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.

  6. Thanks, although I would much rather see the discussion move in the more legitimate direction, which is Eden Phillpotts’ writing, which does not receive the attention it merits. There were already plenty of inhibiting factors. The current taste does not favor detailed description. These days writers tend to simply indicate, rather than describe, leaving the reader to supply the content. Secondly, Eden was highly eclectic, which the reading public also does not favor. Thirdly, Eden is a victim of the irrationally long and culturally damaging extension of copyright.

    The Professor made it his mission to destroy Phillpotts’s reputation. This is the principal thrust of the Collected Letters. There is ample demonstration in the referenced pages of Reverie and of the Collected Letters that the Professor’s use of an aged Adelaide was exploitative and treacherous, regardless of whether it is technically actionable. He further spread the calumny in the article on Adelaide in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, and I believe in an amendment to the article on Eden. The Wikipedia articles simply draw from the Professor.

    As suggested previously, I have been reluctant for years to stir the matter, because people will latch on to and amplify a lurid story, particularly in this vein. Consider what a damper this would place on anyone contemplating doing any serious treatment of Phillpotts’ writing, which is unfortunately neglected.

    Regarding Eden’s disapproval of Mr. Ross, Adelaide herself reveals that Eden was not alone in the disapproval. As to Eden’s discouraging Adelaide, an aspiring writer, from marrying young, there are certainly less damning constructions. During the prime years for courting, Adelaide was on her own in London, with access to society in the best literary circles. Eden never went to London, not even to see a performance of The Farmer’s Wife when it was the hit of the season.

    There is an obvious disconnect between what Adelaide quite explicitly expected the Professor to do with the interview, and what he did with it. Regarding Adelaide’s not suing the Professor, I would consider that unrealistic. By the time that the Collected Letters were published she was approximately 88 years old, living in seclusion, and possibly isolation. She had no relatives and there is no indication that she had any intimates. She surely did not have Internet access and publication by the University Press of America would not have made much of a splash.

    The Professor’s own writing betrays palpable limitations as a scholar. I would contend that this reflects upon the Professor’s judgment, discretion and reliability in general. In my opinion, the absence of absolute fraud is not enough; there are still a matter of spin, as well of betrayal. Adelaide told the Professor that she does not think that any aspect of her relationship with Eden entered anywhere into his writing. Yet because of the way that the Internet functions, ultimately the posthumous scandal may become the core thing that is remembered about Eden.

    If you contact the Professor, you might ask him to share with you a transcript of his recording of his interview of Adelaide in 1975. The absence of any reference to a transcript, that I can see, is provocative.

    Apart from all of the above, I find it easy to admire Adelaide herself, especially in her boldness in traveling unescorted in her old age to areas of the world that were not entirely secure.

    1. Yes, she lived to be 97 and her father 98, making a remarkable longevity for the pair.

      Of course my brief here is limited to crime fiction, about which Phillpotts himself was dismissive even though he wrote a lot of it (as he did everything else), but within that limited ambit I did write seriously about his work here for a time and I praised it. I have nothing against writing about EP in future.

      I think the main factor that might be mitigating against Phillpotts' reprinting is his formal, archaic, wordy style, which probably is not calculated to appeal to a lot of modern readers, certainly not mystery readers, who tend to like it snappier. I actually collect and read Phillpotts, but I realize he's not for everyone. You'd think some of his regional straight fiction might win some attention, however, if only from academics.

      I look forward to reading what Adelaide has to say in her own memoir. Unfortunately I'm afraid personal history, when it comes out in this way, is inevitably going to be discussed. But certainly Phillpotts deserves a fair hearing, whatever his station in life. However, when the information ends us in the ODNB it automatically has a serious imprimatur for people. We seem the same issues arising today with Woody Allen, for example, yet still it hasn't caused him to be abandoned by his fans, though there have been efforts to dissuade people, to say the least.

  7. You may gather that murder mystery is not especially my thing, but I follow your blog notwithstanding. I have read a lot of mysteries though because when a writer resonates with me I read him or her thoroughly, and so many people wrote them. They paid the bills. I suspect this was especially the case for Phillpotts. Even Tom Hardy did one, to get his foot in the door, with his first novel, Desperate Remedies. I have read that the publisher's reader (George Meredith, actually) advised Hardy that if he wanted to publish he needed to do something in the manner of Wilkie Collins, because that was what the public was demanding. Respecting your focus on mystery, if you have not read it, I would recommend to you the Phillpotts trilogy known as the Book of Avis (Bred in the Bone; Witch's Cauldron, and A Shadow Passes). It is not precisely mystery writing; the psychological nature of the work makes it essential for the serial murderer to revealed, up front. This allows for artful sparing between Avis and Scotland Yard. Avis is truly terrifying. Within it, there is a nice incorporation of Cain and Abel, where the ghost of Abel comes back for his revenge. Thanks for your attention to my comments.

