Tuesday 23 March 2010

My Grandmother's Books

Here is my grandmother – my mother’s mother – as a young woman.  She was born in 1892 and her name was Emmeline Mary Sherwood, though everyone called her ‘Linnie’. 

Her own grandfather was a Yorkshire farmer who transcended the taciturn cliché: he was a poet (though none of his poems seem to have survived), the inventor of a number of farmyard improvements including a mechanism called the drop-platform plough: and – by all accounts – a bit of a dreamer.   On his death the farm was sold and his son, Linnie’s father Sam, became a successful commercial traveller.  Sam was a rascal where the ladies were concerned, but he had such charisma and charm that people continued to love him despite his infidelities.   

Anyway in 1905 when his 13 year old daughter Linnie wrote a poem on the death of the actor Henry Irving, Sam must have read it and seen some merit in it.  Perhaps he remembered his own poet-farmer father, for he sent it to a local paper.  It was published, and the editor told Sam to encourage his daughter to continue writing.  

No more than today, of course, could one rely upon making a living from writing.  Linnie trained and worked for Underwood’s as a demonstration typist – a useful skill for a writer, and one that opened the path for her to work as personal secretary to the Earl of Leitrim in County Donegal.  For propriety’s sake she stayed not at the big house, but in a Rosapenna hotel owned by the Earl, where she was known to all by the nickname ‘Miss Yorkshire’.  Here a visiting Malaysian prince, the son of the Sultan of Johor, proposed to her but was rejected - Linnie was already engaged to my grandfather, William Lucas Thornber (also of Yorkshire farming stock), who earned his living as one of the early breed of motor mechanics.

Once married and with children, Linnie began writing stories and poems as a way of augmenting the family income.  She also wrote plays for the Sheffield Repertory Theatre – the first, ‘Grey Ash’ (a supernatural shocker about an accursed violin) was broadcast by the BBC, and after that several more of her plays were broadcast, and she was recorded reading one of her stories on air.  How I'd love to track it down! 

As her three daughters grew older, perhaps my grandmother had more time to write longer fiction.  Her first novel, ‘Bitter Glory, about the romance between Chopin and George Sand, was published in 1935, under the male pseudonym ‘Leon Thornber’. Above, left, you can see the rather unlikely cover, with Sand (?) glancing coquettishly at the portrait of Chopin.  The cover belies the book, which is well researched and serious. It’s of its time, of course.  No novel today would open quite as this one does:

There was a certain apartment, very large and square and lofty, on the Chausée d’Antin, and there it seemed that spring had taken laughing refuge against the cutting winds and flurrying snow of winter’s last despairing stand.  A bright fire leaped on the hearth, casting rosy shadows on the pale panelled walls and the polished floor strewn with rich rugs as bright as summer.

We're too self-conscious for this kind of fanciful flourish these days.  But I confess I rather like it; in context it sounds lovely!  And the book was well received for a first novel, though after that Linnie stuck to places and people she knew inside out and through and through.  There was, at the time, a sort of genre of 'Yorkshire women novelists':  Winifred Holtby, Storm Jameson, Phyllis Bentley.  Though she wasn't as well known, my grandmother became part of it.  Her next book, ‘And One Man’, 1936, was based on her own family history and opens on a Yorkshire farm.   Jude Wayland wakes up on a bitter winter’s morning, and you can tell the writer knows all about it:

In the big kitchen below him, he could hear Sarah, his brother’s wife, moving about her morning tasks with the maids.  Fire irons rattled, dishes and cutlery clattered, the wooden pump on the sink groaned and gushed, there was a rattle of pails in the outer kitchen. 
Then someone dragged the coal bucket across the tiled floor, and the noise of it set Jude’s teeth on edge.  He sat up in bed in sudden fury. ‘For God’s sake,’ he cried, ‘can’t Sarah keep those women quiet?  She knows Dad’s ill.’

Dicky Lismore, one of the most colourful characters in the book, is based solidly on her own father Sam.  Like Sam, Lismore is a commercial traveller:  ‘A tall young man…[whose] smile lifted the wings of his flowing brown moustache, disclosing beautiful teeth.’  He meets Jude on a train to ‘Stelborough’ (Sheffield), and rattles on:

‘It’s a rum place, Stelborough.  Filthy, but where there’s muck there’s money, and where there’s money, women go in for being soulful and arty.  It’s full of music.  Some of it is good, too, but not all.  I heard the Messiah there once.  God, what a row! Half a hundred withered spinsters piping out, ‘Unto us a son is born,’ and then the basses chipped in ‘Wonderful.’  And it would have been wonderful too, judging by the look of them.  They were past the bearing age.’

It’s not just because I’m Linnie’s grand-daughter that I enjoy this book – in fact, sometimes that almost gets in the way.  It’s odd reading love-scenes written by your own grandmother.  A girl called Lottie makes love to Jude, and:

Her hands clung about him, following the hard masculine lines of his body, the broad shoulders, the slim waist, the narrow hips and flanks.  She felt him tremble under her touch and she laughed aloud in sheer delight when he gripped her awkwardly and kissed her…
An hour later he was fast asleep…but Lottie lay awake beside him, hour after hour, listening to his quiet breathing and half-regretting, half-exulting in the thing which she had done. 

