Friday, January 29, 2021

The Real "Francis Stevens"

The internet, as usual, perpetuates a lot of errors, and makes up its own new ones. With the writer "Francis Stevens" one hardly knows where to begin correcting the errors.  First, there is her name.  She was born "Gertrude M. Barrows" (the M. is sometimes claimed to have been Mabel, but this is unconfirmed, as the state of Minnesota, and the county in which she was born, do not have birth records going back that far; yet in the 1895 Minnesota Census she appears with her family as "Myrtle"--which would seemingly be her middle-name, as she was perhaps known familiarly). Her first published story in 1904 was signed "G.M. Barrows."  She married in 1908, a man surnamed Bennett who died in 1910. She published all of the rest of her stories between 1917 and 1923, under the byline "Francis Stevens."  During this time she was known as Gertrude Bennett. A decade after she ceased writing, she married a man surnamed Gaster, and was known as Gertrude Gaster for the rest of her life (she died in 1948).  But the internet has renamed her "Gertrude Barrows Bennett." not a form of her name that she used. Similarly, modernity knows Poe as "Edgar Allan Poe"--not by the name "Edgar A. Poe" with which he signed his writings. 

Barrows's birthyear is also mistakenly given as 1884, the year she herself gave out in later life.  But early census records make it clear she was born in 1883.  

And currently, there is a a supposed photograph of her that comes up when you search google for "Gertrude Barrows Bennett."  Only it's not her.  

Here is the erroneous photograph.  The earliest appearance of it I can find on the web comes from 2018 in a twitter post here (the twitter thread contains other poppycock).

 Not "Francis Stevens"

Here is the writer "Francis Stevens"--in detail from a 1927 photograph, one of the few of her that passed on to her grandchildren.

The real "Francis Stevens" in 1927
And the mistaken "facts" continue on from there.

Monday, January 25, 2021

The Haunted Forties

 At Wild Court, an essay on 'The Haunted Forties – Wrey Gardiner and Poetry Quarterly'.

The young poets of the early Nineteen Forties, part of the Neo-Romantic movement, seemed to be obsessed with ghosts, haunted gardens, numinous or uncanny landscape, visions of apocalypse. 

A key figure was Wrey Gardiner, the editor of Poetry Quarterly and publisher at The Grey Walls Press, whose journals capture the atmosphere of that hectic, uncertain time. 

This essay explores some of the raffish characters who wrote, drank, smoked and argued in Soho and Holborn during that period.

(Mark Valentine)

Saturday, January 23, 2021

London Types

One of the most notable portraits of Arthur Machen was taken by the photographer E O Hoppé, showing him at his most distinguished in a dark cloak and holding an ornamental cane. 

The Spitalfields Life blog is always full of interest about the characters and places of this East End district, exhibiting the same keen interest as Machen in the byways and curiosities of an outlying region of the city. 

The latest post celebrates the volume London Types (1926) by W. Pett Ridge, which features descriptions by that author and portraits by Hoppé of London characters, some of whom you can't help thinking might have stepped out of a Machen story. Pett Ridge was a bestseller in his time for his humorous tales of working-class Cockney life.

The portrait above is entitled 'Street Music'. Others depict servants, messengers, veterans, exiles, wide boys and wizened elders.

The book was presumably compiled around about the same time as Machen's The London Adventure (1924) and therefore gives some interesting descriptive context for his explorations. 

(Mark Valentine)

Photograph © the Estate of E O Hoppé.


Thursday, January 21, 2021

The Flint Transmissions

In the late 1930s a young man living in Flint, North Wales, operated from his home an amateur radio set. He searched for signals from other wireless enthusiasts across the world. When he made contact he sent them a postcard to confirm he had heard them: and they sent him a card back.

These are called QSL cards. The letters QSL mean “your transmission confirmed”, using the Q code originally developed for use by ships and coastguard stations and later adopted by radio operators more generally. In the days when reception was erratic and difficult, radio hams sent them to one another as proof that they had made contact. Soon the sending and receiving of cards became a subsidiary hobby in itself. 

Each card has on it a few manuscript numbers and phrases which record the time of contact, the signal strength, and other technical data. There might also be a brief handwritten message. In keeping with the argot of the craft, these passing correspondents addressed each other as “OM”, short for Old Man, the affectionate Wodehouseian term for fellow radio hams. In the card above, 'PSE QSL OM' means 'Please Confirm Transmission, Old Man'. Sometimes this exchange of cards grew into a pen-friendship, and even, though rarely, meetings.

