Dead dames – Elizabeth von Arnim 1866-1941

Back in the 1980s I used to like watching a TV theatre-sports programme called Whose line is it anyway?  It has reappeared recently and is still just as enjoyable. One of the actors I always admired from it was Josie Lawrence (the woman who makes up songs on the fly).

This reminded me about a film called Enchanted April which came out in 1992. Josie appeared in it with Joan Plowright, Miranda Richardson, Jim Broadbent and Alfred Molina. The story it was based on was by one of my favourite authors Elizabeth von Arnim.

The film featured Josie as the wife of a stiff-necked conservative husband in the years before WW1. She wanted to go on holiday but he was uncooperative, so she advertised for other women who would like to rent a villa in Italy. The disparate group thus formed ventured into the unknown with some trepidation and the sharp edges of their personalities initially made for some discomfort, until the magic of  of Italy began its work. As with von Armin’s books, her film characters are so clearly and sardonically observed that they made me gurgle with delight.

Elizabeth von Arnim is herself rather remarkable. A relation of Katherine Mansfield, she married a Prussian count and whilst married to him wrote a book called Elizabeth and her German Garden, which was a bestseller at the time ( I noted that it was even mentioned in the series Downton Abbey when Mathew Crawley’s valet gave it to fellow servant Anna).

Her marriage was not happy and she left the count and went back to England where she eventually married George Bernard Shaw’s older brother who was an Earl. This marriage was even worse and she accused Shaw of being abusive. She ran away to America and got her revenge by writing a book called Vera. This book managed the oxymoron of being both very funny and an account of an abusive marriage. It left her husband looking such a prat that its publication is supposed to have led George to comment “never marry a writer”.

Perhaps inevitably, her wicked sense of humour saves its sharpest barbs for men and Germans, so if you are sensitive to the unfair treatment of these groups leave her books on the shelf. Otherwise I guarantee they will brighten up the darkest winter day.

Dead Dames – Dodie Smith 1896-1990

Dodie Smith is best known for her children’s novels The hundred and one Dalmatians and The starlight barking starring the revolting Cruella de Ville and oodles of  plucky monochromatic pups. An extremely successful dramatist in her day (the 30s and 40s), Dodie also published three volumes of autobiography: Look back with love, Look back with mixed feelings and Look back with astonishment.

But for me Dodie’s magic is all about her novel I capture the castle. Published in 1948, it tells the story of poverty-stricken sisters, Cassandra and Rose Mortmain, living with their eccentric family in an idyllic but crumbling  English castle. Their father is a revered and critically acclaimed novelist who now, unable to put pen to paper, whiles away time reading detective pulp. Their bohemian step-mother Topaz, a former artist’s model, spends her days making ends meet and communing with nature in the nudey.

Luckily, just when things are getting really dire, two attractive and wealthy American brothers Simon and Neil Cotton move into the area. They become  the Mortmain’s new neighbours and, horror, landlords. They also become targets for a scheming Rose who declares she’d marry Satan to escape her life of penury. Predictable but heart-warming romantic shenanigans ensue.

The story is told through seventeen year old Cassandra’s eyes, and her often self-consciously literary but delightful journal. This is the perfect coming-of-age novel and one I desperately wish I’d read at fifteen, instead of at the (advanced in years though not romantic maturity) age of thirty. I urge you all, in a bossy middle-aged librarian kind of way, to read the book and also highly recommend the movie version featuring Bill Nighy, Romola Garai, Rose Byrne and the delicious Henry Cavill.

Dead Dames – Mary Webb 1881-1927

Clive Owen made me read Mary Webb.  The fright wigged Mr Owen starred in a tv adaptation of Mary’s book Precious Bane.  I loved it, and read the book, and then all of her books. They had the doomy ruralness of  Thomas Hardy, and a Bronte-esque brooding.

