Author’s Shadow

Twelfth Night mask I deliberately called this blog “Author Shadow” rather than “Author Discovered” because its subject is not new to me nor, even now, wholly understood.

Sometimes an author grabs you. You know nothing about them. You don’t know why. Yet they speak to you as if you know them – or they know you.

In some ways this author has been walking beside me, in the shadows as it were, nearly all my life. Yet, just occasionally over the years, lightning has flashed and for a tiny moment my mystery lady has been almost revealed.

So this is the first part of two stories, mine and hers.


When I was very small my parents had to go to stay on the other side of London. They left me with my grandmother, my great aunt and my father’s widowed sister.

If that sounds gothic, it was. I took lots of books with me and read hard.

I used to sleep in the normally unused Front Room, on an ancient couch. It terrified me. The staircase creaked. And I crossed the shadowy hall, with its black Jacobean chair and monstrous hall-stand that looked as if it was about to lurch in pursuit, at the run.

But when I ran out of my own books, my grandmother directed me to go look at stories in a pile of magazines she shared with cronies. Some of them were very old. Magazines, not cronies. Well, cronies, too, I suppose. Anyway, I learned to put things in date order from that exercise. Because some of them had serials.

One was a two-tone effort. Its line drawings were in black and pink, I recall. Possibly Woman’s Illustrated.

And one serial – about a girl who hid a wounded Highlander in her bedroom – had me spellbound. Except that was the only episode. Someone had held on to the successor issues. The story was by Paula Allardyce.


As soon as I was old enough for a library ticket, I looked for Paula Allardyce. But my local library didn’t have any. Inter-library loans for recreational fiction didn’t happen then, apparently. But I never forgot that exciting story. I banked her name for future reference.

I liked the children’s library – read my way through Biggles and Jennings and The Swish of the Curtain and its sequels.

But I pootled about in the adult section with my mother as well. Eventually – and I think I must have been eleven or so by then, my mother recommended Charity Blackstock. I didn’t absolutely fall in love with them. But, by golly, they stayed in the memory.

I realised that they were books I had to be feeling strong to read. You couldn’t count on the author to give you the solution you wanted. The one that really lodged in my memory was The Factor’s Wife. [The English Wife in the USA]

Our heroine falls in love with a brooding, solitary man who carries her off to his remote Scottish home. They are passionately in love and she is blissfully happy until she finds out what he does – for he is the Duke’s Factor and this is the time of the Highland Clearances. Mother read the book after me. We were both sobered.


Fast forward to 2009 and the fiftieth anniversary of the Romantic Novelists’ Association is the following year. I [have been] volunteered to help with preparations and am collecting copies of all the books that have won our main award over the years.  And, good heavens, the second Romantic Novel of the Year in 1961 was Witches’ Sabbath by Paula Allardyce.

AND, consulting the marvellous Fantastic Fiction website, I discover that Allardyce also wrote as – wah hey – Charity Blackstock.

But both were pen names. Really she was Ursula Torday.


Torday is an unusual name. I had recently much enjoyed Salmon Fishing in the Yemen by Paul Torday.  A gentle satire on bureaucracy, politics, and just exactly what civil servants will do to keep an important friendly nation happy. it won the 2007 Wodehouse Prize.

In the day job I had encountered exactly the sort of triple think that his innocent academic hero encounters. I had even been to the Yemen. I sat on my trepidation and emailed his agent.

Unknown to me, it was also being made into a movie as a romantic comedy, even as I approached him.

Paul Torday might well have felt there was a conspiracy to highjack his book for the cause of Romance. The publishers certainly re-covered the audiobook, somewhat misleadingly, to reflect the film. It starred Ewan McGregor (bewildered academic hero, excellent) and Emily Blunt (um – not in the original story at all). Great in the film, though.

Charmingly, Paul disclaimed any family relationship but passed my enquiry on to his cousin, Robert. Who turned out to be a total star and tremendously generous. Suddenly the author’s shadow stepped, if not into the spotlight, at least into vividly remembered life.


And this is where it gets really strange. Because there was never any blood tie between the two Torday families. Ursula was Robert’s godmother. But only because… well, I’ll let him tell it:

She entered our family life after reading the announcement of my sister’s birth in The Times. She immediately rang my parents, demanding to know who this new Miss Torday might be (at that point – 1953 – she was the only Miss Torday in the London phone book). A meeting was arranged and she quickly became a close family friend.

