A Zeal Monachorum author who was 'Queen of Romance' - Margaret Pedler's 'big R' fictions and Devon

     Women Writing on the Devon Land

A-Z of Devon Women Writers and Places  

Z is Zeal Monachorum

A passage taken from The Splendid Folly, Pedler's first novel, published in 1917.

It is not just Devon's 'Queen of Crime' Agatha Christie whose prestigious textual contribution to the genre of crime left its distinctive mark on the literary achievements provided by women writers from the author's home county. Less well-known nowadays - and admittedly, some might judge, a less 'worthy' Devon writer than Christie - was 'Queen of Romance', Margaret Pedler, whose first novel The Splendid Folly, was published just over one hundred years ago, in 1917. The novel received fair reviews from newspapers at the time, including The Western Times, which reported that 'Mrs Pedler would herself make no high literary claims for The Splendid Folly. She set herself simply to write a readable, entertaining, love story with a touch of Devonshire setting and a topical thread running through its plot'. That reviewer's conclusion may be valid; I cannot say whether Margaret Pedler would have assessed her work in these terms, but in any case over the years, as (similarly, in terms of her prestigious literary output to Christie), Pedler produced more and more novels, her fans apparently raved about her them and she became increasingly popular. As I read through some of the many reviews picked up by her work, the contemporary public acclamation of Pedler (whose works came out regularly between 1917 and the 1940s) - became evident. 

Review of Pedler's first novel The Splendid Folly,
 in The Western Times, 28th March 1917

       And Pedler didn't have to wait long to achieve success, for soon after the publication of The Splendid Folly, a silent film adaptation of the book starring Manora Thew was produced by Arrigo Bocch. The film's treatment of the novel's plot, in which the repercussions caused by the jealousy of a girl (who's established a career as a famous singer) of her husband, whose royal connections she is initially unaware, unfolds against the dual backdrops of Devon and London. In part set in luxurious Capri, rather than at the rural and subdued Devon landscapes of its literary original, it may have been the film version of her story that initially propelled public interest in Pedler's writing.

Taken from a review of the film of Splendid Folly, published 
in The Bioscope, 11th December 1919.

A review of the film Splendid Folly, in The Bioscope, in 1919, noted that its stand out features included the 'enchanting glimpses of the Naples seaport'. However, the review concluded that although 'the tale is well suited for film treatment … the scenario, by Hegley Sedgwick has been somewhat clumsily constructed'. Whatever its ultimate appeal, the film version of the book must have brought public attention back to the budding author in Devon, who must have felt encouraged to pen more novels in the romance mode; as you will find if you look her up on Wikipedia, by the time of her death, in December 1948, Margaret Pedler had about thirty novels to her credit. Newspaper coverage around the time of many of their publications promotes her work in such terms that public demand must be assumed. Catchy headlines such as 'Book of the Week'; 'It's a Pedler Story'; 'Margaret Pedler Writes AGAIN for The Red'; 'New Book by Margaret Pedler'; or 'Wonderful New Romance by Margaret Pedler', appeared in a variety of nationwide newspapers and magazines. (I'll add a few images here to give you an idea of the variety of media coverage that Pedler's books received).
Vision of Desire, 'good honest romance', advert in The Scotsman, 1922.
Synopsis of The Shining Cloud in Hastings Observer 1935

Red Ashes, in Dundee Courier, 1924

          Promoting her third novel House of Dreams Come True, The Red Magazine even declared that 'Margaret Pedler is without doubt the most popular woman author of the day', which indicates that her rise to celebrity status in what contemporary C21 'Queen of Romance' Nora Roberts labels 'the big R', fictional genre, happened swiftly. Pedler's popularity evidently continued for some years, for during the interwar years several sources name her books as best sellers.

        However, the young writer had not chosen to take up writing as first choice of artistic career. One source suggests that before completing The Splendid Folly, she may already have written short stories. However, as a young and talented musician who studied both piano and singing at The Royal Academy of Music, Pedler, or, as she was born, Margaret Bass, initially composed and published classical songs. I found two of Margaret Pedler-Bass' songs held at The British Library, including 'Where we Met at Morn' (see inserted image). a traditional classical lyric, which is reminiscent of songs such as 'Linden Lea' or 'Silent Noon' written by Pedler's contemporary, Vaughan Williams.
Page taken from song Where we Met at Morn
by Margaret Bass/Pedler
       Here is a copy of the record the Academy forwarded after I requested information from them about Miss Margaret Bass:

Name: Bass, M.
Home address: Greenroyd, Teignmouth, S. Devon
London address: 35 Dorset Square N.W.
Date and place of birth: 4 August 1877, Streatham S.W.
Father’s name, address and occupation: Deceased
Guarantor’s name, address and occupation: Emma Bass, Greenroyd, Mother
Date of entrance exam: 21 September
Date of entering Academy: 25 September
Principal study: Singing
Second study: Piano
Extra studies: Italian, Sight singing
Achieved bronze medal for singing (level of attainment, not a prize)
Margaret Bass attended the Academy between 1899 to 1902.

