I picked this up at a book-fair the other day – a little tatty and unprepossessing, I know. “The Girl Downstairs” by Gertie de S. Wentworth-James – the story of Rosabel Sayer – educated, comely, resolute, plucky, and an altogether rather superior parlourmaid, who comes to the aid of a somewhat dysfunctional family living in the London suburb of Hambledon at the end of the District Line – a lightly disguised Wimbledon, where the author herself once lived. It’s all rather enjoyable until the author remembers that she is supposed to be writing a romance and Rosabel herself is swept off her feet by a grocer’s deliveryman (who of course is no more what he seems than she is).
Plausible – it’s not. Virginia Woolf – it’s not – it really isn’t. But I will say that if we wanted a take on the reality of women in the workplace a century ago, or the routine experience of being hit on by employers past, present and prospective, then Gertie Wentworth-James might well be a more reliable guide than Virginia Woolf, or even Dorothy Richardson.
This edition is undated, but was published, or strictly speaking distributed, by T. A. & E. Pemberton Ltd. – the Manchester brothers, remainder-dealers turned publishers, Thomas Abel Pemberton (1888-1965) and Edwin Pemberton (1891-1965) – from their pre-1947 Blossom Street address. It perhaps dates from about 1939 or 1940. I don’t recognise and can’t make out the signature of the cover artist – Douglas Long-something? – suggestions very welcome. [PS – It’s Douglas Constable. My thanks to Andrew Parry for deciphering it. Born in South Africa, Douglas La Coste Constable (1881-1930) died at Hampstead in December 1930, which suggests that the Pembertons may have retained the artwork from the original 1926 edition].
No particular reason for buying it – and the Mars Bar advertisement on the rear wrapper is singularly unappetising – except that Pemberton material tends to be pretty scarce and this seemed to be distinctly earlier than anything else I’d seen from them. As it turns out, it appears to be unrecorded. The only other copy of the book I can trace is the British Library’s 1926 edition, published by the Federation Press of Arthur Gray and Frederick Matthew Mowl (a.k.a. “Gramol”), about whom I’ve written before. There are appear to be no copies at all of this Pemberton edition in the BL or elsewhere – none in any major library worldwide and none on the internet – which raises some interesting questions about the meaning and value of rarity in the rare book trade. Is this book rare? – Certainly. Is it valuable? – Certainly not, although I shall hope to improve a little on the couple of pounds I paid for it.
I suppose what intrigued me was the conjunction of the author’s high-flown name – G. de S. Wentworth-James – with this kind of ‘popular’, not to say ‘pulp’ fiction. I’d not come across Gertie Wentworth-James before and thought at first that I was tracking down a completely forgotten author. Actually there is already a fair amount of information about her out there and most of passably accurate. According to “The Oxford Companion to Edwardian Fiction”, she was the author “of about fifty-five smartly witty novels, self-consciously progressive especially about sex, published between 1908 and 1929”, which is true enough, although the number of titles may be a little inflated by the number of her books which were reissued under changed names.
As to the “self-consciously progressive” content, her books were certainly thought a little risqué at the time and a number were banned from public libraries. A writer for “The Sketch” (2nd April 1919) noted that “Miss Wentworth James is a woman with very decided individual views, and she is not afraid of expressing them. ‘I don’t write what is called ‘the healthy novel’’, she told me once. ‘Indeed, I don’t like ‘healthy’ novels. Those I have read always deal with murder, robbery, blackmail, and abductions. It’s wonderful what a lot of crime it takes to make a really ‘healthy’ work of fiction”.
Gertrude de Soilleux Wentworth-James (1874-1933) was her full name, although the “de” and the hyphen seem to have been optional and the spelling of “Soilleux” tends to be variable. She was born at Kensington in West London on 29th March 1874 and baptised as Gertrude Soilleux Webster at fashionable St. Mary the Boltons on 4th May 1875 – her parents given as John William Webster and his wife Emilie. I have not been able to trace anything at all of the earlier history of her parents and things may not have been quite as they seem. Her father is described in the parish register as having “no occupation” – a man of private means perhaps, although he is conspicuously not described as a “gentleman”, which would normally have been the case if that were so. Whoever he may have been, he died or disappeared shortly thereafter and mother and daughter were left to make their own way in the world.
