinted by Greyladies (but are mostly now out-of-print again).  Her other novels are Ann and Her Mother (1922), Pink Sugar (1924), The Proper Place (1926), Eliza for Common (1928), The Day of Small Things (1930), Priorsford (1932), Taken by the Hand (1935), Jane's Parlour (1937), People Like Ourselves (1938), and The House that Is Our Own (1940).  Buchan published a memoir, Unforgettable, Unforgotten (1945), which includes details about her early family life and her recollections of her bestselling brother.  A final collection, Farewell to Priorsford, was published in 1950, collecting a portion of an uncompleted novel called The Wintry Years, several short stories, and a series of biographical sketches by some of those closest to her, including authors Susan Tweedsmuir and Christine Orr.

(married name Leach)

If you're not a regular reader of this blog, chances are you've never heard of Celia Buckmaster, so this is obviously one of my more subjective choices for this list.  Her brief mention in Nicola Beauman’s biography of Elizabeth Taylor piqued my interest, and I tracked down and read her two lovely novels of village life, Village Story (1951) and Family Ties (1952), both of which were originally published by Hogarth Press and both of which are among my favorite discoveries since I began this blog.  Village Story received praise from the likes of John Betjeman and Stevie Smith when it first appeared.  Buckmaster's husband was anthropologist Sir Edmund Leach, and she was also an accomplished painter.  She deserves to be widely read, and her books—few though they sadly are—can sit confidently on the shelf next to Elizabeth Taylor or Barbara Pym.

JOANNA CANNAN (1896-1961)
(married name Pullein-Thompson)

The work of Joanna Cannan, in her time a popular and prolific writer of mysteries and children’s fiction as well as mainstream fiction, has experienced a (slight) revival in the past decade or so.  Her novel Princes in the Land (1938), about motherhood, was revived by Persephone Books, and several of her mysteries have been reprinted by Rue Morgue Press, including They Rang Up the Police (1939), Death at the Dog (1940), and Murder Included (1950).  Her career began with The Misty Valley (1922), the semi-autobiographical tale of a young wife balancing her creative needs against the demands of marriage.  Sheila Both-Ways (1928) similarly deals with a wife and mother torn between her family and a lover, while No Walls of Jasper (1930) is a darker tale of murder and suicide, dedicated to Cannan's friend Georgette Heyer and later reprinted by Penguin.  High Table (1930), set among Oxford dons, was reprinted in the 1980s as an Oxford Twentieth Century Classic and was praised for its vivid portrayal of Oxford.  Frightened Angels (1936) returns to the theme of murder, and later Cannan wrote a family saga extending across two novels, Little I Understood (1948) and And All I Learned (1952).  In addition, Cannan is credited with creating the true girls’ pony story with the acclaimed A Pony for Jean (1936) and its several sequels and variants.


Another fringe choice interjected from my own reading, but if one of the characteristics of the feminine middlebrow is its flirtation with highbrow modernist techniques, then Champneys certainly belongs in the category.  She is best known for her novel Miss Tiverton Goes Out (1926), which was suggested as "possibly Persephone" at one of the publisher's special events and which is a powerful and poetic evocation of a neglected child's efforts (sometimes hilarious) to make sense of her family's dysfunctionality, the class distinctions she sees around her, and a kind of spirituality that she finds on her elderly neighbor's estate.  Champneys, who published most of her novels anonymously or as "the author of Miss Tiverton Goes Out," wrote or co-wrote ten other novels, including Bride Elect (1913), The Recoiling Force (1914), The House Made with Hands (1924) (which similarly deals with a young girl's attachments to real estate), This Day's Madness (1926), November Night (1928), The Longer Day (1930) (fascinatingly described by The Bookman as "a detailed and intimate study of the life of a strange woman who once ran away from a picnic at which Tennyson, Ruskin, Huxley, Darwin, Browning and other literary notables were guests, because she was not particularly interested in what was being said or done"), Memorial to George, By Himself (1930) (in which the narrator is apparently a squirrel???!!), I Can Wait (1933), Fool's Melody (1937) (written with Michael Weldon Champneys—her husband, perhaps?), and Red Sun and Harvest Moon (1947).  A very intriguingly bizarre body of work, and if any of it is as well executed as Miss Tiverton, then Champneys seems worthy of further examination.

