Rose Petals, Drops of Blood:
The Life of Marjorie Bowen, Mistress of the Macabre
by Jessica Amanda Salmonson
Rebecca West, upon reading Marjorie Bowen's brutally honest 1939 autobiography The Debate Continues, wrote her a beautifully candid letter from Old Possingworth Manor in Sussex that I must quote entirely, as it shows the impact Margaret's self-exploration had on many readers, including fellow authors. As something of a footnote, the short story "Love" which West particularly admired is an ironic criminous romance. It can be found in Curious Happenings (1917) & in Fond Fancy & other stories (1928). Here is her unpublished letter:
I have always admired your work so greatly I think "Love" one of the best stories ever written that I ordered your autobiography with a great deal of excited interest. I didn't expect to be so much moved. I don't mean only that it is wonderful for you to have developed your art in such adverse circumstances. I mean also that you have had the courage to admit that you have been unhappy and have been the victim of continuous misfortune. The world is more hostile to such admissions than to any confession of guilt. You have to pretend that you've never been unlucky and that people have not been cruel, for no other reason than that the world is too ungenerous to like feeling pity.
I confess with shame that I thought you must lead a sheltered life because you were able to get on with your work. I realize it was simply that you had more "character" than I had. I must explain that my early life was something like yours my father did not drink but was a gambler and wanderer, my mother was a better manager than yours but was intensely neurotic, and my home was as unendingly restless and torturing to the nerves as yours. I had thrown in a rich aunt who was a monster of evil (a morphine maniac, it was afterward found out) and poisoned everybody's life with horrible suggestions. When at nineteen I realised I would go mad if I didn't get away I went straight out of the frying-pan into the fire, for I was betrayed into a position which was absolutely alien for me by the wickedness of an older woman. Thereafter I had a ghastly life which went on for years. I sympathised so much with your financial difficulties when, in my twenties, I was making over a thousand a year, I had not money enough left over to buy a decent dress, and I never had a holiday till I was over thirty. But the worst of it was that one didn't dare tell anybody or complain, for if one did one was met by such an appalling lack of sympathy. I wonder if you ever read Colette's story of her early life it has something of the same atmosphere.
I thought the writing of the chapters about the Villa where your husband died a marvellous feat of evocation. It is difficult to describe happiness, but you have given it real placid ecstasy.
I hope you don't think this an intrusive letter. I was really so moved by your book that I could not help writing some of the things that it brought to mind. By the way, it is odd that I have always felt that your name could not really be Marjorie, and that you could not even have adopted it by your own free will.
With all my good wishes and gratitude.
I am, yours sincerely, Cicily Andrews (Rebecca West).
I also had a Nana! Scotch and a sentimental humbug. I had to send her to New Zealand to get rid of her.
West was not unique in her bounding empathy. Bowen's autobiography laid bare the underpinnings of much that is most original & excellent in her novels & short stories.
Though her childhood & early teen years are reported in first-person as in most autobiographies, she nevertheless resorts to third person for the bulk of the rest of her chronicle! It is as though she were writing about a stranger whose life she has researched in detail, but for whom she has no immediate attachment. This distancing & flatness of narrative has its own power of gloominess a report sent to us from some nether-region of deadened pain. Simultaneously, she invites us always to regard her as no less weak & quite as capable of folly as anyone around her, except in the case of an idealized companionship with an elderly physician which she seems never to have confronted for what it was, a fundamentally manic episode of emotional (if not physical; that may never be known) infidelity. Never is she vindictive in her record of the poverty & stupidity that so often surrounded her; hers is an expression of clear-sightedness of a sort seldom committed to print. The Debate Continues strikes me ultimately as a record of chronic depression & an unenviable if heroic sense of Duty, this from a woman aware of an unfulfilled capacity for more than evanescent gaiety.
