The ‘Tragedy’ Of Marjorie Bowen
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?