(née Miller, other married name Mallowan, aka Mary Westmacott)

In her book Forever England: Femininity, Literature and Conservatism Between the Wars, scholar Alison Light identified Agatha Christie as a key figure in what she called "popular modernism."  Nicola Humble, too, in her work on The Feminine Middlebrow Novel, discusses the middlebrow concerns and anxieties revealed in Christie's work.  And as both scholars were primarily discussing Christie's enormously popular and influential mystery novels, rather than her pseudonymous Mary Westmacott novels, which are more straightforward domestic dramas, I couldn't imagine not including Christie on any list of key middlebrow authors.  In fact, in some ways, mystery novels, with their necessarily meticulous attention to domestic details and personal behavior, might be as crucial for understanding the culture of a time period as the more literary novels that sit next to them on bookstore shelves.  (At any rate, that's my excuse for also including some of Christie's "mysterious" contemporaries—writers like Gladys Mitchell and Dorothy Sayers, whose books tend to transcend their genre.)  Christie's most famous mysteries include The Murder of Roger Ackroyd (1926), Murder on the Orient Express (1934), and And Then There Were None (1939), and her memoir, An Autobiography (1977), was a major bestseller.


Surely one of the oddest of 20th century writers and one of those whose reputation has often 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-crust 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, and provide considerable insight into the Victorian family dynamic Compton-Burnett was so fascinated by.  Until fairly 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

BARBARA COMYNS (1907-1992)
(pseudonym of Barbara Comyns Carr, née Bayley, first married name Pemberton)

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, surreal, and humorous elements of other works while retaining their darkness—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 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 decidedly 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 a few years earlier.  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.  Other works include The Ship of Truth (1930), A Certain Compass (1960), Late in the Afternoon (1971), and Snow and Roses (1976).

(pseudonym of Richmal Crompton Lamburn)

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 adult readers of the popular Home Magazine, but which became immensely popular with all ages, spawning movies and radio and television shows.  Her novels, by contrast, remain almost entirely out of print, except for Family Roundabout (1948), a wonderful saga about two matriarchs and their families who are joined by marriage, which has been reprinted by Persephone, and two entertaining novels reprinted by Greyladies—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.  Crompton's versatility in her adult fiction is remarkable (if not always equally satisfying)—in semi-autobiographical works like The Innermost Room (1923) and Anne Morrison (1925), family dramas like The Four Graces (1929) and Weatherly Parade (1944), explorations of the supernatural in the novel Dread Dwelling (1926) and in Mist and Other Stories (1928), and entertaining tales of women achieving varying degrees of liberation, as in The Odyssey of Euphemia Tracy (1932) or Steffan Green (1938).  She also apparently flirted with modernist stream-of-consciousness techniques, as noted by the Orlando Project in regard to her novel Blue Flames (1930).  An uneven writer, but one worthy of greater attention.

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 and ahead of its time, but has generally been 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 hit A Bill of Divorcement (1921)—and she also 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)
(pseudonym of Edmee Elizabeth Monica Dashwood, née de la Pasture)

Delafield is certainly best known today 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 work, Straw Without Bricks: I Visit Soviet Russia (1937), has been reprinted 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).  But Delafield published numerous other novels as well, including more serious works like Consequences (1919), a tragic story about the position of women reprinted by Persephone, The Way Things Are (1927), a semi-autobiographical novel about marriage, which Nicola Beauman discusses at some length in her classic critical text on the middlebrow, A Very Great Profession, 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, which sounds rather irresistible to me.  A fair number of Delafield's novels are happily now available in ebook format, though many more remain out of print and difficult to find.  Reportedly, Delafield never fully recovered from her son's death in 1940—which may have been a suicide—and she died only a few years later.  Her daughter, R. M. Dashwood, published one novel, Provincial Daughter (1961), which is a sort of next-generation Provincial Lady sequel.

MONICA DICKENS (1915-1992)
(married name Stratton)

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 a bit 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.

(married name Browning)

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 and most of her works are available from Virago.  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, including one about her father and another about her family history more generally, as well as a late biography of Branwell Brontë (1960).  Her other fiction included 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.

Jane Duncan

JANE DUNCAN (1910-1976)
(pseudonym of Elizabeth Jane Cameron)

Known (but not well enough) for the underrated “my friends” novels, nineteen in all, which follow narrator Janet Sandison from her youth during World War I up to the 1960s and which vary widely in theme and tone—some funny, some dark, some meditative—Duncan achieved considerable notoriety when, after years of writing (and sometimes destroying unpublished manuscripts), Macmillan suddenly accepted seven of her novels in one unprecedented swoop.  The series includes My Friends the Miss Boyds (1959), My Friend Muriel (1959), My Friend Martha's Aunt (1962), My Friend Madame Zora (1963), My Friends the Mrs. Millers (1965), My Friends the Hungry Generation (1968), and My Friends George and Tom (1976), among others.  Later, Duncan published a series of four novels which purport to be Sandison's own writing after she becomes a novelist herself.  These include Jean in the Morning (1964), Jean at Noon, or, Summer's Treasure (1971), Jean in the Twilight; or, the Mists of Autumn (1973), and Jean Towards Another Day; or, Can Spring Be Far Away? (1975).  She also published two series of children's books—the Camerons series (1963-1968) and the Janet Reachfar series (1975-1978).

