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Authors: Frances Vernon

A Desirable Husband

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A Desirable Husband

FRANCES VERNON

To my editor, Alison Burns

‘I heard Father McAuliffe say that in love affairs piety comes in, and it has been my greatest ambition to see a pious love affair …’

Daisy Ashford,
The
Life
of
Father
McSwiney

Georgina Frances Vernon was born on 1 December 1963, firstborn child of the tenth Baron Vernon
(
John Lawrance Venables-Vernon
)
and his first wife Sheila, and was raised on the Sudbury Estate in Derbyshire
(
this comprising the late-seventeenth-century country house Sudbury Hall, the village of Sudbury and its surrounding farmland
).

At the age of eighteen she embarked upon a writing career, taking ‘Frances Vernon’ as the name by which she wished to be known. She completed six novels in the space of ten years, the last published only posthumously. Her literary accomplishment was widely hailed by a range of notable reviewers, and in light of her prodigious talent her early death in 1991, aged just twenty-seven, was felt by all who knew her and her work to be especially poignant.

Faber Finds is privileged to now be reissuing Frances Vernon’s entire
oeuvre
. This prefatory account of her life and work has been compiled from separate interviews kindly contributed by her mother Sheila Vernon, and her first cousin the photographer and author Michael Marten, who encouraged and advised Frances in her literary vocation.

MICHAEL MARTEN
: Frances’s father John was my uncle, so I knew her from childhood. I spent quite a lot of my childhood at Sudbury so I saw the old ways (
laughs
), at least as they were in the 1950s and 1960s … The family lived in one little bit of this vast place, Sudbury Hall, with a handful of servants. The upper two storeys were empty and the ‘state rooms’ were only used once or twice a year. But the grounds were perfectly kept up, and the kitchen garden was astonishing, with cherry trees
espaliered on the brick walls. The cost of upkeep, though, was huge. Either you turned it into a theme park or else …

SHEILA VERNON
: Johnnie’s father died in 1963 and Frances was born that year. We lived in the Hall for a time while Johnnie negotiated to sell it to the National Trust, really in part payment of death duties, which was all very complicated.

MICHAEL MARTEN
: My uncle John built a house in the grounds, screened from the Hall, and that’s where Frances and her younger sister Janna were brought up.

SHEILA VERNON
: Frances was always creative. She could draw very well from about the age of four, as a lot of children can, but occasionally she would make something that really did surprise us. I remember her nursery-school teacher telling me that Frances had said she was bored, and so the teacher gave her a darning needle that she was very pleased with, and handled beautifully. But the teacher also said, ‘It does worry me, she works on her own, she won’t join in with the other children …’

Her first school was the village school, though it was a slightly unusual set-up. There was an open prison there, which had been an army camp during the war. Most of the children were either tenant farmers of Johnnie’s, or living in the village, or else the children of prison officers. Frances told me one day that one of the children’s fathers was retiring, and her thought was, ‘Papa can go be a prison warder and we can live in his house,’ which meant she’d go on the bus with the other children. She did have friends, but still, I think she felt a bit of an odd-one-out, wanted to be more like the others.

She wasn’t an easy child, or a very happy child, to be honest, which is the sad part. She was anxious, she needed activity, wanted to be doing something creative nearly all the time. We would watch
Blue Peter
together and she would want to make whatever the presenters were making, but if we didn’t have all the necessary materials at hand my heart would sink, because that would frustrate her. And then they would produce ‘the one they made earlier’ …

MICHAEL MARTEN
: I think everyone found Frances unusual as a child – and as she grew up. She
was
unusual, exceptional,
in many ways. From a very young age, maybe six, certainly by eight, she spoke and behaved and thought just like an adult, asked questions and talked about adult things, with some gravitas, if you like. She didn’t behave like a child. In fact she had very strong opinions about childhood, and wanted to be treated as an adult from a much younger age than is usual.