       Interestingly, Bass/Pedler's musical passions show up in several of her later novels, either in the form of repeated refrains, which preface and then reappear throughout the text, or/and with a heroine who is an outstanding musician, either as singer, or pianist, dancer, or composer. At least one book has a plot which revolves around the dilemma faced by its heroine concerning the conflict between the demands of her musical career and the need to relinquish her own career for the sake of the man she loves. But, I'll return to that in a minute.
         As I explained in 'House of Dreams Come True', a short feature about the writer in my previous blog, I already knew a little about Margaret Pedler when I was a child growing up in mid Devon. But at the time I wrote that piece and then included a revision of it in the manuscript about Devon women writers, I'd not had a chance to look in more depth at the author's life and books. So, I decided for this blog piece I'd explore the background of her life a little more, and although Romance books per se as a genre, are not exactly my own reading cup of tea, I'd also give Margaret Pedler's novels a bit of a go. Given that she was once an acclaimed Devon woman writer, I owed her the reading-time; I'd hang-out with her books via kindle, for a week or two. (After noticing that mid-Devon featured as one of The House of Dreams Come True's important locations, I'd already skimmed that novel - the second she wrote (published 1919) - and included a bit about it in House of Dreams 1919); but, I had not then allowed myself to drift into the text, to follow the plot and get a feel for the characters.


        I knew that Margaret had married, as his second wife, William George Quick Pedler, a well-to-do yeoman farmer from Zeal Monachorum in mid Devon, whose family were well established in the area. Although she evidently spent time in London after her writing career took off, Baron's Wood was probably Pedler's Devon home for many years and its location in the parish of Zeal Monachorum is the reason I decided to feature this half-forgotten author for this concluding post of this series, A to Z of Devon women writers. As well as Baronswood and Reeve in Zeal Monachorum, in the mid C19 one of Pedler's forefathers held estates in North Tawton (Great Hole and Great Wooden - See Will of William Pedler 1841). A2A holds other files about the Pedler family which I've not had a chance to look at as yet - see Pedler Family of Zeal |Monachorum. William was cousin of William Carter Pedler, the builder of Reeve Castle. (See the previous blog-post House of Dreams Come True).

Baron's Wood at Zeal Monachorum

      Margaret Pedler appears in the 1911 Census, at Baronswood, with her husband and three servants - a cook, a parlour maid and other servant. However, I wanted to explore Margaret's own birth family to see if I could find more about her early background than the facts of her musical training. Margaret's father's name was given on online sources, which stated he was 'from Teignmouth', but unfortunately he didn't show up on any records I could find via various genealogy websites. I thought I was stuck and that Margaret's own identity was to remain elusive. However, I struck gold when, after finding he had recently given a talk on Margaret Pedler, to a local group, I contacted Dr Nigel Browne of Bow in Devon, who was very generous in providing me with fascinating new information about Margaret's birth family. I am indebted to Dr Browne for the following account of Margaret's early life:

'Margaret Pedler ... was born Margaret Bass, to Thomas and Emma Bass. Thomas was born in about 1830 in Ripley, Derbyshire, the son of George Bass, corn miller, and by the age of 21 was working for a tea dealer in Halifax, to whom he may well have been apprenticed. In 1857 he married Emma Firth of Haworth, daughter of a worstead spinner, and by this time he had established his own business in Halifax as a tea dealer. In the mid 1860s he moved to London and established a wholesale tea dealership in the City. This evidently prospered, for by 1871 he was living in a large house in Christchurch Road, Streatham Hill with his wife, four children and five servants, and his eldest son, Charles, was at Clevedon College, Northampton. He seems in all to have had five daughters and three sons, of whom the eldest, Charles, entered the Anglican ministry. / Margaret Bass was born in the third quarter of 1877, seemingly the youngest of Thomas and Emma’s daughters, and benefitted from a thorough and liberal education. She was sent to Laleham School in Clapham Park, a boarding school founded and run by a remarkable lady, Hannah Pipe, who was both a devout Methodist and a progressive educationalist, who employed some very able teachers and gave the girls in her charge a broad and thorough education. Miss Pipe herself came from the Manchester area, and many of her earlier pupils were from Lancashire and Yorkshire, and this may possibly have been a factor in Thomas Bass’s choice of school./ Laleham was a large house on the Clapham Park Estate, laid out by Thomas Cubitt with his own palatial house at the centre. The school had ample room for the 25 girls, and large grounds including a lake, lawns and shrubberies. Hannah Pipe retired while Margaret was still a pupil, but the school continued to be run on the same lines by her successor./At some time in the 1890s Thomas Bass retired from active business and moved to Teignmouth, where he died at his house, Greenroyd, Woodway Road, on 6 April 1898, leaving almost £30,000. His estate was to be held in trust to provide an income for his widow and children, with his sons Arthur and Thomas to manage the tea business'.