Born Gabrielle Margaret Vere Campbell, 1 November 1885, in the hour following All Souls Day, on Hayling Island, Hampshire, her troubled childhood included a schedule of punishments for minor, contrived, or imagined sins of which even the brightest child could make small sense. She was frequently told she should never have been born. She was often informed that she was too tall, too plain, & too gawky, & should expect to live out her life as an old maid. Her younger sister was better treated, praised for her beauty & charm. But it was hardly a rewarding life for either child &, of the two girls, Margaret proved to be, in the long run, the sole survivor.
An education clumsily orchestrated by her astute though unstable mother was supplemented by voracious reading & self-education, her Nana's fairy tales, transient & usually inept tutors, & occasional art or theater instructors whose own lives were marked by frustration & who were constitutionally incapable of perceiving any mere child as promising. She managed somehow to make herself expert in certain adored historical epochs that were to inform her pen throughout her writing life. She even taught herself rudimentary Latin.
Little Margaret was an introspective child for survival's sake. Her mother, Josephine Elisabeth Ellis (Bowen) Campbell, made it known that she considered her daughter very dull. Her father, Vere Douglas Campbell, initially the more loving parent, was severely alcoholic & soon abandoned the family, or was tossed out by his termagant wife. Despite efforts of his brother to assist him through endless crises, he died of drunkenness & self-neglect. Shortly after publication of his daughter's first novel, his body was found on a London street with the address of his estranged wife & daughters in his pocket. By then, to Margaret, he had seemed long dead already, & she scarcely grieved, though the tragedy provided her mother refreshed opportunity for extravagant expression of life's continuing sorrow & unfairness to herself & self alone.
She, her mother, her younger sister, & their faithful if incompetent housekeeper Nana, lived in abysmal poverty in a series of poor lodgings. There was rarely more than potatoes for the children to eat; some days passed with just a slice of bread for sisters to share, although their mother managed always to afford cigarettes. One of Margaret's fondest memories during these horrible times was of a landlady giving her a cucumber sandwich, an unfathomable delight in an existence empty of expectation.
Margaret's mother could charm the very devil & had many friends from the stage. By her same charismatic abilities, she orchestrated continuous discord. This woman's family had disowned her because of her bohemian choices. She regarded herself a genius, & there were sundry companions of little consequence eager to agree. She became an increasingly embittered would-be playwright whose closest thing to success was the composition of serials for minor women's magazines & the occasional short story, none reprinted in books. When it came about that Elisabeth Campbell's elder daughter proved something of a prodigy, Margaret made the conscious decision not to attempt plays, lest she spark jealousy by achievement at something her mother had pursued ardently & without success.
The plethora of thrilling femme fatales in Margaret's stories must, in part, reflect her darkest personal emotions & passing fantasies of redress against mother & sister, as suggested by the weird tale of embattled sisters in "The Last Bouquet." But more than this, the sensuality & appeal of Margaret's femme fatales, as in so many of her mystery novels i.e., The Moss Rose (1935) which has both a corrupted heroine & a maniacal mother; & such weird stories as "Madame Spitfire" in The Last Bouquet: Some Twilight Tales (1933) & Julia Roseingrave (1933), sharing the traits of twisted intellectuality & blithe self-justification draw upon the character of her mother, & upon her own mingled emotions of love, fear, anger, & sorrow for the prototype of her stories' most dangerous women. By contrast, those stories of abjectly victimized women as in "The Avenging of Ann Leete," included in the Arkham House selection Kecksies (1976), "The Orford Mystery" in Old Patch's Medley (1928), "The Lady Clodagh" in The Last Bouquet were fostered by her hard-won sense of the world's wild injustices.
Her mother's circle of stage friends would lounge with her, drinking & smoking until all hours. After one particularly lamentable period living in a basement, they moved in with a young actress, & the actress's boyish companion a baroness who hid her hair under a pork-pie cap, smoked cigars, & wore men's clothes. Her mother's lesbian friends would someday find their way into Margaret's compositions, as for example in "The Queer Story of Charlotte Clarke" about a cross-gendered actress, included in Old Patch's Medley. From this world Nana & the two children were excluded, & Margaret longed for the attention of her distant, self-indulgent & self-absorbed, yet greatly beloved mother.
