2015 saw the one hundred and twenty-fifth year since the birth of H. P. Lovecraft, an author whose posthumous rise to fame has been a staggering achievement. Unrecognised, in his own lifetime he is now lauded as one of the most significant writers in his genre of choice – horror. If not the, greatest of all gothic writers then one of. His fame is complete. His legend secure. Yet he died virtually unknown at the age of 46. It still strikes me as quite amazing that someone held in such high esteem now was then so overlooked. Lovecraft was not alone.
Frances Vernon was born seventy-three years after Lovecraft. In fact, it was the tail end of the year, December 1st, 1963 that this incredibly talented, yet virtually unrecognised author breathed her first. By the time of her birth, H.P. Lovecraft had been dead for twenty-six years. There is an almost Zen-like symmetry to that figure.
There are more differences than similarities to these two authors. The only obvious one is the lack of recognition in their lifetimes. H.P Lovecraft did not commit suicide. He died of cancer. His apparent lack of success did not drive him over the edge. Frances Vernon was not so lucky. She committed suicide in 1991. She was twenty-seven.
From his death in 1937, his reputation grew. By the end of the 20th century, still unrecognised in the literary world, a world sometimes very much of its own, as up its own it often appears to be, Lovecraft was slowly accepted. Among a great many authors, from Jorge Luis Borges to Steven King, from William S Burroughs to Alan Moore, he finally gained a reputation solid as gold. Not so Frances Vernon. Then again she has only been dead seventeen years.
Between her death and following the posthumous publication of her last novel, “The Fall of Doctor Onslow,” Frances Vernon, gifted with such a prodigious talent, had written and had published six novels. Her first, at the tender age of eighteen, was the quite remarkable ‘Privileged Children.’ This was followed by “Gentlemen and Players,” “A Desirable Husband,” “The Bohemian Girl” and then “The Marquis of Westmarch.”
Such a vivid imagination executed with such zeal and vitality is uncommon in one so young. With her first novel, she received the Author’s Club Award for Best First Novel. This, though, was insufficient to allay her own fears, her own self-doubts regarding her ability. Offered a place at Cambridge she accepted but found herself at odds with other students, with the teaching methods and in general thought she didn’t fit in. Whether she did or didn’t I really cannot speculate. I am sure, if asked, both students and staff would have another side to tell. Nonetheless, here was someone remarkable but who felt they were not only unremarkable but worthless.
Georgina Frances Vernon was born in 1963 on the first of December. Her parents were down-at-heel members of the Upper Class. Her father, Lawrence Venables-Vernon, was tenth Baron Vernon, her mother was Sheila.
Due to their woeful circumstances with the family having to sell their home, Sudbury Hall, a huge mansion in Derbyshire to the National Trust, Frances was sent to the local school. Nothing wrong in that as most average children attend such establishments and suffer few ills from having done so. However, having been born into one set of circumstances, undoubtedly having been given the ridiculous accent those of that class find so necessary, she found herself among those who neither spoke as she did nor lived as she had been accustomed.
Now with the rights and wrongs of class division to one side, here was a little girl made to feel a freak among her contemporaries. She simply didn’t fit in. She was made to feel the odd one out and I can conceive of nothing more painful to bear than that. And let us not fool ourselves here, children can, at times, be the most judgemental and cruellest of creatures. The only excuse for such behaviour is they were more than likely taught to act that way by their parents.
Her cousin, photographer, and writer, Michael Marten said this about Frances.
“From a very young age, maybe six, certainly by eight, she spoke and behaved and thought just like an adult, and talked about adult things, with some gravitas, if you like. She didn’t behave like a child. In fact, she had very strong opinions about childhood, and wanted to be treated like an adult from a much younger age than is usual.”
I find that a child robbed of its childhood to be the saddest thing. Not an abuse as such, nowhere near the vile acts some unfortunate innocents have had to bear, yet still an unbearable loss.
No matter what schools she attended she never felt she belonged. Boarding schools were another world to her. Filled with the potential to give her a little joy, some delight in living, but infested with an otherworldly factor that made her feel as though she came from Barsoom; from some far and distant planet.
Fast approaching eighteen, two things occurred, both of which should have could have, led to making her life a better one. First, she was accepted into Cambridge. Second her debut novel, ‘Privileged Children,’ was accepted by publisher Michael Joseph.
She hated Cambridge. After just two terms she left. Thankfully, her father helped her out by purchasing a flat for her. A stroke of luck from a loving father you might think. What it, in fact, gave her was a loneliness beyond bearing.
