Simpson (1931) by Edward Sackville West

This fourth novel by Edward Sackville-West won the Femina Vie Heureuse prize in 1931.

Cambridge University Library holds papers of the English committe of this prize, and give these details:

‘In 1904 Hachette, publishers of the magazines Femina and La Vie Heureuse, established an annual prize for a French novel. From 1919 a prize was also awarded for an English work ‘calculated to reveal to French readers the true spirit and character of England’. An English committee discussed books suggested by members and shortlisted three; a French committee chose the winner. From 1920 a prize was given for a French work chosen by the English committee from a list made by the French. The last prizes were awarded in 1939. The English Committee included Rebecca West, Rosamond Lehmann, Kate O’Brien, and Clemence Dane; the secretary was Winifred S. Whale until 1939, then Margaret Harris. The secretary of the French committee was Mme C. Reymond de Broutelles.’ (Cambridge University Library, Department of Manuscripts and University Archives, ‘Femina Vie Heureuse Prize’, English Committee: Minutes and Papers, MS Add.8900)

We have many of the English winners in our collection.

Review by a reading group member:

Plot Summary.

The book’s a study of a Nannie. Ruth Simpson, the 3rd of 7 children, finds herself at the age of 14 years, looking after the two youngest children [Mum has had enough]. Withdrawing from the turmoil of the wider family into this role produces a self-sufficient stability which forms her vocation. Such is the singularity she brings to this that she rejects her one suitor & shows no interest in friends or having her own children.

After 5 years of looking after her brother & sister she leaves home to care for a series of children with varying degrees of success. In the process she evolves a policy of not staying too long with particular children, to pre-empt over-attachment. She also develops a memory bank-a round ‘temple’ in her mind containing windows opening onto the individual children she’s cared for. The children remain at their ‘finished age’, the age she feels she’s completed her work with them. War disrupts work with a delicate German boy, forcing her back to England. She returns to Germany when it seems possible to join this ‘unfinished’ child. Onthe way she is killed arbitrarily in post-war revolutionary Berlin.


This 4th novel garnered polite reviews. It was described variously as ‘sincere & moving’, ‘impressive & original’ & as having a ‘cool aloof quality’ with its subject bearing little resemblance to a conventional Nannie of fact or fiction.

It starts off well, laying down the motivation for Simpson’s life as a Nannie in a relaxed, distanced & economical way. In the process her exclusive orientation towards children is cast as a form of defensive self-mothering. Once she moves into other family homes the theme of distanced maternal love emerges, with nursery nurses as primary carers leaving mothers adrift from motherhood & children unmoored from mothers. The first children she encounters are pallid, passive & low spirited. Subsequent children frequently manifest varieties of cathected relationships to objects, behaviour & language. Such distanced maternal love may well have had an autobiographical element. For instance, Sackville-West’s life was apparently dogged by ill health & masochistic tendencies, the latter akin to self-injurious behaviour in terms of heightening immediacy to block out the wider world. It might also be seen to underlie the remote quality of the writing.

After 14 years comes her first failure, Martin, who displays all the signs of schizoid personality disorder. For instance, he squeezes to the edge of his seat to leave room for God…but not for Nannie. Indeed he politely rejects all her attempts at being essential to him, refusing her smiles & being indifferent to physical affection. This brings Simpson face-to-face with ‘lack’, causing the onset of unaccustomed self-reflection, which she finds unpleasant. The difficulty is that success at this requires the kind of relational thinking she has avoided all her life in bypassing social dialogue.

Basically she needs to perceive & give primacy to Martin’s needs, for a domain in which minimal emotional or intimate demands are made upon him. Moreover, the root of relational thinking is ‘motherese’, which one would have thought would have been a prerequisite for being a successful Nannie. Thus Simpson’s success to date must have been due more to what the children brought to the relation than the basic nursing care & order provided by herself.

The problematic she needs to address is that she is not the fixed centre of Martin’s universe, as befits her perceived status as Nannie. God occupies that position. What does she do ? She hands in her notice & retreats to a former domain of success or comfort. Back to Eden, in effect.

It’s possible that Sackville-West, writing in the period 1927-30, would have been aware of Bleuler’s descriptions of schizoid behaviour in 1925.For instance, it’s the one part of the book in which another character, Martin, speaks his thoughts [mostly about his liking for danger, another way of generating immediacy]. Unfortunately no realisation is sought or gained from either the  reader’s or Simpson’s perspective regarding this encounter. Simpson’s hobbies continue to remain solitary, e.g. sewing, as a way of marking time, & diversionary book reading, which she does not seek to apply to her own life. Thus, interesting though this might be in terms of regarding the book as, say, a case study, one has to ask if the author is merely indicating Simpson’s limitations at this point or whether an autobiographical element is coming further into play.

From this high water mark the book becomes disordered, merely a series of defensive steps sideways in the face of life or random changes of children. When such drift re-encounters failure, this time in the form of her younger sister’s daughter, who has all the signs of emotional & behavioural disorder, she again retreats. And so on, till she dies, randomly, en route to an unfinished child, leaving the reader ‘unfinished’. What happened to the unfinished child ? So in spite of petering out in a limp sort of way it did succeed in generating some degree of involvement. Furthermore, although Sackville-West’s intentions remain still beyond me [lament for lost mothering ?…Simpson’s lament ?…autobiographical fiction ?] the interaction between Simpson & her charges are sufficiently detailed to warrant inclusion in the reading lists of Special Education courses. Towards this end it  would be worthy of analysis beyond the parameters of this review.


This [1931] novel bears a family resemblance to the one P.L.Travers started writing in 1933 about ‘Mary Poppins’. Both Simpson & Poppins are dowdy marginal characters who give their children ‘order’ rather than tenderness. A snow globe also features strongly in both books, symbolising, perhaps, disorder subject to containment & resolution, in the palm of one’s hand. The question remains as to whether a preoccupation with Nannies was in the air at that time.

One thought on “Simpson (1931) by Edward Sackville West

  1. Very thought-provoking review – certainly the book must have been thought quite highly of at the time, yet now it’s completely forgotten. It does sound a little like Eddy wasn’t quite sure where he was going with this, but intriguing nevertheless!

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