Thursday, July 30, 2015

Comedy and tragedy: DOROTHY WYNNE WILLSON (1909-1932)

A couple of months ago, Tina Brooker, a reader I've already acknowledged here several times for the wonderful authors she finds in her searches in second hand bookshops, E-bay, and the like, sent me yet another batch of interesting finds. Included were several authors who have found their way into my most recent update of the Overwhelming List. As I researched them, though, I found that none had a more gut-wrenching backstory as Dorothy Wynne Willson.

Tina came across Willson's one novel, Early Closing (1931), in an E-bay listing, which described the novel as an adult novel set in a boys' school. With the predictable result that I not only added it to my Grownup School Story List (it's coming soon, I promise!), but started trolling Abe Books in pursuit of a copy. After a couple of false starts—and some sifting of quite costly copies of the book—I snagged an affordable copy of the American edition of the book, which rather amazingly came not only in excellent condition but with a fully intact dustwrapper (images above and below, of course).

In the meantime, I had poked around a bit and found some random bits of information: Willson's father taught at Gresham's School in North Norfolk, where one of his students had been Benjamin Britten; Early Closing was chosen as a selection of the Book Society, which meant it must have done pretty well; and, last but certainly not least, Willson had died at the age of 22, just a few months after the book's publication. Yikes.

But although I could easily find her life and death dates online, I could find no mention of the cause of this shockingly early death. Auto accident? Disease? I thought of such things as tuberculosis or pneumonia, which were still so deadly in those days. Or, of course, even a simple infection, which before antibiotics could quite often get out of hand. The real cause didn't occur to me in my speculations, but I didn't know about it until later, after I'd turned it over to expert researcher John Herrington.

When I first heard back from John about his search for information on Willson, he said he had located a death notice, but didn't have access to the site it was on. He had asked a fellow researcher to obtain it for him. But he gave me the sad bit of information that Willson had a twin, who survived her by 64 years. Knowing as we do how close twins tend to be—almost two halves of the same whole, one might say, at least from my own experience working with one twin at my previous job and working with the other twin at my new job (it was oddly familiar and yet uncannily different adapting to that situation)—only adds to the tragic nature of Willson's story.

By now, the book had arrived, and so I found a bit more information about Willson's life from the jacket blurbs. The author bio contains the information that Willson lived "in a small village near Oxford where she writes and amuses herself with amateur theatricals." It also contains an extraordinarily condescending quotation from a review in John O'London's Weekly: "If she had lived this life she describes her success would have been rare enough, but to have described it from behind the barrier of her sex with such shrewdness and truth is a great achievement." I assume the reviewer meant that because she was a woman, she couldn't have directly experienced life in a boys' school, but the smugness of it still rather makes me want to punch the reviewer in the nose.

At first, I was quite enthusiastic about the novel. It leaps quite effectively between the perspectives of the master of one of the school's houses, one or two of the other masters, several of the boys, and even the sister and father of two of the boys. Perhaps Willson's own youth, her recent schooldays, and her experiences with a schoolmaster father allowed her to imagine the various perspectives, and her own exuberant humor and high spirits come through quite a lot. The following passage, from the opening pages of the novel, sets the tone well, as William, the master of a house, prepares for a new term:

His letters came from parents, heralding the arrival of their offspring on the morrow. These letters, few, and invariably couched in the same terms, came as regularly as his assessment papers from the Inland Revenue; had done since he took over the house six years ago, and would do so until he gave it up nine years hence.

William skimmed through them one and all, dispassionately. He looked upon their authors as one of the curses of the State.
One day he would write a letter to the Press about them. Some there were who wrote hoping that their boy would be appreciated; and others, fearing that theirs had not been understood.

Those few who had not discovered the artistic temperament in their sons, had found them to be highly strung; and one and all would have him know that theirs was not the sort of boy to settle down easily into the rough-and-tumble of Public School life.

And William tried, as always, to forget the signatures, that the imbecilities of the parents might not be too heavily visited upon the children.

William also teaches mathematics, which is the bane of young Johnny's existence, and William's teaching style doesn't help put Johnny at ease:

His worst moments came when, after an explanation, William would look round and say: "Now is there any boy who has not understood? I will go no further unless every boy is clear. Is every boy clear?"

And then would come a conventional pause, a brief silence, resembling that which follows the giving out of marriage banns; and as rarely broken; whilst every boy looked round upon every other boy superciliously, to see if there was amongst them any boy fool enough not to have understood. On these occasions Johnny drew himself up and gave glance for glance, bringing 'that willing suspension of disbelief' to bear on the matter in hand. And now, praying the bell would release him, he sat on, very stiff and sorrowful, with his pen poised over the paper as if, with every confidence in his method, he was just about to write something down.

Willson's wit is quite clear here, and I was charmed by it from the beginning. But there is also an occasional air of melancholy, as characters ponder more serious issues. This is particularly true of Johnny's sister Lavender, who remains at home while her brothers go off to school. She appears only occasionally, but when she does she seems to represent Willson herself and her youthful anxieties about striving toward intellectual and literary success. Here is a particularly poignant passage—especially as written by a young woman who was on the cusp of achieving such success, only to have her life cut tragically short:

And Lavender loved dancing, and when not gazing from the poet's outlook at things in their True Light, wondered uphappily why her programme was not as full as some. It was not as though she was hideous, or badly-dressed, or got under people's feet.

And then besides her contemporaries, there were her father's friends, men of solid intellect; men who, if they did use a Greek quotation, used it as naturally as they would their handkerchiefs. They smiled with a lenient contempt for these false-backed goods in Lavender's shop window.

And sometimes, after a bout of introspection, Lavender would thrust away her thoughts as mere emotional superficialities, and tell herself how possible it is for a woman to have soaring ideals, and insufficient brains to keep them company. And she would ponder miserably, and wonder if the crux of the matter lay in the fact that she had not the pluck to realise that she was but an ordinary person, without enough to do. Nothing more intricate than that.