Later in life she read a book called
Centuries of Childhood
, by a man called Philippe Ariès, which strongly influenced her. Basically its thesis was that modern childhood is a completely invented concept from the seventeenth century onward. Before that, children became adults at or around puberty, twelve or thirteen years of age – girls got married and so forth. Frances thought this was right and proper and ought to be reinstituted. She thought modern childhood was a form of slavery – children were slaves, and schools were prisons (
laughs
). She believed in enduring education, that one should be educated throughout one’s life, and that society would come round to this one day.

SHEILA VERNON
: She went to too many schools, really. First she was at a boys’ school where she was one of only two girls, and that maybe wasn’t a good idea. Then we sent her to boarding school in Kent, not a success, probably she was a bit young to go so far away. She was happier at Cranborne Chase in Wiltshire, it was more free and easy, no uniforms. She was eleven then, and already writing things for herself. Then both she and Janna went to Queen’s College, Harley Street, and they both liked it. By that time they were teenagers – and Johnnie and I were separating, at not a good time, probably.

Frances always did well academically, but I remember one report said, ‘She does not want to learn. No, she does not want to be taught.’ That teacher was right. She didn’t submit easily. She thought all schools were too slow and didn’t teach you enough. She read so quickly, the likes of
Clarissa
and
Pamela
, and she and Janna were both keen on Georgette Heyer. She was quick, she found things easy. But I think socially she found that fitting into the world was the problem, in a way.

MICHAEL MARTEN
: Frances could be very direct, she said what she thought, and she wouldn’t do boring chit-chat – she liked
to have serious conversations and she would cut straight to the serious point.

SHEILA VERNON
: I remember a boy she met at fourteen who mentioned that he was a Catholic, and she said, ‘Oh, then you must know about Thomas Aquinas?’ This poor boy knew nothing of the sort. But she laughed about that, in retrospect.

MICHAEL MARTEN
: I was staying at John and Sheila’s when Frances must have been about fifteen. She knew I’d written non-fiction books, and as I recall she told me she had written several chapters of a novel and would I read them? I did, and they were astonishingly good. There was lots of purple prose but … I mean, you immediately know when someone can write, and she evidently could, and could tell a story, and it was clear she had a remarkable perception about people and the way they behave and talk. Her characters and conversations rang true. I told John and Sheila how impressed I was, and I encouraged her to write more. And from that point I would read whatever she was writing and give her feedback. Though I was probably a very harsh critic.

SHEILA VERNON
: Michael took a lot of trouble writing letters to Frances and he really helped her with the writing. I think his view was ‘If you’ve written a very fine passage strike it out …’

MICHAEL MARTEN
: I was always a believer in a pared-down style: an adjective needed to be there for a reason, and things could be cut short. But she soon learnt to do that for herself. After that she would always show me her manuscripts, though maybe not the first draft. But we would discuss it, and I’d write to her. It would mainly be questions of structure, character, particular scenes, whether or not they worked. So I became her closest literary sounding board.

SHEILA VERNON
: Frances was still at school when
Privileged Children
was accepted for publication by Michael Joseph. At the same time she was accepted for a place at New Hall, Cambridge. She wasn’t quite eighteen when she went up to Cambridge, and she was only just old enough to sign the publishing contract over those Christmas holidays. But she wanted it done under the name of Frances. She was christened
Georgina Frances, and we called her ‘Georgie’ as a child. But she wanted a change. One of her friends said, ‘“Frances” is more unisex, more middle-class and more transatlantic,’ – which sums it up quite well. And I got used to it.

She went back to Cambridge after Christmas, but there was a stage where things seemed to fall apart – having had a boyfriend the previous term who she was happy with, and made a group of friends, there was a falling-out, certainly with the young man, and things went downhill. And she left.

MICHAEL MARTEN
: My impression was that she couldn’t really cope. University is very rough-and-tumble and I think she found that hard, because of this sensitivity of hers. And again, she wanted to be fully adult, and she was about to publish a novel. It wasn’t that she was running away, she had something to go to.

SHEILA VERNON
: She was lucky enough to be given a flat of her own by her father in Delancey Street in Camden, so she had a sort of independence, at the ripe age of eighteen, and embarked on this life of living and writing alone. But it’s a lonely form of life. Later she moved to a flat in Regent’s Park Road.

