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      Week-end Wrap – Political Economy – October 17, 2021   Strategic Political Economy “You lost. Stop acting like you won” [White Hot Harlots (lyman alpha blob), via Naked Capitalism Water Cooler 10-14-21] “The abortion issue has been lost. I cannot fathom any plausible near or medium-term scenario in which the actually existing American left mounts a successfu […]
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The Extraordinary Marjorie Bowen

I wonder if anyone here has heard of her. Maybe you knew of her under different noms de plume. She had several. She was an absolutely extraordinary novelist who wrote historical fiction, atmospheric horror stories, mysteries, and nonfiction. That she is not that well known now in general circles, is a major literary omission, which some day may well be rectified.

She was born Margaret Gabrielle Vere Campbell, in Hampshire, England, in 1885. In her autobiography, “The Debate Continues,” she wrote about a father who was kind to her, but who suffered from drinking problems, and left the family. Her mother had little money, but was pretentious, and had a circle of similar friends who would tell themselves that they had artistic talent; she herself may have written a very minor story or two. Her mother favored her sister, and Margaret was never appreciated, though they all sometimes got along for a while. She was told that she had no artistic ability, and should find some kind of gainful employment to support them.

Margaret was almost completely self-taught, very intelligent, and almost preternaturally sensitive. Her novels are filled with descriptions of flowers, their colors and scents; ornate and vivid renderings of royal surroundings; evocations of the sights and sounds of other periods in history. She said that it was as if she was actually there when she was writing those stories; and it feels that way when reading them. In her autobiography, she describes memories of scenery during various times in her childhood and later, and the kinds of trees and flowers she remembers, and the emotional effect of the surroundings.

She would go to the library and read, and she would write. She actually wrote her first novel at 16, “The Viper of Milan.” Initially, publishers would not approve it for publication, because they felt that this was not the proper subject for a 16-year-old girl. It was finally published in 1906, to much praise. I have not read it, though I have read about twenty of Bowen’s novels. A gloss says that “It takes us to the colourful and violent world of 14th Century Italy, where success seems to be doomed, and the pendulum of power can swing both ways.” Graham Greene, one of the greatest novelists ever, said that the novel illustrates that there are not absolute heroes or villains in life, only flawed human beings.

Greene wrote, “I chose Marjorie Bowen as a major influence, because ..I don’t think that the books one reads as an adult, influence one much as a writer. But books such as Marjorie Bowen’s, read at a young age, do influence one considerably.”

Marjorie Bowen was the pen name she most used, and that is where she gained much of the praise awarded to her. She also wrote under the pseudonyms Joseph Shearing, George R. Preedy, John Winch, Robert Paye, and Margaret Campbell. Jessica Amanda Salmonson, who put together a lavish collection of her horror stories, accompanied by her very admiring Foreward, said that we don’t even know how many books Bowen wrote, but they seem to title over 150.

She wrote to support her family; first her mother and sister; and then two husbands, neither of which was suitable; one was an Italian man who suffered from illness, and died young; and one was an older British man who seemed to be a lazy sponger. She had to keep writing to keep them afloat, and so she somewhat rushed though them, though it is not noticeable. Bowen, who was absolutely beautiful in an early photograph included in her books, by her own description had no self-confidence, and did not think she was attractive. She did have four children; and one of them, Hilary Long, wrote in a very fond preface to one of her collections, after she had died in 1952 from a severe concussion suffered in a fall at her home, that while she never thought she was attractive, he thought that she was very attractive, and that she was a very good mother, very concerned about the welfare and support of her children

She was a bit of a literary sensation after her first novel, and Mark Twain actually took her and a companion to lunch at a hotel, when he was in England. She wrote continuously, later using different pseudonyms, which certainly contributed to her being less famous than she should have been. For example, four of the novels she wrote under the name Joseph Shearing, were turned into movies. Of those, “Moss Rose,” “So Evil, My Love,” and particularly “Blanche Fury,” were excellent. Sally Benson, writing in the New Yorker, said, “Mr. Shearing is a painstaking researcher, a superb writer, a careful technician, and a master of horror. There is no one quite like him.” Other reviewers similarly praised Shearing’s historical mysteries, without having any idea that they were written by Bowen. There is a movie called “General Crack,” from the ’30’s, which was from a novel by George Preedy, who also was Bowen.