  8. Ok, I see now from a prior post that you know Avis, and in fact agree with me about the trilogy. I love the part near the end where she arranges for her son to meet her and drive her home, because she expects that there will be dead body that she needs help in burying. I remain on the lookout for affordable copies of the Avis trilogy, of which I make gifts. About a decade yet until the trilogy will fall into the public domain.

  9. Thanks again for your comments. I received Adelaide's book, Reverie, and I find it in line with the Dayananda interview, which was published three years after Adelaide's book. The source of the incest story is Adelaide herself, on page 29, and it is alluded to elsewhere in the book. I fail to see how it puts Phillpotts in a better light, with its picture of Phillpotts' infidelities and extreme selfish possessiveness, though it should be allowed that Adelaide herself records that she continued to love her father throughout--though as a father, not a lover. It's interesting that at the time this all received little attention. So I don't believe it was that which undermined Phillpotts' literary reputation.

    I'm afraid many people are going to find Adelaide's story--his taking her into his bed as a child and fondling her and kissing her all over and her for fear of hurting him letting him do whatever he liked to her--off-putting indeed, but I agree that literary judgments should be independent of these things. However, whether it's Phillpotts or Michael Jackson or Woody Allen, these sorts of credible allegations are going to be something to which many people will react so negatively that they will be put off from the work, I'm afraid.

    When Phillpotts' daughter herself wrote about it, I can't see how we can hush it up. I won't let it prevent from writing about Phillpotts' work, however. I won't deny that I would like to know more about what must have been a bizarre family situation indeed. The son, Henry, seems to have had a great many problem as well, yet he like his sister seems to have remained under his father's shadow. It would be interesting to have Phillpotts' take his personal relationships, but the one thing he doesn't seem to have written was an autobiography. He may have had good reason not to desire self-reflection in his life.

  10. I am aware of what Adelaide said, but am inclined to take it as the whole story, candidly expressed. Granted Eden was more touchy-feely than the average Englishman. It was an atypical family relationship, but I don't see Adelaide offering it as something that poisoned her personal life, or blunted her career. What I bristle at are the supplemental inferences inevitably added, in order to make it fit within a familiar, prepackaged cultural narrative. I suggest that her account be taken simply at face value, and as the whole of it. In any case, there are a lot of interesting things about Eden and his writing that have nothing to do with personal or family relationships. Adelaide said that Eden’s family relationships did not enter into his writing, or into her writing as well (apart from Reverie).

    I don’t understand your not acknowledging the sharp disconnect between: (a) Adelaide’s expectation and understanding, given to her by Dayananda, that his object was to promote appreciation of Eden’s writing, and (b) Dayananda’s vicious criticism of the quality of Phillpotts’ writing (which is of course utterly lame, in its own terms). Again calling your attention to pp. 15-19 of the Collected Letters, and pp. 247-48 of Reverie. I myself wonder why the Professor sat on this for a decade. It was not due to careful proofing. Any luck in obtaining a transcript of the 1975 recorded interview of Adelaide?

    I surely did not attribute Phillpotts’ loss of readership to the scandal. That occurred long before the story about Eden’s personal life, which I don’t think was known before Dayananda put it out, in the 1980s. Changing tastes for sparser writing, which tends to merely indicate rather than describe, did that. But the nature of the Internet is such that your “Shocking” story is the first thing that is going to turn up on any search of Eden, and I maintain that from now on it will serve as a distraction that inhibits productive consideration of his writing, going forward. If writers like Phillpotts and Arnold Bennett were rediscovered, the culture would be richer for it. In any case, on the subject of “Shocking...” I don’t think there is anything further to discover; all that is left to add is unsupported conjecture, in the “typical case of such and such” pattern.

    Phillpotts did do an autobiographical work: From the Angle of 88 (1951). It does not inform much as to Eden’s personal life and intimate relations, but does offer glimpses of the times in which he lived, in which you might see Victoria passing in a carriage, or Gladstone walking down the street. It does give a substantial account of the censorship of his play, The Secret Woman, and a veritable Who’s Who of writers of the day who came out in Eden’s support. Interestingly, Phillpotts said that if he were to have it over he would have simply cut the offending lines and have the play staged; that ultimately it was no big deal.

