Page one of talk given by Jerri
Chase at the AGM of the Angela Thirkell Society, North American Branch
in Richmond, VA in October, 2004. Presented here with the kind permission
of the author.
In the Autumn of 2003, North American
Branch Angela Thirkell Society (ATS) members received a survey asking for
information about our favorite authors, books and mysteries. When
the survey results were compiled, in the section labeled “Our Top Selections”
were several British contemporaries of Angela Thirkell. From those
I selected Dorothy L. Sayers, D. E. Stevenson and Georgette Heyer and have
compared their lives and works with the life and work of Angela Thirkell.
All four authors were born near the
turn of the previous century, early enough to remember and to have been
impacted by WWI. D.E. Stevenson (Dorothy Emily) was born in Edinburgh
Scotland and the rest in England. Angela Thirkell was the eldest,
having been born in 1890. D.E. Stevenson was born in 1892 and Dorothy
L. Sayers in 1893. Georgette Heyer was the youngest of the four,
born in 1902, however since her first published work appeared when she
was very young, their writing lifetimes all overlapped. See the timeline
provided for more information on the timing of major events in their lives.
All four were “first borns”.
Thirkell had a younger brother and sister, D.E. Stevenson a younger sister,
and Georgette Heyer two brothers. Dorothy L. Sayers was an only child,
but according to Dorothy L. Sayers: Her Life and Soul, when cousins or
children of family friends came to spend some time in their household to
study with the Sayers’ family governesses, Dorothy could and did boss them
around and lead the activities as if she were an older sister.
They were all born to educated parents
and into “middle class” families, that is not into the top tier of society
and not into the bottom. Angela MacKail was the granddaughter of
artist Sir Edward Burne-Jones, and cousin to author Rudyard Kipling and
prime minister Stanley Baldwin.
D.E. Stevenson’s family background
could be considered closest to the young Angela Mackail’s mixture of art,
writing and politics. Her father was a first cousin to Robert Lewis
Stevenson. The Stevenson family of engineers was prominent in Scotland,
having been responsible for the building of all the lighthouses on the
coast of Scotland. Her mother was closely related to Frederick Roberts,
Field Marshall Lord Roberts of Kandahar, who had a prominent place in the
British military and political system. Stevenson later acquired ties
to the artistic world by marrying a “Peploe”, whose uncle was Samuel John
Peploe, R.S.A., N.P.S., an oil painter and one of the “Scottish Colourists”.
Dorothy L. Sayers was the daughter
of a Church of England clergyman, who was teaching in a boys school in
Oxford at the time she was born. He then moved the family to East
Anglia where he worked as rector.
Georgette Heyer’s father was a Cambridge
educated school teacher and her mother had been an outstanding student
in cello and piano at the Royal College of Music, giving up her career
upon her marriage.
All four seem to have received educations
typical of females in that time and class. Family was a strong influence,
and they had governesses. All but D.E. Stevenson spent at least some
time in either day schools or boarding schools. Their schooling seemed
to concentrate on broad reading, literature, humanities, history, classics
and languages. All would one day have the characters in their novels
quote frequently and casually from a broad spectrum of many of the same
authors: Dickens, Jane Austen, Shakespeare, etc. and use French, Latin
and other foreign language phrases without feeling the need to translate
for the reader. Heyer’s historical novels had to limit the quotations
to works that had been published prior to the date in which the novel is
Dorothy L. Sayers was the only one
to go to University, being one of the first group of women to receive degrees
at Oxford. D.E. Stevenson passed the admissions test for Oxford,
but her parents decided not to allow her to attend.
There is some evidence of early efforts
at writing by all four. Angela MacKail apparently wrote stories and
poems at Rottingdean in her childhood. She also wrote for school
publications. The young Dorothy L. Sayers wrote plays that family
and friends acted in, as well as poetry and when she went to boarding school
she wrote more plays and items for school publications. D. E. Stevenson
is said to have started writing stories and poems as early as age 8, finding
a place in her parents “box room” in which to write, since her parents
discouraged her “ruining her handwriting and wasting her time.” It
is known that Georgette Heyer told stories to amuse her younger brothers.
Since a serial story she wrote to entertain her brother Boris while he
was ill was published when she was 19, she must have started writing them
down at an early age.
Photographs of all four authors in
their teens and twenties show attractive and striking young women.
We know from Angela Thirkell: Portrait of a Lady Novelist that Angela
Thirkell was proud of her long, graceful neck shown in the Sergeant charcoal,
and from Dorothy L. Sayers: Her Life and Soul I learned that Dorothy
L. Sayers was called “Swanny” at boarding school, as her friends teased
her about the length of her neck.
All married, Angela doing so twice
and all became mothers. Heyer and Sayers each had one son.
Stevenson, like Mrs. Thirkell, had four children, in her case two sons
and two daughters, and like Mrs. Thirkell only three lived to grow up,
her eldest daughter falling to illness at the age of 11, while Thirkell’s
only daughter died of illness just before her first birthday. For
Thirkell and Stevenson, of their three surviving children, the youngest
was a son, several years younger that the others, who could be considered
his mother’s favorite.
Like George Thirkell, James Reid
Peploe and Oswold Arthur (Mac) Fleming (the husbands of D. E. Stevenson
and D. L. Sayers) were WWI veterans. Service in WWI has been
found to leave it’s mark on most survivors, physical and/or emotional.
No doubt this had an impact on their lives and marriages and thus their
wives careers. All three WWI veterans died prior to their wives,
leaving them widowed.
Mrs. Thirkell’s first published works
didn’t appear until after her second marriage. All were published
using her married name, Angela Thirkell. As is shown on the timeline,
the other three authors all had at least some work published prior to their
marriage. All three published all their works using their maiden names.
Once they started writing, all four continued. All but Stevenson
had posthumous publication of previously unpublished works.