Those Excellent Women Writers …

It was at the wonderful bookshop in London’s  Lambs’ Conduit Street – PERSEPHONE BOOKS – where I found Noel Streatfeild’s  novel SAPLINGS and discovered that the writer we no doubt associate with childhood reading also wrote for adults. In fact, she wrote 16 novels for adults and spent her writing career publishing books for both adults and children.

And after reading SAPLINGS I am so relieved that I can return to Noel Streatfeild and seek out all her other adult novels to complement, as it were, my childhood obsession with Ballet Shoes, White Boots, The Bell Family, The Painted Garden et al.

SAPLINGS was published at the end of the war in 1945. And the war is integral to the story – for the impact it has upon the lives of the family central to the story and, in particular, to the children. Streatfeild’s portrayal of the psychological effects of growing up amidst such loss and suffering is acute and she is, I feel, woefully neglected as a writer for adults.

Her own life was interesting in itself. Born on Christmas Eve in 1895 to a vicarage family (her father was Vicar of various parishes and her mother was the daughter of a rector) she spent WW1 initially working in the kitchens of a hospital for wounded soldiers before moving onto Woolwich  Arsenal as a munitions worker – at the same time managing to write and produce 2 plays in support of the war effort. In 1919, acting took over when she enrolled at the Academy of Dramatic Art (later known as RADA) and she spent the next few years touring the UK and then South Africa with theatre companies.

Then she began writing.  The WICHARTS was published in 1930, followed by numerous more adult novels including GRASS IN PICCADILLY, which managed to earn a review in The Spectator stating that strait-laced persons are warned not to attempt more than the first few pages’ – so clearly one we all need to seek out!

In WW2 she worked as a voluntary Air Raid Warden in the Mayfair area of London, ran a mobile canteen for air raid shelters in the Deptford area and spoke publicly for the WVS – at the same time as writing 4 adult novels, 5 children’s books, 9 romances and innumerable articles and short stories …

Streatfeild was very much a ‘jobbing writer.’ She wrote to earn an income (I read somewhere that it was in order to sustain the essentials of any woman writer’s life – namely, a small flat in Bloomsbury, a secretary and a maid – think I’d settle just for the flat!) and eventually decided that adult novels were ‘harder to write than children’s books and and much harder to sell’ and she devoted the rest of her career to children’s fiction.

But seek out some of those adult novels – SAPLINGS, without doubt, I can recommend.

Cicely Hamilton was a remarkable woman who, again I feel, has been much neglected as a writer and I am now reading WILLIAM – AN ENGLISHMAN  which again I recommend. Born in 1872, Hamilton also acted in provincial rep companies like Streatfeild and went on to write over 20 plays, the most well-known being DIANA OF DOBSON’S in 1908. She was a feminist, believed in equal pay, birth control, was opposed to sentimentality about marriage – and certainly the eponymous heroine of her play is an assertive, independent and strong-minded woman who no doubt she created in her own mould. Her writing is so perceptive, her characterisation pertinent, digging gently beneath the facades and self-delusions that we all mostly hide behind in our lives.

Yet who talks about Cicely Hamilton or even reads her these days? When was the last time a book group chose WILLIAM – AN ENGLISHMAN for their monthly read?

Then there’s Dorothy Whipple. In her lifetime – 1893-1966 – she wrote 8 highly successful novels, 2 were made into films and several were chosen as Book Society Choices. I loved YOUNG ANN and am looking forward to reading more of her work.

What interests me about these female writers – apart from the quality of their prose and their story-telling abilities which are exemplary – is the social, domestic and historical context in which they were living and working and that is so fully reflected in their novels. They all saw and endured two World Wars – they lived at a time of gross inequality for women – and their writing reflects felt personal experience in a way that is fascinating as well as instructive.

And finally, the remarkable Barbara Pym!

I first read everything that Barbara Pym wrote about 30 years ago and loved all her novels. And now, prompted by Carol, my friend who I’ve known for over twice that number of years, I’m about to embark on re-reading them, one by one. And if you enjoy writers who capture the nuances of relationships and situations, manage to define mood and atmosphere with subtlety and quiet humour, write seemingly effortless prose – Pym could well be for you.

Born in 1913, Pym wrote 11 novels and was a nominee for the Booker Prize in 1977. But success did not come easily. Her first novel which was eventually published in 1950 – Some Tame Gazelle- was rejected by numerous publishers for 15 years and during this time she wrote other novels that were also rejected and only published after her death. EXCELLENT WOMEN was well received in 1952, but her next four novels received mixed or indifferent reviews and eventually she was dropped by her publishers and was told by several others to whom she submitted that her writing was ‘old-fashioned’ and that there was no popular interest in the characters and situations she wrote about. In short, it was said, she was of no economic advantage to them.

So Pym published nothing from 1962 until 1977. She went on submitting, she went on being rejected.

She and her literary reputation, however, were eventually rescued  by the poet Philip Larkin and by Lord David Cecil. Writing in the Times Literary Supplement they both claimed Barbara Pym as the most underrated British writer of the 20th century – and interest in her was revived. Not only revived, but the publication of QUARTET IN AUTUMN by Macmillan in 1977 brought her the Booker nomination – as well as interest from the USA where her books were then published with high success.

Sadly, Pym died in 1980 at the age of 66, at the point when her career and literary reputation  had reignited and she could have gone on to write and publish so much more. She never married, worked most of her life at the International African Institute and served during the WW2 in the Women’s Royal Naval Service, eventually posted to Naples.

I love these writers who reflect a social and domestic world that is only touching distance away from us – the worlds of our parents, grandparents, great grandparents – yet light years away in terms of the way we now live our lives. And expect and demand to live them.

So I recommend Streatfeild and Whipple and Hamilton and Pym – and no doubt will now discover all sorts of other wonderful, sadly neglected writers from the 20th century.

I am, you see, now on a mission to do so!




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