    This is of course a detour from the ordinary mandate of the Tramp, for which I beg your indulgence. Do you plan to do anything in the vicinity of Chicago?

  11. Thanks again for your comment, and my apologies if this below sounds peremptory, that's not my intention. I'm just trying to get my view down here.

    Adalaide indicates she didn't have children, something which she dearly wanted. Why didn't she have children? She didn't marry until she was 54. She had, on her account, a possessively jealous father who wanted her never to marry and insisted that she devote her life to art, an art at which she herself didn't think herself so talented. She had a father by her claim who flew into rages when men got too near her. I gather you don't believe her passage describes molestation, but I see it as such, even if no sexual penetration was involved. She describes herself as loving her father as a father but not the other way but letting him do what he wanted with her. I will try to get in touch with Prof. Dayandanda, since I agree that it would be good to hear more about this matter.

    My blog piece is the 19th piece that comes up on the search engine when I check. Wikipedia is number one. Wikipedia references the incest story independently of me. It's in the ODNB. I don't accept responsibility for "distracting" people from Phillpotts true worth with this blog post and it wasn't written to increase blog traffic. I make nothing off this blog and in fact put in much more time to the posts that it's worth. If I wanted to increase traffic I wouldn't write about authors like Phillpotts at all.

    I write about mystery authors, their works and their lives, because it all interests me. This matter is a part of Phillpotts' life, an interesting and pertinent matter, just like Dorothy L. Sayers' oow child, Raymond Chandler's alcoholism, Richard Webb and Hugh Wheeler's homosexual relationship, Agatha Christie's disappearance, Basil Thomson's arrest with a prostitute and Anne Perry's murder. I don't see how you can leave out such a central part of a person's personality (if true).

    I agree that Adelaide wanted her father to be judged by his work, but by discussing these personal matters she put them into the mix. (One also might argue she was the victim of something akin to Stockholm Syndrome.) I agree that Phillpotts' work should be judged independently of his behavior, though I know some people won't be able to do that. It's disappointing to see this happen with a writer one likes, of course.

    I live nowhere near Chicago. You may be confusing me another academic writer of the same first and last name and middle initial there. anyway, I'm glad you read my blog and I'm sorry I have disappointed you with this piece. I will do some amendments to it when I can but I think it legitimately addresses the issue.

  12. Quoting from Adelaide's page 29:

    He had begun deeply to love me. I think he looked on me as an extension of himself, for he would take me into his bed and fondle me, compare my limbs with his and say, "Look! Your hands and feet are just like small editions of mine. You're so like me. And you're going to be a writer too." He kissed me all over and said: "You must never marry." At six or seven that meant nothing to me, yet I did not forget those words, which all through my youth and afterwards were repeated. I loved him too, but only as a father, and for fear of hurting him I let him do whatever he liked.

    I just don't see a convincing benign explanation of this. It also seems as though she is very much suggesting that her father is the reason she didn't marry for so many years.

  13. This comment has been removed by the author.

  14. I regret and sincerely apologize for anything taken by you as disparagement of the blog, which was not my intent. I hold in very high regard efforts to bring to light those I call literary orphans; the regrettably forgotten ones (currently spending a lot of time, for example, on Francis Brett Young and Warwick Deeping). The only name I know you by is the Passing Tramp. I’m sure I have seen your name, but did not make a special note of it, and so could not have confused you with anyone else with a similar name.

    As to EP, I would rather see pursuit, for example, of the apparent connection between Storm in a Teacup, and Evander, both published in 1919, and the same story told twice, as a novel on modern themes (involving labor organizing and papermaking), and as an imitation of ancient classical romance (involving a devotee of Bacchus, and a worshiper of Apollo). I can think of no writer other than Phillpotts doing anything of the sort, and have never seen observations on it. Not in your line, however.

    Public forums are not my thing, very much out of character for me. More attuned to private discussions over coffee.

    Lastly I'll simply recommend, if you find time (obviously you are busy), as relevant to my own issue with the treatment of Phillpotts, a reading of Browning's Red Cotton Night Cap Country, which is I believe the only dramatic monologue in which Browning came out in his own persona, reason enough to give it special attention. Browning makes my point better than I am able to do. The editor of the large Modern Library collection of Browning did not include it, finding it subversive and disturbing.

    (prior deleted comment contained an accidental duplication)