These three women writers were mythmakers. Alison Uttley created Little Grey Rabbit (1929-1973), Richmal Crompton thought of Just William and kept him going for 48 years, May Annette Beauchamp invented herself as Elizabeth.
All three of them were, and had to be, resilient women, gallant survivors, Elizabeth in particular. As May Beauchamp, she had, after all, a doubtful start. Her father had risen from a swagman to a successful businessman in Sydney, then lost a fortune and recovered just enough to bring his six children to England. ‘Do not imagine,’ he told his wife, ‘that wealth confers happiness.’ The whole menage paraded, in bohemian style, through Europe. May’s elder sister had an illegitimate baby at 15. May, her father’s pet, was unmarried at nearly twenty-five – ‘a queer little fish’, a feminist, when he took her to Rome in 1889. She had permission (she was musical) to play the organ at St Peter’s. Among the listeners was a middle-aged Prussian officer, Count Henning August von Arnim-Schlagenthin. The Count admired her and pursued her through Europe, but to bring him to the point she had, in the end, to seduce him at Goring-on-Thames. As the Countess von Arnim she bore three children in three years – Henning only had to sneeze, she said, on the far side of the room for her to become pregnant – and endured the correct society of Berlin. Then she was transferred ninety miles away to Nasserheide, the Count’s vast derelict estate in Pomerania. It was there, during the blissful months of his absence on business, that the idea of a garden came to her. Whether it ever actually existed, apart from the great pines and lilacs which were there already, seems doubtful. E.M. Forster, who came as tutor to the children, declared that he could not find it. But it was certainly at Nasserheide that she created the new version of herself – witty, elegant, formidable, sensual, aristocratic, impayable. Resentment at her marriage and against Germany combined with her passion for the wide plains and forests. She wrote an odd little book, half diary, half novel. It appeared in 1893, and was an instant success. Money made her independent. Independence made her Elizabeth. ‘It is by independence we live,’ she wrote.
Rebecca West, who competed later with the Countess as a lover of H.G. Wells, was wrong in calling the book ‘a not too creditable early success’. There was no shortage, in the 1890s, of enigmatic, slight-seeming, best-selling novels – Beatrice Harraden’s Ships that Pass in the Night, for example, with its anti-hero, the Disagreeable Man. But what is distinctive about the German Garden is the threat of sexual oppression, never mentioned outright but implied by the little girls born a year apart and the measured defiance Elizabeth puts up against her husband, the Man of Wrath. His potato-pickers, she notes, get a mark and a half a day. ‘The women get less, not because they work less, but because they are women and must not be encouraged.’ Her delight in the weather and the forests would go for nothing without her calm, dry, outrageous defence of herself as a woman. She never quite recaptured this touch till Vera (1921), which describes her second marriage, to Francis Russell. This book made his brother, Bertrand Russell, decide to warn his children never to marry a novelist.
Elizabeth published 22 novels and lived in 35 different houses, leaving a mass of papers, letters and diaries. They were deposited in the Huntington Library of California, where Karen Usborne has been researching for the past five years. The result is a fine achievement of narrative organisation. Not only Elizabeth has to be traced, but her train of admirers and enemies during her golden years. ‘You were given your orders for the day,’ wrote Hugh Walpole. ‘When you’ve had her for five days you want to bang her head through a wall,’ said H.G. Wells. On the other hand, her cousin Katherine Mansfield was grateful, almost against the grain, for her generosity. Keeping a hold on such a number of famous witnesses needs a very firm biographer. Then there are the subsidiary lives of the unrembered – notably of the children, who came to strange fates once they had left the German Garden. And the background to Elizabeth’s wanderings is the whole European experience, from 1904 to 1939, when she reluctantly left for America. Karen Usborne is never confused for a moment. Her attitude is tolerant, the kindness of a friend. This contrasts very well with Elizabeth’s own hard wit. That never failed her. When her sister was ill, and both of them were old, she wrote that she thought highly of death for herself, ‘but not for other people’.
Alison Uttley was also thought of, and thought of herself, as a grande dame – inher case, of children’s literature, or, more specifically, of stories about ‘animals who behave like humans, and even mix with them on equal terms’. She hadn’t Beatrix Potter’s insight in these matters. In Beatrix Potter’s books there is a moment when, without explanation, the rabbit loses his blue jacket or the hedgehog sheds her apron and they become, for a few pages only, against the grass and the sky, the wild creatures they really are. This would be quite beyond the decorous Little Grey Rabbit, Fuzzipeg, Milkman Hedgehog etc etc. These creatures belong, however, to Alison Uttley’s overriding idea: the re-creation of her early days on a Derbyshire farm. ‘I was filled with longing to write of that place before I forgot the spell that bound me to it.’ She was born, as Alice Taylor, at Castle Top on the edge of the Peak District, ‘a snow baby’, in the deep winter of 1884, ‘the cattle shut in their houses’ and the candles alight in the warm kitchen to welcome her. These memories became compulsive, as did the need to preserve them.
