Tuesday, November 14, 2017

A plot mind is curiously rare

‘On the other hand the fact, of which I was long ignorant, that I possess hidden away what is called a “plot mind” became of very great importance to me as a writer. A plot mind, is curiously rare, and does secure for its owner a kind of immortality. By that I mean that long after the writer is dead, the books go on being reprinted. Wilkie Collins is an example of this. Another is Dumas père who in his day was regarded by the French critics very much as were in my day the author of The Mystery of the Hansom Cab, and so on.’ This is from the diary of Marie Belloc Lowndes, who died 70 years ago today. Although barely remembered today (her diaries published in the 1970s have never been reprinted), she was a very popular crime writer in the first half of the 20th century. Most famously, she penned The Lodger, later made into a successful film by Alfred Hitchcock.

Marie Adelaide Belloc was born in Marylebone, London, in 1868, but then partly raised in La Celle-Saint-Cloud, France. Her parents were intellectuals, a French barrister and an English writer/feminist, and she had a younger brother, Hilaire. Her father died, however, when both children were still very young. Marie was largely educated at home (though she spent two years at a convent in Sussex), becoming a voracious reader.  In her 20s, she became a journalist working in both England and France for the Pall Mall Gazette. She married Frederick Lowndes, an editor at The Times, in 1896, and the couple settled in Westminster where they raised three children. She remained a Catholic throughout her life, with a profound religious belief, though she seldom spoke about it.

In 1898, Belloc Lowndes published (anonymously) her first book: H.R.H. The Prince of Wales: An Account of His Career. Thereafter, she wrote mostly novels, many of them mysteries, as well as plays and memoirs. The Lodger (1913), a fictionalised account of Jack the Ripper, was her most famous work, and was turned into a film by Alfred Hitchcock. She was a supporter of women’s rights, knew many artistic, literary and political figures of her time (was a regular guest at 10 Downing Street during Asquith’s premiership), and encouraged young writers. In the 1930s, she made annual visits to the United States. She died on 14 November 1947. A little further information - she is not well remembered these days - can be found at Wikipedia, Encyclopedia.com, or The Encyclopedia of British Women’s Writing 1900-1950.

Both Marie and her brother, Hilaire, also a writer of some renown, were diarists. Although none of Hilaire’s diaries have been published (see a list of his papers at Boston College Libraries), Marie’s were published by Chatto & Windus, in 1971, as edited by her daughter Susan Lowndes: Diaries and letters of Marie Belloc Lowndes, 1911-1947. The foreword states: ‘When we, her daughters, came to examine her papers, we found her diaries, often with long gaps, owing to her constant writing commitments, and we decided that they could be of interest to a larger circle. Her great absorption in the political and literary worlds of her day and the account of the years of the Second World War, cast many sidelights on those times.’ A short review of the book can be read at Tanya Izzard’s blog.

Here are several extracts from Maria Belloc Lowndes’s diaries.

9 March 1923
‘I have had large sales in cheap editions. Thus The Lodger sold something like half a million at sixpence in the Reader’s Library. My early books were all published in America, and years after Barbara Rebell had been brought out there by Scribner, Americans would speak to me with real affection for the book and tell me they constantly re-read it. I have always believed that had I continued to write the kind of books that I began writing, and which I naturally preferred writing, I should probably have made, for me, a very much greater and better reputation than that which has fallen to my lot.

On the other hand the fact, of which I was long ignorant, that I possess hidden away what is called a “plot mind” became of very great importance to me as a writer. A plot mind, is curiously rare, and does secure for its owner a kind of immortality. By that I mean that long after the writer is dead, the books go on being reprinted. Wilkie Collins is an example of this. Another is Dumas père who in his day was regarded by the French critics very much as were in my day the author of The Mystery of the Hansom Cab, and so on.