SUSAN ERTZ (1894-1985)
(married name McCrindle)

Ertz was a popular writer of what were often referred to as “romance” novels (though this description may suit them as little as it does many other writers so described by publishers).  James K. Folsom in Twentieth-Century Western Writers summed her up: "Put in general terms, her stories normally deal with the plight of a young woman who is thrust out on her own from a sheltered environment into a vaguely hostile external world with which she is initially unprepared to cope. Her coming to terms with this hostile world provides the fictional interest of Ertz's novels."  Some of her best-known works include Madame Claire (1923), Now East, Now West (1927), which contrasts British and American culture, The Proselyte (1933), about an Englishwoman who marries a Mormon and moves to Utah, which was acclaimed for its sensitivity in portraying Mormonism, Anger in the Sky (1943), set in an English village during the Blitz, and Charmed Circle (1956), which deals with family turmoil.

Elizabeth Fair

(in personal life, used spelling Elisabeth)

As of June of 2015, this is the first newly-discovered author that I've felt warrants being included on this list. Though utterly unknown now, Fair is a witty and charming literary relative of Angela Thirkell, D. E. Stevenson, Margery Sharp, and maybe even Barbara Pym. I wrote about her in more detail here. She published six novels in all, all village comedies with large casts of funny and interesting characters, some of whom inevitably find romance amidst misunderstanding and general zaniness. The six novels are Bramton Wick (1952), Landscape in Sunlight (1953, published in the U.S. as All One Summer), The Native Heath (1954, published in the U.S. as Julia Comes Home), Seaview House (1955, published in the U.S. as A View of the Sea), A Winter Away (1957), and The Mingham Air (1960).


During the relatively short span of years when Farrell was actively publishing fiction, she was occasionally compared to Barbara Pym.  Although Farrell is perhaps darker and more cynical than Pym (judging from the one Farrell novel I've read), there is certainly a kind of family resemblance, and a reprinting of Farrell's witty novels might well be justified.  She wrote six in all—Johnny's Not Home from the Fair (1942), Mistletoe Malice (1951), Take It to Heart (1953), The Cost Of Living (1956), The Common Touch (1959), and Limitations of Love (1962).


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), reprinted by Virago in the 1980s and more recently by Bloomsbury, 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, reprinted 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.  (You have to admit, that's not a description one could apply to many novels…)  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. 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).

Pamela Frankau

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), 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)
(married name Webb)

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 really have been written by Evelyn Waugh.  Gibbons returned to this setting in “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).  But Gibbons' other novels have also (finally) come in for increased attention in the past few years, as many have been reprinted by Vintage UK.  These include several excellent novels with World War II or its immediate aftermath as backdrop—The Rich House (1941), The Bachelor(1943), Westwood (1946), and The Matchmaker (1949).  Other prominent novels are Enbury Heath (1935), Nightingale Wood (1938), and Here Be Dragons (1956).  Some of Gibbons' 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 wrote two additional novels, The Yellow Houses (completed around 1973) and An Alpha (completed around 1980), which remain unpublished.

RUMER GODDEN (1907-1998)
(married names Foster and Dixon)

Despite the vagaries of her publishing history (she has sometimes lapsed more or less out-of-print, though happily this is no longer the case, since Virago has been reprinting many of her works in the past few years), 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—which makes them sound rather dark, but they are actually enormously life-affirming.  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 herself 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 her servants tried to kill her and the children by grinding glass into their food.  The incidents of that period 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


For better or worse, Elizabeth Goudge may be 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 favorite so far of Goudge's work is The Castle on the Hill (1943), which I picked up for no better reason than that it was set during World War II, and I was quite surprised 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 might almost be seen as a precursor to Iris Murdoch’s more postmodern explorations of good and evil.  Goudge's other works include Island Magic (1934), Ikon on the Wall (1943), Gentian Hill (1949), The Dean's Watch (1960), The Scent of Water (1963), and her memoir, The Joy of the Snow (1974).

(married name Rougier)

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, and, although Heyer has received little critical attention, her novels can sometimes rather strikingly sum up many of the central themes of the middlebrow novel.  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).


Best known for her final novel, South Riding (1935), an epic of village government which was adapted for television a few years back, Holtby wrote six novels in all.  The others are Anderby Wold (1923), The Crowded Street (1924), which has been reprinted by Persephone, 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.  Tragically, Holtby died of Bright's disease at age 37.

NORAH HOULT (1898-1984)
(married name Stonor)

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 that in Marghanita Laski's 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.  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.  

STORM JAMESON (1891-1986)

Author of an impressive 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 include 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), set during World War II, Before the Crossing (1947), and The Black Laurel (1947).  She also published several other significant novels of World War II, such as Cousin Honore (1941) and Cloudless May (1943).  Jameson's novels were always informed by her concern with political issues, and she was reportedly named in the Berlin "death list" for her work on behalf of exiled writers. In 1969, she garnered praise for her memoir Journey from the North (1969).

