Ever heard of Alexander Baron or Mary Elizabeth Braddon? They’re just some of the overlooked authors we need to rediscover, writes Hephzibah Anderson.
By Hephzibah Anderson
What do Agatha Christie’s favourite mystery novelist, the winner of the 1973 Booker Prize, and a writer who reputedly bashed out 100 million words, creating an archetypal schoolboy antihero along the way, have in common?
The answer will cause even the most successful author’s ego to wilt a little. Despite enjoying ample sales and plentiful esteem in their lifetimes, the names of this formerly starry trio – Elizabeth Daly, JG Farrell, and Billy-Bunter-creator Charles Hamilton (pen name Frank Richards) – are today largely unknown, their works under-read or out of print altogether. Now, they’re among the figures filling a thought-provoking new guide, The Book of Forgotten Authors by Christopher Fowler. Their comrades-in-obscurity range from experimental trailblazers to once beloved children’s authors; from pulp fiction pros to doyennes of historical romance: collectively, their fates shed light on the process by which literary immortality is conferred. Reading about them will leave you itching to go rummaging in your nearest second-hand bookshop.
Unlike musicians or filmmakers, authors can vanish completely – Christopher Fowler
Ever heard of Alexander Baron’s King Dido? Me neither, and we’re missing out, because apparently, Baron is one of the most consistently underrated novelists of World War Two. According to Fowler, his bildungsroman was “one of the greatest and least-read novels about London ever written, arguably an East End version of Les Miserables.” Then there’s Mary Elizabeth Braddon, who began writing penny dreadfuls as a child and graduated to ‘sensation’ novels like Lady Audley’s Secret that index Victorian anxieties. Braddon caused her own sensation when it emerged that she’d been living in near-bigamy with her married publisher (his wife was in an asylum), and by the time of her death she and her lurid tales were said to have become “a part of England”.
Fowler’s own backlist includes the hit Bryant and May mysteries series, and an awareness of how posterity might treat such work adds piquancy to his quest. As he notes: “Unlike musicians or filmmakers, authors can vanish completely. Their print-runs can be pulped, copies misfiled, manuscripts lost, banned and burned. They can be ubiquitous, influential and massively successful only to disappear within their own lifetimes.”
Few disappearing acts are as striking as that of Patrick Dennis. Auntie Mame, his 1955 tale of an eccentric free spirit who sets out to save her shy nephew from small-minded snobbery, was a bestseller that became a musical and not one but two films. Dennis was also the first writer in history to have three books on the New York Times bestseller list simultaneously. Then times changed. To quote Fowler, “As the disillusioned 1970s arrived his delightfully caustic comic fables became an irrelevance.” Setting down his pen for good, Dennis became a butler for the CEO of McDonald’s and apparently never admitted to having been a publishing phenomenon.
Fade to grey
Other writers got barely a sniff of success. In the case of Kyril Bonfiglioli, he never found the right fans in his lifetime. On the surface, his novels appear to be straightforward crime capers, but there’s much more to them than that. They’re powered by his fictional hero, Charlie Mortdecai, a “snobbish, cowardly, dandy art thief” whose defiant political incorrectness channels Bertie Wooster, Falstaff and Raffles. On his dust jackets, Bonfiglioli described himself as “an accomplished fencer, a fair shot with most weapons” who was “abstemious in all things except drink, food, tobacco and talking”. Off the page, he muddled through poverty and alcoholism to die of cirrhosis in 1985. He’s posthumously attained cult – which is to say slender if ardent – popularity but he should have become world famous, Fowler insists.
Julian Maclaren-Ross was up against another challenge.A “brandy-breathed Soho flaneur”, he was, as his biographer Paul Willetts has put it, “the mediocre caretaker of his own immense talent”. That talent yielded surprisingly joyous novels filled with snappy comic timing and waspish dialogue, none readily available today. Maclaren-Ross found his way into Anthony Powell’s A Dance to the Music of Time, disguised as the “impecunious and thirsty bohemian” novelist X Trapnel, but in real life he was hampered by being born too late for the Waugh set, and too early to join the Angry Young Men.