Her third novel, ‘Portrait in Steel,’ follows the fortunes of the Sheffield steelworks via the personal history of one Nicholas Brough, who begins as an idealistic youth at the start of the first World War and ends up in the thirties as ‘a damned hard man’.  This novel takes in the wartime steel boom, the slump of the twenties, and the resurgence of the steel industry as the Spanish Civil War starts to bite.  It was published in 1938, and the whole of the second edition was bombed in its London warehouse during the blitz and literally went up in smoke. (This makes me feel like a modern softy for complaining about print-runs, etc.)
And after that, she never published another novel, although my mother tells me that she did begin writing one.  It had a supernatural theme involving black magic, and as she read it out chapter by chapter to the family, my mother and her sisters were agog with excitement to find out what would happen.  But they never did.  My grandmother had always been rather superstitious, and somehow she must have managed to scare herself.  She stopped writing it, and after her death my mother could not find any trace of the manuscript.   

I was only four years old when Linnie died.  My memories of her are hazy, and from a low viewpoint – her full blue skirt: the Chinese silk wastepaper basket under her dressing table with little appliqued mandarins on its eight panels (with real beards!), the gleaming glass jars of bottled fruit she made each summer stacked along the shelf in the passage upstairs, and the dressmaker’s dummy which lay on top of her wardrobe like some sort of pallid Egyptian mummy-case.  When I stayed overnight and shared her room, I did not dare to turn my back on it. 

How much I should like to sit down with Linnie Thornber and talk about the books we’ve written and the craft we share!  But, though I never really knew her, at least I can read her books and know that she would be glad that writing still runs in the family blood. 


  1. This is completely fascinating, Kath! What an amazing woman and what a story...her books sound just the thing to show to Persephone press. Have you thought of that? Wonderful stuff, really and I even think I might have read that Chopin book. I certainly read A BOOK about him and GSand at a very early and impressionable age and my mother might easily have had a copy lying around till I was about 9 or so. WONDERFUL STUFF and she was so elegant too!

  2. Thanks for sharing this, Kath. It's always interesting when talents run in families. A particular joy for you, I would imagine, having this inheritance. I'm sure she would be proud of her granddaughter.

  3. Wonderful story! And how great that you and your grandmother share a link. I love that picture of her too. You can tell she has the soul of a poet. I thought the passages were wonderfully written. A bit dated but evocative and I didn't mind the flowery language either. I thought it charming.
    My mother is a non-fiction scholarly writer, and my son wants to be an illustrator/writer. I hope he continues the trend although as he's 7 it's a toss-up between that and becoming a secret agent.

  4. A marvellous read! Absolutely fascinating. I loved Winifred Holtby and would read anything I could get hold of by your grandmother. I noticed that she changed her name from Leon to Leonora, or am I imagining it? Was that a problem with getting published as a woman until she was established? You must be so proud Kath.

  5. What a gorgeous peice of family history. Love the period covers too. As you say there was a sort of genre of yorkshire women novelists (and a few men too Leo Walmesley and Thomas Armstrong for example). I am a secondhan dbook dealer and of them all I sell the most of Thomas Armstrong. I shall look out for your grandmother's work too.

  6. Well spotted, Miriam! yes, I think she, like other women writers of the time, felt she would be taken more seriously with a male pseudonym. And then, my mother says, she decided her writing was in fact feminine and there was no point in trying to disguise it.

    Leo Walmsley - yes! he was a name to conjure with in my Yorkshire childhood home! If you ever do come across one of my grandmother's books, do let me know.

  7. Liked your post. Someday I hope to write a book where the royalties will pay for the copies I give away.

  8. This is just wonderful! I loved reading it. I wonder if you should email the whole posting to the Persephone folks. They may decide to publish her!

  9. Just the kind of thing I pick up in charity shops and devour. Lovely read. Also interesting that she became better with time.

  10. Thank you for this bit of your family history. I still love that somewhat formal yet over-the-top style of writing of the early 20th century. It's charming. And that quote from your grandmother, "...where there’s muck there’s money, and where there’s money, women go in for being soulful and arty," is still true toda, I think.

  11. Fantastic, Kath: love the picture of her. That hair! What a bohemian. She does sound fascinating.

  12. Love this post and the beautiful picture of your grandmother

  13. Oh, I love this! What a fantastic story, she sounds like a wonderful woman. And yes, I love that photo of her, too.

  14. Thanks - if only I had inherited hair like that!

  15. Oh how wonderful...I really want to read And One Man now. An aspect of wiritng I hadn't considered - leaving something behind for the great-grandchildren to read one day.

  16. Wow! A wonderful story, a wonderful history, and a wonderful tradition passed down the latest family story-teller!

  17. Thanks for sharing this. It's a wondeful fragment of personal history. She sounds marvellous and I think I pick up a 'Linnie look-alike' in your face Kath.

  18. Now we know where you got the writing gene! I agree she looks like a poet... and she has hair just like mine used to be at that age.

  19. You still have lovely hair, Katherine!

  20. Thankyou Mystica! and thanks for stopping by.

  21. Dear Katherine, Very glad I found your page, Mary Emmeline was my Great Aunt. I looked for a way other than comments to contact you but to no avail. I have copies of a couple of the books you mention, managing to find Portrait of Steel in Australia of all places. There are parts of that book which relate to the family.
    Kind regards