CHAPTER XIX

I am not going to talk about 'the crash'. So many books have been written about it. Everything has been told and retold, and so much has been lived through, and so much remembered, so little forgotten. My son was too young and we were too old to be of any use 'out there': and all that I want to recall is the way my home life and my work were affected by that terrible cataclysm.

After the first shock of those awful headlines in the morning papers of August 4th 'England declares war on Germany', what intruded most persistently on my consciousness was the ever-flowing stream of Belgian refugees which threatened to submerge our small towns and villages in this part of Kent. Hospitals could not, of course, cope with it; the stream overflowed into every house, every cottage, every stable and barn from Chatham to Rochester, to Maidstone, to Ashford.

Devoted, impecunious old gentlewomen gave up their beds, denied themselves every comfort to house these poor people who descended like locusts upon the entire neighbourhood, expecting everything, demanding everything; every attention, every comfort. Dear Belgians! How we loved them, how we pitied them, how we were all of us happy to do what we could for them . . . for a long time. All the same we were very thankful to our authorities when the whole of the Maidstone district was included in the military area where no alien, whether friend, ally, or foe, was allowed to dwell within its boundaries. And we saw our Belgians depart without shedding too many tears.

cd

Naturally, as far as I was concerned, the question of my work soon cropped up. My latest book The Laughing Cavalier was ready for publication, but was this the time for publishing light-hearted works of romantic fiction when the whole nation was plunged in anxiety and sorrow? Well! The whole question was soon settled for me personally and I was overwhelmed with work. 'Carry on!' was the slogan that was dinned into the ears of all us professional people. Carry on! Remember all those hundreds and thousands of workers whose existence depends on what you can give them to do, how by keeping up your own work, you can keep so many going on with theirs. As far as we writers of fiction were concerned there were the printers and compositors, the bookbinders, the newsvendors, the booksellers--all these corporate bodies had to be kept going.

I consulted Messrs. Hodder & Stoughton, who had The Laughing Cavalier in hand, and they also said unhesitatingly, "Carry on! as we also mean to carry on". Moreover, they were bringing out books for the benefit of different big charities that needed help, and those of us who had the privilege of popularity were necessarily expected to contribute to the making of such books, which were to be printed and sold in their thousands and tens of thousands. 'Short stories, long stories, articles, drawings, sketches. Send us everything you can', was the order of the day. I remember that several members of the Authors' Society raised a protest against the publication of these books, which flooded the bookstalls and the counters of booksellers, of Harrod's, Selfridges, and so on, arguing (and justly some thought) that since they were produced at the mere cost of printing and binding without remuneration to contributors they could be sold at a paltry price in direct competition with other works of fiction that in many cases were the sole means of existence for authors already hard hit by the troublous times.

The controversy on the subject raged for some time I remember and several popular authors undertook to refuse contributions to the 'charity books'. I took no part whatever in the dispute. When I was asked to send a story or an article for one of those books I wrote what I was asked for, and thought no more about the rights or wrongs of the whole question. I didn't seem to have any time for polemics and, anyway, there was obviously something to be said for both sides. And so King Albert's Book was published and Princess Mary's Book and many others--all of them with contributions from my pen and all sold at fantastically low prices and in equally fantastic numbers.

I was also constantly requisitioned for conferences, addresses, or lectures, and these of course needed careful preparation. Indeed my time was full up. A committee of ladies in our district who had not the vocation for nursing, for tending the wounded, or serving in the numberless canteens that had sprung up all over London for the entertainment of the soldiers moving to and fro, arriving or departing for the front begged me to give them conferences of lectures, something in fact to 'take their mind off' the war. They found time, so they said, hanging very heavily on their hands. I naturally agreed to this for I have never in all my life learned to say "No!" to any appeal of that sort. So I said "yes!" I won't say reluctantly, but hesitatingly, for I knew what a lot of preparation and a lot of reading such conferences would entail. The committee representing the audience were to choose the subject of the conferences.

Well! it seems that the ladies desired to know more than their old history books had taught them about our war with Napoleon Bonaparte. I pointed out to them, that as this conflict lasted from first to last two-and-twenty years, the subject was on too vast a scale for cosy talks round the fireside at Snowfield. For it seems that this was what they wanted, 'just cosy talks', no more. I disclaimed any attempt at military history. It was the political side of the war that they wanted to hear about. What had brought on the conflict, and why had England remained such a fierce antagonist of the great Napoleon who had been the national hero of France even in the midst of his final failures and his humiliating downfall? Even without the military side of this all absorbing period in history the subject was a big one.

