The other woman

I’ll finish my stint at Vie Hebdomadaires with a confession: there’s another woman in my life. I knew her slightly in childhood, and had forgotten her. But I ran into her again maybe three years ago when Clare and I were visiting Newport; her house is just along the street from the guest house where we stay. It was an encounter that turned into an obsession, especially when I found we both liked cats and the Isle of Wight. I went to a lot of trouble to get a photo of her, and I’ve since pursued her to the Lake District, London, the French Riviera and Jura Mountains, the Italian Lakes, and Florence.

I could spin this out to tiresome length, but the punchline here is that she’s called Mary Gleed Tuttiett, and she died in 1925. If known at all, she’s better known as Maxwell Gray, the author of the best-selling 1886 novel The Silence of Dean Maitland, and I’m in the process of writing a biography. I vaguely recalled that my grandmother had the book, but she came back into my life when I kept finding her associated with places we visited. Her mother’s family, for instance, lived at a farmhouse that still exists just behind my great aunt’s house. Her name kept turning up with such regularity that I decided the book was “meant to be”.

She’s in many ways an interesting character. The daughter of an Isle of Wight GP, she grew up in Newport, and travelled widely in her younger days. But at some point in her mid-20s, she came down with a debilitating illness (its precise nature is still unclear) that left her a permanent invalid. Nevertheless, she lived to 76, and wrote some 20 books, even though unable to work for more than two hours a day; she wrote lying on a couch. However, the challenge of writing the biography is that very little is findable about her; she herself, in about the only interview she gave, said: “There is so little to tell about me, so little that can be told.” Nevertheless, she was an intensely autobiographical writer; and biographical leads can often be deduced from identifiable places in her work. In an early story, the heroine works as an assistant in a girl’s boarding school in Bowness, a location so identifiable that census details were findable – and there was the young Mary Tuttiett working as an assistant.

By modern standards, her books are over-written, full of dense landscape and botanical descriptions, often with ‘pathetic fallacy’ (weather that matches the mood of the action). She started in the era of the Victorian three-volume novel – one volume scene-setting, one volume action, one winding down with a bit of a twist – and never really got out of the habit. Her themes are often somewhat repetitive: romantic love triangles among the young upper-class; the clergy; doctors; young army officers; and Isle of Wight rustics. But her novels are a vivid evocation of 19th century provincial life, and do tackle heavier themes such as female suffrage causes, of which she was a supporter.

Her work became increasingly dark as she grew older, with polemical sections decrying the changing times at the end of the Victorian era. This was echoed in her articles: in 1902 she wrote an extremely bitter piece, A Plea for the Silence of the Novelist, which suggested that it would be a good thing if no more novels were written for fifty years. She also added a list of other peeves: bad novels, cheap periodicals, writers who write for money, bad proofing and printing, sex in fiction, the vulgarity of the reading public, the educational system, steam power, advertisements, people who write novels too young, and the weaker works of famous novelists. Her final anthology, in 1923, contained a story called After the Crash – her only foray into science fiction – depicted a post-apocalyptic England brought to barbarism by the trends she saw as materialism and the decline of religion. She was not a happy bunny.

I hadn’t realised what an obsession researching a person’s life could be. If she were alive, it’d count as stalking. My employer, Lily, at the bookshop where I work, wrote a biography a couple of years back, and warned me that it’s like having a third person in the house. It is. I’ve learned not to bore Clare with the latest detail that I’ve found. I don’t know how long the research is going to take to complete – but I think we’ll both be relieved to get this other woman out of our home.

That’s the end of my week’s residence: thanks to Varun for the opportunity. If you enjoyed these topics, there’s more at my regular weblog JSBlog: Journal of a Southern Bookreader.