The novel was indeed something else. It sparkled with vitality, with a verve and panache, a sheer invention beyond the author’s years. Her imagination swerved, dipped then curved creating a diverse set of characters all within a distinct narrative.
Alice is the fourteen-year-old daughter of Diana Molloy. The family’s fortunes have dive-bombed following the death of Alice’s father. From high-born to lowlifes. Undeterred, Diana turns to the world’s oldest profession presenting herself to the wealthiest of her class. She becomes a whore who sleeps with blue-bloodied men. Then, just as life seems to have found its own level, Diana dies.
Her death came as no surprise. Both Diana and Alice knew of its menacing approach. Her mother had made preparations, not that Alice much liked them. She is sent to her Uncle’s house, the Reverend Roderick Blentham where both he and his wife, Cicely, wait her arrival. It is a claustrophobic existence. Demeaning at times. Her relations ridicule her Irish accent, her lack of education, her Catholicism along with her gangly frame. When she rebels, at the age of fourteen by falling pregnant, things only get worse.
The story is set in chronological order with the chapters featuring the years as they pass covering a period of over two decades. The tale begins in 1906 and concludes in 1931 although there is an epilogue that takes us to 1933.
The characters come sharply defined. All bear the hallmarks of being human and by that I mean they are by turn’s kind, cruel, wise, witty and flawed. None more so than central protagonist Alice Molloy. As an individual, she is not easy to warm to even if the story she is embroiled in is as fascinating and exacting a read you could wish for.
Fictional flaws to one side, the only crime committed here was the authors lack of success; the publics unawareness that here was a writer whose prose and imagination were extraordinary; a thing of immense creativity whilst being a delight to read.
Seeking comparisons to Frances Vernon’s writing really is pointless. She is one of a kind.
Michael Marten again.
“Later in life she read a book called ‘Centuries of Childhood,’ by a man called Phillipe Ariés, which strongly influenced her. Basically it thesis was the modern childhood is a completely invented concept from the seventeenth century onward. Before that, children became adults at or around puberty, twelve or thirteen years of age – girls got married and so forth. Frances thought this was right and proper and ought to be reinstituted. She thought modern childhood was a form of slavery – children were slaves, and schools were prisons (laughs). She believed in enduring education, that one should be educated throughout one’s life, and that society would come round to this one day.”
Frances continued to write and although had published a further five novels she also met with much resistance from literary agents and publishers themselves. She had a small social life, even one or two romantic liaisons which never amounted to much. Depression dogged her brief life made all the worse by the many rejections she received.
“Eleanor Berry is vehemently hostile towards parties in a position of strength, who abuse those who are frail or vulnerable. She despises advocates of victory to “the fittest of the fittest” who leave fragile parties by the wayside.
Berry has made this observation in relation to writers, who have never written before and are coldly rebuffed with rejection notes from literary agents and publishers.
It is not often easy for a first-time writer to find a publisher. When the writer sends off a manuscript, he is often so nervous of rejection, that he waits, sometimes unable to sleep, until the literary agent or publisher has contacted him.
Berry knew a woman who wrote a book over and over again, and, each time it was rejected. Someone had told her that an unknown author has one out of forty chances of being accepted. This statement is not entirely true. It is exaggerated.
Berry’s friend was a stylish, original and extremely talented writer. Her name was Frances Vernon. She showed her some of her work.
She sent her manuscript to a literary agent. Her agent read parts of it and told the author it was unfit to be passed on to a publisher. It is usually the literary agents, rather than the publishers, who are cruel and ruthless to first-time authors. They often don’t take the trouble to tell the author what is wrong with the manuscript or to suggest how it can be improved. No words of encouragement are given. Just a rejection slip. Very occasionally the literary agent writes a short, curt letter to the author.
Berry’s friend sent her manuscript to eighteen literary agents. Each one rejected her.
She could take no more. She committed suicide.”
It may be difficult to imagine how someone so gifted could have struggled so hard. She suffered enormously with depression, plagued by self-doubt and even though she sought psychiatric help her mental health never improved. Her death in 1991 was tragic but not unexpected.
‘It wasn’t sudden’, says Michael Marten, ‘it was a continued worsening. It was a cloud over her and it grew blacker. She seemed less able to escape the blackness’.
Not a single one of her novels achieved bestseller status even though all received high praise from the critics. Now Faber Finds are republishing them so hopefully a new audience will rediscover the joys of them again. Of the six, I have but three. All of them superbly written.