Winifred Watson was another casualty of timing. Though she found a degree of posthumous success with a reissue and a film adaptation, starring Amy Adams, of her quirky hit Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day, her potential was stymied by three events: The Depression (which left no money for her to follow her sisters into higher education), the attack on Pearl Harbor (which nixed plans to turn Miss Pettigrew into a Hollywood musical) and the Blitz (which necessitated her move into a single room with her parents, making writing impossible).
Other writers simply didn’t live long enough, among them Farrell, the 1973 Booker winner. He died three years later aged just 44. As the likes of Salman Rushdie agree, had he lived longer, he’d surely have attained the reputation that his talent merits. And yet if writing too little can inhibit literary posterity, then writing too much – even if you’re able to keep the standard up – can be an even bigger problem. Take thriller writer John Creasey, who used more than 20 pseudonyms and published so many books that even he forgot some of his titles, rang up sales totalling around 2.5 million copies a year. How can this be a bad thing? Because as Fowler notes, “The reading public likes to tie a simple tag on a writer, and that’s tougher to do when the writer has many faces.”
Then there’s Hamilton, the 100-million-word man. One of the most prolific authors in history, hardly any of his books – filled with tales of schoolboy derring-do – can now be found. His creation Billy Bunter seemed Hamilton’s best shot at literary immortality but with his “calorically challenged” physique and slapstick exploits that frequently ended with a caning, he was never going to make it into the 21st Century.
Sometimes explanations are more elusive. Why did Christie’s favourite Daly fade from popularity? During the 1940s, when she was in her sixties, she published 16 ‘bibliomysteries’ featuring Henry Gamadge, a cat-loving New York rare books expert who grapples with a series of meticulously crafted puzzles against evocative backdrops. Too esoteric? Too female? Perhaps, except that she was a popular author during her time, and in 1960, was awarded an Edgar for her work by the Mystery Writers of America.
Back from the dead
Ultimately, the reasons for a noteworthy author’s obscurity are as various as the authors themselves. Fowler’s findings show that other contributing factors seem to include underrating their own work (“I sometimes marvel that a third-rate writer like me has been able to palm himself off as a second-rate writer”, said John Collier, author of sardonic, fantastical tales-with-a-sting), reclusiveness (Regency romance author Georgette Heyer never gave an interview), and genre (with notable exceptions, comic writers tend not to be taken seriously enough to preserve). The caprices of fashion hit populist fiction especially hard; striving as it does to capture the mindset of its time, it’s inevitably more perishable.
And let’s not forget gender. Fowler devotes an entire chapter to the women who introduced readers to psychological suspense long before it conquered the bestseller lists. These “forgotten queens of suspense”, he writes, were “ignored, underrated, overlooked or taken for granted, the women who wrote popular fiction for a living were often simply grateful to be published at all.”
The role of readers is ever more vital: it’s our duty to keep good novels alive
This at least is changing. Moreover, the digital revolution has ushered in a newly democratic age so far as who gets to say what fiction is important. This makes the role of readers ever more vital: it’s our duty to keep good novels alive. (As an aside, Fowler recommends that second-hand bookshops are best visited alone and in the rain.)
Meanwhile, even if their reputations and books are all but non-existent today, many of the authors gathered in this book have nonetheless played their part in the literary ecosystem, nourishing later, better-known practitioners. Enigmatic gothic pioneer Ann Radcliffe, for instance, influenced HP Lovecraft. Frank Baker wrote his novel The Birds 16 years before Daphne du Maurier conjured up the short story that would become the Hitchcock film. (Baker’s publisher was Du Maurier’s cousin.) William Golding’s Lord of the Flies explicitly referenced RM Ballantyne’s The Coral Island, to which Robert Louis Stevenson was also strongly indebted for his own Treasure Island, acknowledging Ballantyne in the novel’s introduction.
Notionally dead literature can be unexpectedly alive in other ways, too. An out-of-print book that you’re forced to buy second-hand contains the marginalia – and old bus tickets and coffee stains – of past readers. And tattered used paperbacks can sometimes occasion delicious serendipities, as when Fowler attempted to track down a copy of Where the Rainbow Ends by Clifford Mills – incidentally, an example of a book justly buried thanks to its fascist leanings. Eventually, a copy turned up in Kent. When Fowler opened the front cover, he found his own name written inside, inscribed by his seven-year-old self.