          So, here was a wonderful way of entry into the genealogy websites to see if I could stumble upon and expand the information concerning Margaret Pedler's parents' families, the Basses and the Firths. Interestingly, what I found apparently slightly contradicted the facts about Thomas Bass's birth place and family. After following the census of 1871, which, though it confirmed Thomas, Tea Dealer, in Christchurch Road, Streatham (and married to Emma with their four children, governess and servants) - also stated Thomas' birth place as being Langar, in Nottinghamshire - rather than in neighbouring Derbyshire. Out of curiosity, I whizzed back along the archives to see if there was a matching birth for a Thomas in the parish of Langar. Sure enough there was, a Thomas baptised there in 1829, but the entry opened up more questions than it answered because it noted Thomas' mother as Amy Bass - and no father's name was given. After that I only came up with blanks - no easily found facts about who Amy (Margaret Pedler's paternal grandmother) was. One of the Bass daughters (one of Margaret's elder sisters) was christened Amy, which perhaps confirms Thomas' mother's name. I'm including this about Thomas just in case any one else decides to research Margaret Pedler's life; there may be more confirmation required as to the background of her father's family. 

      I had a little more luck when it came to finding Margaret's maternal family; but again, what I found apparently branched a little from the information so far obtained. On the 1871 census in London, the record states that Margaret's mother Emma, born Firth, came from Sowerby Bridge, in Yorkshire, which is just west of Halifax, already mentioned in connection with Emma's parents and about ten miles south of Haworth. Sure enough, an Emma is recorded baptised at Sowerby in 1839, daughter of Thomas Firth and Ann. Emma appears also in the census 1841, three years old, and in the 1851 census, 'scholar', twelve years old, where the family are at 'Green Terrace', Halifax and Thomas, 65, is listed as 'Retired Yarn Agent'. Thomas is listed as coming from Rastrick and his wife Ann from Worley. A Thomas, son of Joseph Firth is baptised in Rastrick in 1786; he may well be one and the same as Margaret's maternal grandfather. Other Firths are recorded in Rastrick during this time, which suggests the family were based in the area over a long period.

       The following may be a red herring, but it is possible there is a connection between Emma Firth's father's family and a Quaker family of Firths who, during the C18/19 owned an estate called Toothill, in Rastrick. Perhaps it is just coincidence, but the names listed as owners of the house are also Thomas and Joseph. If this family should be related to Margaret Pedler's maternal ancestors then these sources will be valuable for anyone who wants to find more about the author's background. I have a feeling there is more out there to find when someone has time to pursue the Firths. 

         But time constraints meant I had soon to take my leave of Margaret Pedler's family, so reluctantly I closed the genealogy websites and opened up my kindle to begin reading her own books. To be honest, other than showing up more Devon-links-as-locations in her novels, I expected to be bored; I assumed my 'big R' read would be more duty than anything else. This time around, after I'd downloaded from Kindle (free or very cheaply) four of Margaret Pedler's books from the early group - including the first, The Splendid Folly, and House of Dreams Come True, Moon out of Reach and Lamp of Fate, then spent a few hours for a day or so in their company, I was agreeably surprised. In each case, once I'd swiped through the pages of the first few chapters, and once I'd accepted the pat-formulae of the plot construction, and the completely contrasting-with-our-own moral universe within which the novels' plots unfolded, I found I was drawn in to the characters' worlds and actually, wanting to find the heroine's 'fate', felt quite compelled to know how they panned out. Noticeably, Pedler's command of language impressed me. Several times, with each novel, I found I needed to resort to kindle's word definition tool; here was someone who had a sophisticated vocabulary and more to the point, knew full well how to employ her understanding to its best advantage. Not to be scorned in our own day and age I thought, given the prolific drip-feed of new often self-published fiction available out there, much of which is hardly worth picking up, or downloading on kindle.