(married name Lucas)

Nearly forgotten now, Jones wrote several well-received novels in the 1920s.  Her debut, Quiet Interior (1920), was warmly praised by the likes of 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.

(married name Fry)

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.  For whatever reason, E. M. Delafield has her Provincial Lady speak rather disparagingly of Kaye-Smith as a writer one might not care to know in real life.

MOLLY KEANE (1904-1996)
(née Skrine, aka M. J. Farrell)

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).

(married name Davies)

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 at different times 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 and her books were often selected for book clubs.  Other novels include The Fool of the Family (1930) a sequel to Nymph, A Long Time Ago (1932), and Return I Dare Not (1931).  She became active again after World War II, with novels such as The Feast (1950), the fascinating tale of a doomed resort hotel, Lucy Carmichael (1951), about a woman left at the altar who goes on to bigger and better things, and Troy Chimneys (1953).

Marghanita Laski

(full name Esther Pearl Laski, married name Howard)

A major Persephone rediscovery (it's amazing that her novels weren't in print until Persephone started rereleasing them a few years ago), Laski's work is by turns harrowing and humorous, but always socially and politically aware and filled with great storytelling.  Persephone has reprinted To Bed with Grand Music (1946), her disturbing wartime novel about 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 gradually rebuilt at war's end, 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.  Laski's other work includes “The Tower” (1955), a powerful ghost story of sorts set in Italy (which would have made a perfect companion piece for The Victorian Chaise-Longue), 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.  Interestingly, in later life she published several works about religious “ecstacy.”

(married names Runciman and Philipps)

Seen as the quintessential “women’s writer” during the years when she published her best work, 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, after which 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).

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 all of 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 a childhood spent 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.  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.

F[LORA]. M[ACDONALD]. MAYOR (1872-1932)
(aka Mary Strafford)

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, nor does she find them to be figures of fun.  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 offers a striking perspective on a young girl torn between her wild life as a flapper and the demands of her traditional role on the family estate.  Mayor also produced a collection of stories, The Room Opposite (1935), which includes several notable ghost stories.

BETTY MILLER (1910-1965)

Born in Ireland to immigrant parents, Miller published seven novels, including Farewell Leicester Square (1941), about anti-Semitism in the British film industry, which is available from Persephone, and On the Side of the Angels (1945), which explores gender roles and the effects of war on both men and women and which was reprinted by Virago and, more recently, by Capuchin.  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.  Miller counted such colleagues as Stevie Smith and Olivia Manning among her friends.  In 1945, Modern Reading published her Notes for an Unwritten Autobiography, which sounds intriguing, but which I haven't yet tracked down.

(aka Stephen Hockaby, aka Malcolm Torrie)

As with her fellow "Golden Age" mystery authors, including Agatha Christie, Josephine Tey, and Dorothy Sayers, Mitchell's novels provide fascinating insight into the culture of their time.  Far more eccentric and darkly funny than her colleagues, however, and featuring forensic psychiatrist Dame Beatrice Adela Lestrange Bradley, Mitchell's work particularly reflects the intellectual and psychological perspectives of the early and mid 20th century.  In addition to which, they are a rollicking good time.  Her classics include The Saltmarsh Murders (1932), Come Away, Death (1937), When Last I Died (1941), The Rising of the Moon (1945), and Tom Brown's Body (1949).  Mitchell also wrote five historical adventure novels under the pseudonym Stephen Hockaby in the 1930s, as well as six more mysteries under the pseudonym Malcolm Torrie in the late 1960s and early 1970s, none of which seem to have ever been reprinted.  And finally, she wrote nine novels for children, mostly mysteries for younger readers, but also including On Your Marks, a girls’ career novel dealing with Mitchell’s own area of expertise, physical education—which, happily, was reprinted by Greyladies last year.

(née Haldane)

A prolific and versatile writer who was also always politically engaged, 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 apparently was accepted because her historical settings made such themes 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)
(married name Rodd)

Famous for her postwar novels of social comedy 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 (talk about extremes!).  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 including Madame de Pompadour (1953),Voltaire in Love (1957), and The Sun King (1966).

KATE O'BRIEN (1897-1974)

Known for her novels of Irish-Catholic family life, some of which proved controversial for their outspokenness on sexuality and politics.  Her first novel, Without My Cloak (1931), was a family saga that won both the James Tait Black Memorial Prize and the Hawthornden Prize.  The Anteroom (1934) focuses on the family drama going on while the family's matriarch is dying in the background, and The Land of Spices (1943), is about the Reverend Mother of an Irish convent.  Other novels—most available from Virago—include Mary Lavelle (1936), The Last of Summer (1943), That Lady (1947), and The Flower of May (1953).  O'Brien was also a successful playwright, adapting some of her novels for the stage as well as authoring original plays.  Mary Lavelle was made into the film Talk of Angels in 1998.  That Lady (published in the U.S. as For One Sweet Grape, became first a Broadway show (1949) and then a movie (1955).