And finally (at the risk of boring you all with random snippets), I can't resist sharing this brilliant passage about the school's cook, Mrs. Turvey, which, perhaps more than any other passage in the novel, reveals Willson's abilities to create poetic prose and vivid characterizations. It's actually quite a bit longer than what I'm including here, but I've trimmed it a bit to show the high points:

At that instant Julia looked in, and staring with round eyes into the fog besought Mrs. Turvey to open a window.

The old woman raised her strange, rheumatic hands and sweeping across the kitchen opened a window all on top of one of Kedge's underlings, who sprang away stung into a dazed activity.

Mrs. Turvey clapped the window to again, and made off back to the stove.

She had a wild and crazy glance and the blazing eyes of a fanatic. Indeed, she was a throw-back to pre-Renaissance times with a sackcloth-and-ashes strain in her mutterings, together with a bleak 'vale of tears' outlook on life.

But she was quite harmless and no more responsible for her looks than is a gargoyle. She lived apart. Her general intelligence had long ago petered out; but her cooking remained. Her large-scale meals for the dining hall were no better and no worse than those of other Houses; but the dishes she produced for William's private table were of an incredible subtlety. Her gravies rich and delicious, afloat with little triangles of pale brown toast, lingered in the mind, a hallowed memory.

The House was proud of her, and new boys were told that she was William's aunt. And on this first Sunday of term, in the early afternoon as was her custom after dinner, Mrs. Turvey drew up her wheelback chair to the fire and consulted her prayer book. This was a Victorian one. She went through the service and prayed a little uncertainly for Albert and the Queen, and shook her head over them, sighing, "Oh, dear, dearie, dear, God bless them and God bless me poor heart." And she moaned over them, dimly and uncomprehendingly, as she moaned over William and over her ancient younger brother, who had been a market gardener, and though beneath the sward these ten years, existed for her still with all his financial failings and his corns.

These beings alone stood out clearly, landmarks in the haze, the great shapeless unanalysed Worry that was her life.

Then she closed her prayer book, crossed her hands upon her lap, and was aware of nothing save the warmth from the stove and its murmur, and the feel of her silk skirt against her fingers...

Whew! For a 22-year-old author to have penned such a passage is impressive indeed.

Which makes me feel even more curmudgeonly about making a criticism of the novel. It's unquestionably brilliant and exuberant, with a rather scathingly cynical edge, and some of you might find it worth your time and the investment in a copy of it—especially if you enjoy novels set in schools.

The trouble, for me, is that it is perhaps just a bit too brilliant and exuberant. Every sentence must be clever; every paragraph must have a zing. The book Early Closing kept reminding me of was another bit of youthful brilliance, also about a school (though an American Ivy League college, rather than an English boarding school). F. Scott Fitzgerald's This Side of Paradise, which was likewise always just a bit too much for me, even in my own days of youthful exuberance. I always found Fitzgerald's debut novel so packed with "Hey! Look at this. Isn't this clever of me?" that I rather wanted to heave the young Fitzgerald into a handy fountain. (I even dodged a re-read of it when I was a Teaching Assistant for a Hemingway & Fitzgerald course in grad school—I just couldn't face it again, though, predictably, many of my youthfully exuberant students felt differently).

Early Closing is not nearly as irritating as This Side of Paradise, but it does have its moments, and I would have been remiss in reviewing it without mentioning the reservations I had. In the end, I didn't love Willson's novel, but there was certainly much to like.

And if Early Closing was Dorothy Wynne Willson's This Side of Paradise, then one can't help but wonder what amazing things Willson might have managed to produce had she not died so tragically. I can hardly bear to wonder what her Great Gatsby might have been…

Oh, and by the way, I did finally get a copy of the death notice published a few days after Willson's death (see below). The unguessed cause of death in an otherwise healthy, 22-year-old rising star of the literary world?


Death notice from the Sunderland Daily Echo,
January 28, 1932

Friday, July 24, 2015


ROMILLY & KATHERINE JOHN, Death by Request (1933)

I was quite excited when I stumbled across this hitherto-unknown mystery at Aardvark Books in San Francisco. It was a Hogarth Crime edition from the 1980s, and I've always liked those editions and the kinds of books they selected. Add to that that the book allowed me to add a new author to my Overwhelming List (though just barely, as Katherine John published no other fiction and only co-wrote this novel). Plus, the plot, involving a locked room murder at a country manor house and an array of odd characters with lots of secrets, seemed irresistible.

Sadly, I've just found it altogether too easy to resist, and have abandoned it just beyond the halfway mark. (The common denominator of my literary abandonments is that the words "Life is too short" almost always glimmer across my consciousness, and once that happens it's virtually a sure thing that I will abandon the book within a few more pages. There may have been cases where those few pages have reawakened my interest enough to keep me reading, but I can't recall any offhand. One morning, on the MUNI train, reading this novel, I thought, "Life is too short," and realized I would likely have nothing to read during my evening commute.)

At first, it seemed that the quirky characters and the occasional bits of humor would carry me through, as when the butler, under suspicion of having committed the murder, absents himself from serving lunch, and the head of the household explains to his guests, "As a suspect … he feels above such menial tasks." But the humor was a bit too sparse to sustain what seemed to me otherwise a rather dry and plodding narrative—and one that I found strangely cold and, well, masculine, for a novel co-written by a woman. I have the feeling Katherine John must have worked mainly on plot elements or on the puzzle itself rather than on the writing. Of course that's making assumptions and stereotyping and being politically incorrect, but it was nevertheless the feeling I got based on years of preferring women writers to male.

Obviously, I can't provide much personal advice on whether the solution to the mystery is particularly clever or brilliant or unexpected, seeing as how I never reached that point in my reading. But for what it's worth, Steve at Mystery File clearly did finish the novel and still wasn't terribly excited about it:

For today’s audiences, large portions of this exercise in murder-solving will be dreary and dull to the extreme. For those of you who like puzzles, well, the puzzle is there, and without a doubt, a double delight it is. The problem is that it’s, well, unskillfully told, when measured by more modern standards, say of five or so years later.

You can also read a similarly unenthusiastic discussion of the book, but one which draws interesting connections to Josephine Tey's Miss Pym Disposes, here. And by the way, I don't consider that either discussion contains any plot spoilers (apart from the element of spoiling that unenthusiastic reviews might accomplish).

