Saturday, October 25, 2014

Rather a Shocker: Eden Phillpotts (1862-1960) and Adelaide Phillpotts (1896-1993)

Eden Phillpotts
I have come across material about a grave personal transgression concerning the Golden Age crime writer Eden Phillpotts (1862-1960) and his daughter, Adelaide.  Having been for years now an admirer of much of Phillpott's writing, both genre and non-genre, I was especially distressed by this.

I suspect most mystery fans know Phillpotts, if they know him, for his having encouraged a young Torquay neighbor, Agatha Christie, with her writing career. When a hugely successful writer herself, Agatha Christie retained fondness for the older author who had given her youthful writing promising words of praise. When Phillpotts died in 1960, at the advanced age of 98, Christie penned an affectionate obituary of him, singling out for praise his children's novel The Flint Heart (1910), recently reprinted in a fine new edition.

Eden Phillpotts was an extraordinarily prolific author, authoring by my count over 250 books, ten percent of which were crime and detective novels. His last novel (not a mystery) was published in 1959, just a year before he died.  Overall he is probably most admired, as a writer, as Devon regional novelist, though his contribution to mystery fiction is, I believe, notable. I have written about Phillpotts' career in crime fiction here.

Earlier in life Eden Phillpotts had married Emily Topham and with her had two children, a son, Henry (1895-1976) and a daughter, Mary Adelaide Eden (1896-1993), who grew up to be an able writer in her own right and who lived nearly as long as her very long-lived father.

Eden Phillpotts was also prominent as a playwright--his hit rustic comedy play The Farmer's Wife was filmed by Alfred Hitchcock in 1928--and he and Adelaide collaborated on several plays, the best-known of which was Yellow Sands.

James Dayananda, an English professor, interviewed Phillpotts' daughter Adelaide in 1976 for a book he was writing on her father, Eden Phillpotts: Selected Letters, published by University Press of America in 1984. In the book Dayananda writes that Adelaide Phillpotts "remained unmarried until the age of 55....In 1951 she married Nicholas Ross, an American from Boston settled in Britain, much against the wish of her father.  Eden Phillpotts cut her off, and never met her again after her marriage, despite several attempts of Adelaide at reconciliation....The letters...throw some light on the ups and downs of the relationship between Eden and Adelaide Phillpotts."

In her 1976 interview with Professor Dayananda, Adelaide Phillpotts shockingly declared that her father had sexually abused her as a child (as far back as when she was six or seven) and that he kept up an intimate relationship--elaborated as "fondling, kissing, intercourse (not penetration)"--with her, off and on, until 1929, when he married his second wife (Adelaide was in her early 30s at this time). She also claims that her father was obsessively jealous of her relationships with other men and, as indicated above, that he never spoke to her again when she finally did marry, against his will, at the age of 55.

This is, of course, a very disturbing bunch of revelations, to say the least, like something out of a modern crime novel.  More can be found here, in the Oxford DNB entry on Adelaide Phillpotts by Professor Dayananda.

Some of the letters from Eden to Adelaide included in Professor Dayananda's collection, invariably addressed to "My precious love," "My dearest love," "My sweet love," etc., are suggestive, even if there is not a "smoking gun," so to speak:

"Today I had hoped to welcome my precious girl and have my arms around her again." (1914, when Adelaide was 18)

"But I am exceedingly thankful you did what you have done [breaking off with a man-TPT] for it would be destructive to your art to tangle yourself in an engagement to be married at present and I should deplore it exceedingly. Plenty of time for that." (1917, when Adelaide was 21)

"I was not surprised after your first mention of that Jew and his politeness to hear he wanted you. The damned swine saw you were alone. You must not go to a hotel in future where that sort of vermin harbours for he might have been wickeder than he was and have planned to compromise you in some way." (1929, when Adelaide was 32)

Of course there are myriad fiction writers who seem to have been unpleasant and erring people in real life. But I have to admit these charges against Eden Phillpotts, if true, take things to a new level, as far as I am aware, regarding iniquities of Golden Age crime writers.

Cornell Woolrich'
s relationship with his mother has been seen as having incestuous overtones, but here in the case of Eden Phillpotts, it's the crime writer accused of monstrously blighting his child's life.  Oddly enough, there's a striking resemblance to one of Agatha Christie's own detective novels, written in the 1940s.

Is there any suggestion of a preoccupation with incest in Eden Phillpotts' own fiction?  I have never discerned any, though his last mystery novel, George and Georgina, published the same year his daughter married, when he was ninety years old, concerns the relationship between a much-devoted pair of male-female twin siblings.  I may take a look at this novel in the future.