Still in her teens, while at Slade Art School in London, Margaret began her first novel, completed in Paris a year or two later. This tale of sinister swashbuckling adventure was the emotive historical fantasia The Viper of Milan. It was not quickly published, being rejected by eleven publishers because, as Margaret was informed, it was the sort of thing girls should never write. Some of these rejections included assurances that she showed promise, & advocated domestic love stories or children's books as more appropriate to her sex. When her Viper obtained publication in 1906, the publisher intended to pay her nothing while promoting the book (effectively it turned out) as a work of a singular precocity. This is perhaps why, even at so young an age as twenty or twenty-one, she embraced the often reprinted lie that she was born in 1888 rather than 1885, a small fudging of the truth since she was a teenager when the book was written, & her publisher would have her remain so a while longer.
The public loved the idea of a serious, severe, teenaged writer. Newspapers & magazines harassed the shy young author for interviews. The first photograph of her since infancy was arranged by the press (that very portrait is reprinted in my edition of her short stories; & if her sister was really prettier, it must have been a stunningly good looking family for all the disruptions). Margaret was too shy to appreciate the attention, nor did she relish risking her mother's jealousy. It was a biting sting for the failed playwright to be told again & again of her child's cleverness. Despite opportunities of social life among authors & publishers, Margaret held herself forever apart, struggling for quietude in that House of Commotions, in order to write additional novels which were soon to become the family's only revenues.
Margaret's authorly income was banked in her mother's name. A sort of pretense rose up, that it really was her mother's money. It was insufficient to keep a family of four (including Nana), & was badly handled besides. Her mother at once retired from all pretense of attempting personally to support her children, & proceeded to spend her daughter's earnings with neither care nor qualm. They obtained finer lodging which was soon cluttered with useless trinkets. Theater chums depended on loans, sometimes substantial ones, never to be repaid. Margaret's sister demanded a private art studio (wherein she accomplished nothing) because she was afraid to use the rooms of their suburban house which, everyone believed, were haunted. Nana, after years of faithful ineptitude, finally received a weekly stipend. Margaret asked & received nothing but time & space to write, & write, & write. Research & composition became the whole of her existence. It kept her from participating in the ongoing spats & ridiculously unnecessary crises of the house. It was essential that she remain centered & calm in order to write, or their house of follies would implode. This hard-earned capacity for personal calmness won her further disapprobation for coldness toward her mother's needs & concerns.
She seemed not to mind terribly that the world reposed on her slim shoulders, though she wished that someone might once in a while express gratitude rather than envy & hostility. She knew she could have arranged their finances better if she took the funds into her own hands. Despite a reliable influx of funds, they were not better off under her mother's reckless management. Certainly no one had become happier. But Margaret dared not broach the subject for terror of her mother. The house was in physical chaos as well, but that was Nana's province, & Margaret was afraid of the old woman's witch-like countenance whenever she was riled. Her one recourse was to write more madly than before, to try to catch up with finances, vicious though that circle became.
She made an attempt at liberty, returning to Paris to live in an apartment of her own, exploring the Left Bank for inspiration, & still sending the majority of her income home to mother. But her mother followed after, clinging more to control of the income than to the daughter. With guilt as a weapon, Elisabeth raged & wept until she won the day & brought her daughter back into the disruptive fold.
When a handsome young Sicilian began to court her, this was cause of jealousy too, as well as fear of losing the golden goose. Through her mother's machinations, the marriage was delayed & delayed, but in 1912 Margaret finally became Mrs. Zefferino Emilio Costanza. It was not for love she married, but for the chance of freedom, to pursue her dream of a domestic situation over which she had sufficient control to achieve peace & order. Eventually she & Zefferino went to Italy in pursuit of his occupation. He was an employee in an engineering & mining company, poorly paid but (he deluded himself) with prospects, & it did not take much to live comfortably in Italy. She loved Tuscany best of all. But Sicily, when emergency made it necessary to be near his family, was oppressive.