Of course, it's always fun to come across a hitherto unknown novel purely by chance (if chance and not some unfathomable readerly destiny is what genuinely rules our prowling in bookshops). Sadly, however, in this case, the pleasure ended there.

SHEILA PIM, Common or Garden Crime (1945)

There are simply too many books to read and too little time to read them in. If I hadn't already been aware of that, the fact that it took me so long to get around to reading Sheila Pim, despite repeated recommendations from multiple people, is enough to send me once again into my mini book geek panic attack at the thought of how many wonderful books there are out there that I've never read—indeed may still not have heard of. Surely Andy should be cheerfully willing to support me while I quit my job and spend every waking moment in a prone position with a book propped on my chest (my girth no doubt increasing by the day)?

Well, perhaps not.

But you can probably guess from this introduction that I quite enjoyed my introduction to Pim. She's been called an Irish Angela Thirkell, and I can see the comparison, but she's also a bit cozier, a perfect rainy day read. The coziness of Pim's books, though, doesn't mean she's not a smart and very talented writer. She wrote (if anyone among you is even further behind on your reading than I was) only four mysteries—Common or Garden Crime (1945), Creeping Venom (1946), A Brush with Death (1950), and A Hive of Suspects (1952). All of them were reprinted by Rue Morgue Press, but it looks like they are now beginning to lapse out of print again (good deals still to be had on them at Abe Books, happily). She also apparently wrote three non-mystery novels, and I'll bet it's not a surprise to anyone that I'm already in hot pursuit of the first of those…

I really need not share much of the plot of Common or Garden Crime: in 1943, in a charming Irish village, a garden-related poisoning appears at first to be accidental, but gradually reveals itself to be more sinister, and Lucy Bex, an amateur sleuth whose helpfulness and likability consistently places her in the middle of everything (a la Hazel Holt's Mrs. Malory), gradually works out the details while preparing for the village flower show and concealing a secret engagement between two of the young folk of the village. Along the way, she encounters numerous villagers who, though entertainingly varied, feel vividly like real people, and her uncovering of clues is often so well combined with her domestic tasks and sociability that one misses them entirely. In fact, her domestic knowledge is a large part of how she solves the mystery, and we see her unique logic at work in this passage (no spoilers, only discussion of suspicions):

"She's rather sinister too," said Lucy reflectively. "One of these spinsters, you know, though I say it as shouldn't. She seemed very interested in Lady Madeleine. And there she was at the Hall, all Sunday morning. She could easily have slipped into the kitchen and left the grated up roots instead of the horseradish."

"Yes, but she couldn't have known they were going to have horseradish."

"Oh yes, she could. Anyone who's ever done the housekeeping might have guessed that. Ordering meals," said Lucy, launching on a favorite topic, "is like free will and predestination. You think you can have what you like, and then you find it's all dictated by circumstances. The weekend before a bank holiday you have to think about having something cold for Monday. There isn't enough on lamb and nobody wants to eat cold mutton. Pork's no good in August, and you can't get ham at present. So you see it just has to be beef, and now that nobody has any mustard, horseradish naturally goes with it."

"Sounds simple," said Ivor skeptically. "I should think it would be a bit too simple for a jury, especially as they don't have women on them over here."

Throughout there is Pim's delightful sense of humor—rarely riotous, not as zany as Joan Coggin, for example, even sometimes rather subtle, but always great fun. I loved this little touch in a discussion between Lucy and her brother: "Linnaeus got up to let the cat out. Then he got up to let it in again. After this diversion he replied…"

I don't suppose Pim will go down in history for having created the most brilliant and impenetrable of puzzles, but I found the solution here rather clever. She won't be for the most hardcore mystery fans, perhaps, but for those of you, like me, who focus most on good humor, charming and believable characters, and entertaining situations in our mysteries, then for Pete's sake get to reading Pim!

I have to share this little snippet from Lucy's investigations (again, no spoilers) because it shows a side of her I imagine most of us can relate to. Under the guise of trying to track down a book on poisonous plants that may or may not have a bearing on the case, Lucy seizes the opportunity to examine a neighbor's bookcase (as who among us would not?!):

The books on the desk were a dictionary, Thom's Directory, and Debrett. Lucy always wanted to see what people read, and, when she had finished telephoning, she could not resist going over to the bookshelf. It was full of recent publications, Book Society choices and bestsellers that Lucy had heard of and not read. She admired the effect of all the bright new bindings, which she could not help contrasting with the shabby collection in the garden room at Annalee Lodge. There was no sign of Linnaeus's copy of Poisonous Plants.

Norah had been listening for Miss Bex to finish with the telephone. She opened the study door just as Lucy was on her knees inspecting the bottom shelf. "Were you looking for something, madam?" she asked

SHEILA PIM, Creeping Venom (1946)

After my success with Common or Garden Crime, I found myself drawn inexorably to Pim's second mystery, and anyone who can resist this scene-setting from the opening pages of Creeping Venom, is a stronger or more jaded reader than I:

This was the flower show held in Brainborough in June, 1945; not allowed to be called the Victory Flower Show because of Irish neutrality, but indicating all the same that Brainborough knew the war was over. Brainborough is a small place, sequestered, calm, not like anywhere you read about in the newspapers, and not less satisfied with itself on that account. But Brainborough people do take an interest in the outside world. The war in Europe was over. There had not been a local flower show since it began. Everybody felt it would be nice to hold one, and that it would fill a certain need of something to talk about. As things turned out, the flower show was hardly used up as a topic before it was eclipsed by the mystery of Miss Hampton's death. Not long after that was cleared up came the first news of the atomic bomb. Luckily these events were evenly spaced out, as Brainborough does not like too many things happening at once.

This one again has a poisoning theme, as old Miss Hampton, who has acquired some giant snails from the flower show so that she can relish having them for dinner, perishes from the deadly poison with which the snails were laced. (Her dinner guests, fortunately, were less enthusiastic about eating snails, so no one else becomes ill.)

