Posts Tagged furrowed middlebrow
Hosted by LSE Library, I’ll be giving a free online – Zoom – talk – The ‘Furrowed Middlebrow’ Fiction: novels by and for women, 1920s to 1950s – on Thursday 20 May, from 1-2pm.
I’ll be discussing some of the ‘middlebrow’ novels written by women that were available to borrow from public and circulating libraries in the 1920s to the 1950s. I’ll be making special reference to those by novelists such as Margery Sharp, Celia Buckmaster, Stella Gibbons and Elizabeth Fair that have recently been republished by Dean Street Press under their ‘Furrowed Middlebrow’ imprint. I have written introductions to about 35 of the reissues.
For full details of my talk – and how to register – see here.
The talk ties in with the current LSE Library online exhibition Making Modern Women: Women’s Magazines in Interwar Britain – which you can view here
Elena Shayne in her dancing years, With her husband, Paul Barel (image courtesy of Louise Baghurst)
Even though ‘lockdown’ has officially been eased, my physical freedom is not as it was but, as compensation, and fuelled by an insatiable curiosity and the wonders of the internet, I’ve had no shortage of time and opportunity to wander through time and space in pursuit of various chimera.
One such is a young woman known as ‘Elena Shayne’, author of a single published work, a roman à clef entitled Everyday (Jonathan Cape,1935). As she explained at the outset, ‘Elena’ planned to write about ‘the things that happen to me for a year’. And that, simply, is what she did. Everyday is the book of that year.
(image courtesy of Scott Thompson)
But, to begin at the beginning, I knew nothing of Everyday when I first encountered it, described in a post on the ‘Furrowed Middlebrow’ website. I am not sure what exactly caught my attention, probably the author’s rather unusual name for I began idly to research Elena Shayne on Ancestry.com and quickly realised that she had a rather slippery attitude to names. This was rather intriguing. The name she had used as an author she had also used in Real Life, but it was not the name with which she had been born, and was by no means the only one she was to adopt during her lifetime.
I was sufficiently amused by my genealogical research to pass on an outline to Scott, the owner of the ‘Furrowed Middlebrow’ website, and was delighted when he offered to send me a scan of Everyday. It was only then, on reading the novel, that my research took wings, transporting me back to 1931-1932, and embedding me in the life of a north Devon village.
‘Elena Shayne’ was born Louise Crawshay Parker in September 1909 in Plymouth, Devon. Her mother was Mrs Gertrude Hermione Thomas (née Crawshay), who had been separated from her husband, William Morlais Thomas, a civil engineer, since c 1901. They had married in 1892 and a daughter, Grace Morlais Thomas, had been born in 1893. Gertrude’s father, a member of the Crawshay family of wealthy Welsh ironmasters, had not approved of her marriage and had lived just long enough to see it fail.
At some point Mrs Thomas met, and then lived in Plymouth with, John Thomas Parker, the father of Louise. The family story is that they met on Plymouth Hoe, while each speaking for their Cause – he for Socialism and she for Suffrage. Gertrude Thomas died in January 1911 and when the census was taken three months later baby Louise was living in Plymouth with John Parker, his elderly mother, his sister, and his brother, a house decorator. Parker was described as a ‘commission agent’, but at the age of 13 in 1881 had worked as a box maker. The Parkers clearly belonged to a class very different from that of the Crawshays.
The 1911 census shows that Louise’s half-sister, Grace Thomas, was then living with Gertrude Thomas’ sister, Louise Crawshay, at Batheaston Cottage, Batheaston (on the outskirts of Bath). Poor Grace died in June 1911, aged 18, a couple of months after the census. At this time Grace’s father, William Morlais Thomas, was living in the seaside town of Paignton, Devon, attended by a nurse. He died there in 1914. I have not ordered death certificates for the sad trio (Mr and Mrs Thomas and Grace) but curiosity might yet get the better of me. I’m pretty certain, though, that TB was the culprit.
These are all facts I established in the course of my genealogical research and I was then delighted to find the details vindicated in Everyday where, in a few paragraphs, Elena Shayne relates much of the story of her birth and parentage, telling how she was rescued from the backstreets of ‘Rymouth’, as she calls Plymouth, by her great-aunt Louise, and taken to live with her at ‘Westwater’ (Batheaston).