  1. All very sad - never read anything by him that I am aware of. Why has it taken so long for some of this to have come ti light - she's been dead for 20 years or so, right? Also, Wikipedia says she is credited as co-author of a couple of works with him, which is interesting.

    1. There's hasn't been much interest in the academic or mystery fandom worlds in Phillpotts, so I suspect that's it. Yes, according to Adelaide she kept up a relationship of this incestuous nature with him until 1929, when she was 33 and he was 67. And they did collaborate on plays together, as I mention. His letters urge her not to marry, to save herself for her art (and for him?). That one letter (about "that Jew") he wrote in her 1929, he sounds like a jealous lover to me. But of course this rests on Adelaide's word, both in her her interview and her own autobiography. She spoke out to the interviewer the same year her brother died, so no one was able to ask him about it. But the letters from her father are rather strange sounding!

  2. Which Christie novel??? Sounds like one of Simon Brett's Charles Paris novels.

  3. I'm creating a Wikipedia article for Adelaide at this moment - you can help? She needs to have her story told.

    Blogs are good ... but Wikipedia is forever

    1. I would be happy to help. I agree she deserves more recognition, and, I think, great sympathy.

  4. I recognize that this is precisely the story that sells these days, and for that reason have been reluctant to stir the pot, while observing with dismay the calumny spread. Unfortunately, in the Internet search engine results, it is not only the cream that rises to the top. You should have reflected upon Adelaide Phillpotts Ross’s own account of Professor Dayananda’s visit (Ross, Reverie, pp. 247-48), and then compared it to the Professor’s exceedingly banal trashing of Eden’s writing, in the crudely formatted and error-ridden Phillpotts Collected Letters. The Professor’s own attempts at literary analysis in the Collected Letters do not inspire confidence in his fairness or perceptiveness. It is hard to avoid a conclusion that he dealt with aged Adelaide Ross treacherously. Adelaide was clearly left with an impression that the Professor’s object was to revive interest in Eden’s unfortunately overlooked writing, rather than destroy his reputation. Apart from prurient “reading between the lines” of Adelaide’s Reverie, the Professor is the unique source for the calumny. I find no indication that a transcript of the Professor’s interview of Adelaide was ever made available. There is ample basis for treating the Professor’s account with some skepticism. Discouragement of reading of Eden Phillpotts, in particular his pastorals and industrial novels, is a cultural loss.

  5. For comparison to Adelaide Ross’s account of the Professor’s visit, I would direct attention to pages 15-19 of the Professor’s Introduction in the Phillpotts Collected Letters. The sharp contrast surely raises a suspicion that the Professor appeared to Adelaide under false colors. I would add that the palpable lack of acumen revealed in the Professor’s judgment on the quality of Eden’s writing (which is shared by literally no one) further gives pause. The more one probes the matter, the less confidence one has in the Professor’s account. This is not to say that objective consideration has any chance of making headway against a juicy story.

    1. I thank you for your comment. I am for objective consideration of the matter and will check the Reverie, but am unclear what you are saying Adelaide said. I will update the piece accordingly. Did she ever go on record saying Dayananda fabricated the contents of the interview, which is what you seem to be suggesting? If so, that would have been actionable by Adelaide herself. I believe the professor is still living, so perhaps I can get in touch with him as well.

      I actually have read quite a bit of Phillpotts writing and admire his work, so I would be happy to see the story cast into doubt.

    2. Incidentally, the Wikipedia page on Phillpotts mentions the incest claim, citing Dayananda entry on Adelaide in the ODNB from 2004:

      James Y. Dayananda, ‘Phillpotts , (Mary) Adelaide Eden (1896–1993)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004; online edn, Sept 2012 accessed 9 May 2017

    3. The same is true of the Wikipedia entry on Adelaide, which did not exist, as I recollect, when I did this posting in 2014. I had nothing to do with either of the Wikipedia pages.

      Again incidentally, my copy of the Letters split in two, so I know what you mean about its cheap quality. But for me the key question is whether the interview might have been fabricated, if that's what you are suggesting. That would cast the professor not merely as a poor literary scholar, as you argue above, but an active fraudster. So I will really have to see the evidence from Adelaide.

    4. One more note, I see a commenter above mentioned creating a Wikipedia page on Adelaide. If Adelaide said she didn't say the things Dayananda said she said, she really should have sued him when his book came out in the UK. But I will have to see what she said. From what you say it sounds at least like she still wanted her father's literary legacy preserved.