This time around, the "detective" is Tim Linacre, a young cousin of the deceased who imagines himself pursuing a career as a great detective. Although Tim's likeable enough, and the village characters are every bit as entertaining as those in Common or Garden Crime, I found myself missing the delightful middle-aged Lucy Bex, who is likely to have been (according to Rue Morgue's website) a self-portrait of Pim herself, and who was a particularly charming character with whom to solve a murder. Then, too, some mystery fans might find the solution here slightly anti-climactic, though it is certainly clever and—for me, at least—unforeseen. But despite these minor caveats, all of Pim's wit and charm are thoroughly on display here, often dropped into the text in passing, as here, when Miss Hampton's secretary must explain Miss Hampton's reluctance to be social to a disliked neighbor:

Mrs. De Vigne was at that moment tattling out on to the gravel, and Priscilla, seeing that the visitor had been well within earshot, tried to be extra civil in her reception. She explained that Miss Hampton was "changing." Whether this referred to her clothes, her mind, or the inevitable change that goes with decay in the hymn, it was unnecessary to say.

You can bet that, in addition to trying to track down her non-mystery novels, I've already acquired Pim's other two mysteries. So this is certainly not the last you'll here of her from me.

Sunday, July 19, 2015

The rest of the story

For those of you who listened to the radio or read syndicated columns in the U.S. in the 1970s and 1980s, the title of this post might remind you of columnist Paul Harvey's columns and radio broadcasts. These were always of some sort of historical or ironic interest: the one I recall is about two impoverished women—Caterina and Klara—both of whom are pregnant with an unwanted child. Harvey asked his listeners to imagine themselves as a doctor consulted by these women about possible abortions (a topic one couldn't imagine a light radio show and newspaper column tackling these days). He explained the difficult situations faced by both women, and then asks what your decision would have been, with the additional consideration of whether the child in question in each case might someday impact the world. Then he concluded by revealing that the two women are, respectively, the mother of Leonardo da Vinci and the mother of Adolf Hitler, adding his trademark closing, "And now you know the rest of the story."

This is really neither here nor there apart from being an enjoyable (for me) reminiscence of one of the earliest kinds of storytelling I learned to enjoy. But I adopted the title for this post because it's a random mix of some of the odd stories or connections I found relating to authors I've just come across and have added to my Overwhelming List recently. With a couple of exceptions, these are not authors I particularly feel the need to read, mind you. I'll be writing about some of those new discoveries in future posts. These are just authors who have something a bit interesting about them.

For instance, there's the case of EDITH MAY MAYER-NIXSON, a rather oddly non-prolific author who seems to have had every opportunity to be more prolific but must have suffered from writer's block or other distracting turmoil in her life (or simply not been very passionate about writing). Mills & Boon created a media spectacle around her when they published her debut novel, Golden Vanity (1912), for which she used the pseudonym "Maisie Bennett." Mayer-Nixson was 21 years old at the time and had been working as a librarian in the circulating library of a large department store, writing her novel in her spare time. Mills & Boon publicized her as the "Shopgirl Novelist," and announced that they were so impressed with her work that they would pay her the equivalent of one year of her salary to give her the free time necessary to continue writing. The press seems to have loved the story, but perhaps the sudden attention caused Mayer-Nixson's creative juices to dry up, because a second novel was not forthcoming.

In fact, it wasn't until 16 years later that Mayer-Nixson made another appearance in the publishing world. This time, in the guise of a male pseudonym, "Edward Lennox," she published The Crowded Year (1928) with a different publisher, E. Mathews & Marrot. A contemporary review sums it up: "Railway accidents, fires, divorces, drowning, earthquakes and romance are the ingredients of this somewhat hectic year." Having made this not-very-triumphant return to bookstore shelves, Mayer-Nixson fell silent again, this time for 26 years, when her third and final book appeared (assuming there are no additional pseudonyms that can be traced back to her). Ring Twice for the Stewardess (1954) appears to be a memoir of her interceding career as a ship stewardess (which could prove quite interesting if one could track down an affordable copy—I've had no luck so far).

This final book seems to have appeared under the name Maida Nixson, so it's even a bit surprising that the three titles have been linked up to a single author. These are exactly the sorts of stray titles whose authors are often never identified at all. In this case, though, I wouldn't mind knowing a bit more about Mayer-Nixson, who seems to have had quite a varied life and to have experienced an array of the professions open to women in the early to mid-20th century.

Peggy Webling

By contrast to Mayer-Nixson, who could easily have been lost to literary posterity, PEGGY WEBLING is, to my surprise, well enough known to have a Wikipedia page, a phenomenon that gets rarer and rarer as my researches get more and more obscure. But she is best known by far not for her novels—of which there were more than a dozen—but as the author of the dramatic adaptation of Mary Shelley's Frankenstein which was used by Universal as the basis for its classic 1931 film version, directed by James Whale.

Peggy Webling & Lucy Betty Macraye
as child celebrities

Peggy's sister, LUCY BETTY MACRAYE, also a novelist, though a far less prolific one, was never (so far as I know) involved with a major Hollywood film, and so she garners fewer mentions online. But apparently both sisters, along with two more Webling siblings, Josephine and Rosalind, got their start as children doing dramatic recitals, and reportedly were quite in demand. They also, according to Peggy's Wikipedia page, became acquainted with theatrical and literary figures such as Ellen Terry, Lewis Carroll, and John Ruskin, the last of whom, according to another source "petted them and wrote to them, and of whom she [Peggy] published a brief memoir." The Wikipedia page also mentions that some of the sisters continued in theatre after their childhood successes were over, but sadly it doesn't specify which ones. Should we take it that Lucy, whose second and final novel, published in 1938, was called Centre Stage, might be one of them?

Almey St. John Adcock

And then there are several authors I've come across who have connections with women already on my Overwhelming List. You may know by now that I always find such connections of particular interest, though in the case of ALMEY ST. JOHN ADCOCK, who turns out to be the sister of Marion St. John Webb, or JACOBINE MENZIES WILSON, who was the mother of novelist Jacobine Hichens, the connections are not terribly exciting, since I know little or nothing about either member of the pairs.