However, I tackled it and the 'cosy talks' were immensely appreciated. So much so that when I had come to the end of all that I wished to say on that particular subject, the audience wanted something more. Would I deliver a few 'cosy talks' on English literature, especially on contemporary literature? This was, of course, a less strenuous subject for me to tackle. It only meant brushing up what had been one of my most constant studies for the past twenty years.

cd

In the meanwhile the question of the publication of The Laughing Cavalier was definitely solved. I had demurred long enough and the romance was published early in the autumn. The following 'publisher's note' was included in every copy of the first edition of the book.

PUBLISHER'S NOTE

On the outbreak of the war the Baroness Orczy decided to postpone the publication of The Laughing Cavalier. In response, however, to many requests from the novel-reading public and from those employed in the bookselling, printing and binding trades which will suffer greatly if fiction is not published as usual, the author of The Scarlet Pimpernel agreed to the publication of this book--for which we render her our thanks.

A few of us members of the Society of Authors and Composers formed ourselves into a small committee of assistance for those of our colleagues who were severely hit by the war . . . and by the ever-growing sales of the charity books. We met in town every Tuesday, and every member of the committee brought forward any cases of distress that had come under his or her notice. It was a difficult business: difficult, because one so often came up against pride and reticence. Our chairman in the beginning was John Buchan (he was Colonel Buchan then), but soon he was called up to his military duties, and my dear friend, W. J. Locke, took his place and continued in that capacity till the end of the war. As a chairman he was just perfect, with his charming manners and perfect understanding of all the difficulties that beset his colleagues less fortunate than himself and that beset all of us who tried our very best to be of help to them.

We were quite a small committee but it was a representative one: Alfred Sutro, Alice Perrin, May Sinclair, and that kindest, most self-effacing Charles Garvice. From time to time Anthony Hope, Always exquisitely dressed and full of charm, shed the light of his countenance upon us and gave us most welcome help and advice.

As a matter of fact we found that musicians--both composers and executants--had been the hardest hit, more so than authors.

But with all these activities and the several duties devolving upon me, and with the many hours of the day which I put into my literary work, I soon found that my health was not standing the strain of it all as I had hoped it would. To put it mildly, I had a bit of a breakdown. Our dear old medical adviser said, "Change. You must get away somewhere," very tentatively. How and where could one go for a change when the whole of the world seemed to be in the grip of war? England, anyway, would be no use. "You would only get dragged in again into conferences and opening of bazaars and committee meetings. No! no! not the British Isles for you." Then where? France, of course. The only country possible. Preferably the South. But we had never been to the South of France. There was Nice and Cannes and Mentone, where friends used to go in the happy days of peace, and they used to tell us all about the 'earthly Paradise': but somehow we had never been tempted to go. Rome or Holland or Belgium had seemed so much more attractive, and so often we went to Paris without thinking of pushing on further South. And there had always been Transylvania and its wild and glorious holiday moods! We knew nothing, absolutely nothing, about the play-ground of Europe.

But once again, unsuspected by me, here was yet another link in the chain of my life. The last link of all, which brought me and my beloved to anchorage in Monte Carlo. A very dear friend, a widow with an only son, was possessed of a small villa in Monte Carlo. She wrote to say that her son had just been given a job in the Foreign Office. They had been spending the Christmas holidays in their villa and were now returning to London for the whole winter. The Villa would be empty: why not go down and occupy it until their return?

Why not, indeed?

Links in the chain of life.

A fortnight later we were in Monte Carlo. And there I stayed and I wrote twenty of my most popular romances.

 

NOTE

The whole of this book was written between the years of 1938 and 1945. The political aspect of the whole of Europe has since that time undergone a radical change. The small insignificant Principality of Monaco has had its changes also. At the time of writing this chapter on the subject of Monte Carlo these changes had not yet taken place and what the future would bring for the Principality in its political, social and economic aspects was still in doubt.

Chapter XX deals exclusively with pre-war Monaco.


©Blakeney Manor, 2001