The Queen of Romance- Marguerite Jervis by Liz Jones
Marguerite Jervis was a writer who published over one hundred and fifty books during her lifetime under three different names. She realised more than most that fashions change in what people actually read, and her mainly romantic novels revealed her efforts to meet current demands in a period of massive social change from 1911 to 1964. In this searching and perceptive biography of an elusive woman Liz Jones has worked hard to discover the woman behind the books, as well as the theatrical ambitions and difficult romances. Using a variety of sources, including letters, news reports and the novels themselves, Jones has worked hard to create an impression of a woman who was sometimes described as a writing machine, producing up to four books a year while negotiating relationships with difficult men and her only child.
This book boasts a list of books produced by this woman who combined a vivid imagination with a journalist’s flair for presenting a story with an eye to the demands of a changing market. Just as Marguerite herself kept her story moving, Jones maintains a strong pace as she reveals the story of a birth and early childhood in India, a difficult transition to England, and a fierce ambition to achieve more than a good marriage and motherhood. While it is difficult to ascertain the truth behind a carefully maintained professional persona, Jones looks at the candid truth of a young woman who was desperate to be an actress but possibly had to at least temporarily settle for a precarious existence as a chorus girl, who obtained some of her earliest writing assignments by ‘vamping’ editors. She alludes to the men who would dominate her writing life, as well as the son who never succeeded despite her sacrificial support. Jones has managed to describe a life presented from so many angles, and yet concealed from her many readers who usually hoped for a happy ending. I found this a fascinating biography, and was very pleased to have the opportunity to read and review this well written book.
The book opens with the story of Henry, Marguerite’s difficult father, and her quiet mother Florence. The Prologue highlights that Marguerite was a woman of contradictions, possibly because of her challenging upbringing, as she vowed to “never be dependent on a man”, yet was to struggle with both of the men she lived with before marrying. After demanding to leave home to train as an actress, she discovered that it was nearly impossible to achieve the fame she was so desperate for, so refocused her efforts to begin writing as “Oliver Sandys”, a male identity which gave her more scope for writing frankly. Her other main pseudonym, Countess Barcynska, gave a hint of foreign aristocracy, but became a bone of contention with her first husband, the controlling and probably abusive Bernard Armiger. Some of her books were adapted for film, including by the young Alfred Hitchcock. Her later relationship with the infamous Welsh writer Caradoc Evans was probably also marked by abuse. Both men were probably jealous of her ability to write and sell books, both benefited from the money she earned. The book is also informative on Marguerite’s attempts to run theatre companies, partly because she hoped it would give her son Nicholas a much needed focus.
Overall Marguerite is portrayed as a woman whose motive for writing was to earn money; certainly Armiger was intent on her raising money for him even after their relationship was over. Jones presents her as a woman who had a keen eye for subject matter and giving her readers what they wanted, even if her output was seen as lightweight and frivolous. This is a book which works hard to capture the essence of a woman who chose to hide behind aliases all her life. It is a very readable account of a complex life, with a huge amount of research which never slows the narrative, but contributes to an impressive biography of a remarkable woman.