Doreen Wallace (1897-1989), Writer and Social Campaigner (book #130)

June Shepherd, 2000.

Wallace was one of the Somerville School of novelists. I can’t find much online about this group (most links are to lists of all novelists from Somerville, not this more specific group) but Shepherd says they comprise Vera Brittain, Muriel Jaeger, Margaret Kennedy, Holtby and Sayers as well as Wallace. They are discussed in Susan J Leonardi’s Dangerous by Degrees: Women at Oxford and the Somerville College Novelists, which I would like to read.

Wallace wrote 48 novels, starting with A Little Learning in 1931 and ending with Landscape with Figures in 1976. I came across her through How to Grow Food, 1940, recently republished.

Sayers probably caricatured Wallace in Gaudy Night in the person of an old student, Catherine Freemantle / Bendick, who had been brilliant at university but then married a farmer, had children and sunk into domesticity: “a Derby winner making shift with a coal-cart”. Wallace certainly felt this was a depiction of her and was angry about it. It seems odd though as Wallace was already publishing novels by this time – I guess Sayers must have seen this popular writing as of no account weighed against academia.

“It was some three years after her son’s birth [which was in 1927] when, in the later stages of her third pregnancy, Doreen sat down … to start the novel that had been in her mind for months. ‘I was too hefty to do much gardening or other physical work … [ellipsis in text] I felt that by now I had enough experience of life, though limited, and knowledge of country people, though limited, to have something more to say”.”

I like Wallace’s implication that she was “too hefty” to garden so might as well write.

Wallace was very involved in the 1930s Tithe Wars – these were protests by landowners in East Anglia and Kent against paying the church tithe. Again, there’s not much online, but see the summary of this paper, The Tithe War in Kent 1925-36: an Example of English Militant Agrarianism and this article about an East Anglian man’s memoirs, North Suffolk man’s autobiography recalls tithe wars and Mosley’s blackshirts. The Tithe Wars lost their importance when the Second World War started, but compulsory tithes were not ended until the 1970s. Wallace said that it was this issue that ended her friendship with Sayers, who as a vicar’s daughter and Christian was on the other side of the argument.

The biography includes some of Wallace’s poems as an appendix. I don’t think most of them are very good, though I quite like this one, the first verse anyway, for its focus on a mundane activity (and the suggestion of Marvell’s mower):

Cutting the Grass

He is cutting the grass, and it flies like spray
On following wind, in a brilliant bow
With light white bubbles bestarred, the day
Prisoned by trees in this narrow plot,
Bright, scented, hot,
Rings with the noise of the blades that mow
Their ribbony pathway to and fro.
Like bubbles of foam the daisies fly
Before the speed of his industry.

It is done: there lies the impeccable sward,
Silkily striped like a party-gown.
A crushed sweet silence creeps abroad
And night’s first veil comes down.
The cutter is being taken away,
A dwindling tune of jangles and jars:
But the myriad daisies, where are they
That were more and whiter than summer stars?

There’s also this one:

Wireless

A valedictory whisper, high and rare,
The last note of a hidden violin,
Steals from another world discreetly in
And quietly flowers on the heated air.
Thin is the wall that sunders Here from There,
A membrane only of the mind, so thin
That I can watch the conversation spin
Its web about the room from chair to chair.

And still be drawn by that frail note away
To the unbounded world beyond the wall
Where I can see the littleness of day,
The timely grace of seasons at their fall,
Can see the light go down, the darkness climb,
And hear the cadence of the feet of Time.

As with the mowing one, she’s reaching for deepness in the second stanza, and I don’t think pulls it off. But some of the first verse is more successful, the amazement at the here-and-there-ness of the radio sound.

I want to scan in a picture of Wallace in a wonderful 1920s hat, but my printer won’t let me as it’s out of ink (even though I don’t need ink to scan), and as this is an inter-library loan book I’ll probably have to return it before getting more ink. I’ll photocopy the picture and scan it if it comes out at all usable.

Read since last post:

Jan at Island School, Ethel Talbot
The Case of the Gilded Fly, Edmund Crispin (re-read)
Private Scandals, Nora Roberts
Key of Light, NR (reread)
All Mortal Flesh, Julia Spencer-Fleming
Born in Ice, NR (re-read)
Blue Smoke, NR (re-read)
Falling Free, Lois McMaster Bujold (re-read)
One Was a Soldier, Julia Spencer-Fleming

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2 Responses to “Doreen Wallace (1897-1989), Writer and Social Campaigner (book #130)”

  1. moirar @ clothes in books Says:

    So nice to find out about Doreen Wallace – I knew her only as the original of the figure in Gaudy Night. Sayers had no sympathy over the tithes – but then presumably it paid for a lot of her life…

  2. Tim Says:

    Thank you! I just bought my Barnham Rectory at the local Amnesty bookshop.
    So far it’s rather like reading the bits left out of an EM Forster novel …. or even, a novel written by one of his characters!
    But fun, nonetheless.
    I googled her name .. and your piece came up – again, thank you

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