In Re-Covered, Lucy Scholes exhumes the out-of-print and forgotten books that shouldn’t be.
I first came across the poet and short story writer Frances Bellerby’s fiction when I was working on my Ph.D. My subject was sibling relationships in mid-twentieth-century British literature, and some dusty avenue of research led me to Bellerby—a name I had not come across before and haven’t since, bar this article on the treasure trove that is the Neglected Books website—quite a few of whose short stories feature brother-and-sister pairs. Ultimately, I didn’t reference her work in my finished thesis, but neither did I forget some of the haunting images therein. Two children in the gloaming, the descending darkness bringing with it a premonition of war. The strange out-of-body experience of a child—a reaction to witnessing a horrible accident—that momentarily renders her unable to identify the scratched and bloody hand in front of her as her own, caught on blackberry brambles. Or simply the tableau of a cozy drawing room on a winter’s evening, seen through the eyes of a child for whom it’s usually out of bounds, a fire roaring in the grate, the heavy curtains drawn against the cold night outside, and a striking blue vase filled with brilliant bronze chrysanthemums.
Returning to Bellerby’s stories this year, I was relieved to discover that they’re every bit as remarkable as I’d remembered. All the more so, in fact, when I learned how the death of her beloved brother, Jack—killed, age eighteen, in World War I—influenced much of what she wrote. Sadly, Jack’s death was only the first in a series of tragedies that blighted a life marked by considerably more pain and suffering—both physical and psychological—than anyone should be expected to bear, let alone spin into accomplished, poignant writing. As fellow poet Charles Causley wrote on the occasion of Bellerby’s death, in 1975, she was “a true original.”
Bellerby was born in Bristol in 1899. Her childhood was dominated by the socialist mission work of her father, the Reverend F. Talbot Parker. He, his wife, and their two children lived among the city’s very poorest residents, where the Reverend felt his work was most needed. It was a spartan, isolated existence marked by self-sacrifice, the psychological effects of which reached far beyond Bellerby’s youth. She married John Rotherford Bellerby, an economist-turned-activist, in 1929, though the couple separated after a decade or so. From then on, Bellerby lived alone—initially at Plash Mill, a thatched cottage on the edge of Bodmin Moor in Cornwall that inspired much of her poetry, imbuing her work with that “powerful sense of place” Causley so admired. Following serious illness—she was diagnosed with cancer in both breasts, treated with a grueling thrice-weekly course of radiation only to be told it had been unsuccessful and she had only months left to live, before being saved by a double mastectomy—she relocated to Devon in the early fifties, where she lived until her death. Bellerby had no children, though whether from choice or circumstance, it’s unclear. Her unpublished notebooks hint that she suffered gynecological complications as a consequence of a freak accident in June 1930 that, in her own words, “ruined my adult life”: a back injury sustained from an awkward fall that left her crippled. From this point on, pain was her ever-present companion. Add to this, if you can imagine it, the mental anguish caused by first her brother’s death and, later, in 1932, her mother’s suicide, after which Bellerby wrote, “I suffered and broke and died with her.”
Bellerby’s first published work appeared in the Bristol Times and Mirror in the early twenties. In 1927, she took a staff job as the drama critic in the paper’s London office, though her tenure there was short-lived. She published Shadowy Bricks, an educational tract written in the guise of a novel set in a fictional rural progressive school, in 1932. Not long before, Bellerby’s husband had founded The Neighbours, a small volunteer organization for general social welfare—“one of the many idealistic though highly theoretical attempts at that time by middle-class intellectuals to awake a social conscience at the plight of the poor,” explains Bellerby’s editor Robert Gittings in his introduction to the 1986 Enitharmon Press edition of her Selected Poems—and he harnessed her literary talents in service of spreading the word about their cause. Of Shadowy Bricks, the TLS’s critic noted that if it hadn’t been for the Bishop of Liverpool’s enlightening introduction, “we might have read on some considerable way before realizing that we were being instructed.”
Although her first collection of short stories, Come to an End, was published in 1939, it wasn’t until she’d separated from her husband that Bellerby began producing her best work. According to Gittings, she “never considered herself a novelist”; nevertheless, it was the favorable reviews and sales of Hath the Rain a Father? (1946)—a novel that draws heavily on her childhood, in particular her relationship with her father—that encouraged her to publish her first collection of verse, Plash Mill (1947).
