El­swyth Thane: An Amer­i­can Au­thor De­voted to Eng­land

The Amer­i­can Au­thor De­voted to Eng­land

This England - - News - Francine Kirsch

Amer­i­can novelist El­swyth Thane (1900-1984) published Eng­land Was An Is­land Once in 1940 to drum up sup­port for Bri­tain, to prove to her fel­low cit­i­zens that their Mother Coun­try was worth sav­ing from a Ger­man in­va­sion. “You in Amer­ica,” she wrote, “how do you think it feels to live in a city not yet un­der fire but ac­ces­si­ble by bomb­ing from the air?” She feared that “more than the peo­ple who might be killed, a state of mind might die”.

A pas­sion­ate An­glophile, El­swyth was moved by the emer­gency mea­sures she ex­pe­ri­enced first-hand on her 1938 trip, when Neville Cham­ber­lain nar­rowly averted war at Mu­nich, and by be­ing caught in Eng­land at the start of war, to pen her first non-fic­tion book.

She had al­ready published an ar­ti­cle, “When Lon­don Held Its Breath”, in the De­cem­ber 1938 is­sue of a pop­u­lar Amer­i­can mag­a­zine. When she re­turned to Eng­land the fol­low­ing sum­mer, she was cog­nisant of the dan­gers but de­ter­mined. “There was no doubt this time about what I meant to do. I was writ­ing this book.” But her book was more than a re­port on war prepa­ra­tions. “This is a record of Eng­land in her hal­cyon times as well as in her tra­vail,” writ­ten be­cause she “...felt it to be in­con­ceiv­able that so much seren­ity and con­ti­nu­ity and good sense could be in peril of its life.”

Be­gin­ning in 1928, af­ter she mar­ried William Beebe, one of Amer­ica’s fore­most nat­u­ral­ists, El­swyth spent ev­ery sum­mer through to 1939 in Eng­land, re­search­ing his­tor­i­cal fic­tion with Bri­tish themes, while her hus­band mounted ex­pe­di­tions, of­ten from a re­search sta­tion lent to him by Prince Ge­orge, Duke of Kent.

She ad­mit­ted that “a deep-rooted, atavis­tic, in­de­struc­tible love for Eng­land was haunt­ing me long be­fore I ever went there. On the brink of each of my summers in Eng­land, I have felt the way a prop­erly in­dulged child feels on Christ­mas Eve.”

The books and plays she wrote be­tween 1928 and 1939 mir­rored these feel­ings, with ti­tles like The Tu­dor Wench, Young Mr. Disraeli, His Elizabeth, and Queen’s Folly. She even tried to “live as nearly as pos­si­ble like an English­woman” while she vis­ited, stay­ing in flats — prefer­ably in mod­ern blocks in the Bayswa­ter area of Lon­don — rather than a ho­tel.

“A small fur­nished flat,” she ex­plained, “equipped with au­to­matic re­frig­er­a­tion; a two-way ra­dio set; elec­tric fires; steam heat, and hot wa­ter.” She paid 10 shillings a week ex­tra for a char. In 1938 and 1939 it was a Mrs. Rich­mond who she re­garded very highly.

Nearby Kens­ing­ton Gar­dens was where she lounged in green can­vas deck chairs (“which you can sit in all day for tup­pence. These chairs, in this city of or­derly Bri­tons, are never snatched and sel­dom bro­ken.”). She de­scribed lis­ten­ing to an af­ter­noon con­cert at the Gar­dens’ band­stand or watch­ing chil­dren fish for tid­dlers in its Round Pond. She was also moved by the less for­tu­nate chil­dren “from the Padding­ton slums, not clean, for baths in the build­ings where they live are tup­pence each ex­tra and one tub of hot wa­ter does for the whole fam­ily in turn.”

Among her pre-war ex­pe­ri­ences were a sev­en­penny 1931 bus ride to Ep­ping For­est and a 1932 Hunger Strike par­tially de­railed by a “mush­room” fog (not as dense as a pea souper). The sum­mer of 1934 was so hot it caused drought and her hus­band’s pa­tron Prince Ge­orge mar­ried Princess Ma­rina. El­swyth spent part of her 1936 trip in a Buck­ing­hamshire cot­tage. She re­mem­bered how 1937 was Corona­tion sum­mer, fol­low­ing Ed­ward VIII’S ab­di­ca­tion (“Eng­land’s shock ab­sorbers, the es­sen­tial good tem­per and ho­mogeny of her peo­ple, brought her through this.”)

But her 1938 trip was mostly a wait­ing game, see­ing if war would break out. Writ­ing in 1940, she noted how “a great many of my days out of ev­ery sum­mer since 1929 had been spent in the Read­ing Room of the Bri­tish Mu­seum. Lit­tle did I think, all those years, that I

would ever see the day the Mu­seum it­self was banked with sand­bags against a pos­si­ble ae­rial bom­bard­ment of Lon­don. That day came in Septem­ber 1938.”

“Sand­bags were (also) go­ing up round Burling­ton House, in the heart of Pic­cadilly, at St. Paul’s and the City churches, in Down­ing Street and White­hall.” Sand­bags were not the only war prepa­ra­tion El­swyth saw. “Traf­fic was com­pli­cated by trucks loaded with anti-air­craft guns and search­lights and Air Ter­ri­to­ri­als.” Trenches were be­ing dug near the Sunken Gar­den of Kens­ing­ton Palace, be­neath the win­dows of the Ritz Ho­tel, and in pri­vate squares. “Men have been dig­ging all night by the light of mo­tor lorry head­lamps, flares, and im­proved search­lights,” she ob­served. Un­der her own win­dows work went on in the small hours to gas- and splin­ter-proof her apart­ment build­ing and “cer­tain Tube sta­tions were be­ing closed in Lon­don ‘for ur­gent struc­tural al­ter­ations’ — which meant bomb-proof­ing.”

