One of the manifestations of the social phenomenon known as “cultural cringe” is that anyone who wanders through this country, for any reason, tends to get categorised as “Australian”. When it comes to authors, this otherwise exasperating tendency has a positive consequence: it means it’s likely that their books will be available here.
And so it was that I was able to get my hands on a copy of Bellamy by Elinor Mordaunt, for the latest round of Reading Roulette.
With Ms Mordaunt, the grounds for the local adoption was less tenuous than was often the case. After the failure of her first marriage, to a planter living in Mauritius, Mordaunt arrived in Australia in the middle of 1902 and spent the following seven years living in Melbourne. She bore a child nine months after her arrival (not her husband’s, though the boy carried his name) and worked obsessively to support him, taking any job she could find in addition to writing a women’s fashion page for a magazine and publishing short stories and sketches, which were well-received and began to gain her a solid reputation. During this time, Mordaunt made a number of close friends who stood by her through her financial difficulties and bouts of serious ill-health; in her 1937 autobiography, Sinabada, Mordaunt spoke with gratitude about the support she received during those years, and in general recalled her time in the country with warmth. A number of her short stories draw upon her experiences and observations during her years in Melbourne; and although she did not take up novel-writing until after her departure in 1909, several of her early fiction efforts have passages set in Australia, while her 1913 novel, Lu Of The Ranges, is set in country Victoria.
Mordaunt’s 1911 publication, On The Wallaby Across Victoria, is a non-fiction work that describes her travels throughout the state. Travel-writing later became one of Mordaunt’s specialties: after leaving Australia, she journeyed through the Pacific Islands and South-East Asia and published extensively about her experiences. She also undertook an around-the-world expedition and recounted her adventures in the Daily Mail. She was in the Canary Islands when she met and married her second husband, but this marriage also failed. Afterwards Mordaunt returned to England, where she spent the remainder of her life.
Elinor Mordaunt was a woman of many identities—perhaps not surprisingly, given the vagaries of her life and when she lived it. She was born Evelyn May Clowes, but began writing her short stories as “Elenor Mordaunt”; while her non-fiction appeared as by “E. M. Clowes”. In 1915, she changed her legal name to Evelyn May Mordaunt; by which time she had begun to publish as “Elinor Mordaunt”. And she had one more pseudonym associated with an episode of legal and literary uproar…
Before the spin of the wheel that landed me on Bellamy, I had already read one work by Elinor Mordaunt—or at least by “A. Riposte”. When, in 1930, Somerset Maugham published Cakes And Ale, Mordaunt was one of many offended by what they perceived as cruel caricatures of Hugh Walpole and Thomas Hardy, the latter of whom had recently died (although, for what it’s worth, Maugham denied the Hardy portrait). A close friend of the second Mrs Hardy, Mordaunt was angry enough to retaliate. When a novel called Gin And Bitters appeared in 1931, published in America as by “A. Riposte”, no-one had the slightest difficulty in recognising the original of its dreadful central character—including Maugham himself, which is…interesting. His legal team immediately went into action, and succeeded in having the English edition of the novel suppressed in the face of threats of an action for libel. The novel, as a novel, is sufficiently entertaining, but its satirical intentions are its main point of interest. To modern eyes, perhaps the most surprising thing about Gin And Bitters is that never at any point does Mordaunt so much as hint at Maugham’s homosexuality; evidently she felt she had enough material to work with without wading into those dangerous waters.
In a way, Elinor Mordaunt had already had a dry run for Gin And Bitters in her 1914 novel, Bellamy, which likewise is a character study of a pretty awful individual; although Mordaunt is a lot more sympathetic towards her entirely fictional creation than she was towards the not-entirely-fictional “Leverson Hurle”…