Mary learned from her beloved father George Meredith a rich knowledge of the countryside, and appreciation of the legends and history of Shropshire.  But her life wasn’t an easy one. At the age of 20 she was diagnosed with Graves Disease, an incurable thyroid disorder. Mary became very self-conscious as the disease caused protrusion of the eyes and goitre.

She married Henry Webb in 1912 and the couple left Shropshire to live at Weston-super-Mare where Henry was a teacher. She wrote her first novel The Golden Arrow here, and much of her writing came from the homesick perspective of yearning for Shropshire.

Her novels achieved literary acclaim, but popular success eluded her. Perhaps her highest achievement was the award of the Prix Femina literary prize for Precious Bane (her fifth novel).  The Prime Minister, Stanley Baldwin, loved the book and sent her a letter.  By then both her health and marriage were  in decline. Her last novel Armour wherein he trusted, set in medieval Shropshire, was left as a beautiful fragment.  She died aged 46 in a nursing home.

Months later, the Prime Minister acclaimed her ‘neglected genius’. Posthumous fame arrived as her books were republished and were bestsellers in the 1930s – so popular that Stella Gibbons’ Cold Comfort Farm parodied their style.

Her novels were made into films and tv series. In the 80s, Virago republished her work. And 2010 is another year of resurgence –  Mary Webb: Neglected Genius is the first exhibition about Mary’s  life and literary output.

Read more of our series on classic women writers Dead Dames, a celebration of International Women’s Day.

Dead Dames at Oxford

One of the best things about reading is when one book or one writer leads to another and before you know it you’ve read a whole lot of things you might never have  touched in the ordinary run of things.

Retrieving Dorothy L. Sayers’ novel Gaudy night from Store last year set me off on something of a jag (if three books so far can be called a jag) of books by women who attended Somerville College, Oxford, in the years immediately before and after the First World War.

Somerville and Lady Margaret Hall were the first women’s colleges at Oxford and International Women’s Day is a good time to remember they existed for a mere 41 years before the University granted degrees to women.

Sayers was a Somervillian and Gaudy night is set in a thinly disguised Somerville. Harriet Vane, detective novelist and Oxford M.A., spends the novel angsting about marrying Lord Peter Wimsey while solving some very nasty doings in the library and the Senior Common Room. 

I’m a sucker for all that folderol about cocoa parties, climbing Magdalen Tower on May Day and punting on the Isis and there’s a satisfying amount of it in Gaudy night.

Vera Brittain, best known as a memoirist although she wrote five novels, was up at Oxford three years after Sayers and she too used a thinly disguised  Somerville as the background for The dark tide, her first novel and a satisfying melodrama. In her case the disguise wasn’t quite thin enough and it caused a minor sensation when it was published.

Somerville hated its depiction as ‘Drayton College’ , banning circulation of the book within the college. Brittain also offended that ‘noble newpaper’ the  Manchester Guardian when a character in the novel bribes “an accommodating reporter with champagne”.

It’s hard now to see what the fuss was about, the one person who could have felt libelled was Brittain’s friend Winifred Holtby, who managed to stay good-humoured despite being portrayed as a clumsy, ill-dressed, perenially late loser in love; in fact the book is dedicated to her.

Holtby and Brittain met at Oxford and after inital hostility the two were  friends until Holtby’s tragically early death.  Holtby’s masterpiece South Riding is set in a thinly disguised East Riding, Yorkshire, rather than Somerville, but I’m also a sucker for a regional realist novel so that’s fine. South Riding bears comparison to George Eliot’s Middlemarch; there can be no higher praise.

There are other novelists who were contemporaries of Brittain, Holtby and Sayers at Somerville but sadly most of them are out of print.

Dead Dames – Jean Rhys 1890-1979

Forget old Dod Byron being mad, bad and dangerous to know, Jean Rhys would wipe the floor with him. Rhys is best known for her novel Wide Sargasso Sea, published in 1966, a “prequel” to Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre but with the emphasis on the sinister Mrs Rochester’s journey to madness. Set in the West Indies during the abolition of slavery the success of this novel gave Rhys, for the first time, financial security (she invested it in frocks, booze and make-up!) and a measure of fame.