El­swyth no­ticed ARP posters go­ing up in banks and post of­fices, on stone walls and gateposts. An­nounce­ments about the pro­cure­ment of gas masks were be­ing made in churches, cin­e­mas, and at sport­ing events. Pre­cau­tions were not merely ma­te­rial. “On Septem­ber 12th we first heard a dis­turb­ing ad­di­tion (to BBC news broad­casts) which at first puz­zled us, an un­in­tel­li­gi­ble mass of fig­ures and nau­ti­cal terms which had to do with the lay­ing of mines in the North Seas, and was be­ing given in code.”

De­spite all this El­swyth no­ticed very lit­tle scare­mon­ger­ing “even among the cheaper news­pa­pers. In fact, the pa­pers which held out the most hope sold the most copies.”

On 21st Septem­ber she vis­ited West­min­ster Abbey, “open con­tin­u­ously for un­bro­ken in­ter­ces­sion and silent prayer, at the Tomb of the Un­known Sol­dier. There was no mu­sic, al­most no sound….this was go­ing on day and night with­out a break. The door was never closed, the can­dles went on burn­ing.”

At the urg­ing of friends, El­swyth changed her orig­i­nal 15th Oc­to­ber liner book­ing for a 30th Septem­ber one. Iron­i­cally, Cham­ber­lain and Hitler reached an ac­cord the day be­fore she sailed home.

When El­swyth re­turned in 1939 — a gas mask packed in her hat box — she found that “the faces in the parks and restau­rants and streets were nor­mal and cheer­ful. Lon­don’s out­ward ap­pear­ance was the same.” Iron­i­cally, “The Lon­don pa­pers

were dis­tinctly less alarm­ing than the New York ones.” All the same, there were bar­rage bal­loons above Padding­ton Sta­tion and “all Hyde Park was be­ing dug up, it seemed, for sand­bags.”

A trial black­out took place on 11th Au­gust. It was not com­pul­sory so El­swyth re­ported how peo­ple gath­ered at Mar­ble Arch and Pic­cadilly to sing un­til mid­night and that Padding­ton Sta­tion was ablaze with light. Yet she also be­lieved that “we were as ready as it was pos­si­ble to be”, with free gas masks and shel­ters be­ing pro­vided for low-in­come Lon­don­ers. El­swyth her­self at­tended a train­ing session for air war­dens.

Although Amer­i­cans were ad­vised to leave on 22nd Au­gust, El­swyth stayed on, mov­ing to Chel­tenham which “felt as se­cure as any town in Eng­land could” and where she heard war de­clared, as she sat on a gar­den deck chair, “by the mir­a­cle of ra­dio. We heard through an open win­dow in the ho­tel smok­ing-room the voice of the Prime Min­is­ter in Down­ing Street.”

The ra­dio ini­tially stole some of the thun­der from news­pa­pers, in­clud­ing the first Sunday Spe­cial Edi­tion: “There were three words only: BRI­TAIN AT WAR. Trade was not brisk. There was lit­tle to add, at least as yet, to what we al­ready knew.”

El­swyth spent five weeks in a Chel­tenham ho­tel but “the first two weeks of war crept past us with a sense of fan­tas­tic un­re­al­ity. There was lit­tle to bring it home to us…the ho­tel gar­den daz­zled in the sun­light.”

But, soon enough, “the post of­fice and the po­lice sta­tion were sand­bagged, and the big plate glass win­dows in the Prom­e­nade were taped in criss-cross pat­terns. The lit­tle green squares and the lawns in the public gar­dens were all dug up for trenches. Cin­e­mas and the­atres were closed” and the town was be­ing filled with evac­uees.

Soon, too, Bri­tish friends be­gan hint­ing that her room, her food, even her gas mask, were needed by cit­i­zens. “With gen­uine hurt feel­ings I re­alised that I was, af­ter all, an alien, and found it was wholly be­wil­der­ing and sad. I didn’t re­ally be­long there. But I felt as though I did.”

On her home-bound voy­age, “we were lim­ited to two pieces of state­room lug­gage each, and one of these had to be my writ­ing case.” There were six in her room, the ship held twice as many pas­sen­gers as it was meant to, sat deep in the wa­ter and rolled since it also car­ried too much cargo. It took 12 days to reach New York from Southamp­ton.

The Blitz be­gan on 7th Septem­ber 1940. Eng­land Was An Is­land Once was published on 18th Septem­ber.

Although El­swyth con­tin­ued pen­ning pop­u­lar his­tor­i­cal fic­tion, it al­ways had an Amer­i­can set­ting, pos­si­bly be­cause she al­ready re­alised — as she wrote in 1940 — that “there is re­ally noth­ing so sad as an old hap­pi­ness. Sor­row can ease with time…but the mem­ory of an old de­light, a sunny hour that will never come again grows sharper with the pass­ing of time.”

El­swyth Thane published her fi­nal book in 1972 and died in 1984.


The Sunken Gar­den at Kens­ing­ton Palace. El­swyth re­called trenches be­ing dug nearby as Lon­don pre­pared for war.


Above: El­swyth Thane and her hus­band Dr. William Beebe.

Left: William (se­cond left) and El­swyth (far right) with friends in Ver­mont, 1957.

El­swyth re­counted Lon­don life as the coun­try faced war. She later spent time in the Glouces­ter­shire town of Chel­tenham (be­low).

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