Sinabada by Elinor Mordaunt (1937)

Elinor Mordaunt was born Evelyn May Clowes in 1872 in Cotgrave, near Nottingham. She died in 1942.

Another quite prolific popular novelist, Mordaunt doesn’t have an entry in the Dictionary of National Biography, though she is in the Orlando database of Women’s Writing (alas we are not subscribers to that). We read four of her novels and the autobiography in the reading group, and I have four reviews to come. Mordaunt certainly had an interesting life and some of our readers are quite intrigued by her.

Review by Chris Hopkins:

This is an autobiography covering the Elinor Mordaunt’s life from birth in 1872 till early old age in 1936. In the Trobriand Islands the word Sinabada means King or Queen – hence the somewhat obscure title of this autobiography.

Elinor Mordaunt (originally a pen name which she then took as her legal name) was born into a large but impoverished gentry family, whose situation worsened after her father had a stroke at an early age. She was always expected to marry as the only viable financial future, though she was also openly remarked upon by family members as probably unlikely to find a husband. In fact, she married a sugar planter named Wiehe, while visiting Mauritius with her cousins.

The marriage was not a success: Elinor was isolated and quickly became ill with malaria (she was plagued by a variety of serious illnesses for the remainder of her life). The two agreed to part after two and a half years, when Elinor was advised to return to England for the sake of her health. She did, however, have a son from the marriage and lived for the majority of her life as an independent working parent, often under great difficulties.

Her first published work was written to stave off loneliness in Mauritius, and consisted of (fictional) letters about gardening. Called The Garden of Contentment and published by Heinemann in 1902, Mordaunt says that it sold steadily for thirty-six years (pp .69-70). The remainder of the narrative is occupied mainly with travel, and with many novels and travel narratives arising from this. There is, however, relatively little detail about her writing itself, though many titles of her works are given and there is a considerable focus on the author’s business and personal dealings with major publishers.

At one point in the autobiography, Mordaunt writes: ‘This book refuses to retain any sort of form’ (p.321). I thought there was considerable truth in this – there is little real sense of the kind of perspective on the life looked back at which the genre usually offers. In particular, the focus is not that of most writers’ autobiographies: their development or evolution as a writer. Rather Mordaunt presents her life as in many ways accidental rather than driven by plan, personal passion or destiny. So, the narrative is rather random seeming; nevertheless, it held my attention, full as it is, of curious and varied period incidents, mainly to do with those arising from her struggles to earn money to support her son when he is a child, from her interactions with publishers, and her travels as an independent woman in Australia, the Balkans, Indonesia North Africa, Kenya and Polynesia.

4 thoughts on “Sinabada by Elinor Mordaunt (1937)

  1. It’s so intriguing to hear about all these lost woman writers, and I wonder if it is the fact that they were woman that means they were taken less seriously and so their lives and work were not recorded in the same way that men’s work was. It certainly sounds like Mordaunt had an interesting life!

  2. Here’s an author I’d certainly never heard of before! I’m so glad you’re rescuing these writers from obscurity. I like the sound of The Garden of Contentment and will look out for it.

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