Tuesday, August 2, 2016

Intriguing women

This post, some variation of which I do each time I do a large update to my Overwhelming List, is the closest I can come to a Barbara Walters "10 most intriguing people" television special. When I'm preparing each update, there are always some women who are unlikely to ever find themselves on my TBR list, but are nevertheless interesting for other reasons, so I decided to start dumping them all into one post so I can share what you might (???) find interesting as well.

The selection this time ranges from women who were famous in other areas or were trailblazers in their fields to those with striking personal dramas or enigmas, and on to women whose writing is interesting even if it's not inspiring me to actually write it. Oh yeah, and a surprising number of authors with connections to the occult, including at least two "prophets." Who would have thought?

Several new additions to my list have connections to film, television, or the theatre. PHYLLIS HARTNOLL may not be the most exciting of these, but as a compulsive compiler of information myself, I feel I should pay homage to her as the editor of the massive Oxford Companion to the Theatre (1951). How, I can't help but wonder, did she also find time to write a novel? Though I have to admit that a publisher's blurb for the book, called The Grecian Enchanted (1952), makes me a wee bit uncertain about it: "A simple tale, as evanescent as the scent of wild thyme, into which Phyllis Hartnoll wove the mingled ecstasy and heart-break of young lover..." Um, sure.

Actress and author Olga Petrova
(aka Muriel Harding)

There can't be a large number of authors from my list who also have stars on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. Had I but known there was one, I could have paid homage when Andy and I were in Los Angeles last fall, but I don't think that OLGA PETROVA is exactly a household name. Now, when Olga was born (in 1884, in England), she had the rather more banal name Muriel Harding, but she went on (Wikipedia tells me) to make more than two dozen films, as well as being a vaudeville star. Her lack of name recognition now, however, probably results from the fact, as Wikipedia also notes, that most of her films have now been lost—a tragic testament to the fragility of early film and the need for effective film preservation and restoration techniques. You can read more about her and see several more photos here.

Some of you in England might recall (or recall your mothers and grandmothers mentioning) the BBC radio serial Mrs. Dale's Diary, which centered around a doctor's wife and her family, "and the comings and goings of a middle-class society" as Wikipedia puts it. The serial ran from 1948 to 1969, and its main scriptwriter for many years was JONQUIL ANTONY, who also wrote, among other things, novels and stories about the Dales. I was struck, in reading about the drama, to see that it is credited with the first sympathetic portrayal of a gay man in a major role on British radio—the character of Mrs. Dale's brother-in-law, married to her sister Sally (a situation that might have been rife with drama, though undoubtedly the tone was kept rather muted in those days).

I already mentioned VIOLA TREE in my post on famous connections (as the niece of novelist Max Beerbohm and the half-sister of film director Carol Reed), but among her theatrical accomplishments was one linked to George Bernard Shaw's classic play Pygmalion. Tree's father, Herbert Beerbohm Tree, originated the role of Henry Higgins in the original London production of the play. Tree herself appeared in a revival of the play in 1920, and she also made a cameo appearance in the famous film version (1938), alongside her son David in the role of Freddy—thus completely a three-generation acting connection to Shaw's play. It sounds as though Tree's career—from her operatic aspirations to a play written in collaboration with Gerald du Maurier, from her numerous half-siblings that resulted from her father's infidelities (she's also a half-aunt [???] of actor Oliver Reed) to an early stage appearance with Ellen Terry—would make an excellent movie in itself!

In less glamorous professions, JOAN COCKIN, who published three mysteries 1947-1952, was also a trailblazing diplimat, working for the Ministry of Information in Washington early in WWII, where her concern was to try to enlist U.S. involvement in the war. (Her obituary notes that she took an apartment in Dupont Circle, which endears her to me, as that's where I lived during a decade or so of my misspent youth.) Meanwhile, NORA K. STRANGE, author of numerous novels set in Africa and a parody of Anita Loos' bestseller Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, worked as a secretary in Nairobi. 

And journalist and novelist JOYCE COLLIN-SMITH earns a mention here because in her later days of consciousness-raising she studied with the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi and even served as his driver in the days before the Beatles made him an international celebrity.