Edith Olivier

EDITH OLIVIER (1872-1948)

Along with Norah Hoult, Edith Olivier is one of my favorites among 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—though recently the excellent news came out that many of her books, including all of the novels, are being reprinted by Bello BooksThe Love-Child is a striking companion-piece to Sylvia Townsend-Warner's Lolly Willowes, published the year before, which also deals with an unmarried woman's middle-aged eccentricities—perhaps supernatural, perhaps delusional, but certainly startling and entertaining.  Olivier's other novels tend to be less fantastic in plot but every bit as quirky, unpredictable, and enjoyable.  Particularly intriguing is 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, and 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.  Olivier's other novels—all well worth reading—are As Far as Jane's Grandmother's (1929), The Triumphant Footman (1930), and Dwarf's Blood (1931).  Also among the works Bello is reprinting is Olivier's compulsively readable memoir, Without Knowing Mr. Walkley (1938).

(full name Mary Patricia Panter-Downes, married name Robinson)

Best-known for many years as the author of 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.  In recent years, many of those stories have been collected by Persephone 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 with much fanfare when she was only 17 years old, were successful but were later more or less disowned by Panter-Downes and never seem to have been reprinted.  Her wartime "Letters from London," published in 1971 as London War Notes 1939-1945, is a fascinating chronicle of life on the home front.

WINIFRED PECK (1882-1962)
(née Knox)

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).  Her memoirs are A Little Learning: A Victorian Childhood (1952) and Home for the Holidays (1955).

BARBARA PYM (1913-1980)

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 highlight 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 more 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, largely due to the efforts of poet Philip Larkin, 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).  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.

(pseudonym of Eileen Arbuthnot Robertson, married name Turner)

Now mainly 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.

(originally Naomi Holroyd Smith, married name Milton)

A 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 ever 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 later compared by Betty Askwith to Sylvia Townsend Warner’s similarly odd historical novel The Corner That Held ThemOutside 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).

(full name Victoria Mary Sackville-West, married name Nicolson)

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 literary work, 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 an interesting novelist—see my main list).  A departure from her usual subject matter of family life and turmoil among the upper classes was Grand Canyon (1941), a dystopian vision of 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)

DORA SAINT (1913-2012)
(née Shafe, aka Miss Read)

Saint was most prominently 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 began in part because Saint needed 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).

(married name Fleming)

Scholar and mystery writer known for her Peter Wimsey/Harriet Vane novels.  Although the early mysteries, such as Whose Body? (1923), Clouds of Witness (1926), and The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club (1928), are fairly straightforward—if very well done—mysteries, later works like The Nine Tailors (1934), Gaudy Night (1935), and Busman's Honeymoon (1937) could, as ODNB put it, "stand on their own against more manifestly serious fiction of their day."  Gaudy Night, in which Harriet Vane returns to her Oxford alma mater and uncovers mystery and moral dilemma, is widely considered Sayers' best and is discussed in some depth by Nicola Humble, though The Nine Tailors, with its meticulous focus on a group of bell-ringers in a snowbound English village and its meditations on mortality and time, is my personal favorite.  After the 1930s, Sayers wrote no more mysteries, focusing instead on philosophical and theological writings and on her acclaimed translation of Dante.

MARGERY SHARP (1905-1991)
(married name Castle)

A quintessentially “cozy” writer who belongs alongside D. E. Stevenson, Dodie Smith, and Elizabeth Cadell on any middlebrow 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.  Cluny Brown (1944) is set during World War II and is of interest for its depiction of life on the home front, and Britannia Mews (1946) is a family saga that ends during the war years.  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).  My personal favorite, for what it's worth, 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.)

DODIE SMITH (1896-1990)
(full name Dorothy Gladys Smith, married name Beesley)

Immortalized by the success of 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 (at least by Vintage, who issued it in their Classics series), 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 were reprinted a few years ago by Corsair in the U.K.  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.).

(aka Jane Nicholson)

A prolific and popular novelist from the 1920s to the 1970s, Steen walked the line between critical acceptance and dismissal.  Her novel Matador (1934), set in the bullfighting scene in Spain, was both a Book Society and Book-of-the-Month club selection.  The Sun Is My Undoing (1941), the first volume of her trilogy about the slave trade and Bristol shipping, was a major bestseller in the U.K. and the U.S., and Shelter (1942) is an effective example of "Blitz lit."  Other novels include The Gilt Cage (1927), They That Go Down in Ships (1931), Granada Window (1949), Phoenix Rising (1952), The Unquiet Spirit (1955), The Woman in the Back Seat (1959, intriguingly reviewed here), and Candle in the Sun (1964).  Late in life Steen published two acclaimed memoirs of literary life in England from the 1920s to 1950s, Looking Glass (1966) and Pier Glass (1968). 