The cards received by the young man in Flint present a panorama of styles and designs from the period. Some show the sender seated in the bedroom or shed or studio where they received and sent signals, surrounded by sturdy boxes with antennae, dials, switches and levers. Other cards have bright or bold art deco lettering, or rays or zigzags or ripples to represent the sound waves reaching out into the skies. There are cheery mottoes, nicknames, greetings and watchwords. 

From these we can catch a few glimpses of the character and circumstances of some of the senders, who may not otherwise now be remembered, or may be known only to a few. The Flintshire operator made contact with fellow enthusiasts not only in Britain and Europe, but the USA, Australia, Ecuador, Costa Rica, Argentina and Trinidad and elsewhere.  

I found this cache of forty or fifty cards in a cardboard box on a trestle-table stall at a book-fair in a civic hall some years ago and could not resist getting the lot. I was attracted by the designs and the brief handwritten messages and the fact that these were an unusual sort of ephemera, recording an ephemeral contact.

I began to wonder what would have happened if a card had arrived one day from no known part of Earth and in an alphabet previously unseen.

All of these pieces of card represent a reaching out from one individual to another, a gesture of contact, a shared passion that thought nothing of borders or barriers. The signals they record still resonate many years later from those brief brittle moments when these young voices crackled one to another across the voids of the world. 

 (Mark Valentine)

Tuesday, January 19, 2021

A Writer of Originality and Power

‘His novels were not meant to be easy reading and tended to pessimism,” said his obituarist in The Times. As to the author himself, ‘an insatiable demand for independence entailed austerities that included a rigid vegetarian diet extracted from an allotment upon which he arduously laboured.’

Meanwhile his sole fervent contemporary champion tried to allure readers with such epithets as ‘capable’ and ‘consistent’. His first publisher went bust two weeks after his book came out. No wonder, perhaps, his work is not well-known. And yet it should be.

John Mills Whitham (1883-1956), known to family and friends as Jan, published ten novels and a few non-fiction works, and translations. He was a Tolstoyan visionary of the back-to-the-land movement and a pacifist jailed as a conscientious objector.

Born in Folkestone, his parents, William Whitham (1848-1901) and Elizabeth Edwards (1855-?), were both from Manchester. His father was a Primitive Methodist minister. Jan Mills Whitham was educated in Liverpool and at first trained as an architect’s clerk, but by his early twenties, in 1905, was already describing himself as a writer.

He was briefly a part of the bohemian Café Royal crowd in London, friendly with the Imagist circle around Richard Aldington, ‘H.D.’, John Cournos and F.S. Flint. But he followed the advice given him by Yeats to go and ‘fraternise with the peasants’ somewhere in the West Country, and went to live the simple life in Devon, growing his own food and learning handicrafts, in a similar way to the short story writer H A Manhood, who lived in a converted railway carriage on a field in Sussex.

Like Manhood, he essentially used his writing income, which was never appreciable, for the things he could not grow, make or mend himself. As well as his books, he was a reviewer for the Times Literary Supplement. Whitham never returned to London or Liverpool and it was said he could hardly even be induced to visit the local cathedral city of Exeter.

Jessica Gardner and Ian Mortimer (Modern Literary Papers in the University of Exeter Library: A Guide, University of Exeter, 2003) explain that when Whitham’s second novel, Starveacre, was published in 1915, he was in prison: ‘Rather than enlist in the ranks, he had become a conscientious objector.  He was led from Barnstable tribunal on foot to Dartmoor Prison, and jeered and struck as he marched through Tavistock, chained to other prisoners.  In prison he went on a hunger strike in order to improve conditions.  In this at least he was successful; the Home Office allowed him to be released to work as a farm labourer near Combe Martin . . . '

The forced farm work did at least have one happier outcome: ‘In 1916, while staying in Combe Martin, he started courting Sylvia Milman . . . who was staying with her uncle, the vicar of Martinhoe.'  Sylvia was born on 12 October 1878 in South Kensington, the daughter of a barrister. She was already a noted wood-engraver and painter. Whitham and his wife, who shared his views and embraced his chosen lifestyle, took a remote cottage in Exmoor, on the great coastal hill of Holdstone Down, with its many Bronze Age remains.