But there are also some slightly more interesting connections with bigger names:

ROSALINE MASSON was a close friend of Robert Louis Stevenson and wrote a biography of him (would she also, one wonders, have known D. E. Stevenson, who was a relative of RLS?). MARGARET BARRINGTON was married to Irish novelist Liam O'Flaherty, and poet and novelist IRENE RUTHERFORD MCLEOD wound up as the mother-in-law of Christopher Robin Milne.

PRISCILLA JOHNSTON, about whom I'll be writing a bit more elsewhere, was the daughter of Edward Johnston, whose calligraphy adorned Tube stations across London for many years, until it was finally replaced with a new design in the 1980s. JOAN RICE, who I'm also mentioning in posts on new additions to my war lists and on memoirists, was the mother of lyricist Tim Rice, of Evita fame. And EMMIE ALLINGHAM, who published nine novels in the 1920s, probably romantic in nature, was the mother of another big name, acclaimed mystery writer Margery Allingham.

Sometimes these connections require just a bit of gossipy-ness (but I'm not complaining about a little good gossip). MARY BETHUNE wrote only a single novel, Doctor Dear (1954), which appears to be about a woman doctor (I'm intrigued), and Bethune (the pseudonym of Liliane Mary Catherine Clopet) was herself a practicing doctor (yet another for my eventual list of women doctor/writers). She also happens to have been the lifelong companion of Kathleen Freeman, better known to mystery fans as Mary Fitt.

It appears that no one has previously identified L. C. OGLE, the author of a single girls' school story set in Africa, The School by the Sea (1958), which, according to Sims and Clare in their Encyclopaedia of Girls' School Stories, treats the girls' various nationalities and traditions in an unpatronising, matter-of-fact way. But researcher John Herrington, who is kind enough to look over my unidentified authors and see what he can come up with, found her and a bit of drama too. Sims and Clare had noted that the illustrator of Ogle's book was Theo Hoskyns-Abrahall, who seems to have been credited as "Hoskyns" and was the husband of another school story author, Clare Hoskyns-Abrahall, who published as C. M. Drury and as Clare Abrahall. But in fact Mr. Hoskyns-Abrahall was apparently more than just Ogle's illustrator. In 1944, he was divorced from Clare and was remarried, that same year, to one Lois Jennet Ogle (1902-1998). Other information about Ogle is scarce, but she certainly spent some time in Africa (not surprisingly, in view of the subject of her book) and was probably in the medical profession, though whether a doctor or nurse or other role isn't clear. Thanks again for filling in these details, John!

Coming across MARY ANGELA DICKENS made me finally come to terms (I think) with some of the ins and outs of cousinly relationships, which has been confusing me ever since I started looking into my own family tree. Mary Angela was the granddaughter of Charles Dickens, the daughter of Charles Dickens, Jr. This of course made me look back at Monica Dickens, the much-better-known great-granddaughter of Charles, who was the granddaughter of a different Dickens son, Henry Fielding Dickens (Charles had a stereotypically large Victorian family). I believe that makes Mary and Monica first cousins once removed. Is that correct? At any rate, Mary wrote about a dozen volumes of fiction (sometimes credited, in a sadly mercenary way, as "His Granddaughter"), but it's hard to tell much about the type of fiction they were.

I do have one connection that's really only tentative, though it's the best information I have. BARBARA RUBIEN, who published only a single novel, is apparently the sister of mystery writer Shelley Smith. But in making that claim I am accepting as fact a bookseller's listing of her book, which includes this tidbit of information. Here's hoping that bookseller knew more than I do!

And speaking of tentative (and in this case misguided) connections, at least one online source discussing ROMILLY CAVAN—who wrote several potentially interesting novels just before World War II—reported that she was the daughter of E. F. Benson, which is just completely incorrect. I'll be mentioning her again in a future post as well.

And now you know—such as it is—the rest of the story.

Thursday, July 16, 2015


ELIZABETH BERRIDGE, Across the Common (1964)

I occasionally waver a bit regarding the date limits of this blog and of my Overwhelming List.  I wrote a little bit early on in my blogging about the 1910 start date and my justification for that—using Virginia Woolf's convenient comment about a change in human nature around that year.  But I also ponder the 1960 end date sometimes.  It was rather random, really, and I've come across more than one interesting writer (think Mary Hocking) who only published their first works in 1961 or 1962.

But then I read a novel like Elizabeth Berridge's Across the Common, from 1964, and I think, okay, the 1960 cutoff makes sense after all...

It’s not that I actively disliked the novel.  Berridge is a masterful writer, and her earlier collection, Tell It to a Stranger, with its wartime stories, is a favorite. And it’s also not (he said defensively) that there aren’t numerous writers from after 1960 whose work I admire and enjoy, even if I don’t often write about them here.

It’s just that Across the Common seems to highlight the possibility that on or about 1960 human nature may have—unbeknownst to Virginia Woolf—shifted again.  The story of Louise, a troubled young woman who leaves her husband and returns to the home where she grew up and the three eccentric aunts who helped raise her, and while there uncovers a dark secret from the past, the novel possesses the signature Sixties confessional style—the first person narrator who meticulously analyzes the significance of her or his own personal experience and feelings.  As in Doris Lessing’s trailblazing The Golden Notebook two years earlier, or the dark poetry of Anne Sexton and Sylvia Plath, both of whom had only recently appeared on the literary scene, self-analysis was, clearly, the thing. 

I would guess that this could be explained in part by the rise in popularity of psychotherapy about this time.  And, perhaps particularly for women writers and readers who were pushing for or simply trying to adjust to changes in the world around them and that world's expectations for women, it must have been a very liberating, very necessary form of self-exploration.  But it is certainly rather different from most of the writers and works that came before.  There have been first-person narrators since the birth of the novel, but the earnest belief in self-exploration as a serious and crucial undertaking seems to have been an innovation of the Sixties.  