The story of The Lodger is curious and may be worth putting down if only because it may encourage some fellow author long after I am dead. The Lodger was written by me as a short story after I heard a man telling a woman at a dinner party that his mother had had a butler and a cook who married and kept lodgers. They were convinced that Jack the Ripper had spent a night under their roof. When W. L. Courtney, the then literary editor of The Daily Telegraph, in order to please a close friend of mine, commissioned a novel from me (I then never having written a novel for serial publication) I remembered The Lodger. I sent him the story and he agreed that it should be expanded. This was a piece of great good fortune for me, and would certainly not have been the case among any subsequent editors of my work.

As soon as the serial began appearing - It was I believe the first serial story published by The Daily Telegraph - I began receiving letters from all parts of the world, from people who kept lodgings or had kept lodgings. I also received two postcards of praise from two very different people, the one being Lord Russell and my old friend Robert Sherard, who had written interesting and revealing books concerning Oscar Wilde, including a severe and justified indictment of the Life by Frank Harris.

When The Lodger was published, I did not receive a single favourable review. When it came to sending a quotation for an advertisement for the American edition, I was not able to find even one sentence of tepid approval. Then, to my surprise, when The Lodger had been out two or three years reviewers began to rebuke me for not writing another Lodger, and reviews of the type of ‘Mrs Belloc Lowndes’ new book is a disappointment’ appeared.

Then, to my surprise, when The Lodger had been out two or three years reviewers began to rebuke me for not writing another Lodger, and reviews of the type of ‘Mrs Belloc Lowndes’ new book is a disappointment’ appeared.’

22 October 1935
‘I have read Curtis Brown’s book Contacts. I was deeply interested in his account of Shaw. Every word he said was true as to Shaw’s odd ways with regard to contracts. Philip Sassoon asked Shaw’s advice about his contract with Heinemann - Shaw wrote him a long amusing letter and also pulled the contract to pieces.

I was, however, surprised to note that Curtis Brown claims to have made the arrangements concerning Mr Asquith’s War book. He may have done this with regard to foreign American rights, etc. He did not do so with regard to the English rights, for I heard at the time from the man concerned, that a representative of the publishers went down to see the Asquiths about something concerning one of Margot’s books.

After they had had their talk, the publisher put down on the table a cheque for two thousand pounds made out to Asquith. Asquith took it up and said, “What’s this?” The man said, “This is a fifth part of what we are willing to pay if you write your War memoirs”. It was well-known that Asquith had said he would never write his Memoirs in any shape or form.

Asquith walked across to the window - a French window leading into a garden at the other end of which stood the large barn where Margot worked. He waited there for an appreciable time, then he turned round and said “I’ll do it”. Taking up the cheque he observed “This bait has caught the fish”.

He had never kept a diary, and it was his custom to destroy all the letters he received. He was, however, a great letter-writer. There were at least ten women to whom he wrote quite often. When faced with the necessity of writing the book, he wrote to all these ladies and asked them to return his letters. They all refused, with the exception of Mrs Harrisson. She at once did what he asked, and that is the explanation of his having left her £2,000. But for her he could never have written the book.

It was with great regret that I read Asquith’s letters to Mrs Harrisson when she decided to publish them. My regret was owing to the fact that they gave an entirely false impression of the writer. Asquith had an enormous following among Nonconformists. They regarded him as a stern man of God, a Cromwell, who by some freak of circumstance had married Margot Tennant of whom they knew very little, and of the little they knew they disapproved. To all these people, the publication of what appeared to be a series of love letters came as a fearful shock. To the people who knew Asquith, the letters meant less than nothing because they were all well aware that all through his life - even before his first wife’s death, he had always had these affectionate friendships with women.

After the Harrisson letters came out, Margot was terribly distressed at the effect they produced. I had a talk with her about it and I entirely agreed with her that there were several women who could have produced letters of exactly the same kind, many of these ladies being well-known women who certainly were not in love with Asquith nor he with them. He always began a letter to any woman who could in any way be described as attractive with ‘darling’ or ‘dearest’. In a way this was strange, because he did not fling about those terms in everyday life.