A persistent theme in her autobiography is that she did not love Zefferino. Respected & appreciated him at times, admired his good looks, treasured to some extent his devotion to her...but of deep romantic love there was none, not even at the start when he tenderly wooed her. He had a taste for cars & especially for motorcycles, at the time a novelty in Italy, & this troubled her since luxuries were not within their means. It did mean they were occasionally able to travel about Italy, Margaret in a motorcycle sidecar, though once they were wrecked & Margaret was some while recovering from her injuries. Business kept her husband away for weeks at a time in Florence. She never suggests he had affairs but it would certainly have been an easy option for him, & perhaps de rigour for a Sicilian; & his rank jealousy of Margaret proves he thought fidelity an unlikely enterprise.
Zefferino, not unlike Margaret's mother, was prone to rages, so that she despaired of ever experiencing a peaceable home-life. It was perhaps normal of Sicilians, but in Tuscany his explosive temper alarmed witnesses. Wild outbursts were followed by tearful suits for forgiveness.
Margaret continued throughout this time to publish a considerable amount. They were living, however, in the beginning of their marriage, chiefly on her husband's income. Her advances & royalties continued toward the support of her mother, sister, & Nana, though this endless assistance was sent from safer distances than formerly. On one trip to England, after long absence, she saw everything with fresh insight. She finally understood how demented their lives had been. Nana's slovenliness had worsened, her mother's lazy self-absorption had become a mania, her sister's selfishness & inertia were unabating, & their utter reliance on Margaret was as unchecked & unappreciated as ever.
She longed to be appreciated & thanked; she dared hope her adherence to an old-fashioned code of duty toward them would win the love of mother & sister. She suffered because nothing she attempted in their behalf induced anything but the furtherance of their unhappiness & cumulative failure. Beggars do not love the hand of charity. Her mother & sister felt her good fortune had been mere chance disassociated from talent or merit. In time her unsated yearning for her mother's love abated, having turned by degrees to pity such as seeks no requital.
Zefferino was often sick. He had a slowly, steadily murderous strain of tuberculosis which physicians hoped was chronic bronchitis that warmth & fresh air could fix. There were times he seemed almost well, but these moments decreased in frequency. He eventually lost his position. He & Margaret had thereafter nothing to live on but her earnings. These were insufficient when the lion's share must still be sent toward the support of her mother & sister. Somehow she managed everything; there was no one else to even try.
Finding his prospects evaporated, reliant on a wife's income, Zefferino's self worth was sorely battered. Margaret feared he was beginning to hate her. The more her life changed, the more it failed to change.
Forced to his native Sicily during the early months of World War I, she was not receiving much from her publishers given the political climate, & could never be certain new writings would reach English destinations. For a while she could write nothing at all, for there was no money for paper & ink. Her misery in the acutely male culture of Sicily was piercing. No one knew she was the breadwinner; her in-laws had no concept of permitting her peace & privacy to write. Relatives were allowed to believe Zefferino had made some sort of fortune in England. They were more than a little angry with him for not sharing his supposed wealth. In such a masculine culture it would be grotesque for the truth to be known, had they capacity to know it.
The whole of these women's housebound, circumscribed lives was founded on ghosts of possibilities Margaret could barely grasp. They would invade her apartment at random, as though it were their own living room, then chatter among themselves, benignantly ignoring her alien presence. Even Zefferino became barbarous in this environment, withdrawing into the shadowiness of the men's society.
