Elswyth Thane: An American Author Devoted to England
The American Author Devoted to England
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).