G. B. STERN (1890-1973)
(pseudonym of Bertha [later changed to Bronwen] Gladys Stern)

A prolific novelist and journalist whose career spans an impressive 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

(married name Peploe)

D[orothy] E[mily] Stevenson is in many ways 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.  Her most famous works are probably the Miss Buncle books—Miss Buncle's Book (1934), a comedy about a young(-ish) woman in an English village who writes a novel inspired by her fellow villagers, and then has to keep her authorship secret from 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.  Also popular is the Mrs. Tim series, which presents the humorous and partially autobiographical diary of Hester Christie, wife of an army officer, including Mrs. Tim of the Regiment (1934), Mrs. Tim Carries On (1941), Mrs. Tim Gets a Job (1947), and Mrs. Tim Flies Home (1952).  Other of Stevenson's novels include Smouldering Fire (1935), The English Air (1940), Spring Magic (1942), Listening Valley (1944), and Five Windows (1953).  Several publishers have brought Stevenson titles back into print in recent years, including Persephone, Bloomsbury, and Sourcebooks.  Some of her previously unpublished work has also been released by Greyladies.

(aka Susan Scarlett)

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.  She also wrote numerous novels for adults, which tend to be darker and rather cynical, a fact that may explain their continuing obscurity.  Her debut novel, The Whicharts (1931), reflected her disillusionment with acting and is sometimes seen as a precursor to Ballet Shoes.  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.  There are 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 been reprinted in recent years by Greyladies, including Clothes-Pegs (1939), Ten Way Street (1940), Summer Pudding (1943), Poppies for England (1948), and Love in a Mist (1951).  Only one of her more serious novels from the period—the fascinating Saplings (1945)—has been reprinted, by Persephone. In the 1960s and 1970s, she published a popular trilogy of "memoirs," though fictionalized enough for some sources to refer to them as novels—A Vicarage Family  (1963), Away from the Vicarage (1965), and Beyond the Vicarage (1971).

JAN STRUTHER (1901-1953)
(pseudonym of Joyce Anstruther, married names Graham and Placzek)

Jan Struther achieved literary immortality with her book Mrs. Miniver (1939), which—adapted from a series of newspaper articles—wittily and incisively 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.  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), the latter of which is also in the voice of Mrs. Miniver.

(née Coles)

Certainly the only writer on this list whose career was hindered by sharing a name with a film star, Taylor was an underrated writer during her life and had 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 an interesting view of life in the immediate aftermath of the war.  Another favorite is A Game of Hide-and-Seek (1951), which features 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 equally polished and readable.  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).  Taylor also published a children's book, Mossy Trotter (1967). 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 fascinating biography called The Other Elizabeth Taylor.

JOSEPHINE TEY (1897-1952)
(pseudonym of Elizabeth MacKintosh, aka Gordon Daviot)

Golden Age mystery writer who, like Dorothy Sayers, is known for the depth of character she brings to her work.  Several of her mysteries feature Alan Grant, an upper-crust CID officer who suffers from severe claustrophobia.  Tey's most famous Alan Grant mystery—and perhaps one of the most acclaimed mysteries of all time—is The Daughter of Time (1951), in which Grant, from a hospital bed where he is recovering from an injury, "solves" the mystery of Richard III and the Princes in the Tower.  Other Alan Grant mysteries include The Man in the Queue (1929), A Shilling for Candles (1936), which was the basis for Hitchcock's film Young and Innocent (1937), and To Love and Be Wise (1950).  Tey was just as skillful in creating amateur detectives—particularly the fascinating Miss Pym in Miss Pym Disposes (1946), an amateur psychologist who has written a bestselling book on the topic and who gets wrapped up in investigating a murder at a girls' school.  Other titles include The Franchise Affair (1948), Brat Farrar (1949), and The Singing Sands (1952).  Tey was also a successful playwright and author of radio plays.

(née Mackail, later married name McInnes)

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.  Sometimes criticized for snobbishness, 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).  Particular favorites are the wartime installments, 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 the politics in her novels became more heavyhanded.  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).  In 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.

DIANA TUTTON (?1915-1991?)
(née Godfrey-Faussett-Osborne? [identification uncertain])

Tutton has become a blogger favorite for her wonderful 1953 novel, Guard Your Daughters, the tale of a family of sisters trying to meet men despite their mother's phobic dread of letting them into the real world.  It's funny and fascinating, and the dark undercurrents of the mother's madness only enhance its pleasures.  Sadly, the same cannot be said for Tutton's other two, increasingly odd, novels—Mamma (1955), about a mother in love with her daughter's fiancé, and The Young Ones (1959), about a woman coping with her brother and sister having an incestuous affair (!!!).  After 1959, Tutton seems to have stopped publishing (one shudders to think where her subject matter would have taken her next!), and information about the author herself is sketchy at best.  Nevertheless, Guard Your Daughters has become a sort of classic, and a central text for studying the "feminine middlebrow."