Ignoring her concerns, Zefferino entrusted her during illness & pregnancy to superstitious women who disapproved of physicians. When the time came, a decrepit wisewoman served as midwife, a hag devoid of hygienic principle. Her expertise included a fatalistic acceptance that mothers &/or newborns do not always survive. Paramount in her body of vaunted wisdom was a conviction that should a mother touch her face during parturition, this would cause disfiguring birthmarks to appear on the newborn's face, arranged like the mother's fingertips. When Margaret amidst birth pangs committed the ghastly crime of pressing palms to face, she was held down & bound limbs to bedposts. Her pleas were disregarded in deference to the old witch's commands. Margaret gave birth thus spraddle-arm & -leg, caught in nightmarish horror attended by careless foes. They nearly killed her & she did not soon recover.
Zefferino with clumsy loyalty wished to ease her unhappiness. He agreed to go with her to England as soon as passage could be arranged. This was not easy, for Germany & England were at war, with Italy's position undecided. After a few weeks of preparation, chance arose, & they made it to England, her husband in the meantime having contrived a plan to establish himself as a poultry farmer. She had not the heart to be truthful about this idiotic gambit, so permitted their finances to be drained for the sake of a Kent farmhouse overlooking the sea.
He strove relentlessly to succeed, daily rising early, in all inclement weather, preparing chicken mash for his flock. His desire to be a good husband & good provider, for all his limitations of temperament & ability, was pathetical & poignant. The chilly, windy outcropping on which the farm was situated hastened the deterioration of his health. They could never have guessed how cold it would be even in Spring. His persistent cough was their world's primary song. And in that gloomy Kent home, their daughter, five months of age, somehow contracted meningitis & plunged swiftly from rosy good health into the depths of a grave. Margaret discovered that a life of depression & gloom was nothing compared to grief for the loss of a child; & her tale of a ghost-baby in "The Blue Glove" in The Pleasant Husband & other stories (1921) projects a self-portrait for what she knew would be a lifelong sorrow. Zefferino grieved most awfully as well. Amidst his gale of mournful tears he conceived an irrational plan to exhaust every possible resource for the sake of a stained glass window commissioned for a church, to stand as a lasting memorial to their daughter. When it dawned on him that this deranged scheme was unobtainable, he caved in to his illness, & the unhappy couple abandoned the farm.
If a wicked black comedy were contrived in which ill fortune & tragedy were heaped higher & higher, then wracking illness, aspirations proven ridiculous, & a dead baby for good measure might well come into the mix. Margaret's trials outpaced even absurdist imagination. As fast as the Mirthless Cosmic Jester poured misery into her, she made ink of bile to fill pages with dark visions, calamitous adventure, & cynical romances tales populated by innocents & villains alike ill-fated delightsome unpleasantries to mesmerize her faithful public.
Zefferino left for the heated climate of his own country, still hoping his lungs might repair. Margaret struggled on in England, alone or with Nana as companion. She had the good sense not to live with mother & sister, whose unrepentant jealousies extended to a vulgar satisfaction that her only child had died. Wartime payments for new writings had decreased, but at least her books were wanted, & she was able to support everyone, if barely. And she was, she discovered, pregnant with a second child. This sparked a considerable hope.
War still raged when news came of Zefferino's further decline. His relatives in Sicily, fearing him contagious, refused to care for him. He went to Tuscany & over-extended his wife's income to rent a costly, out-of-the-way villa. This debilitated him completely, & he wrote pleading for her to come. Her infant was scant weeks old & she hated to leave England, let alone entrust her new son to Nana. How could she, who did not love her husband, behave with greater empathy & devotion than his blood relatives, who turned him out to die alone? As she had built duty into a high ideal, it would suffice. She rushed to him across Europe, at not inconsiderable risk. The ship that left port beside hers was torpedoed. On the trains were many suspicious that a lone woman must be an English spy pretending to have a sick husband at journey's end. A stick-thin dying man greeted her coldly. He had wanted to see his son, not her. How dare she leave the boy behind? He was never told, nor could ever quite believe, he was dying.