      As far as my own research about women writers with important links with Devon is concerned, Pedler's novels held much of interest. What soon occurred to me was that most of the books I read - or browsed - pinpointed Devon (or if not Devon, other westcountry places) locations as meaningful sites, each one important for the plot's unfolding. So, although, other than the fact her father had retired to Teignmouth in Devon, genealogical research tells us that Margaret Pedler's family background was apparently not closely associated with Devon, the county appears to have become a beloved home territory for the writer. Admittedly I must qualify that statement, as at least one out of this early groups of novels - Moon Out of Reach - features Cornish rather than Devon sites; but it is still safe to conclude that for Pedler the westcountry became a favoured place of retreat and source of creativity.   

       Even DoveGreyReaderScribbles, Devon's popular bookblog, is apparently unaware of our county's once famous romance-writer, (although maybe DoveGrey does not feature books written in the 'big R' genre). However, Pedler's books have caught the attention of at least one recent book blogger, whose assessment of the C20 writer is unfortunately dismissive, scathing and distinctly unfavourable. LeavesandPages's piece on Pedler's novel Bitter Heritage - which came out in 1928 - describes 'A hugely predictable melodrama about a young woman whose father has disgraced himself' and judges it 'of “period piece” interest only, and forthwith shelved accordingly.' 

       As I've already said, I'm not a huge reader of books written in escapist fictional/romance genre, but I believe that this blogger's judgement of Pedler after reading only a sample of her books is rather cursory and hasty. Although, by default Pedler's novels are judged as 'middlebrow', exemplars of popular mass market fiction, with predictable plot lines and somewhat stereotyped characters, they are worthy of scrutiny. It wasn't for nothing that Pedler became an acclaimed novelist during her lifetime, when (as already noted in the previous blog-post), her reputation was compared to other then sought-after women romance writers such as Ethel M Dell and Ruby M Ayres, and sometimes her novels' titles featured as 'books of the week' with such notable authors as Lawrence Durrell. (See for instance Bournemouth Graphic in 1935, which names her latest title The Shining Cloud as 'Book of the Week' alongside his new novel).  There are other indications of the contemporary popularity of Pedler's work: it was often serialised in popular literary magazines (see for example, The Red, 1919, where one headline states that 'Margaret Pedler writes for The Red'); and during the 1930s her books were often held in school libraries. 

      Pedler's work, like so many of our country's half-forgotten women writers, deserves our attention, especially for what it can inform the C21 reader about the ways in which, during a time when women's place in family and wider circles was rapidly changing, early to mid C20 women novelists depicted issues about female lives and roles in society. For someone who is fascinated with westcountry (and specifically Devon) territories, her books can also be telling in their representation of local landscapes - and particularly the ways in which the author interweaves Devon settings with experiences and concerns from her own life. 

Cosdon on Dartmoor from near Zeal Monachorum
        Time constraints and an already over long blog-post mean I need soon to bring this piece to an ending, but as an example of what I mean, Pedler's first novel The Splendid Folly is an excellent book to consider. Ostensibly, in several ways the novel's plot matches its author's own life trajectory. Similarly to the young Margaret, its heroine, named Diana Quentin, whose 'adopted' home is at the rectory in 'the primitive [and'tiny'] Devon village of Crailing', where she was brought up by its rector, her guardian Alan Stair, is building an established career as musician, a singer. As the book begins, Diana is dividing her life between Devon and her boarding-house in London and back down in Crailing, which frequently appears in the novel as a place of reflection, refuge and safety.  The Devon locations in the novel (just as others that appear in other and later novels by Pedler) are fictionalised; but there are reasons to assume that they are sometimes, if not all, based on the author's own life in the county and therefore are places with which she was familiar.  It is tempting to guess and match the imaginary locations with the real-sites - although of course Pedler may well have simply cast them all from her writerly imagination! (I've already conjectured in my previous blog-post House of Dreams, that the house in House of Dreams Come True, her second novel may be modelled on nearby Reeve Castle). 

      In The Splendid Folly Devon's familiar and famous Dartmoor landscape pops up as a place where Diana and her beau Errington take long pleasurable drives, 'tramping ... with the keen moorland air, like sparkling wine, in their nostrils...'. Dartmoor is unmistakable, but other locations in the novel are more uncertain.
Of course, there could be other such apposite examples, but when I read about the 'Crailing' rectory entrance as the narrative describes it, my imagination sped to such a door leading to the old rectory in North Tawton (the neighbouring parish to Zeal Monachorum in rural mid Devon):

'The little wooden door, painted green and over-hung with ivy, was never bolted...The little green door innocent of lock and key, stood as a symbol of the close ties that bound the rector and his flock together...' 