(née Grosvenor, married name Buchan, Tweedsmuir comes from her title, Baroness Tweedsmuir)

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 which tackles the story of a pregnant unmarried girl in a traditional, epistolary, Victorian style.  She also wrote three short, rather impressionistic memoirs which are well worth reading— The Lilac and the Rose (1952), A Winter Bouquet (1954), and The Edwardian Lady (1966).  None of her work seems to be in print.

(pseudonym of Mary Annette von Arnim, née Beauchamp, later married name Russell, aka Elizabeth, aka Alice Cholmondeley)

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.  That novel was used as anti-German propaganda and stirred up some controversy.  Vera (1921), one of von Arnim's most acclaimed works, was a rather bitter condemnation of her second husband.  In 1936, von Arnim published her memoir, All the Dogs of My Life.

ROSALIND WADE (1909-1989)
(aka Catharine Carr, married name Seymour)

Prolific novelist who is discussed at some length in Nicola Beauman's A Very Great Profession—particularly her 1937 novel Treasure in Heaven—and who seems like a rather quintessentially middlebrow author.  Wade's debut novel, Children, Be Happy! (1931), about a young girl's college days, received acclaim but also triggered a libel action, discussed by Alec Waugh in his memoirs.  (In her memoirs, Muriel Spark also refers rather cattily to Wade and her husband, who had previously been married to Beatrice Seymour, another author on my list.)  Wade's works also frequently explored the supernatural.  Other titles include Shadow Thy Dream (1934), Men Ask for Beauty (1936), Pride of the Family (1943), Present Ending (1946), Cassandra Calls (1954), Come Fill the Cup (1955), The Vanished Days (1966), and Mrs. Medland's Private World (1973).  Under her pseudonym, Wade published ten novels which seem to be more romantic in nature.


Apart from being the author of my 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. 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 practitioner of gay marriage before the fact with 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).

(pseudonym of Dora Amy Elles, married names Dillon and Turnbull)

Novelist who published several historical romances—including A Marriage under the Terror (1910), A Little More than Kin (1911), The Fire Within (1913), and Queen Anne Is Dead (1915), before commencing her successful Miss Silver mystery series, which includes more than sixty titles in all, published from 1924 to 1961.  Perhaps second only to Agatha Christie's Miss Marple among well-known spinster crime-solvers, Wentworth's Miss Maud Silver, a retired governess, solves her mysteries while diligently getting on with her knitting.  The novels often contain a romantic element, though the interest from a middlebrow perspective is in the ways in which Miss Silver's experiences as a governess have given her insight into behavior and motives.  Some of the Wentworth's best-known or most acclaimed Miss Silver mysteries are Grey Mask (1928), The Case Is Closed (1937), The Chinese Shawl (1943), Miss Silver Intervenes (1944, aka Miss Silver Deals with Death), The Clock Strikes Twelve (1944), The Brading Collection (1950), and Poison in the Pen (1955).

REBECCA WEST (1892-1983)
(pseudonym of Cicily Isabel Andrews, née Fairfield)

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 best 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.

(née Stirrup)

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 loyalties are with Persephone on this one.  Her final novel, Someone at a Distance (1953), is 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!  In Delafield's The Provincial Lady in Wartime, the lady herself recommends Whipple's The Priory (1939) to a friend as the perfect wartime comfort reading, while High Wages (1930), about a shopgirl who makes good as a successful shop owner herself, has striking insights about class, commercialism, and female body image.  Whipple's other novels are 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)
(pseudonym of Eirene Adeline Hopkinson, née Botting, earlier married names Green-Wilkinson and Smith)

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.

E[MILY]. H[ILDA]. YOUNG (1880-1949)
(married name Daniell)

Sometimes compared with Jane Austen in her lifetime, Young's novels are often 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 troubled 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).


  1. Thank you! Your blog is a treasure trove, and every visit a treat : )

  2. This is a terrific list (as are all your lists): so useful!

    On another writer you have mentioned (of interest to me as I am a classicist): I read a blog today ( on Kathleen Freeman/Mary Fitt, which notes a forthcoming biography and provides an interesting link: Apologies if this is not new to you! ;-)

    1. Thank you, Vicki. Glad you like the list. And thanks for the links re Kathleen Freeman. Although she is on my list, she's not one of the authors I know a lot about it, and she does sound very interesting. Thanks for sharing!

  3. This is fantastic! I've been looking forward to this since you hinted it was coming. I appreciate that you included so many notes and links, in addition to listing the author's name. I've certainly found my blog reading for the week! Thank you SO much for putting this together.

