R. Allatini, woman writer

Olive Dalcroze, the heroine of R. Allatini’s first novel, …Happily Ever After (1914) is herself a writer, and a determined one, though patronised by her family:

let the poor child play with a bit of paper and a pen if it amuses her.

She writes a novel called Hilary and explains to a sympathetic listener the kind of writer she intends to be:

I’ll never be ‘our popular lady novelist’, photographed for the benefit of readers of Home tattle. I’ll never go into the sevenpenny editions, because Hilary, bless his heart, wasn’t written with an eye to please the British Public. The young person who enters the library and vaguely demands ‘something to read’ won’t like my book, because the heroine neither dies in the snow on Christmas Eve nor marries the eldest son of a peer [….] and to cap it all, my hero ends badly – no, they don’t marry – so you see that in the eyes of the young person I am wholly and completely damned.

She sums it up:

No, Isolde, I want to be a woman writer, not a lady novelist.

She affirms this commitment when she signs her name at the bottom of the manuscript. She signs a non-gendered ‘O. Dalcroze’,  ‘with what was meant to be a bold masculine flourish, but was in reality rather a feeble nervous wiggle’.  (As the novel will go on to show, Olive cannot quite live up to the boldness of her imagination).

Her author never published a book under the name ‘Rose Allatini’. The early books were  published as by a gender-neutral ‘R. Allatini’, and after that it was pseudonyms. Annoyed by Persephone Books labelling Allatini’s early work ‘three romantic novels’, I thought I’d better check out the first of them, which I had not read. …Happy Ever After, after all, was the one that sounded most like a romantic novel. So maybe it was.

So yesterday I made my way to Boston Spa and the British Library’s northern outpost. (It’s hard to reach by public transport, and the travel information on the British library’s website is out of date – but actually I rather enjoyed the bus ride out of Leeds and into the wilds.) The building is huge and forbidding; it’s close to Wealstun Prison, and the inevitable joke is that it looks more like a prison than the prison does:

boston spa

The Reading Room is in a nearby prefab-type building, large, roomy,  and well-lit. There were half a dozen other readers there yesterday; it’s a big contrast to the packed reading-rooms of the British Library in London. The staff there are friendly and helpful.

And so I settled down to read …Happy Ever After. Like many of Allatini’s other novels, it is set in a large cosmopolitan family with branches in many countries. This family is not specifically  labelled as Jewish, though, and there are none of the edgy remarks about Jewish/gentile relations that are found in the later Root and Branch (1917). Olive is, like most Allatini heroines, the odd one out in the family, and without any of the practicality that makes her sister and cousins accept the advantageous marriages arranged for them by kindly relatives.

She falls in love twice; both episodes end badly. After the first one she writes Hilary, which we presume is based on her own experience. When the manuscript is typed, she shows it to the family:

‘But it isn’t a nice book,’ wailed Mrs Dalcroze.

She hopes for a better reaction from her sympathetic brother, but he is worried: ‘If I met a fellow’s sister who had written a book like that…’

‘Then,’ Olive’s lips were dry, her voice husky, ‘you seriously mean that no man would look at me if…’

She holds back from sending the book to a publisher, but shows it to Roger, a charming young man with whom she feels an affinity. He disappears from her life.

The book is determinedly anti-romantic. The end refuses the ‘young person’ the delight of romance. It is not what Olive had wished for herself, and not what the reader has wished for her. For Persephone to label this a ‘romantic novel’ shows either an insensibility to the author’s intentions or (more likely) that nobody there has read the book.

Yet of course there is a dialectic between the romantic and the anti-romantic. The book namechecks fairy stories and Jane Eyre and Paolo and Francesca; these are what life should be like, and life’s failure to live up to such texts is Olive’s tragedy. But even though romantic fiction still seems to be the yardstick against which the heroine (and her author?) still measure life, that does not make this a ‘romantic novel’ (at least in the derogatory sense in which the term is generally used by males downgrading female literature or by educated ladies setting a distance between their superior selves and other women who prefer a less elevated kind of book.

This is a young woman’s book, and not an altogether satisfactory novel (it could do with pruning). She would write better books later. But what it does do – Persephone please note – is set out Allatini’s most important intention: to be more than ‘a lady novelist’ – to be ‘a woman writer’.

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2 Comments

  1. Tom Deveson
    Posted April 27, 2018 at 3:43 pm | Permalink

    These pieces on Rosa Allatini are very interesting – thank you!

    I’ve just bought Blue Danube. It arrived this morning and I’m looking forward to reading it when I have time.

    I wouldn’t have heard of it without your guidance.

    • Posted April 28, 2018 at 10:11 am | Permalink

      I hope you enjoy Blue Danube. I’ve just started Destination Unknown, about a Jewish family in England during WWII. It’s promising.


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