Bellerby remains best known—if remembered at all—for her poetry, of which she published three further volumes, as well as two more short story collections: The Acorn and the Cup (1948) and A Breathless Child (1952). Copies of these are relatively hard to find, so I had to content myself with reading the Enitharmon Press edition of Selected Stories (1986), chosen and edited by Jeremy Hooker. When one surveys the breadth of her career in this single volume, what stands out is the guile and grace with which she depicts a child’s-eye view of the world. “It has always seemed to me much stranger that we should forget than we should remember, early childhood,” Causley reports Bellerby once remarking. Not that these are stories of innocent childhood idylls. On the contrary, death is ever present, a curtain that’s about to fall, smashing the known world to smithereens in the process. She pinpoints the true terror of such moments so precisely, preserving, as if in aspic, that second in which everything changes and nothing is ever the same again. This, perhaps, is what helps her avoid any sentimentality; as another critic in the TLS praised, “she keeps a certain healthy core of hardness and objective observation in her writing.”
One of the most memorable and dazzling examples of this destruction is “The Cut Finger,” a story in which five-year-old Judith has her worldview rearranged twice over. The first instance deals in wonderment and joy; the second, devastation and despair. The story opens with Judith’s mother asking whether she’d enjoy a winter trip to the coast—Judith’s ailing father needs the sea air. The child replies in the affirmative, calm almost to the point of disinterest, but really, she’s “astounded and overwhelmed” by what’s more a revelation than an invitation:
It was too new to be accepted with equanimity, too far outside her experience actual or imaginative. It had never been realised by Judith that the seaside continued beyond the golden stretch of summer holidays. Yet now all in a moment she had to grasp that it was possible to go there when tangerines, tinsel and holly were still realities.
The second of these Damascene moments occurs once the family is ensconced in their new lodgings. Sent outside one afternoon to play alone in the garden, Judith accidentally cuts her finger. Tiptoeing into the still house, she spies her father resting on the sofa in the sitting room. “Poor Daddy,” she thinks innocently, as she climbs the stairs in search of her mother, “he must be tired for he wasn’t even reading.” But awaiting her aloft is a scene that destroys “the whole familiar world and scattered in ruthless confusion all her trusted values”: her mother, “face downwards, crying … ” This ellipsis marks a rending in the fabric of Judith’s world. She creeps away, back into the now twilit garden, skulking like a wounded animal, replaying the “appalling” scene: “This cherishing omnipotence writhing face-downwards on a bed, sobbing into the pillow—so that the whole world, yes, the whole established world, had been blown sky-high and come hurtling down in fragments anyhow, anywhere.” That these two opposing moments bookend the story provides a formal elegance that further elevates the power of the piece, but Bellerby often uses elusive but integral structural mechanisms to convey meaning in her stories. “Her verse demonstrates, to a remarkable degree, the closeness of the observer to the observed. With great subtlety, experience is seen to be freshly re-created, renewed, and transmitted unerringly to the reader,” wrote Causley—praise that also applies to her prose.
In both “Pre-War” and “The Carol,” for example, a carefully positioned em dash signifies a sudden dissolution of life itself. In the former, twelve-year-old Roger and his nine-year-old sister, Anne, climb up onto the roof of their house, where he affixes a flag-flying toy soldier to the stones, under which he carves their initials and the date: 1/1/11. “I’m going to leave something here that’ll stay for ever,” he tells Anne. “Years and years on other people will be living here, another vicar of this parish and his wife and their sons and daughters, and one of the sons, perhaps with a kid sister, will climb up here like we have, perhaps on some New Year’s Day, and then he’ll find—this!” The prospect of this unspecified future in which she and her brother play no part suddenly overwhelms Anne, and like the little girl blackberrying in “Poor Martha”—a scene from which I described at the beginning of this essay—she, too, endures a strange sense of physical dislocation. “Down there all was just as usual,” she thinks looking out around them, “but up here nothing was as usual, nothing at all—”
Meanwhile, in “The Carol,” a young man seemingly visiting his childhood home after some unspecified absence is suddenly confronted by his own death. As he mooches about his bedroom, whistling the same carol that’s been stuck in his head for years, his eye is caught by a snapshot in which he’s wearing a uniform: “Noticing written words at the foot of the photograph, he read: ‘Killed in Action at Givenchy, Aged 18, August 8th, 1915.’ This gave him a tremendous shock—” This revelation is immediately followed by a line break, the tumbling final sentence of the story suddenly switching to the point of view of his grieving mother:
So when his mother, hearing, as she often did, the softly whistled carol, ran upstairs and opened the door to look in, the room was, as usual, empty.