In 1881 they were living in Hackney, her mother recorded as a Londoner of thirty-six years of age, having a private income apparently sufficient for them to retain a single servant. Ten years later they had moved to Willesden, the young Gertrude now a music student, while her mother is described as an authoress – if so, I have not traced anything written by her. Presumably putting her musical training to good use, the 1901 census finds Gertrude, now twenty-six, employed as a “drawing room entertainer” at Smedley’s Hydropathic and Boarding Establishment at Matlock in Derbyshire. What opportunities this may have given her to study life from an unusual and offbeat perspective we can only surmise, but she soon after began to publish short stories and articles as Gertie de S. Webster – for example, “Paula’s Piano” for “Pearson’s Magazine” in 1902, and “How the East End Amuses Itself”, which appeared in “Cassell’s” in October 1904.
In the spring of 1904 she had married Herbert Wentworth-James (1876?-1934) at Wandsworth. His antecedents seem to be as obscure as those of her parents, but he was himself the author of a number of short stories for the magazines, born in London and most often described as a journalist. Gertie continued to turn out stories under her married name, the titles becoming distinctly more adventurous – “The Man Mamma Recommended”, “The Man the Other Woman Wanted”, and “My First Affair” all appeared in “Smith’s Magazine” in 1907. At about this time her husband was working as publicity manager for the Remington Typewriter Company and it may not be coincidental that her first novel, “The Wild Widow”, published by T. Werner Laurie in 1908, attracted a great deal of press coverage. The reviews were mixed: the “Manchester Courier” (29th May 1908) summed up the plot – “A second-rate type of Bohemian lady, in order to raise money, claims that the body of a dead man is that of her husband. With the insurance money thus secured, she goes to Monte Carlo, wins at the tables, invests wisely, and makes a fortune … A certain air of reality is found in the story, despite improbable incidents”. A couple of days earlier, “The Bystander” (27th May 1908), had been far more positive, with a feature and a photograph of “A Promising New Author”– “The story is packed full of life and mirth and humour. Chiefly feminine in characterisation, it presents a living picture of modern womanhood. The central character, Mrs. Orlitson, is suspected from the first to be a monster … Miss James has succeeded in weaving an attractive novel based on a somewhat implausible coincidence, but she keeps her secret so darkly that one is bound, when, at the end of the book, it is disclosed, to forget its crudity in sheer amazement at its audacity … thoroughly up to date, and clever in a new-womanish sort of way. Miss James must write some more, avoiding, if possible, crude coincidences and bombshell revelations. Her powers of sketching character are undeniable, and her dialogue is witty and suggestive”.
It became a success and was published in America, as were number of her early books, and there were French and Spanish versions too (“Une Étrange Veuve”, “Una Viuda Extraña”). There followed a rapid series of colourful and successful novels and by 1911 she was living with her husband and her mother at The Turret, Wimbledon Park Road, with a resident parlourmaid and a cook, boldly proclaiming herself a novelist and brazenly admitting to be being thirty-two years of age (she had just turned thirty-seven). She was already close to the peak of her fame – “Her vivacious style and fresh and unconventional plots have given her books a huge circulation”, reported the “Ballymena Observer” the following year (26th July 1912).
The books were colourful in quite a literal sense – a riot of colour, in fact – “Red Love” (1908); “Pink Purity” (1909); “Scarlet Kiss” (1910); “White Wisdom” (1910) – “a commentary of various phases of society life, and a sidelight on some of the ways of the smart set … The story itself really concerns Louise Hedin, who is abandoned by her well-to-do parents and brought up in a London slum” (Dundee Courier, 28th September 1910); “Crimson Caresses” (1918) – originally published as “The Price” (1911); “A Primrose Prude” (1919) – originally published as “The House of Chance” (1911); “Purple Passion” (1915), “Violet Virtue” (1916), “Golden Youth” (1916), and the rather more prosaic “Green Grapes” (1918), this last perhaps redeemed by its subtitle – “Green Grapes : Dealing with the Devilish Doings of a God” – one of a number of rather good subtitles, including “Scarlet Kiss : The Story of a Degenerate Woman who Drifted”; “The Lesson : A Story of Love, of Bohemia, and of Human Philosophy” (1910) – “unusual and decidedly clever” (Dundee Courier, 27th December 1910); “The Cage Unbarred : Being the Story of a Woman who was Dull” (1913) – “the usual dull story of a dull heroine who goes wrong because she is too dull to keep right. She has a husband who takes her seriously. Life with him is full of those commonplace nothings which inspire red-headed heroines to wander forth in search of excitement” (The Tatler, 12th February 1913), and “The Thing : Being the Story of a Girl who Thought about Things and Tried to Understand Them, and Who at Last Saw Life with Open Eyes” (1921) – “fewer melodramatic passages and a generous curtailment of the osculatory passages might make this novel worth reading, and it might possibly not” (Aberdeen Press, 22nd September 1921).