Born in Dominica to a middle-class family, Rhys moved to England to finish her education and attend the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art in London. Her impenetrable Caribbean accent scuppered her acting ambitions, so she became a chorus girl and later a kept mistress to Lancelot Grey Hugh Smith, a wealthy stockbroker. This period of her life became the background for her second novel Voyage in the dark.

In 1919 she married Willem Lenglet, a Dutch journalist and spy, and together they led a ramshackle life on the outskirts of artistic society. Rhys had an affair with the writer Ford Madox Ford and he promoted her writing, introducing her collection of short stories The left bank. Her affair with Maddox and the collapse of her marriage became the subject matter for Quartet her first full novel.

The 1930s and 1940s saw Rhys publish two more novels, re-marry twice, drink steadily, fight spectacularly with her neighbours and enjoy a brief stay at her Majesty’s pleasure in Holloway Prison. What a girl!

Jean Rhys played the victim and outsider in her own life and used this victimhood as a central motif in her novels, but her novels are also shrewd examinations of  power and society, and the harsh realities that await us all.

Rhys died in 1979 leaving an unfinished autobiograhy Smile please.

Dead Dames – Josephine Tey 1896-1952

Josephine Tey is best known for her mystery novels  featuring gentleman detective Inspector Alan Grant of Scotland Yard, but she also enjoyed success during the 1930s as a playwright with both John Gielgud and Larry Olivier starring in her plays. She published several non-mystery titles under the pseudonym Gordon Daviot.

Born Elizabeth MacKintosh in Inverness, Tey trained as a physical education teacher but spent most of her adult life nursing her invalid parents and, of course, writing.

Her first detective novel The man in the queue was published in 1929 and introduced Alan Grant. He went on to feature in six of her titles but most notably in The daughter of time. Here the Inspector, incapacitated and hospitalised, turns his detection skills to the historic mystery of the the Princes in the Tower to determine whether Richard III was guilty of murdering his nephews.

Josephine Tey rejected established mystery formulas and instead strove to tell a variey of stories in a variety of fashions. The novelist Robert Barnard described her work as falling between the mystery novel and the “novel proper” and her titles are populated with “real” people and authentic although now slightly dated dialogue.

A pathologically private person, Tey gave no interviews.  John Gielgud said she was  “proud without being arrogant, and obstinate, though not conceited”. She died of liver cancer in 1952 and gifted her entire estate of £24, 232 18 s. 8d and future royalties to The National Trust.

Dead Dames – Barbara Pym 1913-1980

Vicars, curates, white elephant stalls and afternoon tea…..Barbara Pym’s novels are replete with dog collars, jumble and domestic details but they are also so very much more. Anne Tyler credits Pym with capturing ‘the heartbreaking silliness of everyday life’, and like Jane Austen, Barbara Pym delivers the everyday minutiae of small lives while simultaneously revealing concealed darkness and miseries.

Barbara wrote steadily throughout her life but there were two quite distinct periods to her published writing career. Her first novels came out between 1950-1961 and her last between 1977-1986 (several were published posthumously).

“The wilderness” years between 1961-1977 were when she went unpublished, An unsuitable attachment was rejected by her publisher Jonathan Cape for being too old fashioned and tame. Salvation came in in 1977 when the Times Literary Supplement asked critics to name the most underated authors of the last 75 years,  Pym’s name popped up twice with both poet Philip Larkin and Lord David Cecil citing her.

Now in vogue, publishers were eager to publish Pym. Quartet in autumn, short-listed for the Booker prize, and The sweet dove died came out in 1977 and 1978 and her previous novels were re-printed and introduced to an American readership. Tragically Barbara Pym died of cancer on January 11th 1980 leaving her legacy of several quietly but brilliantly observed novels.