The date of the boy’s death matches that of Bellerby’s brother, Jack. Impatient to do his bit, Jack had enlisted at eighteen—though gave his age as twenty-two—and was blown to pieces only months later. Before he left for France, he apparently told his father that he knew he would be killed, but that it was a better fate than returning maimed. As Gittings explains, Bellerby “always regarded this death ‘which I saw through tears, as absolute perfection’ in the light of a triumphant fulfilment of his own wish.” Not that this offered her any comfort. Instead, she describes Jack’s death as having broken her and her parents’ lives apart, a view she reiterates in the story “Winter Evening,” in which a woman, thinking back long after the fact, declares that the war “splintered her brittle world.” With this knowledge in mind, the fear expressed by the sister in “Pre-War” becomes uncannily prophetic; the absence she visualizes is that of her brother’s impending death.
In Women’s Fiction and the Great War (1997), Nathalie Blondel argues that Bellerby spent the rest of her life replaying this grief in her fiction. “People live double lives” in Bellerby’s stories, Blondel explains: they exist in the land of the living while also “dwelling in memories of the dead.” Like Sabine Coelsch-Foisner—who, in her chapter on women’s writing in the first half of the twentieth-century in The British and Irish Short Story (2008), argues that “Bellerby’s stories typically convey a halt in the continuum of life and verge on the unspeakable”—Blondel highlights how Bellerby demonstrates this linguistically: “the estrangement of the bereaved from the world of the living is imaged through their estrangement from language itself.”
The impact of her brother’s death manifests most explicitly in these stories that make direct reference to the war, but grief filters into many of the other pieces, too: “Come to an End,” in which a father struggles to tell his son that the boy’s little sister has been killed in an accident, or “Such an Experienced House,” another unexpected ghost story, in which a musically gifted child creeps downstairs one night to find out who’s playing the piano so beautifully, only to be confronted with an apparition of herself at the keys. As Hooker makes clear, Bellerby’s stories are, “in many cases, fictional transformations and projections of the experiences which shaped her life.” He goes further, arguing that she’s “a haunting writer because she herself was haunted by what she had suffered and seen, and sought to understand,” something that also helps to explain her interest in phantasmagoria.
Bellerby is one of the six women short story writers that Coelsch-Foisner discusses, but she’s the only one whose work is out of print today. The rest—Virginia Woolf, Katherine Mansfield, Sylvia Townsend Warner, Jean Rhys, and Elizabeth Bowen—aren’t just discussed in academic volumes like that in which Coelsch-Foisner’s chapter appears, they’re some of the most famous white women writers of the first half of the twentieth century. Bellerby, meanwhile, is all but unknown. She didn’t publish prolifically like Woolf or Townsend Warner; nor did she move in the right literary circles, like Bowen; nor still, burn briefly but brightly, like Mansfield. In many ways, Rhys is her nearest counterpart. Not only did both women live in relative anonymity and isolation—and, even more of a coincidence, not that far from each other, first in Cornwall and then in Devon—the two were also unhappy and desperately lonely. “Desolate. Desolate. Desolate. Frightened, broken, alone,” reads a heartbreaking entry in one of Bellerby’s notebooks from the sixties, when circulatory trouble left her further incapacitated and in additional pain. The difference, of course, is that Rhys was plucked from obscurity and given the chance at a blazing second act: despite her ongoing battle with alcoholism, she published her best and most famous novel, Wide Sargasso Sea, in 1966, after a hefty twenty-seven-year silence. Bellerby, meanwhile, enjoyed no such late-in-life rejuvenation. As happens with many writers, she faded away, and so did her work. Yet her resilience—although not such a flashy story—deserves our acknowledgement and admiration. She continued to write and publish poetry until the bitter end. Gittings writes that a newly printed copy of Bellerby’s final volume, First-Known and Other Poems—which was dedicated to her long-dead mother—was put into its author’s hands only two days before she died.
Lucy Scholes is a critic who lives in London. She writes for the NYR Daily, the Financial Times, The New York Times Book Review, and Literary Hub, among other publications. Read earlier installments of Re-Covered.