Elena was five years old, when, after the death of William Morlais Thomas, a court case established that, although she was now known as ‘Louise Crawshay Thomas’, she was not, in fact, his daughter, but that of John Parker. The court case, at the root of which lay a dispute over an inheritance, was widely reported and my supposition that her illegitimacy – or, at least, the widespread knowledge of it – shaped Elena’s life has been borne out in conversation with her daughter. In Everyday Elena certainly blames it for the ostracization she believed she experienced from some sections of ‘society’.
Although she did not inherit from William Thomas’ estate, Elena was subsequently left money by a Crawshay uncle and her aunt Louise, on her death in 1943, left Elena her entire estate, which amounted to something over £4000. So, she was not, I think, without means in her younger years. I only mention finances because in Everyday Elena evinces a delightfully vagabond spirit, something we all know is only possible if the basics of life are covered.
Other than a mention in the press that Elena Shayne had attended school in Bristol, I don’t know anything of her life between the ages of 5 and 22 when, in December 1931, described as ‘Writer’ and with her aunt Louise, she sailed, second-class, to Marseilles. It was the information in the Ranpura’s manifest that was the key to unravelling the roman à clef – for the address supplied by the two women was ‘Lundy House, Croyde Bay, north Devon’. This was the lightbulb moment (to mix the metaphors) which unlocked Everyday, for the address of the author – and central character – as it appears on the opening page of Everyday, accompanying the date of her first diary entry, 23 June 1931, is ‘Hartland House’, Grebe Bay, North Devon’.
I had now anchored Everyday in time and place. For ‘Grebe’ read ‘Croyde’. Lundy is an island in the Bristol Channel; Hartland Point is a rocky outcrop sticking out into the Channel, some miles south of Croyde. By studying online maps and photographs I have become closely acquainted with this north Devon coastal village as it developed through the course of the 20th century, and, with Google Earth, have explored the neighbourhood as it is today. In Everyday the local towns and villages are given pseudonyms, thus, for example, ‘Barum’ is Barnstaple, ‘Barnham’ is ‘Georgeham’, ‘Brandon’ is Braunton, ‘Sandon’ is ‘Saunton, and ‘Hutley’ is ‘Putsborough. Moreover, judicious study of the 1939 Register (a census taken in England at the outbreak of the Second World War) has enabled me to identify many of the people whom Elena encounters. She uses pseudonyms, but her code is easily broken.
Why had Aunt Louise and ‘Elena’ chosen to move from Batheaston to Croyde? In Everyday the move appears permanent, but was not so in Real Life, for Aunt Louise retained Batheaston Cottage and left it to Elena on her death. In Everyday Elena implies that the move had been made because knowledge of her illegitimacy was causing her harm in Batheaston – ‘at last I could hardly bear to go out because of the slights and insults I received’. Croyde was familiar territory to Aunt Louise Crawshay, whose maternal grandfather and an uncle had, in succession during the second half of the 19th century, been rectors of Georgeham, the adjacent village. This family association, it was hoped, would provide protective cachet.
Lundy House 2020
Lundy House, where Elena and Aunt Louise were living, is situated on Moor Lane, a minor road running north out of Croyde and was rented from a farmer who lived in an adjacent house. In Everyday the farmer was ‘James Fisher’, in reality, George Bertram Fowler, who lived there with his aged mother and ran the farm with help from one of his sisters, Mrs Ivy Reed (aka ‘Mrs Rush’ in Everyday). Elena describes the Fisher/Fowler family and its history in some detail, all borne out by my research in genealogical records and newspaper reports. She even mentions that ‘James’ was unlikely to marry while his mother was alive and, sure enough, I see that it was only in 1937, a few months after her death, that he made it to the altar. Remember that Everyday was written some years earlier; Elena could read a situation. Moreover, George Fowler lost no time in selling his farm. His mother died on 30 January 1937 and the 27 March 1937 issue of the North Devon Journal carried an advertisement for the sale of all the livestock and agricultural implements of Lundy House Farm on the instructions of Mr George Fowler (‘giving up farming’).