She was clearly the most superb godmother.  Even when Robert and his sister were children, she used to send them typewritten letters, addressing them as if they were adults – including the odd “damn” or “bloody”. Later, as a young teenager, he went to stay in her Blandford Street flat.

It was crammed with antiques from her mother’s side of the family, and the pervading smell was of Chanel No 5, Café Crème, cheroots and – she was also a superb cook – roast lamb and garlic. She had eclectic musical tastes and I remember evenings listening to Edith Piaf, Miles Davis, Dietrich, Django Reinhardt, Klesmer music and Mozart.

So then, definitely her own woman, sophisticated, cultured, wide interests, zest for life, open, opinionated, refreshingly free from the superiority of age. Indeed, a quirky aproach to prevailing social norms, maybe?


Robert Torday knew her pen-names and that she had won the Romantic Novel of the Year in the 60s. So I really hope that she enjoyed that. He didn’t mention the three novels she wrote under her own name before the War. Nor does the Fantastic Fiction site.

But there were three. Her first novel was published in 1935,  The Ballad Maker of Paris. Specialist bookseller Babylon Revisited says it is the story of a (possible) descendent of François Villon who agrees to take a young woman from Paris to Brittany to meet her fiancé and wagers 20 crowns that he won’t seduce her en route.

Ursula Torday was an only child. She’d had polio as a child and always had walking difficulties thereafter. She had read English at Oxford (Lady Margaret Hall) and Robert Torday said she was “madly clever”, which I can well believe. She must have been 23 when this first book was published.

Her third, The Mirror of the Sun, comes three years later. It is set in the Congo, where her father, distinguished explorer Emil Torday, had travelled extensively, heading missions for the British Museum and the Royal Geographic Society.

She has changed publisher to Nelson – whose cover, the Spectator reviewer dismisses as “vulgar” – but she gets a good solid 270 word review. It praises her characters whose emotions are “revealed with fulness and candour”.  The plot is a bit over-complicated, in the reviewer’s opinion but, he ends, “many of the episodes are masterly and promise brilliantly.”


And she stops. She is 26.

The Spectator Review was published on 21st October 1938.

The whole world had been holding its breath in anticipation of a declaration of war just three weeks before. The Munich crisis was September 28-29th 1938.


editing abandoned msHer next published book is After The Lady in 1954. By now she is writing as Paula Allardyce, as she will be when I find her romantic serial in that magazine.

In fact, over the next three years, she publishes 6 books. Have they been piling up in a drawer, waiting for a sympathetic editor? Or has her imagination been waiting for time or maybe the sheer energy to bring them to life?

From now on, she will be prolific. The flyleaf of her 1980 novel The Villains says she has written “over 50 novels”.  They are in a variety of genres. Georgian is a favourite but it is Georgian gothic and the menace that goes with the genre is more realistic than Monk Lewis ever managed. Some are contemporary. Some hop between part and present.

Some appear to be straightforward mysteries, as the excellent website Furrowed Middle Brow puts it. I say appear advisedly, for I have just read the first of them, Dewey Death, published in 1956. The Spectator (again) called it a “first-class first novel that gives a new twist to the old theme of corpse-in-the-library.”  But it is so much more than that. The chills are still running up my spine.

I will review it, I promise, and possibly another book or two of hers. Soon.  to be continued…

Sophie Weston Author


24 thoughts on “Author’s Shadow

  1. Elizabeth Bailey

    Well, that was fascinating. Love the detection story. Will the real Paula Allardyce stand up, please? You have got me intrigued now. Both that name and Charity Blackstock are familiar to me. Suspect I may have read one or two in the distant mists of time, likely also in magazines. But what fortune to find Robert and get the inside skinny. I can just see the woman described even from this little glimpse. Which shows how little description one really needs as reader to throw up an imagined picture.

    1. Sophie Post author

      Fascinating, isn’t it, Liz? And Robert is definitely a skilled writer, like his cousin.

  2. Sarah Mallory

    What a fascinating post, and a most extraordinary woman, thank you for bringing her story to a wider public, Sophie. I shall now go and hunt out some of her books.

    1. Sophie Post author

      I think you’ll agree with me, her books are completely unique. And I have only read a few so far. But, judging by the prices, you and I are not the only ones hunting them down, Sarah!

  3. Liz

    That is such a wonderful story. To be gripped by an author when you were so young, and to have finally tracked her down and to be still find her writing so compelling. Wonderful. Can’t wait to read the next episode!