The American critic and aesthete Paul Jordan-Smith was a keen collector of his work. In his For the Love of Books (1934), this admirer does not at first (as he admits) deploy praises likely to quicken the reader’s pulse. He describes Whitham as ‘one of the most capable, consistent and sympathetic of present-day regional novelists,’ but he does go on to say, more forcefully: ‘He writes clearly, beautifully, and in at least three of his novels, with great power.’

Jordan-Smith adds that although quite a few novelists have been said to be Hardy’s successor, he would be willing to advance this author’s claim.  The three novels the essayist thought his best were Starveacre (1915), Silas Braunton (1923) and The Windlestraw (1924). The New York Times (February 18, 1923) also saw the influence of Hardy in Silas Braunton, with its ‘realistic vigour [and] tang of the soil’

These are indeed Hardyesque but their stories of rural poverty and hardship cannot avoid the satirical shadow of Stella Gibbons’ Cold Comfort Farm (1932). Another comparison might be with the work of John Cowper Powys, and more especially T.F. Powys.

 However, The Sinful Saints: A Romantic Tale (1925), his penultimate novel, is more unusual. It is in some ways like Arthur Machen’s account of youthful poverty while trying to live by writing. There is the same intense devotion to the cause of literature in the face of penury and hardship.

Though not as lyrically mystical as Machen’s work, there is a sort of doomed nobility about his protagonist’s struggles, and hints of an inexorable destiny. It is bleak, sometimes awkwardly done, but with intensity and morbid interest: and there are phrases and passages of sombre quality.

Jan Mills Whitam died on 28 July 1956 at the North Devon Infirmary, Barnstaple, and Sylvia on 7 January 1957 at the same hospital. His wife donated most of his literary papers to Exeter University, and some are also held in Texas. The obituary in The Times called him ‘a writer of originality and power, whose work was much appreciated by the discriminating few.’

A friend writing to The Times in response to its obituary noted that there were several unpublished works, including ‘three further novels: A Poor Man's Journal, sequel to The Windlestraw: Christina Ballard, a novel of Exmoor; and Gunnar, a psychological study. His War Journal and his Philosophy of Recipience contain the final embodiment of his thinking.’ The correspondent added, ‘these fruits of a fine mind and life deserve to be harvested’ (The Times, 4 Aug 1956). But unfortunately they never yet have been.

A Checklist of the Published Novels of J. Mills Whitham

Broom (Sands, 1912)

Starveacre (Methuen, 1915)

Wolfgang (Methuen, 1917)

Fruit of Earth (Methuen, 1919)

The Human Circus: A Tale (Collins, 1919)

The Heretic: A Study of Temperament (Allen & Unwin, 1921)

Silas Braunton (Allen & Unwin, 1923)

The Windlestraw (Allen & Unwin, 1924)

The Sinful Saints: A Romantic Tale (John Castle, 1925)

Swings and Roundabouts (Duckworth, 1937)

(Mark Valentine)

Friday, January 15, 2021

Terror By Gaslight - New Edition

Richard Lamb, eldest son of noted ghost story anthologist Hugh Lamb, has announced a new, memorial edition of his father’s Terror By Gaslight anthology, first published in 1975.

This features the original fourteen stories plus three more selected from the editor's collection of unused material, and there is a new Afterword by Mike Ashley.

It follows a a new edition in 2019 of Victorian Tales of Terror, which included an extra story originally intended for inclusion in the book.

Hugh Lamb’s anthologies are notable for rediscovering rare and unusual material, rather than offering the standard well-worn classics, and this volume includes work by R. Murray Gilchrist, Rhoda Broughton, Robert Barr, Grant Allen and Dick Donovan.

Richard has also set up a website (see the link above) devoted to Hugh Lamb’s work, with news, information, a bibliography and gallery.

Saturday, January 9, 2021

Modern Ghosts, 1890-style

In 1890 Harper & Brothers of New York published a collection of seven stories entitled Modern Ghosts.  It includes an introduction by George William Curtis, and it was later reissued as volume 15 in the series of “The Continental Classics”—itself a very confusing series bibliographically. The copyright dates in the Continental Classics series range from around 1887 through (at least) 1915, but just when the series itself began to be packaged as such I have not been able to determine.  Under the copyright notice of 1890 in Modern Ghosts, there is a printing code of “M—R” in all the copies I have seen.  Translating this code into month and year, per Harper & Brothers usual practice, gives December 1917, so it is possible that the Continental Classics edition of Modern Ghosts came out at that time. Certainly the standard red cloth binding on it has a feel of the 1910s and not of the 1890s—the original 1890 edition of Modern  Ghosts was in elegant blue cloth with silver stamping.

