Recently, we stayed at a newly opened hotel in Ely, named ‘The Poets House’ (without the apostophe). When I asked why it was so-named the answer was that a notable writer had lived there previously, hence the connection.
The writer in question was Sybil Marshall whose claim to fame was not as a poet, but as an educationalist and as a writer. She was initially a primary school teacher who wrote about her experiences teaching in the Fens from the 1930s until the early 1960s in two books, ‘An experiment in Education’ and her ‘Fen Chronicle’ hailed by Angus Wilson as a classic of its genre. It was only in retirement, however, that she began her third career as a novelist when she was eighty with the first of a trilogy – ‘A Nest of Magpies’ for which she was widely acclaimed.
Eighty seems quite an age to take up the pen and to start writing fiction, but she is not alone in the list of late starters. Laura Ingalls Wilder, best known as the writer of ‘Little House on the Prairie’ was first published in her mid-sixties; Frank McCourt published his first memoir ‘Angela’s Ashes’ in his mid-sixties. Mary Wesley famously had her first novel ‘Jumping the Queue’ published when in her seventies and was still writing when she died aged ninety. There are plenty of other novelists who wrote their first significant work later in life including Richard Adams whose first book, ‘Watership Down,’ was not published until he was in his fifties and Raymond Chandler was in his early fifties when ‘The Big Sleep’ launched his career.
If age is no barrier to writing, occasionally the need to earn a living is. It is therefore no coincidence that a disproportionate number of English novelists have the sort of lives where writing becomes a leisure pursuit, taken up by the well-educated and well-qualified spouses of successful people who are able to support them or of independent means. In many ways, they have replaced the rectory or the vicarage as the source of many of leading writers. It has ever been thus, however, although it is the exceptions, such as Dickens and Hardy that prove the rule.
When looking at the children of clergy who became writers, the list is huge and includes the Bronte sisters, the Powys Brothers, Jane Austen, Lord Tennyson, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, John Dryden, Lewis Carroll and Oliver Goldsmith. Something about large rectories, quiet corners, the need for being seen and not heard and a propitious link with the afterlife all no doubt responsible.
The death of Iain Banks has been keenly felt by his many readers and fellow writers. As a writer he was greatly admired for the brilliance and clarity of his writing as well for his self-deprecating humour and self-mockery. His blog of two months back when he wrote ‘I am officially Very Poorly. I have asked my partner Adele if she will do me the honour of becoming my widow’ tells much about the man. Farewell.