Tuesday, September 15, 2015

The Late Mr Early - Joan Hewett

Found in the £1 barrow outside Saltaire bookshop, The Late Mr Early by Joan Hewett (1943), though not with the dustwrapper illustrated here. It’s a ghost story, if marginally. The first lines are: “Silently, effortlessly, without even pausing to open the door, the late Jonathan Early entered his library. That, he reflected, was one of the few advantages of being a spirit. . .”.

There is a family tree on a preliminary page, showing his nephews and nieces. These will soon be gathered to hear the reading of his will, which contains some surprises. Complications and treacheries and a twist or two follow, and his bequests influence the lives of all the legatees, while he observes things from afar. The writing is lively, crisp, with nice descriptive touches, and the characters are well differentiated and developed. It is unashamedly commercial fiction, but done with brio and verve.

A Note says: “With grateful acknowledgement to Mr A V Fraer, Barrister, of Auckland, New Zealand, who gave me my first lessons in the gentle art of Will making.” The book makes a clever appeal to the perennial fascination with wills and inheritances, a staple in mystery fiction since Victorian times, but here in a pacier modern guise.

There is a discussion of the author on a genealogy site, which pieces together the following information. Joan Hewett was born in Middlesex in 1904 (sometimes later given as 1905). She moved to New Zealand at an early age. She married in 1923: her son was born in January of the following year; her husband died that same year. She was thus left a widow and a lone parent at the age of 20. The Late Mr Early is dedicated to “Philip and Punch”. Philip was her son, then nineteen.

She remarried in 1930 and divorced in 1942. In 1947 she travelled to England and the USA to try to promote her books. She was interviewed by the Amarillo Globe and described as one of New Zealand’s leading novelists: she was trying to sell her books as films in Hollywood.

She is last known of in 1956 travelling from Southampton to Quebec, when she is described as a stenographer. She gave her address then as Western Gales, Cummersdale, Carlisle. This was also the address at about this time of Osbert Wyndham Hewett, the author of Strawberry Fair, a biography of Frances, Countess Waldegrave (1956).

He later went on to edit And Mr Fortescue: A Selection from the Diaries from 1851 to 1862 of Chichester Fortescue Lord Carlingford K.P. (1958), politician, the husband of Countess Waldegrave, and believed to be the model for Trollope’s Phineas Phinn. A copy of this book was offered for sale with a typed, signed letter from the author dated August 1958 about the success of this book, noting that his sister has promised to promote it in South Africa. He must evidently have been some relation of Joan Hewett and this may be an allusion to her, since as we have seen she was no stranger to publicising her own books.

Her books are: A Divorce Has Been Arranged (Duckworth, 1937); Week-End Rhapsody (Duckworth, 1939); The Late Mr Early (Macdonald, 1943); Dare to Trespass (Macdonald, 1944); Frost in September (Macdonald, 1946); Nymph With A Broomstick (Macdonald, 1949); Women Are Dynamite (Herbert Jenkins, 1951). Some sound as though they may also have a fantastical element.


  1. Fascinating discovery. After a basic search failed to come up with any copies of her books for sale in the United States, I wonder how successful she was at promoting her work here. The Amarillo Globe wasn't the New York Times Book Review by a long shot.
    Certainly a name to jot down for the future as books by forgotten authors sometimes turn up in unexpected places. When I first began looking for books by Sylvia Townsend Warner here in the U.S., hardly any secondhand bookshop proprietor had ever heard of her so if they had one of her books it tended to be very cheap. That certainly changed and her books are much more expensive if you can find one in a shop at all.

  2. Thanks for your comments. Yes, Joan Hewett's books aren't all that common in Britain either, but I'd certainly try another if it turned up. Mark