Interview with Raymond Blathwayt
For the Pall Mall Gazette
18 February 1890
The Ladies’ Corner
Lady Novelists – A Chat with Mrs. J.H. Riddell
Seated in a charming, low-ceiled room, I found myself (writes a representative) talking to a lady cheery and pleasant, light-haired and middle-aged, who told me in answer to my question that although she had been writing ever since her childhood days, yet it was not until about 1860 that, having laughingly told some friends she would write a novel about chemicals and City life, she produced her first [*1] published novel, “Too Much Alone,” which all the critics – and notably Shirley Brooks in Punch – thought was written by a man.
“At that time,” said Mrs. Riddell, “I wrote under the nom de plume of ‘Trafford,’ for it was not considered quite the thing for a lady to write in her own name. My husband was much amused one day when a man told him that he knew Trafford the novelist well, and that he was a ‘very good sort of fellow, don’t you know?’ But though there were few ladies writing in those days it was not a bit easier to get one’s work accepted than now. All my publishers would look upon my writing as a joke at first.”
“What made you take up the City as your theme, Mrs. Riddell? It seems so unlikely a subject for a woman to handle either well or technically.” – “I married a City man, a civil engineer, and we used to live in Scots-yard, in the very picturesque old house in which my hero ‘Austin Friars’ was born. All the pathos of the City, the pathos in the lives of struggling men entered into my soul, and I felt I must write, strongly as my publisher objected to my choice of subject, which he said was one that no woman could handle well. I used to love to go to the old City churches of which people seem to know so little. In fact I was and still am heartily in love with the City. I think ‘George Geith,’ which came out in 1865 [*2], is my most popular book. I always find that when a City man once begins my novels he reads the whole of them, and many business people in the country write to me about them. I fancy I must have a certain sympathy with City men, their lives and hopes and struggles, for they have always spoken to me very freely about their affairs, and so to a great extent I have learned a great deal from them. I have been sharply criticised, especially by the Saturday, but my City matters are always right.”
“Ah!” I replied, “I have often wondered how you steered clear of complications and technicalities which would frighten many men. With regard to forming ‘companies’ in your books, Mrs. Riddell, how do you set to work? I am perfectly well aware that many companies exist only on paper, and some times have not even such a tangible existence as that; but it must be difficult to conceive and establish and successfully carry out and register a company within the pages of a novel.” Here I paused to take my breath and await my hearer’s reply. “Well, I have known a good deal about City companies; and then my husband, who was a thorough City man, would always help me through. Only once did I make a mistake, when I wound up a company which had gone wrong without taking it through Chancery. A friend corrected me here, but the critics never discovered my little error. Yes, I suppose I do know more about the City and City ways than most women; but do you not think that nowadays ladies seem to take an absolute pride in not knowing or caring about City matters. Oh! How much trouble and misery and destitution might have been saved had wives but interested themselves in and understood their husbands’ business matters a little more than they had done. But there is quite an incapacity in a woman for all that lies east of Temple Bar, and the worst of it is that you cannot teach her. Yes, I usually take up one special phase of City life for each novel. I am more in harmony in describing City people. I understand them best. My books are not popular with Americans because they do not deal sufficiently with the grandees of the West-end, of whom I know but little and with whom I have the smallest sympathy. No, I am more at home among my City men, or, as in the case of ‘The World in the Church,’ amongst clergymen, who to me are a well known class. I understand men well, I have much in sympathy with them, and I always find them easier to describe than women. Men, especially young men, doctors and others, come to talk to me about their work and their life.
“I am now writing a study of seaside life called ‘Greys Point,’ which will come out this spring. I have not found writing very lucrative. One must write such a quantity to make it pay, and I can’t do that. I must put as much good as I have in me into my books. I invariably write the end of my books first.” Here I broadly smiled, it was so thoroughly a feminine confession.
*1. Too Much Alone was actually Riddell’s fifth published novel.
*2. George Geith was actually published in late 1864.
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