Wild rumors surrounded the strange couple in their isolated villa. Zefferino was an outright pariah, as though he were indeed the Plague. Margaret was outcast by association. Zefferino in pain & fear became tyrannical. She did everything to ease his days & nights as life slipped out in rasping coughs. Once-princely good looks grew steadily more cadaverous. Over a decade before her autobiographical account of these last horrific months with Zefferino, she had already fictionalized the events. Stinging Nettles (1923) depicts an Italian husband as a diseased wastrel whose wife selflessly nurses him into the grave, though having for him little honest affection. Earlier still, she composed a superb tale of unjust revenge, physical horror, & revulsion; "Giudetta's Wedding Night" from Shadows of Yesterday & one of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's favorite stories. It reflects an appalling sense of its protagonist as an enslaved Bride of Plague.
Toward the end of it, she undertook a dalliance with her husband's final physician, a father-figure nearly twice her age. Whether this dalliance was strictly of the heart, or had a physical component, is uncertain. Certainly her sons do not countenance the idea that it could have been more than emotional, but their opinion is protective & filial. In her fiction, at least, women in similar circumstance behave with extreme passion. But my libertine guesses can no more be proven than her childrens' conservative assumptions. What she confesses autobiographically is sufficiently surprising.This physician was a man of courageous stature, grey whiskered, grave, kind, intelligent. On their first meeting, he took her measure, saw her desperation, held her face in gentle hands, & kissed her forehead. He told her, "You cannot go on this way. You will die." For the first & only time in her life, Margaret's heart was completely won. Her unhappiness had stemmed less from enslavement to a bitter mother, then a dying husband, than from their unutterable lack of tribute for what a spectacularly good slave she was willing to make of herself; for, as she confessed in her essay included in Myself When Young, "I had early resolved that self-abnegation was very desirable." Now someone recognized her excellence, & she fancied the heroic doctor a vastly more pleasing master than any she had previously encountered.
In an autobiography that in general avoids all tricks of an author's trade, her treatment of the Physician relies utterly on fictional methods, perhaps, as I believe, because there was nothing very realistic about her confidence in him. His was a classic seduction. He admitted from the onset that he was too old for her, & laid a groundwork that would transform even his plan to disappoint into evidence of his personal gallantry. It usually dawns on women, months or years later, how stupidly duped we can be; but Margaret in her self-imposed emotional exile, naivete, & willingness to be abused, had only the experience of books, dreams, & sorrows. She believed in the loving God-like gentleman with a faith that only the most deprived pagan ever can sustain.
Though she candidly reports that this man was a lifelong expert at love, she never faces the simple fact of his tender roguery, even while describing it perfectly. He had probably convinced scores of women across his years, including many another "pending widow", that each had been his only true love, despite his footloose history. But now he was old, & Margaret was apt to be his last conquest. Last loves are frequently second only to first loves, so I can accept, at least, that affection was not one-sided, though there seems small likelihood it could have been as all-consuming for him as for her.
Confession of a history of carelessness makes such rogues all the dearer to dazzled maidens. Margaret persuaded herself that each was the other's greatest love, predestined, sacred. She had become desperate after months laying alongside Plague; for Zefferino could only be soothed when she lay embracing him at his most revolting while she displayed no revulsion. And this Plague that was her husband possessed an increasingly monstrous ego. He held a bell in one hand, a watch in the other, & sat in a window observing her in the garden below, timing her so as to permit no more than an agreed-upon fifteen minutes liberty before ringing the bell madly to call her back. Night or day she answered that bell; he deprived her of rest, so that she grew haggard. The grotesque thoroughness of her enslavement to the never-loved was in its eerie way heroic. But it left her emotionally vulnerable.