However, quickly we learn that the fictional church is square-towered (so not North Tawton), that Crailing is a 'tiny fishing village', full of thatched roofs, that 'it straggled down to the edge of the sea in untidy fashion', where the 'bold headland of red sandstone, Culver Point, … thrust itself into the blue of the water'. A mid-Devon rural location is therefore out of the question (unless, which is also quite possible, the author mixed and matched her imagined real sites). The red cliffs may take us down to Dawlish, which was once a small fishing-village. The Dawlish area also makes sense for the main Devon setting of this first novel in accordance with the last home of Margaret's father at nearby Teignmouth, where presumably after their move during the 1890s the young Margaret must have spent much time in between school and college terms. It is at a headland site named 'Culver Point', 'which thrust itself into the blue of the water like an arm stretched out to shelter the little village nestling in its curve from the storm of the Atlantic', where 'great red cliffs … reared up against the sapphire of the sky', that Diana experiences heightened emotion, danger, revelation and drama. A dramatic location, it establishes and reflects the novel's emotional tone, crucially as the site of the climatic scenes of its heroine's passionate love encounters. Perhaps Culver's scenery with it 'numerous little bays that fringed the foot the great red cliff' is based on the coastline around Teignmouth, between Hope's Nose and Holcombe. 
         Even more interesting, in light of the writer's own life and career - especially with regard to our current obsession with the place of women in the early C20 - it's fascinating to look at the way in which Pedler's first novel tackles some then topical gender issues, especially apropos woman's role in the contemporary world. Specifically, as the narrative explores its heroine's journey-to-find-her-self, the fiction probes the conflict regarding a woman's individual career with her 'duty' as wife. It's hard not to read the story as a take on Pedler's own young self as she negotiates the conflicting needs of her own developing vocation (first as musician, then as gradually highly successful author), with contrasting societal expectations, which demanded that a married woman forfeit her own talents and careers for the sake of her husband's needs. In The Splendid Folly Diana first relinquishes her own rapidly burgeoning career as singer in favour of her new husband; but then she decides to return to her abandoned profession and to find that lost self. Given that the book is defined by its romance novel mode, its heroine's fate is curiously uncertain, for at the ending the narrative strays from its expected happy-ever-after certainty. Its title's potential is shown to be apposite. Is she wise in her choice to leave? Will she regret her decision? We do not know. In keeping with its title, Diana's soon to be future to follow 'love', join her husband in a foreign country, which will take her far away from the professional environment of her singing career, leaves us with suggestively sinister connotations as to her possible 'folly'. It is left to her long-term male singing master to warn:

For long he argued and expostulated upon the madness, as he termed it, of Diana's renouncing her career, trying his utmost to dissuade her. ..
You haf not counted the cost! he fumed at her.
But Diana only smiled at him.
Yes I have. And I'm glad it's going to cost me something - a good deal, in fact - to go back to Max. Don't you see Maestro, it kind of squares thing the tiniest bit? .... and it's such a little price to pay - for love.' …
'So, then, the most marvellous voice of the century is to be wasted reading aloud to a Grand Duchess! Ah! Dearest of all my pupils, there is no folly in all the world at once so foolish and so splendid as the folly of love'.

         Given the contemporary C21 fascination with women from our past apropos many disciplines, it seems to me that it is so important not to cast literary-linked names aside as if their achievements were inconsequential to our heritage and as though, because their writings were categorised within genres considered 'non-literary' - 'trivial', 'populist' - their accomplishments were therefore less worthy than those whose books became exemplars of literary endeavour. When I took a little downtime to read a selection of Pedler's novels I found them a true breath of fresh air. Not only was it intriguing to try and work out where the various fictional Devon places in the narratives were really located. Given the current ultra sophisticated online world and unstable cultural milieu with its chaotic and fluctuating moral compass, these novels provide a means to an escapism to a more stable world, where (although occasionally tedious when viewed from our C21 lens and where a woman's own role in society is sometimes questioned) self control, self sacrifice and moral integrity are held up as standards to be emulated. Once you discard your initial annoyance with their predictable narratives, it can be healing and restorative to take a few hours out and revel in these novels' company; ideal perhaps for someone needing to reduce their online social-media, news-obsessed screen-time to wallow instead in the camaraderie of individuals, who greet us, as though drop-ins from another parallel universe....

Well, there we have it, it's taken me much longer than intended but I've now blogged (almost), a post about one or other Devon parish or place and its connections with one, or in some cases, several women writers. If you're out there keeping an occasional eye on this book related blog, do check in sometime in to see where in Devon I'm going next and more to the point, which woman writer from the past will be featuring ...

See also From the Devon Ridge Where a Book Began


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