I'm interested in LUCY GERTRUDE MOBERLY for a couple of reasons. Although she wrote more than 60 novels, probably romantic in nature, she is also notable as the author of a story referred to in passing in Sigmund Freud's famous article "The Uncanny." Freud only gave a brief summary of the story, with no citation, but later scholars have identified the story—involving a young couple moving to a new apartment which seems to be possessed or haunted—as Moberly's "Inexplicable," first published in The Strand. I'm also curious whether Moberly, who herself trained as a nurse, might have a connection to Enid Moberly Bell, who published Storming the Citadel: The Rise of the Woman Doctor (1953), a book I've long meant to read. And, for that matter, could she be connected to Charlotte Anne Moberly, who supernatural and/or hallucinatory experiences with Eleanor Jourdain at Versailles were described in An Adventure (1911)?

[And can I just mention here, apropos of nothing—but where else can I mention this?—that I only recently realized that Eleanor Jourdain's sister, Margaret Jourdain, was the "longtime companion" of Ivy Compton-Burnett.]

Mabel Barltrop (aka "Octavia")

It's rather bizarre—perhaps almost "occult"?—that several authors added in this update were self-identified "prophets" or otherwise associated with the occult or spiritualism. MABEL BARLTROP, who went by the name Octavia, was the founder of the Panacea Society, purported to receive daily messages from beyond, and even appointed 12 female disciples, whose feet she bathed. Later in life, she wrote two books that appear to be fiction, though I doubt I'll be reading them any time soon… 

And MABEL BEATTY wrote mystical works, including one subtitled "Being a Series of Teachings Sent by the White Brotherhood Through the Hand of Mabel Beatty", as well as a single novel, The Resurrection of Merion Lloyd (1929), which features astral projection in a tale of a murderer seeking redemption.

OLIVIA ROBERTSON, meanwhile, began her career writing mainstream fiction, including the Book Society Choice Field of the Stranger (1948), which the cover blurb calls "[a] witty novel in which the ancient charm of Irish county life contends with currents as new as existentialism". Her other novels are The Golden Eye (1949), Miranda Speaks (1950), It's an Old Irish Custom (1953), and Dublin Phoenix (1957). Later on, however, she "founded the Fellowship of Isis to revive worship and communication with the feminine principle in deity" (according to the Encyclopedia of Occultism and Parapsychology). This organization was founded at Clonegal Castle in Eire, where it apparently still operates (and, to extend the trivia a step further, the castle was used as a location in the Stanley Kubrick film Barry Lyndon). Robertson late published several more books related to her spiritual pursuits.

Nesta Helen Webster's pseudonymous third
novel looks rather like the
poster for a Mel Brooks movie...

And finally, NESTA HELEN WEBSTER might manage to give even occultism a bad name. She wrote three novels—The Sheep Track (1914), about high society, The Chevalier de Bouffleurs (1916), set during the French Revolution, and, pseudonymously, The Secret of the Zodiac (1933), about a global conspiracy to bring down civilization—but she is probably now most remembered as a virulent and delusional anti-Semite who authored several works about the global threat posed by Jews and gave bewildered credence to the long-debunked conspiracy theory of the Protocols of Zion. Hillaire Belloc described one of her books as "lunatic," and Umberto Eco, whose novel The Prague Cemetary features the Protocols in its plot, was scathing in his mockery of her. It was no doubt in keeping with her bewilderment that she later became a fascist.

On the topic of interesting and/or tragic personal drama, I already wrote—quite a while back now—about MOLLY SPENCER SIMPSON, who published two novels and then died in her early twenties while at work on a third. 

Meanwhile, in the realm of the unusual, THERESA WHISTLER, biographer of Walter de la Mare and author of two children's titles, married one Alan Whistler in 1950. The kicker is that Alan was the widower of Theresa's older sister Barbara, who had died in 1944.

Two new additions to my list have considerable household expertise. PRISCILLA NOVY was the author of only one children's title, The Lincoln Imp (1948), but she also wrote an earlier domestic guide, Housework Without Tears (1945), which must have been one of many such guides around this time for those young women confronting the realities of life without servants (one of the best, of course, being Kay Smallshaw's How to Run Your Home Without Help [1949], available from Persephone). 