One of my most inspiring undergraduate professors, who taught a brilliant course called British Women Writers and—apparently—had a rather considerable influence on my future interests, when I mentioned having read a Margaret Drabble novel, cringed slightly and said, "Oh, yes, women in dreary flats," and—while, to be fair, that hardly covers the breadth of Drabble's work—I have a feeling she may have meant something like what I'm trying to express here.  The “feminine middlebrow” seems, in the Sixties and beyond, to be evolving into something a bit different—more overtly political and concerned with rather different themes.  So I think perhaps I have my justification for the 1960 end date after all.

At any rate, apparently this style—in Berridge’s novel, at least—can rather grate on my nerves.  As much as I love some good soul-searching à la Margaret Atwood (or, indeed, Margaret Drabble), my initial notes on Across the Common rather snarkily refer to “subjective self-absorption and the over-inflated, portentous significance of personal experience,” so it had obviously made me a bit cranky.  That might be a bit overstated in retrospect, but it is true that Berridge seems to attach tremendous meaning to the secret violence in the past, which Louise is driven to uncover as if it’s the Holy Grail.  The trouble is, the actual violence, when it is revealed, is actually rather anticlimactic.  I mean, it’s a terrible event, but it’s hard to see why it would have had the tremendous repercussions of repression and neurosis that it did—and on multiple family members, no less.  

This may be quite intentional, I suppose, to indicate that the past, once revealed, is rarely as horrifying as it might have come to seem.  But even so, the effect on me was that I wound up thinking, "Seriously?  That's it?"  I was left with the feeling that a lot of drama and hushed revelation had had to be harnessed merely to help the annoying, self-absorbed narrator decide to go back to her ridiculously kind and understanding husband. (Though I can't resist saying that perhaps too little effort went into convincing the reader why he would want to have her back…)


Having been just a bit snarky about the novel, I will go on to say that there are still entertaining elements in it.  Berridge’s prose is sharp and polished, and the spinster aunts, in particular, provide worthwhile high points (I do love a good spinster aunt—how I wish I had one of my own!). 

Here, from the earliest pages of the novel, is Louise pondering her inimitable Aunt Cissie:

Aunt Cissie had the same effect on me as a lemon was supposed to have if sucked in front of an unfortunate trombonist. She dried up my juices. Her whole life had disbelief as its pivot and for this reason I had always been wary of her. Once, years ago, she had been recklessly, dogmatically sure of herself. She would argue with the wry humour of the convinced, a person on the right side of life. Since the war, which had robbed her of her second husband and her only son, something had shifted in her. A new, unbalanced cynicism revealed itself by a sarcastic twist of the mouth, a semi-quaver of a shrug. Nothing, now, could move her. She would have turned the pages of Nero's music, one felt (had he had any), whilst he fiddled, glad of the light of the flames. At seventy she believed in nothing but her own and other people's wickedness.

Ah, if only the rest of the novel had focused primarily on the aunts, rather than their irritating, wishy-washy niece, I would likely be singing a different tune!

VERILY ANDERSON, Scrambled Egg for Christmas (1970)

I've mentioned here before that Verily Anderson's Spam Tomorrow (1956), a memoir of her experiences during World War II, is one of my favorites.  I've been gradually tracking down and reading her other humorous memoirs, of which Scrambled Egg for Christmas seems to have been the last (there were other works about her family history, but no more memoirs of her own life, as far as I can tell). I wrote about one of her earlier memoirs here, and I find they're always enjoyable and are perfect for light bedside reading or days when you don't feel like thinking very much.

Anderson's memoirs, which started so cheerfully with Spam Tomorrow and Beware of Children (1958), took a darker turn, naturally enough, when her husband died suddenly not long after the latter book was published, leaving her with five children and little means of support.  Reportedly, when she became friends with actress Joyce Grenfell in the mid-1960s, Grenfell was shocked by her poverty and bought her a house in Norfolk.

Not surprisingly, then, some of this worry and darkness comes through in this volume, which, though presumably written after her economic condition had improved, deals with those years of hardship.  Here, she and her children move to London on the suggestion of a friend, attempting to rent out their old farm; she undertakes translation work without a contract, so is taken advantage of; she has a serious illness (which a friend puts down to hysteria); one friend commits suicide, another dies suddenly, and on top of everything else both Flo the horse (introduced in the earlier memoir The Flo Affair, which I reviewed in brief here a while back) and her cat Chastity die.  Hardly the stuff of farce.

Verily Anderson in later years

But the book is still highly readable, and Anderson's is a charming personality to be with, even when she's not at her best.  If the book is a little unfocused (sometimes about the move to London, sometimes about a trip to Malta and then the U.S. for an abortive lecture tour, and sometimes about her children's mild misadventures), it is still entertaining, and there are some hilarious high points.  There are two I can't resist sharing.  First, an experience with a hairstylist:

As it turned out, when I kept [the appointment], I might just as well have come straight in from the street without having made it, as did the more forceful customer who was shown into the salon in front of me. After ten more minutes wait I was about to walk out when a young faun leapt out from behind a row of coats and, flinging a nylon cape round me from behind, guided me with part of it still in my mouth to a wash basin, where he tilted my head back and wetted my hair just enough I to prevent my trying to leave again. Twenty minutes elapsed before a girl came and added the shampoo.

'Shall I give you a rinse?' she asked.

'Yes, please,' I said, supposing that otherwise I should have to wait another twenty minutes for someone else to wash the shampoo out. Too late I realised she was dying my hair what turned out an hour and a half later to be a vivid shade of particularly metallic yellow that looked like a teazle and felt like wire netting. The bill, when it was presented, bore no relation whatsoever to the price list outside.

Ah, how many cape-flinging fauns one encounters at hairdressers!

And next, here is a rather more topical (and long, but I can't resist) description of Anderson's experience as part of a BBC documentary on single women:

At the B.B.C., the producer was apologetic about forgetting the existence of widows. She had only recently married but now she would really be able to make her point over the raw deal eked out to the unwed.

'If you could just say how beastly people are to you now you're a widow,' she explained, 'and how they don't ask you to parties any more—'

'But they aren't and they do.'

'Yes, but for the purpose of tying the thing up neatly, I'm sure you could think of some occasion when you've been slighted.'

