The first biography of the bestselling author and journalist Marguerite Jervis.
Daughter of an officer of the Indian Medical Corps, Marguerite Florence Laura Jarvis (1886 – 1964) was born in Burma and became one of the most successful novelists of her time. During the course of her 60-year career, Marguerite published over 150 books, with 11 novels adapted for film, including The Pleasure Garden (1925), the directorial debut of Alfred Hitchcock. In her heyday she sold hundreds of thousands of novels, but is now largely forgotten; under numerous pseudonyms she wrote for newspapers, women’s magazines and the silent movie screen; she married one of Wales most controversial literary figures, Caradoc Evans. She also trained as an actress and was a theatrical impresario. Known variously as Mrs Caradoc Evans, Oliver Sandys, Countess Barcynska and many other pseudonyms, who was she really?
Liz Jones has dug deep beneath the tale told in Marguerite Jervis’s own
somewhat romanticised memoir to reveal what made this driven and
determined woman. And what turned her from a spoilt child of the English
middle classes to a workaholic who could turn her hand to any literary
endeavour and who became a runaway popular success during the most
turbulent years of the 20th century.
Liz Jones writes about Marguerite Jervis, extremely popular romance writer in the first half of the twentieth century, theatre proprietor in Aberystwyth and Broadstairs, daughter of Empire, loving but terribly inconsistent mother and survivor of two abusive marriages.
In this biography, we discover a profoundly complex woman who wrote romances from the early 1900s to the 1960s that were bestsellers, although she never used her own name. Her Oliver Sandys books were about working class girls and appealed to working class girls. Her Countess Barcynski books were about upper middle class girls having exciting times.
Jervis mythologised and romanticised her own life in her autobiographies and in biographies of her husband Caradoc Evans, while real life events inspired her fictional romances. Liz Jones sifts through the stories and random details left behind about Marguerite Jervis to build a coherent biography.
Jervis had a really sad life, forever running after the feeling of being a little princess, the centre of attention felt as a small child in India when she had multiple servants who doted on her, while her parents were distant and in her father’s case, actively aggressive. Being sent to England at the age of 5 with her Aunt Tots, she is lost and alone, missing her ayah and servants. This loss left her chasing attention and approval, leading her to relationships with abusive men, Armitage Barclay and Caradoc Evans. In the early days of both relationships she is seduced by their attention and approval, ignoring the red flags of danger.
The need for attention and approval lead her to work intensely for decades to produce books and stories, so that she could have all the attributes of wealth. Her books dealt with complex social issues and subverted genre expectations, while her short stories conformed to the rules of Woman’s Weekly. As a young graduate of RADA, Jervis tried to make a life as an actress but didn’t get far, and may have been a chorus girl. Her early books were about chorus girls who had ‘a past’ but still marries the hero. Later she wrote about harassed theatre proprietors in small towns, actresses offered a Hollywood career but giving it up for a nice man in Wales, etc. Jervis’ writing was her main source of income and supported her and the men in her lives for decades. Her fame as a writer allowed her the trappings of wealth she missed from her Indian childhood. When it started to fade in the 1950s and 1960s she found a new way to get attention – the Miracle Stone of Wales.
Her need for attention and approval led her to be a poor parent – she left her son with his step-father while she spent all her time working and then to live with her new husband, and then didn’t protect him from Evens’ abusive behaviour, while coddling him in other ways, like starting theatre companies so that he could have an acting career. He had an even sadder life, because he spent most of it dependant on his mother, never quite finding himself or his own purpose.
The writing is very fluid and easy to read, I spent a pleasant evening reading this book. I learnt about a fascinating author who wrote in a genre that I don’t generally read. Romance books are usually considered fluffy ‘trash’ but they do actually cover complex social matters; this is fascinating even if I don’t particularly like the sex and romance parts of the novels. Marguerite Jervis was one of the earliest writers of romance novels to do this.
I recommend this book if you enjoy biographies of authors, especially now-obscure women writers.
Liz Jones writes drama and creative non-fiction, reviews, short stories and journalism ranging from Take a Break to New Welsh Review. Along the way she has raised two daughters, tried to change the world, worked in a café-cum-bookshop, a housing association, in community development and lifelong learning. She is now a Teaching Fellow at Aberystwyth University.