The physician, though still possessing soldierly bearing, was in the first stages of palsy & knew he would too soon be reduced to invalidism. He made it clear he would never stay with Margaret merely to be nursed into the grave, as Zefferino was then being nursed. But at the same time he constructed fantasies for her: If he had not been too old for her, if his health had not been at risk, they would find future happiness in his villa on Lake Cuomo, where she would bear many of his children, & he would support her from his sufficient wealth. Since she did not agree he was too old, & could not see that he was ill, she heard these fantasies as actual plans.
As he set up the rules, she must, on the one hand, never expect anything permanent; on the other hand, nothing was beyond the possible, dreams were permitted. It was, at most, a fine affair; only, she forever after regarded it as much more. As an interlude in a nearly lifelong depression, this liaison became inexpressibly glorious. The illusion he created for her was to remain with her always. In a way, it was no different than the illusions they both permitted Zefferino that the doctor was a genius who would cure him, that Margaret was a faithful & adoring wife but if her account is as honest as it seems, as honest as she could make it, she evidently never perceived this parallel.
She would carry with her to the grave this absurd belief in having once possessed a soul-mate. I admire this author so much that I wanted her, in her autobiography, to show perception even at this moment of bright blot. She might have said, "Some would call it stupid & immoral, but I needed this illusion; life is nothing without illusion." But she lacked sufficient insight for this one thing, & it made me wonder about other claims for herself the perfect child who won only abuse; the willing sacrifices that never earned gratitude for sometimes indeed the strangest demons are the quiet ones who wait & observe & are easily mistaken for angels, especially by themselves.
Yet I still believe in her abject goodness, however stifled her emotions or yet sinister the inward life that poured forth into sumptuous, frightening prose. It was just that she needed to believe in an ideal mate who belonged to her alone, to none other, a man who in every way measured up to an impractical ideal of masculinity as invented for so many of her historical tales. She preferred to write in historical settings because even villainy could be reshaped as something suave & wonderful, such as could never exist nearer to her in time. It is perhaps no coincidence that Death himself is called the Last Physician, & the Devil is in many places of Europe called Doctor. Had she & her grand physician lived together, he would have broken her heart, or else she would have written that she hadn't loved that one either. But as he remained behind, memories became fertilizer for an awesome personal myth.
I find myself able to pity the tyrannical Zefferino, who in his broken way adored this most adorable & self-effacing woman. A quiet demoness can be perceived in any way a sorcerer desires, & Zefferino desired her to be in love with him. To his final hour, he believed he might recover & be forever with the woman who forgave his rages & weaknesses & was intensely devoted to him. I pity, too, her second husband, Arthur, who was not permitted Zefferino's illusions. She met & married him even before the vaunted Physician died. The Physician was by then only an ongoing series of adoring letters sent from a sickbed in Italy, the last of them dictated because his hands shook too much to hold a pen.
Once again she was eager to marry without love she had learned nothing really. One wonders if she checked the mailbox on the way to the wedding ceremony, so that she might have something precious up her sleeve as she intoned an insincere "I do." Most grotesquely, when she planned (with the Physician) to have more children (with whomever else, Arthur as it turned out), they were to be in spirit the children of her psychic paramour, & they were to be raised to be as bold & perfect as was He.
When Zefferino died appallingly in 1916, Margaret returned to England & to her infant son, who did not remember her. She brought with her the specious plan to wed, in one year's time, the Physician awaiting her in Italy. But he soon wrote to inform her this could never be, they must never meet again, for he wanted her to remember him in the twilight of his prime, rather than as a sick old man. This news was not to change her marriage schedule, for within a year she became, instead, Mrs. Arthur L. Long.