The 1890 cover
But what about the contents?  It’s a pretty good collection, with a few classics by Maupassant (“The Horla “ and “On the River”—both translated from the French by Jonathan Sturges), as well as Gustavo Adolfo Becquer’s “Maese Pérez, the Organist” (translated from the Spanish by Rollo Ogden).  The other four tales are by lesser-known names, “Siesta” by Alexander L. Kielland (translated from the German by Charles Flint McClumpha); “The Tall Woman” by Pedro Antonio de Alarcón (translated from the Spanish by Rollo Ogden); “Fioraccio” by Giovanni Magherini-Graziani (translated from the Italian by Mary A. Craig); and “The Silent Woman” by Leopold Kompert (translated form the German by Charles Flint McClumpha). “The Horla” is probably the only true classic, and it is the best story in the book.  But most of the others have some good moments, even if, as in a few, the narration meanders and takes its time before coming to what might be the supernatural. The translators names are given only in the table of contents, and little is otherwise said about the authors.

George William Curtis (1824-1892) was well-known in his day, a modern-thinking figure (a vocal abolitionist and supporter of women’s suffrage) who must have seemed an apt choice to introduce a book of non-traditional ghost stories.  Curtis’s introduction is mostly about the attraction of eerie stories, but he does come around at the end to mention some of the contents of the volume he is introducing:  “It is the most modern and contemporary contribution to the literature of ghosts, selected from authors in various parts of Europe—Norway, France, Spain, Austria, Italy—all of them masters in their way, and that sympathetic and delicate lightness of touch which is indispensable to the happiest treatment of such themes” (xii-xiv).  He concludes:

These little tales, like instant photographs, bring us nearer to the life of other lands, and apprise us that, in an unexpected sense, we are all of one blood—a blood which is chilled by an influence that we cannot comprehend, and at a contact of which we are conscious by an apprehension beyond that of the senses.

The book Modern Ghosts had one fan in Weird Tales editor Farnsworth Wright. In the column of “Weird Story Reprints” which Wright ran in the magazine from July 1925 through January 1940, Wright reprinted (between 1926 and 1934) six of the seven stories found in this book. The only story Wright didn’t reprint is the final one, “The Silent Woman” by Leopold Kompert, which doesn’t really qualify as either a ghost or a supernatural story, but is rather one touching on Jewish legendry. So one can see why Wright did not select it for reprinting, though I note that it was reprinted in the anonymously-edited Best Ghost Stories (1919), published by Boni & Liveright in their nascent Modern Library series (later to be taken over by Random House). (The introduction by Arthur B. Reeve credits the selections to J[oseph] L[ewis] French,  who may have wished to remain anonymous to avoid direct competition with his by-lined anthology Great Ghost Stories published the previous year.)  

Modern Ghosts anticipates the work of Robert Aickman by more than half a century. 

Tuesday, January 5, 2021

A Secret Book of Ghost Stories

Gerald Bullett’s Men at High Table (1948) is presented as a novel. But it is really a collection of ghost stories that, so far as I know, has not been recognised as such before. Using a portmanteau format, it presents half a dozen self-contained supernatural tales. Some are fairly slight, but others are accomplished and interesting.

The 'novel' takes place entirely in a fictional Cambridge college, Pentecost. The Master and Fellows are in conversation, first at dinner and then over port in a withdrawing-room afterwards. The period is during the Second World War and the sound of planes and bombs are heard in the background: semi-fictionally, as the author notes, since the East Anglian university city did not in fact receive many air raids and not to the intensity described here.

There is a distinguished guest, a Chinese scholar, whose presence leads to some reflections on the customs of different civilisations.

It is decided to settle in to the recounting of tales. This is of course a Jamesian tradition at Cambridge, but he is not invoked and the stories that follow are not Jamesian. The light framework of the novel proper now becomes a vehicle for a set of interpolated short stories. They are all in different ways supernatural.

The first involves an after-life scene with an open-ended final line, the next an affinity between an old gardener and an ancient medlar tree, a third a vengeful ghost. These first few tales are concise and nicely done, if not particularly original in plot, and they fit well in the context of after-dinner entertainment.