In Ambush of Young Days and The Country Child, both for adult readers, she brought ‘the whole of my childhood, eternal and green’ to a very large number of readers. ‘The figures of my mother and father come alive and talk gravely to one another.’ Even Little Grey Rabbit and Milkman Hedgehog, she insists, are Late Victorian rustics. In a foreword to the later editions, she wrote that their homes ‘had no electricity or gas, and even the candles were made from rushes ... Water there was in plenty, but it did not come from a tap.’ This seems to imply that today’s hedgehogs have electricity and plumbing. English readers accept readily, however, that a country childhood must mean wisdom, and even happiness. But though Alison Uttley had the capacity for joy, in the Wordsworthian sense, she was not a happy woman. Denis Judd, her patient and understanding biographer, explains the intensity of her memories as ‘partly an aesthetic experience, partly a reparation for her later neglect of her parents, partly a compensation for the difficulties of her marriage’. As a young science teacher in the London of the 1900s, with new friends and ‘talk of socialism’, she grew away from her home. When her parents died (her father at Castle Top, her mother in an almshouse) she was not with them. It was as if they had outlived their usefulness. Her marriage, in 1911, was passionate enough, and ‘I was very happy, but my husband was often ill, and mentally troubled. He had none of the stability of country people, I think he found it in me.’ His family, however, believed that she nagged him. He was a civil engineer, and in 1930 he was employed by Manchester Corporation to work on the bridge at Netherden. He left a note in his office for Alison: ‘I am drowning myself in the Mersey below the bridge.’ His body was found there the next day. After the suicide, Alison’s relationship with her schoolboy son John became closer and then too close: ‘one’, Denis Judd says, ‘of extraordinary, clinging love’. She interfered with his first engagement, and when he eventually married she fell foul (how could she help it?) of his wife, who believed that ‘John is fundamentally frightened of her.’ After her death John, also, destroyed himself. These were the deep-going sources of pain beneath her friendships and her great professional success.
Denis Judd has had access to her diaries, and has used them with discretion to check his other carefully-researched material. He shows Alison Uttley as a self-deluding romantic, a shrewd, quarrelsome businesswoman and a compulsive housekeeper, patching and jam-making to the end in a heroically untidy kitchen. But it is impossible not to think of her as a sorceress, a storyteller whose tales were produced only at a mortal cost.
Richmal Crompton left no diaries. She never married, she was ‘dear old R.’ to her brother. At Royal Holloway she ‘contributed to the general amusement’ by her acting, at Bromley High she was an inspiring teacher. She became ‘Auntie’ to an unspecified number of younger people. In January 1969 she died with as little fuss as possible. Mary Cadogan, writing with workmanlike cheerfulness, calls her ‘so likeable, indeed, that she is something of a biographer’s nightmare’. Not daunted, however, by the likeableness, she pushes through the story at a rapid pace, making very little even of the attack of polio which left Richmal crippled and put an end to her teaching career. She is at her strongest when she deals with the books themselves. There are close readings, from Just William to William the Lawless.
William himself first appeared in the Home Magazine (which became the Happy Mag) in ‘Rice Mould’, a story for adults, but he appealed, it seems, from the first to a wide age-range. He connects, I think, with the whole great wheeze and jape element in Edwardian literature (W.W. Jacobs, Saki, Kipling). It is interesting that his descendant, Adrian Mole, is more respectable, not less, than the society he lives in. As a Terror, William has been thought to owe something, or a good deal, to Booth Tarkington’s Penrod Schofield. But Richmal, who was incapable of dishonesty, said that he was based on her intransigent brother John. A Terror, of course, is of no use without the terrifiable, and William’s unnamed village (where he and his friends, but no one else, speak Cockney) is inhabited by furious colonels, difficult aunts, maiden ladies, vicars, nice little girls – the victims of Agatha Christie’s murders, the cast of P.G. Wodehouse. The mystery is that the series should have succeeded in so many countries, but never in America.
William rapidly established himself, so firmly that Richmal’s loyal illustrator, Thomas Henry Fisher, was trusted to carry on the strip version for Woman’s Own by himself. He died, in fact, while working on a William drawing. And Richmal, who was a very intelligent woman, became, after an early attempt to get rid of her creation, resigned to William. She tried once or twice to bring him up to date (just as Alison Uttley, in 1942, wrote Hare joins the Home Guard). Certainly, over thirty-five years, William’s home shrinks to a modest semi-detached. But he belongs, as Mary Cadogan puts it, to a ‘long summer’, a timeless season. He remains there, unregenerate. He ‘doesn’t believe there’s a single book that need have been printed’.