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


  1. I love the cover art. How tragic a loss. It does serve to remind us that illnesses we can usually treat successfully now were often fatal in the past. I am reminded of the flu deaths in Nine Tailors by Dorothy L. Sayers, and that book was published in 1934, several characters died of flu complications in that book, as I recall. Not that fictional deaths are as serious as the deaths of real persons, but it was common enough that it was useful in the plot.


  2. Thanks for the mention Scott-fancy all that information and a decent novel came from one chance remark.Well you would have found her name and work sooner or later anyway.Well researched.


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