One woman known to me still has an Italian marriage-chest full of letters from him. She is a highly intelligent woman; the letters to her are really worth printing for he wrote with great freedom on all political and literary subjects.

When Mrs Harrisson lent Asquith the letters for the purpose of his memoirs, after making notes, he began tearing them up. Margot stopped him, exclaiming: “Don’t do that! She probably values your letters very much”. If this story is true, how very much she must have regretted having stopped him in his work of destruction. The person to get all the criticism was the editor Desmond MacCarthy. I do not feel he was to blame, owing to the simple fact that he was so close a friend both of Asquith and of Margot that what amazed and shocked those who did not know them, made no impression on MacCarthy at all.’

24 March 1915
‘The Arnold Bennetts dined with me to meet Sir George Riddell and Pamela McKenna. Bennett told me of the vast sums he was making: a hundred pounds for a 1,500 word article in the new Sunday paper. He gets two hundred pounds from American papers for each article he writes of the same length and £3,500 for serial rights of a novel. He has fixed up three serials for £10,000 with an American paper. He gave a funny account of the Editor of Munsey’s going to see Sir Gilbert Parker. Sir Gilbert received him with hauteur, whereupon the American said: “What you’ve first got to do is to come off your perch - and listen to what we want. I can only do business on those lines.” The great man gave in and got off his perch.’

29 September 1938
‘The crisis is not over, as so many people seem to think, but it certainly is suspended and I should be much surprised if it comes to war now. I still entirely believe that Hitler was bluffing and - I think it will come out in time - that if only he had been told quite plainly that the three great countries were going to war if he attacked the Czechs, he would have drawn back exactly as he did in May. Though there can be no doubt Chamberlain meant it for the best, I am convinced that had he not flown to Germany, but contented himself with simply sending a threat from London he would actually have done better for the whole world than he has done now, for it is plain that whatever happens, the Czechs will be to a great extent sacrificed.

All the main roads out of London are an astonishing sight jammed with cars, and the scenes at the railway stations are also extraordinary: as a man said to me, “Just like an August Bank Holiday!”
The Westminster boys were all sent home yesterday. I hear that the Dulwich boys have also gone - each parent paying £3 so that proper army huts might be built on the Kent-Sussex border. This flight from London is a great misfortune for tradespeople and indeed anyone connected with trade in any way. Large numbers of people have given their servants a week’s notice and a week’s money, so London is full of servants with no jobs.

Yesterday a great rush for provisions began. One lady I heard of has her house quite full of tinned foods of every kind. The only thing I bought was my special brand of China tea: I have got 14 lbs which will last me for a year. I also got last week rather more methylated, rice and matches than usual, but nothing out of the way.

I was guided by my experience in the last year. The fact that I had a gross of matches in the early August of 1914 was of the greatest value. It is one of the things - strange to say - in which there quickly becomes a shortage. I also found then the great value of rice when cooked and mixed with fried onions and a little butter: it really makes a meal for anyone. I ran out of methylated in the last war and had great trouble making my early morning tea before my work - in fact, I was forced to use the Tommy Cookers and the stuff people used for heating their hair tongs, both expensive and unpleasant to use.

I have committed one act of great extravagance: I have bought a new wireless for Wimbledon. For many years I have had an ordinary battery model, given me by a dear friend. It cost £30 but is hopelessly out of date, a great worry and perpetually having to be mended. I said to myself it would be a frightful thing for me should war come, to be out at Wimbledon with no wireless, so yesterday I telephoned a man I know who is in a big radio concern.

He brought me out the best new Ecko model and fixed it up for me with an aerial. I decided to do so when I realized that if war should come any money I get from America would be enormously more in pounds than in dollars. The day before yesterday I should have made 4/- on every pound.’

The Diary Junction

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