    1. So glad you like it, Bree! Hope you find a new author or two to enjoy, and let me know if I forgot anyone!

  4. What a brilliant idea to make a "starter kit" for middlebrow authors. You have all of my favorites, I believe, and many more whose work I would like to read more. Thank you, Scott!

    1. Thank you, Kristi, I'm glad you like it. I'm sure a healthy amount of the list came originally from the recommendations of you and the other DESsies over the past several years, so I can honestly thank you for your help with it!

  5. OH YAY! Scott, you finally talked about Angela Thirkell! Thank you, thank you! I like her writing so very much, and not enough attention is paid to her. So again, many thanks! Tom

  6. Actually, may I write a second thank-you? You not only mentioned Mrs. Thirkell, but my five favorites - Thirkell, Patricia Wentworth, Barbara Pym, D.E. Stevenson and Elizabeth Cadell! You do understand, don't you, that for this, and for all your other enormously detailed work, you will have a special place in Heaven, don't you? I bow to the master! Tom

    1. Hopefully a special place in heaven at a tea table with all of those women? Perhaps alternating with various other women from my list on other days of the week? Though one wonders how some of them would get along with others--things might get a little dicey sometimes....

  7. Oh Scott, what a brilliant idea... A group of one's favourite authors getting together -- and disliking each other!

    1. Yesterday at work, somehow Virginia Woolf and Djuna Barnes came up in the same conversation, and I thought how unlikely it was that that would have been a friendly, enjoyable tea table!

  8. Now I've had time to read it through. A very nice list, Scott. Thanks for this.

  9. Just come across this list. What a fantastic resource, containing so many of the writers I love and admire. Thank you.

  10. I had the good fortune of finishing Lolly Willowes for the first time today ... and I immediately sat up and thought, if only I could read books kind of like this all the time, how content would I be? So I googled madly and stumbled upon your site. I grew up reading the children's fiction of Joan Aiken and E. Nesbit, Margery Sharp and Dodie White and Noel Streatfield obsessively ... but sort of hit a wall with British women writers when I was "supposed" to transition to Jane Austen and other serious literary fiction (esp. Victorian fiction). Now, after limping through Goodreads recommendations for Virago/New York Review classics, it's wonderful to find a site like yours that zeroes in on what I think I really will love. Thank you.

    1. Thanks so much, Miranda! Glad you've found me, and I hope you find lots of other good books to read. Sadly, in my opinion Lolly Willowes is one-of-a-kind--even Warner's other novels don't seem to work as well for me, as interesting as they are--but there are certainly other enjoyable books that share some of the same qualities. Welcome!

  11. This is really wonderful! I've just discovered your blog and can already foresee my already straining to-read list exploding a bit. Thank you so much! I'm a PhD candidate in music history who likes, when her work of reading and writing is done, to go home and read some more: children's lit, sci-fi and fantasy, and early to mid-twentieth-century domestic fiction by British women. That last category always sounds ridiculously specific to my friends, but we happy few know what we're talking about. :-)

    Anyway, I've only just begun exploring your blog, but rather than look around for a while, perhaps in vain, I thought I'd just ask: in addition to this not-so-overwhelming list of authors, do you perhaps have an equally not-so-overwhelming list of titles? Your top 20-50 favorite novels, perhaps, or what you consider to be the best/most important/most popular single novel by each of these authors? Either of those would be a list I could really sink my teeth into (without demanding the time to research "what's so-and-so's most representative work?" Unfortunately I don't have much of that sort of spare time as a grad understand!)

  12. Hi Scott. So pleased to discover your blog! As a big fan of some of the books of Monica Dickens, Barbara Pym, Sylvia Townsend Warner, Elizabeth von Arnim, Margery Sharpe and Julia Strachey I have been looking for a resource like this for years. As the previous reader commented, I would LOVE to see a list of your top books but perhaps more like 50 or 75. Also interested to hear about your recent difficulties with Pym...

    1. Hi, Kristina (and Samantha). You've both given me some food for thought, and the wheels are starting to turn. I'm notoriously slow about putting together my lists, so no promises about when it will be ready, but I think some kind of list like you suggest might be fun to put together. Stay tuned!

  13. Hi, I've just discovered your amazing blog! How fantastic to be pointed in a direction I know, is going to bring me so much pleasure. I have been a fan of Miss Read whom you mention, since the 1970's, when my late mother gave me a copy of The Christmas Mouse as a cure for did the trick and Miss Read has comforted me during many stressful and anxious times in my life. Thank you very much for this great blog.

  14. I've been enjoying (and sometimes compulsively reading) many of these authors. Thanks for the Not Quite So Overwhelming List, Scott. And just a note - I've found a number of these books (including out-of-print books) on Open Library. Well worth having a look.

  15. Happy to see Jane Duncan on this list. I finished her "My Friend" series with great sadness. I felt that Jane Duncan could have been MY friend. Some of her books are more compulsively readable than others; but there is an honesty and openness there.


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