Arthur was from the start informed, so always knew, that he was one more ingredient in her discouraging life. He was resigned to acceptance of her imaginary true love, with whom he could never hope to compete. The marriage "took," I think on the basis of her sense of duty. She continued as ever to be the chief breadwinner, for Arthur was, by his youngest son's admission, "idle & incompetent," & her situation in many ways resembled what she had previously experienced. Either she chose badly, because hastily, a man of doubtful character; or his own bitterness in not being loved drew from him an evil temper. Her weird tale "Decay" in Seeing Life! (1923), is a cynical commentary on the merits of marriage. Edward Wagenknecht discusses all the weird tales in that collection except "Decay" in his overview of Bowen's weird tales, in his essay "Marjorie Bowen" included in Seven Masters of Supernatural Fiction (1991). He even discusses such marginally weird entries as "Cabriolet" which merely hints of reincarnation & fate reenacted from one generation to the next; so his ignoring such a fine tale as "Decay" is puzzling. I suspect he overlooked it intentionally because he found the depth of cynicism too unsettling, or any conceivable commentary too personal. This story paints wedlock in its most "positive" light only to reveal an infernal stench lurking just beneath the surface. I regard this one of the best of her smaller stories. It's her most wholeheartedly critical statement about society's standard mores. It gives evidence of why she sought so often to imbed her brighter idealism in stories of historical eras, there being so little fineness in the here-and-now.
She seems never to have overcome a tendency "to judge myself as futile, of little importance on any count," as she put it in her Myself When Young article. Yet she had the great reward of children who truly & completely fulfilled her life's desire to be loved, appreciated, & recognized for who she was. She added, "To be secure, to be able to devote oneself to a happy home of children, to have a large family growing up about one, still seems to me an ideal existence & worth the sacrifice of everything else in the world."
With one of two children surviving from her first marriage & two more sons from the second, her responsibilities were never to abate. Leisure remained alien to her experience, but having the boys meant all her industry had purpose. Her own mother died with unhappiness unhealed depression is often inherited & Margaret's sister simply went away, after which Margaret supported her immediate household without hangers-on.
She had always to rush to the next money-making project & hoped Arthur would prove himself capable of catching any glaring problems before a manuscript was shipped off. As her youngest son reported in a personal correspondence, "She knew that sometimes her sentencing could be a little involved, a similar adjective used too often in close juxtaposition, & so on. This was supposed to be my father's job but he was quite useless. Thus a number of 'unclarities' could slip through."
If there is one intentional dishonesty in her self-assessments, it is in her autobiography's highly synoptic closing portion, in which she implies a blissful family life with Arthur. It would hardly have been charitable, let alone safe or wise, to have described honestly who she intended, come what may, to stick it out with for life. And until her death, she worked nonstop, with only enforced Christmas days entirely away from her work. To the end, she never lost her extraordinary ability, & her last, posthumous novel The Man with the Scales, emulating E. T. A. Hoffmann, is as richly imaginative & sinister & gorgeous as her first.
Copyright © 1997, 1998 by Jessica Amanda Salmonson. All rights reserved
The above essay is based on the censored portion of my monograph on Marjorie Bowen, originally entitled "Rose Petals, Drops of Blood: The Life & Supernatural Works of Marjorie Bowen," but which was published as "The Supernatural Works of Marjorie Bowen," an introduction to Twilight & Other Supernatural Romances. Her family did not wish anything so personal to be part of a collection of her tales, & I was asked to delete this material from my introduction, though I was welcome to find some other outlet for this information apart from the book. As I have done.
Apart from Margaret's autobiography, I have also drawn on her article written for an anthology of essays edited by the Countess of Oxford & Asquith, Myself When Young: A Book of Famous Women of Today (1938), plus biographical information that comes in dribbles from sundry thumbnail sketches of the author, her own vagrant essays, & the writings of her friend & correspondent, Professor Edward Wagenknecht, late of Boston University. That she never regretted revealing so much is suggested by the fact that, near the end of her life, she permitted an excerpt from the autobiography to be reprinted by Wagneknecht.
The present article can be regarded as supplemental to the main monograph attached to Twilight & Other Supernatural Romances. This hardcover, limited to 500 copies, is long out of print, but check the catalog link in the navigation bar below to see what's available.
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