'It isn't like that. Sometimes you're sad, or awfully disappointed or lonely or you don't know how to saw a plank in half. But, if anything, people are extra considerate. The only ones who don't ask you to parties any more are the ones who only asked you before because they wanted to get something out of your husband. Really, I just can't say that widows automatically get second-class treatment.'

Nor could the career girls, the divorcee and the separated. Our producer seemed disappointed.

'It's not really how I want to play it at all,' she said. 'You see, since I've just got married, I notice an enormous difference.'

'You would,' said one of the career girls snidely and the other one tittered.

Having gathered us up, however, the producer had to make the best of her material. Some of the speakers complied a little with her wishes to sound hard-done-by but mostly we were almost exaggeratedly boastful of the brighter sides of our circumstances.

'Personally, I feel more respected, not less, now I'm on my own again,' said the divorced wife. 'I can spend money how I like, sleep with the window open, and eat green peppers which my ex-husband abhorred.'

'Yes, and it's bound to give one a bit of prestige being rid of that perpetual fear of pregnancy without even having to go on the Pill,' agreed the separated.

'I can't think what listeners will get out of what we've just recorded,' one of the career girls pointed out. 'It all sounds desperately insincere.'

'Don't worry.' The producer gave a satisfied smile. 'We can easily cut it to give it the angle I have in mind.'

Some of the women's comments might give one pause, but they are certainly amusing, and a producer's efforts to slant a documentary are unquestionably not a thing of the past!

Saturday, July 11, 2015


The latest update to TheOverwhelming List has taken an even more inexcusably long time than the last one, which was more than seven months ago (and this one is smaller too!). But at long last it has gone live, with a net gain of 110 authors, to bring us to the rather staggering total of 1,537 British women writers included on the list. A new PDF version of the list (coming in at 262 pages) has been posted in each section—and, for good measure, here—and I've also updated the Mystery List and War List with appropriate new authors. (I still have some additions to make to the World War II Book List, and will get to that soon.)

I've already started posting about some of the new additions to the list, and more such posts will follow, but for now, I'll focus on some exclusions and revisions.

I have to specify that the new total is a net gain, because in fact there are a few more than 110 new authors being added to the list. It's just that there are also a few being removed. In every case, this is thanks to the research efforts of John Herrington, whose assistance in using his research skills and sharing his knowledge is always invaluable to me and to this blog.

A sneaky American mystery author

As it turns out, a couple of Americans had crept onto my list (sneaky devils that they are). Mystery writer ANITA BOUTELL proved to have been born in Newark, New Jersey. She did spend at least a portion of her life in England, and she may also have been a professional dancer for a time, but she certainly doesn't belong on my list of British authors. And then there's FRANCES CARPENTER, a school story author who has been on my list for some time, who has the effrontery to have been born in Washington DC and attended Smith College.

And a sneaky Aussie

It's also easy for Aussies to slip onto my list sometimes—particularly when relatively little is known about the writers to begin with. School story author MARJORIE BUCKINGHAM hadn't been identified anywhere online that I could find, but John discovered that she was born in Melbourne and spent a goodly portion of her life as a lecturer at the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology.

Another school story author, ANNE CHESNEY, who published only a single book, Leslie Wins Through (1947), was also Australian, though she did live in England for much of her adult life. Sims & Clare had noted that her book was published in Australia, but that it seemed to be English in tone, so Chesney had obviously had time to absorb British culture. She worked as a journalist.

And it turned out that DOROTA FLATAU was born in New South Wales. She got married in 1906 in England, however, and appears to have spent most of the rest of her life there. If anyone is thinking of starting an Australian Overwhelming List, by all means also include Dorota's sister Hermione Flatau (1879-1946), who published a single novel, Drama of Mount Street, in 1930.

We also found that one South African, HELEN M. FAIRLEY, had slipped onto my list. From the fact that some, at least, of her six novels were set in India, one might have assumed she had lived there, but in fact she was born in Natal, South Africa, and appears to have spent most of her adult life in England, where she died in 1940. Of course, this doesn't preclude any number of trips to India, but she does not appear to have been a longtime resident there.

These are all examples of authors who—by the standards of my list of British women writers, at least—turn out not to be British. But of course, the most egregious going-astray that can be found on my list from time to time is the presence of an author who turns out not to be a woman at all. We know now, thanks to John, that such is the case with the so-called "MRS. FRANCES EVERARD," who is in fact nothing more than a pseudonym of Cecil Henry Bullivant, who was apparently a prolific author under other names as well. Very tricky of him!

Surely even more sad than the authors removed from my list are a few who never made it to the list at all. Among the authors I researched for this update are four who turned out—mostly thanks to John's research—not to belong at all. JOAN BUTLER seemed quite promising for "her" impressive array of humorous novels, often compared to those of Wodehouse. I got all excited, and it seemed beyond doubt that "she" was in fact British. I couldn’t imagine how I had missed "her." Then, of course, (you guessed it) a little further digging led to the information that "she" was in fact Irish novelist Robert William Alexander. Drat! But I wonder if anyone has ever read one of "her" books? They do sound potentially entertaining. But "she" still doesn't belong on my list.

Perhaps I should have guessed that ELLA CROSBY HEATH was American from the fact that one of her two novels features a prominent American character. The novels do seem potentially entertaining—Henrietta Taking Notes (1912, aka Henrietta) is narrated by the 11-year-old daughter of a drama critic, while Enter an American (1915) is set in a boarding-house primarily occupied by women, who are disprupted by the arrival of a wealthy American. But, although she did finally take British citizenship a few years before her death, she doesn't qualify for my list.

ELIZABETH HOUGHTON GILZEAN wouldn't have been a terribly exciting addition to my list anyway, unless you happen to be an aficionado of hospital romance novels. But I mention her here because she turned out to be the daughter of Muriel Wylie Blanchet, author of The Curve of Time (1961), a memoir of Blanchet's experiences as a recent widow who takes her children boating around the coast of British Columbia. That book has become a classic of Canadian non-fiction. So, for anyone compiling a Canadian Overwhelming List, make a note…

And finally, what would a list of exclusions from my list be without a New Zealander? GRACE PHIPPS was a fairly prolific author of romance novels (including more of those ever-popular hospital love stories), but she was also born in Christchurch and spent her life in New Zealand, where she also wrote for Australian and New Zealand radio. New Zealand Overwhelming List, anyone?

