The 'Tragedy' Of Marjorie Bowen

Christopher Fowler
We look back on authors' lives and judge them according to popularity and success, but the picture is of course more complicated than that. Bowen is an author whose life was as fascinating as her output. She was born Margaret Gabrielle Vere Campbell Long in 1885 on Hayling Island, Hampshire (that picture above looks surprisingly modern). Her mother had literary aspirations and her father was an alcoholic who died on the London streets. Long had no formal education, but used libraries and museums to provide herself with the tools she needed for a writing career. The family was poor and moved constantly to avoid clearing debts. Bowen's first novel, 'The Viper Of Milan', set in fourteenth century Italy, was published to acclaim when she was just twenty one, but had first been rejected by eleven publishers who felt it was not the sort of thing a young Edwardian woman should write. Bowen received sixty pounds for her work, which she surrendered to the family, but her mother was jealous of her success and became increasingly embittered. Margaret's money was banked in her ungrateful mother's name, and was spent as fast as she earned it. With each hard-won advance being frittered away on trivial luxuries and loans to her mother's hangers-on, Margaret seemed always panicked into writing for money, and never stopped being the family breadwinner. The discord affected her so badly that she wrote a brutally honest account of her life in 'The Debate Continues'. She entered her first loveless marriage with a demanding, sickly Sicilian in order to escape the cruelties of home, and eventually found happiness through her children. Despite the apparent wretchedness of her life, she wrote over 150 volumes under half a dozen pseudonyms, and tackled larger-than-life subjects in historical dramas, supernatural tales and mournful (or often sinister) gothic romances. Critics have long considered her storytelling to be clear-eyed and efficient, her detail and description masterful, her understanding of human nature filled with compassion and sorrow. I could only locate a copy of 'Dickon', the story of Richard III, the last Plantagenet, written in a concise prose style which has somewhat fallen from fashion. Bowen illuminated a wide variety of passionate subjects by tackling them in novel form, and was widely admired by other authors, including Graham Greene. Would she be better remembered now if she had written at leisure, purely to indulge her obvious love of prose, instead of doing it to clear her mother's bills?
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Bob Low (not verified) Mon, 08/04/2019 - 13:30

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

Thank you for posting this .Anyone who grew up reading paperback anthologies of ghost and horror stories in the seventies will know and love stories like Kecksies and Florence Flannery, without knowing much about the woman who wrote them. Robert Aickman thought highly enough of her story The Crown Derby Plate to choose it for one of the early Fontana Ghost Story books he edited. A few years ago, Wordsworth Editions put out a collection of her stories called The Bishop of Hell, and it's well worth tracking down if you can find a copy. The Scoured Silk is one of the most horrifying stories ever written.

Roger (not verified) Mon, 08/04/2019 - 18:11

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

Graham Greene said 'The Viper Of Milan' inspired him to take up writing. If I remember rightly, he paid it a back-handed compliment and said he thought he could write as well as Bowen.

J F Norris (not verified) Mon, 08/04/2019 - 20:00

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

Her historical mystery novels based on factual events that she wrote as "Joseph Shearing" are, I think, the finest examples of that genre. Of course she was doing it decades before the current style of "historical" mystery novel which tend to be mash-ups with fictional characters interacting with historical figures and are overloaded with historical inaccuracies and anachronistic character psychology and behavior. She was fascinated with true crime of the past and excelled at conjuring up verisimilitude of whichever era the book was set. One of the most unusual, <i>Aunt Beardie</i> based on a crime case from late 18th century France, was reviewed several years ago on my blog. I also liked <i>So Evil My Love</i> (turned into a 1948 film with Ray Milland, Ann Todd and Geraldine Fitzgerald) and <i>The Strange Case of Lucile Clery</i>.

Helen Martin (not verified) Mon, 08/04/2019 - 20:18

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

Authors seem to feel that unless readers can empathise with characters they won't read the books. When writing an historical novel the motives, however strange to modern minds, must be made clear. You don't have to symp- or emp- athize in order to understand and understanding is the most important part. I have learned to be careful about the historical fiction I read.
If that photograph was taken after WWI when MS Bowen was in her thirties it would be about right.