Looking out of her ‘abode-in-attic’ window in Lundy House, Elena describes her uninterrupted view over bracken and stream to the bay, rejoicing in her solitude. The sea is still there and Lundy House still stands, but over the past 90 years Elena’s world has vanished. The house, available to rent, is now at the centre of Ruda Holiday Park, a sprawling collection of chalets, caravans, and camping pitches, where holiday makers are serviced by all the entertainments thought necessary in the 21st century. Where there was farmyard there is now the Cascades Tropical Adventure Pool, complete with flumes. Everyday describes a landscape and a society on the cusp of change.
In the early 1930s Croyde was already attracting holidaymakers. Elena refers to the ‘Season’, noting that cottagers were keen to let rooms to summer visitors. When describing the great flood that engulfed Georgeham and Croyde in June 1931 she mentions that the damage done was of real consequence to cottagers hoping to profit by the ‘Season’. She, naturally, found the drama of the situation irresistible. Somewhere a postcard may exist of Elena, her dress rolled to her waist, wading, with a friend, through the waters. She describes how ‘some thirty or forty people on the far side of the bridge greeted us with cameras and cheers, and picture-postcards of us were on sale in Grebe and Barum soon afterwards’. I think the postcards were published by Arthur Gammon, who ran the Croyde post office. Wouldn’t it be a coup to unearth this image?
At the time that Elena was writing, Croyde had just, in 1930, become the site of a permanent holiday camp run for its members by NALGO (National Association of Local Government Officers). This was an indication of how holidaying would transform the village after the Second World War. But in 1931 there were only two shops in Croyde (‘three if you count the butcher’s hut’), the local economy was based around farming, and the ‘Devon bus’ ran from Barnstable ‘four times a day in winter and four or five times an hour in the “Season”’.
Croyde Village in the Interwar Years
St Mary’s Road, the main street through Croyde, did not yet have a name; Elena merely refers to ‘the village’. Several of the farms she mentions fronted onto this street. Many of them, still there, retain their original names but have turned themselves into B & Bs, their back lands now filled with holiday lodges. I was amused to note that the carpenter, ‘Mr Flower’, whom Aunt Louise employed to do work in ‘Hartland House’ was undoubtedly William Budd, after whom a restaurant, ‘Billy Budd’s’ (formerly the Carpenter’s Arms), is now named. This seemed a very satisfying conjunction of local history, fact and fiction.
Croyde Village – a postcard posted in 1933
Everyday is packed with details of the lives of both local cottagers and farmers and of those who felt themselves to inhabit a higher echelon. I have deduced that ‘Miss Hunter’, prominent in local society, was Miss Constance Hyde, who lived with her brother and sister in a large Victorian house (‘Mole Manor’, notable for its ‘crude colours’) on the cliff north of Lundy House. ‘Miss Hunter’ comes in for some particularly scathing comment, Elena recounting that she was one of those who ‘would not recognize me’. If she had lived to have known it, I think Elena might have taken some satisfaction in the fact that the Hydes’ ancestral home, built a couple of generations back by the founder of the Birmingham Post, has been swept away, demolished to make way for ‘Baggy Point’, one of the more remarkable of Britain’s modernist houses.
Among others who attract her ire are ‘Cuthbert Fitz-Potter’, in Real Life George Pitts-Tucker, a retired businessman and general manager of the Saunton Golf Club. He organised the Ladies’ Championship, held at Saunton in 1932 and mentioned in Everyday. Elena makes clear she thinks that Pitts-Tuckers, who lived a little further up Moor Lane in Middleborough House, with three unmarried Pitts-Tucker sisters living opposite in Middleborough Cottage, had forgotten that it was only two generations back that, as leather drapers, they were mere Tuckers.