And ELISABETH LAMBERT—included on my list for her two novels, The Sleeping House Party (1951), a mystery set at an Australian artist's colony, and Father Couldn't Juggle (1954), about a girl growing up in Jamaica—was much better known for her cookbooks, especially those about Latin American cuisine.

I have to mention DORIS ALMON PONSONBY here because I'm curious if any of you have read her work. She wrote more than 30 historical novels 1945-1988, most with a romantic component and many set in the Regency period, Georgette Heyer's stomping grounds. Twentieth-Century Romance and Historical Writers says of one of her works, "Bow Window in Green Street is set in 18th-century Bath, and all the hopes and excitement of Regency living are wonderfully captured. One feels one could again knock on the door of the very house in which they all lived." Intriguing, no?

Some of you might also be familiar with HILDA PRESCOTT, who wrote several historical novels with strong Christian perspectives. Her most famous work was The Man on a Donkey (1952), an epic covering thirty years of the early 1500s, tracing several characters in a tale that culminates with a dramatic protest against the dissolution of the monasteries. Again according to Twentieth-Century Romance and Historical Writers, this novel "can fairly claim to be among the most ambitious and persuasive English historical novels to be written in the 20th century." Quite an impressive claim!

Also, unbeknownst to me until I was searching for images for this post, Prescott apparently also wrote at least one mystery. At least, Dead and Not Buried appeared in a reprint series alongside such worthies as Josephine Tey.

And one final mention: in every update there are one or two authors that really should have been added ages ago, but for whatever reason simply weren't. Well-known Victorian children's author MARY LOUISE MOLESWORTH is perhaps one of those, though in this case I think my oversight was relatively justified. I had of course come across her before, but her most famous work was both for very young children and prior to 1910 (she is mainly known as a Victorian author). However, it now appears that a few of her children's books were longer works, presumably for older children, and one of those, Fairies Afield (1911), just barely squeaks into my time frame. Perhaps more interestingly, though, I also learned that she wrote several volumes of adult fiction much earlier in her career. Under the pseudonym Ennis Graham, she published novels including Lover and Husband (1870), Not without Thorns (1873), and Cicely: A Story of Three Years (1874). Who knew?

And that (finally!) is that, not only for this particular post, but for the most recent update to my list, which is hardly recent at all at this point. No more such posts now until I manage another update to the list.  Some day!


  1. This is so intriguing, Scott! As it happens, I am casting a baleful eye on my own home this morning (and naturally, it is much more fun to read your blog!) and would love to have a copy of "Housework without Tears" in hand right now! Well, then I could read it instead of doing any housework!
    BTW, last evening I watched Greer Garson in "Julia Misbehaves" from the novel "The Nutmeg Tree" by Margery Sharp - thanks to you! Charming - and a VERY YOUNG Elizabeth Taylor in a supporting role. See it!
    Now, if only the housework titles could be filmed......

    1. I don't think there's such a thing as housework without tears, honestly, but it's a nice thought. The only solution I've found to avoid tears is to let the dust bunnies run wild and free.

      I'm glad Julia Misbehaves turned out to be worthwhile--I'll have to check it out!

    2. I can suggest "sweeping the room with a glance" as advocated by a member of the D. E. Stevenson email group some years ago, and a list favorite comment!


    3. I remember that one, Jerri, and remember it often when thinking I really should vacuum. So much easier than the real thing, and can be done so conveniently when looking up from one's book to take a sip of tea!

  2. I well remember listening to Mrs Dale's Diary all through the fifties. I had no idea there were also books. And the fact that Sally's husband was gay went right over my head....

    I came across The Panacea Society very recently when visiting a friend in Bedford where it had its headquarters. We didn't get a chance to visit the Panacea Museum but there is a small disp!ay about it in the Bedford Museum...

    1. I guess that means the presentation of Sally's husband was indeed rather muted, Gil! I wonder if it was simply suggested with various "codes" that those in the know would recognize but mainstream audiences would pass right over.

      Interesting that you just encountered The Panacea Society! I'll bet that museum would be intriguing and unusual, at least.


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