The Christmassiest Writer
Stacy Aumonier is Christmassy without being cloying or sentimental. He’s closer to Saki in that sense. But there is something twinkling and Christmassy about Aumonier. His ‘Extremely Entertaining Short Stories’ feel as if they should be read aloud by a roaring fire. He was born near Regent’s Park into a family of craftsmen and artists in 1877, and reached 51 before dying of tuberculosis.
During this time he wrote many short stories which should rightly be regarded as classics – but it didn’t happen. Worse, his work has vanished completely, and even collections of tales get his dates wrong. Yet John Galsworthy and Alfred Hitchcock were admirers of his page-turning style, his way with suspense, his wit, humanity and lightness of touch. He was described as ‘never heavy, never boring, never really trivial.’
The more I heard about Aumonier, the more I began to suspect I was the subject of a hoax. Did he really come from an entire family of sculptors? What was his Tutankhamun connection? Could he actually have married a concert pianist called Gertrude Peppercorn? He certainly wrote a novel about a wartime family, ‘The Querrils’, and a book called ‘Odd Fish’, about the eccentric residents of a London street. He sat for rather a lot of paintings in the National Portrait Gallery, which usually show him in dressed for dinner. He wrote enough suspense to draw the attention of Hitchcock, who filmed television versions of some of his stories. Beyond this, the trail disappears.
And yet his reputation doggedly persists, thanks largely to American imprints, who are terribly good at find the sort of books we kick aside. Phaeton, who most recently revived his tales, say ‘the more we probed into his background, the more we liked him.’ In the 1920s, he became unrivalled as a short story writer.
In one of his most famous tales, ‘Miss Bracegirdle Does Her Duty’, the shy, untraveled heroine winds up underneath a dead stranger’s bed in a French hotel room. In ‘A Source Of Irritation’, an elderly farmer is kidnapped by an enemy pilot who crashes in his field. In ‘Where Was Wych Street?’ an argument in a pub escalates into a full-blown siege. He wrote about idiosyncratic people being pushed to conform and bucking their fate, and like O Henry and Saki, was capable of condensing a life into a few pages.
When he was fatally diagnosed, he wrote ‘The Thrill Of Being Ill’, in which he says ‘You become subtly aware of the change in attitude in the manner of certain people…you have become dramatically a centre of interest.’ It takes a certain courage to continue finding pleasures at such a time.