Elena was well-acquainted with Saunton and its golf links, for in a house opposite the entrance to the club lived her dearest friend, ‘Lilian’. In Everyday the Saunton house is ‘Inverary’, in Real Life, ’Knockbeg’. ‘Lilian’ was Margaret (Peggy) Lilian Longfield, daughter of an Anglo-Irish family whose home, Kilcolman House in Co Cork, had been burned down in 1921 during the ‘War of Independence’. Everyday is threaded through with mentions of ‘Lilian’, although we never really get close to her. The two young women seem to have periods of unexplained estrangements, one certainly being when ‘Lilian’ became entangled with a young man, ‘Philip’. But at the close of the book Elena came to the conclusion that ‘…whatever she might do or leave undone, Lilian would always be Lilian to me, to be helped and comforted should she need help and comfort.’ And this turned out to be true, although, from what I have been told, it was ‘Lilian’ who was more often the one who provided the help and comfort. For I have been in contact with Elena’s daughter and grand-daughter and with Peggy Longfield’s niece, all of whom tell me that the two women remained close friends for the rest of Elena’s life and that, after her death, the relationship was continued by her daughter. Indeed, Elena’s daughter stressed her own love for Peggy, who helped bring her up, working as a secretary to support her and Elena.
Knowing how closely Elena’s account of her life in Devon appears to be related to Real Life it would seem wilful to doubt the accuracy of the middle section of Everyday, describing the holiday she spent with Aunt Louise, voyaging to Marseilles and then on to Majorca. As I mentioned at the beginning of this piece, the two can be spotted disembarking from the Ranpura at Marseilles in December 1931. Elena recounts that this was where they transferred for the onward journey to Majorca. Needless to say, on that island and on the return journey by train via Paris she had no end of romantic adventures – adventures that led the Western Press and Bristol Mirror (30 March 1935) to describe her as a ‘modern girl’ [who] ‘obviously knows the art of living as well as the art of writing’. Other reviewers compared her style to that of E.M. Delafield (‘without the coruscation of arrows’) and Beverley Nichols (‘without the mawkishness’). A.G. MacDonnel (The Observer, 17 March 1935) acknowledged her charm and sense of humour, and, presumably rather satisfying to a young writer, The Morning Post applauded her ‘aptitude for pithy, picturesque English’. In fact, Everyday was well and quite extensively reviewed, with hope being expressed for future works. Alas, it was not to be. Her daughter has stressed to me how very prolific Elena was as a writer throughout her life, producing vast quantities of poems and novels, including an updated treatment of Pilgrim’s Progress, and was mortified that, despite being on the books of the Hope Leresche Literary Agency, she never again achieved publication. And this leads me to consider how it was that Everyday ever, as it were, saw the light of day.
Well, among the characters Elena encounters in Devon was one Cocbarlie Bilfather who, living in ‘Torr Cottage’ in the neighbouring village of ‘Barnum,’ she describes as ‘our Novelist, who came to Barnham sixteen years ago, penniless, obscure, and twenty-two, and is now perched upon the rail of fame – chiefly by studies of our local ways’. It was instant recognition – ‘Bilfather’ is, of course, Henry Williamson, of Skirr Cottage, Georgeham. I do have a copy of Patriot’s Progress on my bookshelf but have not yet read The Village Book (1930) and The Labouring Life (1932), which tell of Georgeham life. If it had not been for Covid-19 I would most certainly have already hastened to the British Library and devoured them, as well as other local histories of the area, but such a treat has not yet been possible.
In a few paragraphs Elena paints a seductive picture of Williamson, the man of letters, and his sanctuary, ‘a curious room which smelt of musk and mould’. Thus, it is perhaps no coincidence that Everyday was published by Jonathan Cape, publisher of Williamson’s two Georgeham books. Although I have no proof, I would be amazed if, at the very least, Williamson was not prayed in aid when Elena was looking for a publisher.
However, although Elena Shayne had no further success as an author, she did shine in another sphere. For from 1939, having returned with Aunt Louise to Batheaston and after an interlude in London, she became a leading light of the Bath ballroom-dancing scene. A holder of a Gold Medal from the Imperial Society of the Teachers of Dancing, throughout the war she organised a dance club for soldiers on leave in Bath. She married in 1944, soon after Aunt Louise’s death, but the marriage was short-lived (her daughter tells me that the young man in question, to whom she remained close throughout her life, was gay) and then married again in 1947.
