06 February 2019

From Nancy Mitford to Daphne du Maurier: Great Curtis Brown debut novels from 1930

From left: Nancy Mitford, Daphne du Maurier and Kate O’BrienFrom left: Nancy Mitford, Daphne du Maurier and Kate O’Brien
by Curtis Brown 120 Curtis Brown 120

Welcome to the next in our series of Curtis Brown 120 blog posts, these blogs include exclusive interviews with authors, agents and publishers; writing tips; industry insights – and much more besides.

For the Curtis Brown Heritage team, the agency’s 120th birthday is a perfect excuse to dip into over a century’s worth of records. This is the first blog in a monthly series that will be wiping the dust off some archival gems.

Books 2 newsletter

In a year where we’re thinking about the importance of beginnings, and celebrating debuts old and new, it was a particularly nice surprise to dig out this quarterly newsletter from 1930 and find a section devoted to just that.

I let out a little squeak at the holy trinity of Daphne du Maurier, Nancy Mitford (obviously the best sister after Decca) and Kate O’Brien in the second column. What an extraordinary trio of first novels to sell in just three months. This very nearly became a blog on kick-ass women of the 1930s.

However, as I started researching the other names on the list – some familiar, many not – a picture started to form; what now looks like a list of the remembered and the forgotten was, in 1930, a series of overlapping trends and social circles – a patchwork of literary Britain.

Take Duncan Grinnell-Milne (1896-1973) and Alfred Oliver Pollard (1893-1960), for example. They were ex-military men – Grinnell-Milne a flying ace and escaped POW, Pollard a recipient of the Victoria Cross – dabbling, like many of their peers, in writing in the inter-war years. Both drew on their WWI experiences in their writing, before turning their hands to other subjects later in their careers. Pollard was particularly prolific, writing over 60 books including many crime and thriller novels.

Ernest Elmore (1901-1957) didn’t ring a bell for me but it transpires that his inclusion in this list marks the beginning of a significant crime-writing career under the rather better-known pseudonym ‘John Bude’ – a name that will be very familiar to any fans of the British Library Crime Classics series.

John Bude, The Cornish Coast Murder

There’s science fiction here as well; Noel Godber (1881-1953) launched a short-lived writing career with a debut titled Amazing Spectacles!, about a group of men who invent x-ray spectacles – the possibilities are endless but looking through women’s clothes seems to be top of the agenda… Iris Barry (1895-1969), who is now remembered as a film critic and the first curator of the film department of the New York Museum of Modern Art, made a rather higher-brow foray in This is Thy Victory, which imagines a world in which death has ceased to exist.

Barry was well-connected to the London literary scene (she was friends with Ezra Pound and had two children with Wyndham Lewis) and was not alone in this regard. Both Nancy Mitford and Daphne du Maurier would have had plenty of friends and relatives to lead them to Curtis Brown. The Irish novelist John Heygate (1903-1976) moved in the same circles as the Mitfords and was involved in an affair with Evelyn Waugh’s wife whilst penning his first novel, Decent Fellows.

John Heygate, Decent Fellows

There’s a strong showing for international fiction, too. The enigmatic “N. Gubsky” is Nikolai Gubsky (1889-?) a Russian exile writing in English who later tried to distance himself yet further from his roots by writing as ‘Michael Goring’. Louis Kaye was the pseudonym of Noel Wilson Norman (1901-81), an Australian novelist and short story writer. And John Levo was the rector of Tortola, the largest of the British Virgin Islands, which he referred to affectionately as “the size of a piece of cheese”. Interviewed on a visit to the UK, he said: “London’s not civilised and I can’t live here, though I have tried for the last two years. In the West Indies you are yourself, here you are merely a conglomeration of other people’s opinions.” Suffice to say, his foray into the big city was short-lived, and he wrote only one further book.

But then, most importantly, on this scrap of paper we find a handful of writers whose first books were the seeds of what would become glittering literary careers: du Maurier’s The Loving Spirit, Mitford’s Highland Fling, O’Brien’s Without My Cloak – which won the James Tait Black Prize and Hawthornden Prize – and R. C. Hutchinson’s Thou Hast a Devil. All excellent in their own rights but mere precursors for what was to come – whether that’s Mitford’s perfect The Pursuit of Love, du Maurier’s inimitable Rebecca or Hutchinson’s Booker-shortlisted Rising.

To quote our forebears (who certainly didn’t pull their punches!): “a big agency organisation like ours is sometimes criticised on the grounds that we cannot afford to bother with unknown authors; that is why we call particular attention to our work for new novelists.” Well, we are just as proud of Curtis Brown’s 2019 debut authors, and we’ll be looking for our next du Maurier or Mitford in the Curtis Brown 120 Novel Writing Prize, opening for submissions in April.

Find out more about Curtis Brown 120 here.

If you’re writing a novel, check out the creative-writing courses – online or in London – currently open for applications or enrolment at Curtis Brown Creative.

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