Privileged Children
was published in September 1982 and went on to win the Author’s Club Award for Best First Novel. The
Daily Express
praised its ‘genuine sparkle and invention’. In the
Times Literary Supplement
Jenny Uglow called it ‘highly enjoyable’, noting that ‘the novel’s most passionate statements concern childhood, which is seen as a fictional state invented by adults with amnesia’.

SHEILA VERNON
: Frances gave me a copy of her novel, as she always did thereafter, and I was impressed. It was sad, in a way, that she couldn’t just have been like Alice [the heroine of
Privileged Children
] – an artist, albeit an eccentric woman, with a husband, albeit under her thumb. Towards the end of the book Frances writes something to the effect that Alice and her husband were not unconventional in that they didn’t really know that convention existed.

Her descriptions were very brilliant, of people and places
– she had the artist’s eye. I remember a schoolteacher friend of mine said to me of
Privileged Children
, ‘Not one single anachronism in the whole book!’

MICHAEL MARTEN
: I inherited Frances’s library when she died and there were a huge number of books in it about the Victorian period, in all its aspects, working class and upper class, social history, London and so on. She had a great memory for what she read, and great powers of concentration. Her fourth novel,
A Desirable Husband
, is set in the 1950s, which is when I was a child, and it rings so true of that class of people in that time, pitch-perfect.

Her knowledge of human social relations – that came from her perception. My wife, who knew her for a year or two, says that Frances ‘was missing several layers of skin’ and it’s a good way of describing her: she was extremely sensitive, to people’s feelings and interactions, and that’s why she suffered so much, why she found the world so hard to deal with – things that most of us shrug off or turn a blind eye to, she didn’t. Everything impacted intensely upon her. Music she found very hard to listen to – it got through to her and she could get deeply disturbed by it, it set off emotions that were too intense to cope with.

Frances’s second novel,
Gentleman and Players,
appeared in May 1984 and earned further glowing notices. In the
Guardian
Robert Nye called the book ‘a delight … cool, precise, amused and amusing’. He predicted that ‘Frances Vernon should become a cult figure’.
The Bohemian Girl
followed in August 1985. Philip Howard in the
Sunday Times
called it ‘a pretty, witty little parable about Victorian values, and the hazards of being female and intelligent in a country as sexist and anti-intellectual as the United Kingdom … This romance has teeth … it bites the eternal issues of class, and sex, and freedom.’

MICHAEL MARTEN
: Frances did have a handful of romantic relationships, they were very consequential to her, let’s say, but none of them were lasting or major. That was an aspect of life that she found difficult. But she had friendships. At her flat in Regent’s Park Road she would have occasional evening drinks
parties for about twelve to fourteen people. She wasn’t reclusive, but she didn’t like going out into the world.

I would meet with her every two weeks, usually to have dinner in each other’s flats or else out. We’d talk about everything under the sun. And we’d discuss her work. She didn’t find writing easy – easier than living, but not easy. She worked at it and it was work she enjoyed. For any writer there are frustrating days or weeks when you can’t express what you want. But she enjoyed writing, she liked the quiet and the intensity and the discipline. She could retreat into her imagination, and emerge as and when she had to.

But she found the world very hard to live in. I don’t know if she’d have found it any easier fifty or a hundred years before.

SHEILA VERNON
: I remember Frances saying to me, ‘I must be writing or I just can’t bear my life.’ None of the books were bestsellers, she never made a lot of money. I do sometimes wonder if she’d really had to earn money, would things have been better or worse? I can’t tell, really. What would have happened is impossible to tell.

A Desirable Husband
(1987) would be Frances’s last novel for Michael Joseph. Her next,
The Marquis of Westmarch
(1989), was published by Gollancz. Inspired by her reading of a passage in Germaine Greer’s
The Female Eunuch
concerning a rare genital malformation that historically led to the misidentifying of certain infant girls as boys, the novel tells of a nobleman who harbours just such a secret, the revelation of which would imperil his inheritance. Philippa Toomey for
The Times
called the novel ‘a fantastic, haunting, and extremely well-written story of love and death’.

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