Elsewhere there is a nod to her own origins with “Diana of West Kensington” (1909), and a stream of such catchy titles as “The Piccadilly Puritan” (1917), “Barter” (1912) – later republished as “Miss Mercenary” (1919); “The Devil’s Profession” (1914) – “The devil’s profession is the running of a bogus lunatic asylum in which sane people are confined” (Pall Mall Gazette, 22nd April 1914); “Man-Made Morals” (1915) – “a mixture of ‘sloppy’ sentiment and up-to-date (up-to-date, that is, before the war) shocks” (Manchester Courier, 12th April 1915); “The Wife Who Found Out” (1915); “The Man Market”(1917) – “I had the supreme misfortune to be born a woman …”; “Maiden Madness” (1919); “A Very Bad Woman” (1920); “The Wife Who Wasn’t Wanted” (1923), and “A Mental Marriage” (1926). There were a couple of translations into German and Swedish, and at least half a dozen of her novels appeared in Dutch versions.Some of her later work has a certain following among admirers of science fiction and fantasy – E. F. Bleiler lists four titles, including the reincarnation novel “The Soul that Came Back” (1922), while the online Encyclopedia of Science Fiction adds a fifth – “Girl Everlasting” (1927). “The Television Girl” (1928) has attracted a certain amount of academic interest (see for example Professor David Trotter’s “Literature in the First Media Age” (2013) and his 17th October 2012 post on “The Literary Platform” blog). It’s a clever predictive story of Skype, or something very similar, as imagined from the 1920s – a false connection to an unknown woman of mystery leads to romance, or, as it was advertised at the time, “a famous doctor falls in love with the face of a girl flashed on to the screen of his televisor”.
“The Scarlet Kiss” was turned into a British silent film in 1920, while “The Wife Who Wasn’t Wanted” became a Warner Brothers movie in 1925. In the same year, her 1913 novel “The Girl Who Wouldn’t Work” was given the full Hollywood treatment – a film starring the great Lionel Barrymore alongside Marguerite De La Motte, a huge star in her day, best-known for her many roles opposite Douglas Fairbanks before her career crashed and burned with the coming of the talkies. A showing of the film at the Pier Theatre Cinema in Chichester was written up by the local rag as “Gertie Wentworth-James’ enthralling romance of a shop girl, who longs for luxury and ease” – and I dare say (naming no names) we have all known shop girls of just such an inclination. “How she obtains her wish and what happens when fate presents the bill are told in this gripping drama of love and suspense” (Chichester Observer, 25th August 1926).
For all of these seeming indications of success, her career and her sales were by now in reality in sharp decline. There can be no other reason for her turning out a potboiler like “The Girl Downstairs” for the likes of Gray and Mowl – the worst-paying publishers in London – in 1926. Ill health was also beginning to affect both her and her husband. A final flurry of novels in the late 1920s was followed by little more than a curious account of her near death experience titled “Neither Unpleasant nor Painful : What it Feels Like to Die ”, which appeared in the “Edinburgh Evening News” (Tuesday 13 September 1932). She never fully recovered and died on 22nd April 1933 at Hammersmith Hospital, her death causing barely a ripple in the press. The money too was gone, her estate was declared at a meagre £150 or so.
Far more widely reported was the death of her husband exactly twelve months later. By now general editor of the magazines called “Health and Strength” and the naturist “Health and Efficiency”, he had been completely unable to reconcile himself to the loss of Gertie. He took advantage of his housekeeper being away on holiday to seal his flat airtight with some kind of webbing and then to turn on, but not light, the gas-fire. It was a death as lurid as that in any of her novels. She was a woman who must have known what it was to be loved.