Review: The Queen of Romance is full of the vim and personality of its subject
It’s as if a dead woman went looking for a biographer. Liz Jones knew next to nothing about Marguerite Jervis until she went on a minibus tour of Ceredigion led by John Harris, biographer of that enfant terrible of Welsh literature Caradoc Evans. They visited the grave he shared with his wife, herself an author who outsold her husband by many a mile. In pondering how a flambuoyant, mega-successful woman such as Marguerite could be so easily forgotten Jones embarked upon the taxing but rewarding process of researching this lively and revealing biography.
It wasn’t an easy task detailing this supercharged life story with its childhood in colonial India – where once the young Marguerite had found a cobra coiled under her nursery pillow. Then there was the school for ‘Educated Gentlewomen’ which would have made Dickens’ Dotheboys Hall seem like a health spa, where the staple diet was bread and lard.
Marguerite’s ambitions of learning to act were thwarted by her parents but an unlikely saviour appeared in the form of Sir Thomas Lipton, the tea magnate, who paid for her fees at the Academy of the Dramatic Arts. There were colourful experiences as a dancer in the chorus line, not to mention a string of (often unsuitable) lovers, all adding up to a life which reminded Jones of an old Japanese box she would play with as a child, with hidden drawers and puzzles leading to more puzzles. And the writing: there was always the writing.
Jervis, who also wrote as Marguerite Barclay, as Oliver Sandys and the lavishly upscale Countess Hélène Barcynska was a natural spinner of tales and a superlative self-publicist who turned much of her life into the stuff of fiction, energetically blurring the distinctions between the two. And what a life it was. Jervis seemingly had not one but three careers, including appearing in Hollywood films, walking proudly as a New Woman and journalist in the headiest days of Fleet Street and owning her own theatres. But this veritable human dynamo still found the time to write no fewer than 149 books, many of them mega bestsellers and eleven of which were adapted as films. Just one of them, The Honey Pot sold 100,000 copies in a single year. But money slithered through her fingers just like sand as Marguerite had expensive tastes for furs, jewellry and cars, even though she herself couldn’t drive.
If there is one out-and-out villain in the colourful, sometimes pantomime-paced life it’s Marguerite’s first husband Armiger Barclay, a domineering twister of a man who got her to write and publish books under his name. It’s hard to read about this parasitic man without one’s blood boiling over, not least when one reads about his turning her into a sort of sex worker or about his legal scheming to keep on leaching money from her book royalties.
Her second husband wasn’t much better, a man who wore a scowl and a fedora hat. Caradoc Evans wasn’t exactly a handsome lover out of central casting but it was a case of love at first sight, when the two met at the offices of T.P.Weekly, where Evans was the assistant editor. As she put it, ‘As soon as I saw his shrewd, penetrating, deep-set eyes, I knew this was my hour and my man, whatever was to come afterwards.’
What came afterwards involved a move to Wales, where Marguerite attempted a reconciliation between the country and one of its most hated figures, as Caradoc’s short stories about chapel going Ceredigion life had exploded like hand grenades. She also realised a long held dream and opened her own theatre in Aberystwyth, complete with a travelling troupe of actors, Rogues and Vagabonds, which also took shows out into the countryside.
Initially this was a success, finding space on stage for Marguerite’s troublesome son Nicholas and attracting long queues to stand outside the Forum Cinema, waiting to see the latest play by Noel Coward, or her own work. Spurred on by early success she converted a disused garage near the Queen’s Hotel into The Quarry Theatre and put on shows such as her own Hell Freezes as well as work by J.B.Priestley, Ivor Novello and Emlyn Williams. She even re-presented Caradoc’s play Taffy which had made the news when protestors stormed the stage in the middle of one of its London performances.
But the theatre eventually became a financial burden, as did a later attempt at running a theatre in Kent. Life with Caradoc was not easy, his black moods and sullen drinking made for a fiery relationship as their neighbours in New Cross attested. He was also cruel in other ways and yet their years in Brynawelon were among the most productive of Marguerite’s career. She wrote seventeen books in the four years they lived there and also wrote an autobiography which sold like hot Welsh cakes.
After Caradoc’s death some further adventures remained. There was a late flowering romance with Captain Gordon Hewitt, a married man. Their love-retreat above the Dyfi estuary became famous after the discovery of a miraculous stone, dubbed the ‘Miracle Stone’ attracted attention and, as a consequence, a string of pilgrim-like visitors. But Gordon had his own secrets and their relationship ended very abruptly.
Marguerite kept on writing, of course, despite the new competition of Mills and Boon and the appearance of writers such as Barbara Cartland as she continued to listen to what she described as the ‘Whispering Voice’ that she had first heard as a child, following an attack of malaria and which had continued to tell her stories for the rest of her days. She finished her last book just before taking to her death bed as the whispering finally dissipated.
Her name is not inscribed on the grave she shares with Caradoc Evans, so this book becomes, in a way, her epitaph. Liz Jones has unshackled her from her controversial husband and presented her as very much her own woman, blessed with titanic amounts of energy, a flamboyance which made her stand out in London let alone the countryside of Wales and a boundless gift for storytelling and self-promotion. The Queen of Romance is very well researched and jauntily written, full of the vim and personality of its subject. When you close its pages you can see Marguerite smile.
The Queen of Romance is published by Honno and can be purchased here.