But an update isn't just about adding and deleting authors. Sometimes the information I have about an author simply improves significantly, either through John's efforts or through lucky finds.

Dustjacket with author photo, courtesy of Tina Brooker

Among the latter is an email from Tina Brooker, whose happy habit of sifting through E-bay listings and other sources has provided me with numerous new names for my list over the past couple of years (and I'll be posting soon about another of her most recent finds). A couple of months ago, Tina emailed me that she had acquired a book by MOLLIE HALES. She wondered if there might be a connection to Mollie Carpenter Hales, an author I had come across at a book sale and one I thought had published only a single novel, The Cat and the Medal (1938), the book I had acquired (and which, I am ashamed to say, remains unread on my shelves). As it happens, it did indeed turn out to be the same author. Hales published one novel using her middle name, fell silent for a decade, and then published three more without the middle name 1949-1961. This positive identification also led to the additional information (courtesy of a hitherto-unknown Wikipedia page) that she was also the Mollie Lee who frequently appeared on the Woman's Hour on BBC Radio. So, yet another big thanks to Tina for allowing this improvement to Hales' list entry.

A similarly fortuitous tidbit of information came to me via an email from Peter Andrews, and concerns the author of a single World War II novel which I read and enjoyed. I had never been able to find any information at all about BARBARA WHITTON, who published Green Hands (1943), a cheerful, gung ho tale of a group of land girls making the best of the war. But Peter recalled having gotten to know Whitton when she joined a writers' group he was running in County Durham a few years back, and his subsequent research had led him to a notice regarding her adoption of a pen name, revealing that her real name was Hazel Chitty. This in turn was sufficient for John Herrington to track down her 1921 birth record. It appears that Chitty/Whitton is in fact still alive and living in a retirement home in England. I hope that, were she to be aware of her mentions on this blog, she would be pleased that her one novel has gotten a small amount of renewed attention. If you ever happen to have a chance to read Green Hands, I recommend it—it really is a charming look at an aspect of women's lives in wartime that didn't get as much attention at the time as one might expect. And thanks again very much to Peter for his information (and for the photos above and below)!

John Herrington also came across a website called Mundus, which I had never heard of, and which is subtitled "Gateway to Missionary Collections in the United Kingdom" (should anyone be on a quest for information about British missionaries). It proved very useful in regard to one missionary in particular—one MARGUERITE BUTLER, the author of one work of fiction, Tulsi: The Story of an Indian Schoolgirl (1934), discussed briefly by Sims & Clare. I learned her dates (1879-1951), and that she trained as a teacher at Cambridge, followed by training at the Women's Missionary College in Edinburgh. She went to Bangalore, India, and developed the Girls' High School there. She apparently retired in 1921 but remained in India until 1944. All of which is interesting and would undoubtedly add to one's enjoyment of her school story.

While Butler probably didn't have widespread fame even in her lifetime, ISABEL CAMERON must have been practically a household name, reportedly selling more than a million copies of her oft-reprinted series of tales and novels about "The Doctor" before branching out into other novels, which themselves apparently sold 650,000 copies. And yet, in an awesome example of the fleetingness of fame, I had never come across any personal information about her. John's searches finally yielded a sort of obituary from 1957, from which we can guess that she must have been born in about 1873 and that her maiden name was Noble. Shocking that such fame could end with one being so utterly forgotten.

(I should note that in addition to these tidbits of improved information, I have been fortunate enough to receive a couple more since I started finalizing this update. Those will be added to the next update—assuming I'm able to wait that long to talk about them—it's always so exciting to hear from children and grandchildren and, indeed, step-grandchildren [in one recent case] of the authors on my list!)

Finally, just a couple of notes about new information that led me to add authors to my Mystery List or War List:

Who knew that PHYLLIS BOTTOME, a popular novelist who often concerned herself with the socially, economically, or politically downtrodden, also published two novels that qualified her for the Mystery LIst? The Depths of Prosperity (1924), written with American author Dorothy Thompson and set in the U.S., has been described as a mystery about a woman violently jealous of her own daughter. Her later novel, Level Crossing (1936), apparently also contains thriller elements, dealing with a kidnapped woman and the complex relationship that develops between her and the kidnapper's girlfriend.

Speaking of the Mystery List, I was intrigued to find that Olivia Manning, famous for the novels which formed the basis of TV's Fortunes of War series, began her career with four "lurid serials" which might qualify her for the list. Ultimately, however, I could find so little information about them, and they were never published in book form or reprinted in any way and so are virtually nonexistent these days, that I decided there was little point in highlighting them.

There were also at least two new additions to the War List—most intriguingly MONICA BALDWIN. I was already considering her memoir I Leap Over the Wall (1949)—about her departure from a convent after 28 years and her difficulties in readjusting to secular life—a must-read. But then Jerri, in a comment on an earlier post, pointed out that Baldwin's return to secular life just happened to take place in late 1941, in the middle of the worst period of World War II, and I knew it had to be bumped further up my TBR list. Thanks, Jerri!

Not an exciting cover, but the best I could do
for this hard-to-find title

I also added girls' author JANE SHAW to the War List, after Barbara from Call Me Madam noted that House of the Glimmering Light (1943) is a wartime spy adventure. Thank you, Barbara!

And I already mentioned, in my recent post on the charming ELIZABETH FAIR, that I had made the unprecedented move of adding her to my Not-Quite-So-Overwhelming List. From the response to my post on Fair, I think my instinct was correct on that point…

There may have been other additions or enhancements—it's a constant process and my poor overwhelmed brain finds it hard to stay on top of it all—but these are some of the highlights.

I've already come across at least a dozen or more new authors that will have to go on the next update, and I'm planning to renew my excavations in earnest in the coming weeks in search of even more British women who belong on my list. So the milestone mark of 2,000 authors is not at all out of reach!

Though I'm a little bit tired just thinking of it…
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