    1. Sophie Post author

      It feels a bit magical, Liz. Not wholly comfortable. I shall start drafting the next episode straight away, since you’re so kind.

  4. Joanna

    I don’t know Paula Allardyce either, in any of her incarnations. A great story, Sophie. You’re definitely enticing me into the Allardyce world. Thank you.

    1. Sophie Post author

      You’ll find that she is not quite in the common way – as one of Heyer’s dowagers would have said. But more of that in the next instalment.

  5. Elizabeth Hawksley

    What a fascinating story! I have read a number of Paula Allardyce’s novels way back when and enjoyed them. I also enjoyed the film ‘Salmon Fishing on the Yemen’, too, though it was rather different from Paul Torday’s book.

    How did she hit on ‘Paula Allardyce’ as a pen name, I wonder.

    1. Sophie Post author

      How fascinating. We must certainly talk about her books sometime. Sara Craven was also a fan and even gave me a couple when she was weeding her bookshelf. I still haven’t identified that Highland one. But I have a clue now, I think. Will report back if I find it.

    1. Sophie Post author

      Yes, I think the will o’the wisp element would have intrigued her, too, Ros.

  6. Jan Jones

    Fascinating. Pretty sure I’ve read a couple of Paula Allerdyce, but it was a long time ago when I was reading everything on the library shelves. In view of the long gap during the war years, the change of name could have been personal – she didn’t want somebody to know she was still writing.

    1. Sophie Post author

      Good Heavens, Jan, I hadn’t thought of that. There’s a story and a half just in the idea…

  7. lesley2cats

    Fascinating – and what a woman. And, as Liz says, I can just see her from that description. I shall be on the hunt, too. But what really got to me (pardon the parlance) was your story about your grandmother and the magazines. When I was small, my paternal grandmother, who lived with us, died one Christmas. I was sent to stay with my maternal grandmother – and I hated it. In her dining room, used as the living room (front room for best only) she had a beautiful old Dog Kennel Welsh Dresser, and in the “kennel” she kept a whole pile of magazines, which she and her friends shared. I was allowed to read them, and in one there was a story called “24 hours in the life of a bride”. It began with said bride waking up in the dawn light and hearing the milkman and reflecting how everything was about to change. I’ve been trying to find it ever since. Not much chance now, I know, but it made such an impression on me.

    1. Sophie Post author

      Oh how I know that feeling. I remember reading a short story in one of my Great Aunt’s Woman’s Journals. (Altogether more upmarket than Woman’s Illustrated; shiny paper and a deb portrait in every edition.) It was about a man and a girl going to an island and making camp. I think they may have been on honeymoon. It slowly dawns on the reader that there is something wrong, that sex is a real problem from them. He’s careful because he knows there’s an issue but she is half terrified, half furious – you’re not sure what’s happened to her but, unlike him, she has issues that make her angry with the world. He quotes Lancelot – first from Tennyson and then somewhere else where Lancelot is “a shade less knightly”. Then thinks he’s made everything worse.

      Fantastic stuff. The intensity just burned off the page. But I have no idea who wrote it. Or what it was called. And I don’t even remember enough to try googling a quotation. V. frustrating.

      Sorry, I don’t recognise your “24 hours in the life of a bride”, either. Bet both of them have fed our imagination over the years, though.

      1. lesley2cats

        Golly – that sounds a bit avant guarde! If it happened to both of us, I suspect it must have happened to a lot of people. I wonder if they all turned into writers?

        1. Sophie Post author

          Well there is that concept of the palimpsest – that as you’re trying to remember something, you actually fill in the bits you can’t remember with your own creations. Hmmm. Worth thinking more about.

          1. lesley2cats

            Indeed it is. Have ordered a copy of Dewey Death – only available from US outlets, sadly. Perhaps British Library Classics should be doing their duty by her?

  8. Natalie Kleinman

    I can only add my comments to those that have come before. Absolutely fascinating, as is the thread which follows. My heartbeat is going pumpety-pump. Can’t wait for more!

  9. Gail Mallin

    I read several of Paula Allardyce’s novels in m’youth. In fact, I remember enjoying them so much that I have just ordered two of her Georgian stories from Amazon. They didn’t have the one I liked best, which was about a girl who had been jilted at the altar. Think it was called “Emily”. I didn’t know anything the author though. She sounds like an interesting woman and someone I would have liked to have met.

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