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.
AUTHOR’S SHADOW FLITS PAST
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.
AUTHOR’S SHADOW AGAIN – OR IS IT?
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.
AUTHOR’S SHADOW COALESCES
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.
IN PURSUIT OF THE AUTHOR’S SHADOW
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.
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.
SLIGHTLY OFF-PISTE AUTHOR’S SHADOW
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?
BOOKS AND SPACES IN THE AUTHOR’S SHADOW
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.”
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.
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…