Her second husband, a Bristolian, Paul Barel (1917-2007), was a conscientious objector during the Second World War and had transformed himself from costing clerk to dancer. In 1946, at Elena’s insistence, he changed his name by deed poll from William Cyril Barrell. For a few years the couple ran a health club, ‘Rhythm Therapy’, from Batheaston Cottage and in 1948 had a daughter, Pauline Louise Crawshay Barel. The birth notice in a local north Devon paper made special mention of the fact that the baby was a great-niece of ‘the late Miss Louise Crawshay of Batheaston’. Elena had dedicated Everyday to her great-aunt and there is no doubt of the love between them. However, this second marriage, too, did not last; there was a divorce and in 1957 Paul Barel remarried. Elena Shayne Barel died in 1984 and is buried in Georgeham Cemetery on Incledon Hill.
In my pursuit of Elena Shayne I have, as I’ve mentioned, been in contact with two or three people who remember her very well, each having a special name for her to add to all the others she accumulated in her earlier years. All confirm that she was a very interesting woman, by no means easy, but most definitely memorable. Certainly, her joie de vivre and carefree vagabonding have enlivened my lock-down summer as I accompanied her along country lanes, over the dunes and reefs, up on the cliffs, into dimly lit cottages, on country buses, in tea rooms, on horseback, on ships, in trains, not to mention on a short but lively visit to a Parisian bordello. And for all this entertainment, I offer my appreciative thanks to Furrowed Middlebrow without whom ….
Back in the summer I was delighted to receive a commission from a small reprint publisher, the Dean Street Press, to write an introduction to three novels by Rachel Ferguson that they were planning to reissue. I guessed why they had asked me… I had written the entry on her in the New Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. But I was especially pleased to have the opportunity to set out more about her life and to tease out links with the novels because she had spent her early years in Teddington, the suburb adjoining Twickenham, where I had spent my youth, and the road where she had lived was familiar to me. Two of the reissued novels, Evenfield and a
Harp in Lowndes Square, in whole or in part conjure up life in late-Victorian Teddington as seen through her idiosyncratic eyes and, knowing from her autobiographies, that Rachel Ferguson was somewhat haunted by memories of her childhood, as I read the novels I could add another wraith, my teenaged self, to those wandering the path from the station or walking over the bridge to the more sophisticated Kingston shops. Needless to say this solipsistic reading is mine only.
The third of the reissued Ferguson novels is
A Footman for a Peacock, a fantastical tale set in the early years of the Second World War.
After I had delivered the Ferguson Introduction Dean Street then asked me to write one for another novel in this tranche of reissues, Winifred Peck’s Bewildering Cares.
I had read the author’s autobiographies some years ago and, as it happens, had very recently read a biography of her niece, Penelope Fitzgerald, which includes good background information on Winifred’s family – the Knoxes. Growing up, alongside her decidedly idiosyncratic brothers, in a clerical household, provided Winifred with plenty of material for her novels and, again, I was able to make links between her life and her fiction. Bewildering Cares covers a week in the life of a vicar’s wife in the early stages of the Second World War.
These novels are only three of nine that Dean Street Press have released this month (October 2016) under the ‘Furrowed Middlebrow’ imprint. Isn’t that a great name? It comes from the eponymous blog conducted by Scott, a Californian enthusiast for novels by British women writers (particularly those from the 20th-c inter-war years). Do have a read of the blog – click here. His enthusiasm convinced Dean Street Press to reissue his chosen titles – and more Furrowed Middlebrow reissues are planned.
I love the covers of all the new ‘Furrowed Middlebrow’ titles – and am delighted to be associated, even in this most distant way, with Eric Ravilious. They are all available in paperback – for details (and a view of all the other covers) – click here. They can be ordered direct from the publisher, or from Amazon, or the Book Depository, or from any bookshop. They are all also available as ebooks.
For some unfathomable reason this series of reprints has been the target of a rather ridiculously vindictive Amazon reviewer who has spent a good deal of time in constantly rewriting the ill-conceived ‘thoughts’ that accompany her award of ‘one-star’ to all the ‘Furrowed Middlebrow’ books, which she clearly hasn’t even bothered to read. One blogger, ‘Stuck in a Book’, has called (click here to read his call to arms) for the sensible and interested to do what they can by asking readers of the books to give their own Amazon review (of course most readers would probably normally never think of doing any such thing) so that, if they like the books, they can improve the star rating. Such is Amazon nonsense.