Melodrama, Ethel M. Dell and ‘The Tosh Horse’

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)

4 thoughts on “Melodrama, Ethel M. Dell and ‘The Tosh Horse’

  1. Intriguing stuff! I have had a look at a couple of titles as ebooks and frankly they don’t seem a lot different from a lot of the badly written tosh that’s about nowadays. Really I suppose they can be seen as the precursors of Mills and Boons and then 50 Shades type books but what depresses me so much about these is the bad writing and lack of imagination! It is *amazing* what can be got away with in these books but was banned elsewhere!

    • Well, I think Dell certainly had a fertile imagination! She didn’t marry until 1922, and I assume that she hadn’t experienced much sex or violence! Her later novels do become rather more mellow. She also set her novels in exotic locations that she would read voraciously about, but had never visited – particularly India.

      Mills and Boon are written to a formula that the publishing house prescribes, whereas I think Dell was drawing on Victorian sensation fiction such as Mary Elizabeth Braddon and her own active imagination. I read a couple of Mills and Boon just to see what they are like and I must say that I enjoyed Dell much more! I think Dell is a better writer, and perhaps it is also that Dell has novelty value now – they seem downright weird.

      I seem to be defending Dell. Gosh.

  2. Thanks for recommending A Very Great Profession, I’ve been throbbingly and passionately longing to understand a bit more where Dell and her contemporary writers come from.
    What I think is peculiar to Dell’s writing is the way her writing emphasizes bodily experiences (all the shivering, throbbing etc). Her characters live in their bodies more than in their heads, even if she can’t describe sexual contact beyond kisses (and perhaps also violence).

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s