But then the stories become more fully-developed and atmospheric. One of the Fellows, Smith, recounts a childhood memory in which the narrator tells of his holidays at his grandmother’s house, with its walled kitchen garden: here he finds a playmate of about his own age who seems always to be there when he goes through the door in the wall. The boy in the garden, as we soon discern, has a link to an eighteen year old young woman, a cousin of the narrator, whom he much admires. With its wistful evocation of summer days and its meditation on time and dream, this is a story in the style of Forrest Reid and Walter de la Mare. 

The novel format resumes when the hearers of the story, the college Fellows, briefly speculate upon what it may mean. Is it a sincere but unreliable memory of a genuine childhood episode? Could it be the vision of an alternative time-stream? Or the projection of the imagination of the narrator as a boy, or of his cousin, or of both?

The narrator of this story, Smith, shares attributes of Bullett himself. He begins by explaining that though he was born in a London borough and has a Cockney element, his mother’s family were from the rural Midlands and he spent portions of his childhood there, the setting for his story. Bullett himself was born in Forest Hill and grew up in Muswell Hill, where his father was a teacher, later a coal merchant. His mother was from a Leicestershire farming family and it seems likely it is her background that the story evokes.

The next story also invites speculation upon its meaning. The narrator arrives at an island which is elusively familiar to him: he does not at first know who he is, where exactly he is, or what has gone before, yet he recognises landmarks. Some sort of memory slowly resumes, however, and he is able to carry on without betraying too much his bewilderment: any lapses are taken by the people around him  as due to his odd sense of  humour. He is staying at an inn with an older man and his young daughter, and he spends his days mostly working in the fields with the villagers. But then the call of his other life and his duty there begins to pull him back.

This story has a deep sense of yearning for another world. The discussion afterwards ranges from a reductionist view that it was simply a dream or delirium, to the possibility of parallel planes of existence, similar to those envisaged by Machen in his story ‘N’.

The final tale, narrated by the visiting Chinese scholar, is somewhat in the manner of Ernest Bramah’s Kai Lung stories, in which a humble peasant youth rises to power through wit and audacity. Probably it was influenced too by Arthur Waley’s popular translations of Chinese folk tales. Bullet had earlier, in 1946, collaborated with his friend Tsui Chi Lai, in translating 12th century poetry by Fan Cheng-ta. His story is adroitly told, with pleasing fantastical elements, and has a fatalistic, rather melancholy tone.

That is the last of the tales told after dinner, but the novel has a coda some years after which gently suggests the continuity of the college in changing times.

The novel is paired in a shared volume with another, ‘The House of Strangers’. In this, Mary Flint, a literary editor, has ‘discovered’ the poetry of Sorrel Harley, issued in a posthumous slim volume. The young woman had died aged 22. Convinced of the value of her work, Flint is now staying with the poet’s family (her father and aunt) with a view to writing a study.

The loss of his daughter has caused her father, an architect, to turn to speculative thought, but ‘he was more concerned to ask questions, than to find answers to them’. This is very much the approach of de la Mare in his enigmatic fiction, which is often about ambiguity and the absence of answers too.

Mary Flint soon begins to sense a sort of presence in the house. ‘No ghosts harbour here, that’s certain,’ she writes in her journal, but ‘there is a queer feeling, an expectancy, a mixture of tenses as though time were folding back on itself . . .’ Indeed it is, and I won’t say too much more as I suspect the trend of the book will now be clear, but this slim novel is a rare and subtle work which works well alongside the other title, and adds to the sense that what we have here is really a volume of ghost stories.

There is a perceptive criticism of Gerald Bullett’s books by his friend Storm Jameson, that he just lacked ‘that touch of the grotesque’. He wrote his novels like a poet, she said, compressing emotional experiences into ‘a single precise image’ but his characters are ‘treated with a touch of reserve.’ I think that’s right, from the point-of-view of the enthusiast of supernatural fiction: what’s missing is the fervour that we find in Machen, Blackwood and others, or the succinctly gruesome imagery of James.

Even so, Bullett’s writing here has some qualities in common with them, and in particular, as I have suggested, with Walter de la Mare’s fiction. It is not quite as lyrical and it can be even more reticent than de la Mare about the otherworldly.  Still, he is usually only just a shade away, and his thoughtful work is very much worth attention. I am glad to have found this 'secret' volume of ghost stories by him.

(Mark Valentine)