Hugh Walpole said that Bowen was “the best writer of historical fiction in a generation.” Her horror stories have been universally lauded. Robert Hadj described her as “one of the great supernatural writers of this century.” Salmonson said that her prose was “stylish and moody, dramatic to the highest degree,” and that “what in other hands, is merely tacky or gross, is from Marjorie Bowen, a superior art, chilling and seductive.” So if all this praise had been collated; if people had realized that one woman was writing all of these stories, she might have gotten closer to the immense appreciation she deserved, both then and now.

I will say that many of her stories have recently been reprinted, albeit in rather bland but neat volumes, but at least they are preserved. When I first became aware of her brilliant writing, I searched for what was available. which was mostly original volumes from 1910-1940, with the expected faded covers and maybe slightly discolored pages. Sometimes they would have a little introduction in the book jacket, and that was always a pleasure to see, as if I were back in that time, a time which was of course hundreds of years after the periods in which her novels were often set.

Now, as to my personal impressions of Marjorie Bowen’s writing. I love great atmospheric horror fiction; not the violent kind, but the haunting and often psychological stories which great writers like Dickens, Poe, Bierce, James, and Dunsany were known for. I do not read much historical fiction, but I am always open to a really good novel of that type; and I loved the novels of Stevenson, Dumas, Kipling, and even Sabatini, who was by no means a great writer, but told exciting tales. I would say that Bowen can stand up to any of them in either genre. She did not write swashbuckling tales full of adventure on the high seas, or with swordfighting prowess. She wrote about people; their virtues and flaws and passions. She did so with lovely and perceptive prose, full of images of scenes from the re-imagined past.

She has amazing insight into character, particularly for someone who did not grow up with much companionship. She is kind but realistic in her portrayals, which in many, but not all, cases, she has taken from past historical figures. She understands the power of romantic passion, and its possible pitfalls. She gives virtually all her characters agency; she realizes the lesser social state of women, even in royal milieux, but she is remarkably even-handed in her psychological portraits, where there are flaws or mistakes or passions which lead to various results.

She is a Romantic, I think, she is not too cynical, but most of her stories seem to end poignantly, which of course is much due to the historical facts, which are full of people ending up in the Tower of London, or having someone they cared for, put there. I have read primarily her Marjorie Bowen novels, not the other ones, which may have a different aspect. One historical novel of hers, which was essentially happy, was a very rare one she set in America, about George Washington and Martha Custus, “The Soldier from Virginia.” When one has read one of her novels, it is indeed as if you are transported to a different place and time; as well as perhaps learning some interesting history.

The first introduction I had to Marjorie Bowen was actually in a collection of “Dark Fantasy” stories. The last story in the book was “The Sign-Painter and the Crystal Fishes.” I immediately knew it was something special; mysterious, romantic, and unforgettable I didn’t follow up with her work then, and I sometimes confused her with the fine British novelist Elizabeth Bowen. But then I learned more, and bought one or two of her historical fiction novels, and went on from there.

If you happen to like atmospheric horror, then I would highly recommend that you buy one of her collections of horror fiction. Elegant yet haunting and sometimes unsettling.”The Sign-Painter and the Crystal Fishes is one of her very best, along with “Half-Past Two,” “They Found My Grave,” “Julia Roseingrave. “For the novels, I really liked “Boundless Waters,” “The Queen’s Caprice,” “The King’s Favourite,” and “The Soldier From Virginia.”

I have read about twenty, as I said, and I have about thirty more here to read, as I have not read one in a while. Even if you do not want to read any of her works, I would at least hope that this gives you a greater appreciation of someone who I think was one of the greatest literary talents ever. I wish that I could have told her that in person, or by letter, but she had died before I ever knew about her. Very few writers are really special, and I think that she was one of them. Here is the very opening of one of her books which I have not read yet, but may start reading now. “Nell Gwyn,” Bowen is listed on the front page as “The author of the film story of Nell Gwyn.” That is another movie of hers that I never knew about!

“The scent of violets was poignant in Whitehall Gardens, and loose rain clouds were blown up the river to the sea; it was high tide, the flats were covered and ripples rocked across the Palace stairs; a moist, airy day in early April, with presage of a warm tempest gathering lightly over London and warm torrents of spring rain. Two of the Duchess of York’s gentlewomen hastened through the gentle spring gloom; their arms were interclasped, and their satin skirts, one blue one violet, dragged against the box hedges as they hurried; their foolish laughter that was yet pleasant with youth and gaiety broke their whispered talk…”