The reading group met last night to discuss Ethel M. Dell and other melodramatic fiction, including Mrs Henry Wood’s East Lynne (1861) and Mary Webb’s Gone to Earth (1917).
Reading aloud of typical Dell descriptions – so much ‘throbbing’ and ‘seething’ – caused a lot of laughter, but there was also astonishment, and enjoyment. Astonishment as none of us had ever read anything quite like Dell before. She has of course her romantic descendent in modern Mills and Boon, but I think it is fair to say that no one writes quite like Dell anymore! And enjoyment as these are really lively and colourful stories, dramatic and FULL, as one of our readers George says, of narrative drive. It feels so wrong, so unhealthy, but I think I might read another Dell.
I have three Dell reviews to post, so they should give a good sense of the range of her output. None of her other novels appear to be as violent at ‘The Bars of Iron’, the book that I read, but violence simmers in them all.
Ethel Dell (1881-1939) was born and brought up in London, and began writing stories at school to amuse her friends. After she left school a few were published by magazines, but she struggled to find a publisher for her first novel, The Way of an Eagle. When it was finally published in 1912, it became an immediate best-seller, to the extent that by 1915 the book accounted for half of her publisher Unwin’s income! She lived reclusively in the country, ‘avoiding her fans and leading a life of almost ascetic industry, in which she frequently got out of bed to write though the night in her bathroom’ (ODNB).
Rebecca West wrote an article in 1922 titled ‘The Tosh Horse’. It is a direct attack on Ethel M. Dell as a representative of the ‘best seller’. West wrote of Charles Rex, one of Ethel M. Dell’s heroes:
And in every line that is written about him one hears the thudding, thundering hooves of a certain steed at full gallop; of the true Tosh-horse. For even as one cannot walk on one’s own trudging diligent feet if one desires to attain the height of poetry, but must mount Pegasus, so one cannot reach the goal of best selling by earnest pedestrianism, but must ride thither on the Tosh-horse. No one can write a best-seller by taking thought.
I would thoroughly recommend the chapter on ‘Romance’ in Nicola Beauman’s book A Very Great Profession: The Woman’s Novel 1914-39 if you’re interested in learning more about the popular romance novels of the period, and the anxiety they caused among thinkers such as Rebecca West and Q. D. Leavis.
The violence and titillation of novels by E M Hull and Ethel M. Dell are particularly striking when you consider what novels were banned at the time. Beauman writes:
It is one of the most mysterious aspects of the barriers and restraints a society choose to impose upon itself that, in England in the 1920s, respectable middle-class readers cheerful devoured E M Hull and Ethel M Dell while denying themselves Lady Chatterley’s Lover, The Well of Loneliness or Sleeveless Errand.
As West put it when considering this point in 1922, ‘Truly we are a strange nation.’
Why was this? I would think that the romantic novelists got away with it by setting their books in exotic locations, keeping to class rules, sexual stereotypes and genre conventions, and appearing to disapprove of the rampant violence and eroticism. Above all, they are over the top! D H Lawrence, Radclyffe Hall and Norah James were attempting realism – accepting sexuality in a recognisable, realist world. This would never do.
Penelope Dell wrote of her adopted aunt:
[She] was a child of late Victorian England, yet her stories abound in explicit and passionate detail. In order that they should be acceptable, she made them highly moral. … It is titillating to be told … of the very things which are taboo. (Quoted in Bloom.)
My colleague John found a lovely mention of Dell in Michael Arlen’s best-selling novel The Green Hat (1924). Iris Storm, femme fatale, is talking about her breasts on the telephone (no, really), and the person on the other end of the line protests: “Iris, you are shocking the girl at the exchange!” and Iris replies “No, no, Miss Dell has prepared her for anything!”
Rebecca West, review of Ethel M. Dell’s Charles Rex, New Statesman, 16 September 1922. Reprinted in The Strange Necessity (Jonathan Cape, 1928) as ‘The Tosh Horse’.
Nicola Beauman, A Very Great Profession: The Woman’s Novel 1914-39 (Virago, 1983).
Harriet Harvey Wood, ‘Dell, Ethel Mary (1881-1939)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004.
Clive Bloom, Bestsellers: Popular fiction since 1900 (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2002)