Monday, 27 October 2014

"Oxford Somerset" - a mystery Topsham author

Further to the identification of "Richard Gray" as Jasper Salwey (see Salutation Inn), a correspondent just drew my attention to another mystery author with a Topsham pub connection: the strangely-named "Oxford Somerset".

Probably all that's currently known about this pseudonymous author is the entry in Who's Who in Literature for 1931:

SOMERSET, Oxford. B. 1870. Au. of Hayle (Mills & Boon), 1917; Quine (do.), 1918; An Odd Man's Marrying (Bale & Danielsson), 1922. THE PASSAGE HOUSE, TOPSHAM, DEVON. Club: AUTHORS'.
The three novels are all novels of the psychology of relationships (you might expect the first two to be romances, but Mills & Boon didn't specialise in this until the 1930s), and set overseas. A few reviews are readily findable. Firstly, Hayle:
HAYLE. By Oxford Somerset. Mills and Boon, Ltd. 6s.
Mr. Hayle was a Church of England vicar in "the great tropic city of Mootah," and he fell a victim to the passion of a lady of questionable reputation in spite of his engagement to the girl who would have made him an ideal wife— as far as could be foretold. He was a dear, unsophisticated, sporty, jolly fellow, and the reader will like him immensely; his adventures along the hilly road of true love are told racily and well, with good taste ; and without any exaggeration we can say that this novel is exceptionally good. "Victim" we hardly ought to call him, perhaps, since both "he" and "she" won through to happiness by the way of trouble and  sorrow; he was manly enough to give up the position which he felt he could no longer honestly hold, and she, forced in her girlhood into the world's shadier paths, was womanly enough to resist his appeal, and to exchange her role of temptress for that of friend and philosopher. Of the solving of the problem we shall not tell; the author has done his work excellently, and no lover of high-class fiction will easily set the story down before the end is reached.
- To-day, Volume 1, 1917, page 155

There is someone to reckon with in a novelist in Oxford Somerset, whose book, "Hayle," stands apart from the multitude of passable stories published as a rule.
   It is a love story of the triangle order. We have the woman already fixed up, loving the man she ought not to love and beloved by him, and the little girl to whom he engages himself in order that he may be anchored to rectitude. It is a familiar problem, capable of being worked out in a variety of familiar ways. But Oxford Somerset avoids the completely obvious, and by doing so compels the attention of the critical reader.
   It was clever of him to set his story in "the great tropic city of Mootah," for such a setting relieves the monotony of the eternal triangle plot. There is local colour as a relief. and so forth Then, by making a secret at the first of his herione's [sic] true status in society he strengthens his hand considerably. The hero is unaware of it ; the people around seem to be also, a fact one finds some difficulty in believing possible, but then in a great tropic city no doubt such things are possible.
   Of course if one set to work seriously to find flaws they might be found in "Hayle," but the broad principle would remain predominant over all, that this is an uncommon novel, in the midst of novels, and interesting from cover to cover.
- London Evening News, Aug 17, 1917, page 4

This novel attempts to present an impartial view of the pros and cons of marriage versus "free-love." The heroine is a young woman who lives by her own choice as the mistress of an elderly barrister in India, for whom she feels no  particular sentiment beyond an easy tolerance. She meets a young clergyman whose views of her status are of the conventional order, and whose efforts to patch up a marriage between her and the barrister have the effect of severing their relationship. After a good deal of unnecessarily protracted argument, the clergyman and the heroine settle down as husband and wife.
- The Athenaeum, Issues 4613-4624, 1917, page 312
And Quine:
Quine is a weakling of literary aspirations, whom circumstances oblige to follow a military career in the East. He gets into debt, and forges a fellow-officer's signature, is discovered, forgiven, and encouraged to begin afresh, his path of extravagance being unexpectedly smoothed through a handsome legacy. He next tries matrimony as a means of reformation, but his inherent faults of character lead to discord, and the end is tragedy.
- The Athenaeum, Issues 4613-4624, 1917, page 681
And An Odd Man's Marrying:
"Was I the kind of man," says Mr. Postlethwaite, the hero of this book, " out of whom could be made what could properly be called a partner ? . . . I had long doubted it." The reader doubts it, too. "The sight of twenty or thirty girls gave my mind direction. Why not look for what I wanted among these?" The book is an account of his search for a woman who should be worthy of him. It was unnecessary to heighten the interest with hidden gold. Mr. Postlethwaite is sufficient in himself.
- The Spectator, Feb 24 192, page 22

The protagonist of "An Odd Man's Marrying" is one Postlethwalte, a somewhat self-conscious individual, by whom the story is told. He certainly justifies the epithet in the title. He is by way of being a recluse and a wanderer on the face of the earth, but he is extremely susceptible to female influence, and much of the book relates to his manifold adventures in sentiment. Another character, the uncle of one of his inamorata, is equally unconventional. He attempts, unsuccessfully, to kill Postlethwaite, but continues to be on excellent terms with him. The greater part of the action takes place in a novel setting-emdash-the Island of Perim, near Aden; excitement ls provided by a hunt for treasure and the tale is quite interesting, though lt would have been improved if the author had used the blue pencil on some of Postlethwaite's protracted monologues on the subject of Postlethwaite.
- The Sydney Morning Herald, Apr 14, 1923, page 10
There are a couple of leads to the identity of "Oxford Somerset". One is that the Authors' Club still exists, and their archives may contain his or her real identity. The other is the location: "Passage House, Topsham" may be the pub, or the adjacent property that it expanded into some time in the mid-20th century. Barbara Entwistle's 1990 Around Topsham in Old Photographs mentions
Mr George Leach, landlord of the Passage Inn. It was Mr Leach who extended the inn to these premises next door.
1931 residence data isn't easily findable, but there are a few days to catch the Museum open before it closes for the year.

Meanwhile, are there any Topsham readers who can short-cut this? Who lived in the Passage House / Passage House Inn in 1931? "Oxford Somerset" would have been about 60 then, and (judging by the novels) perhaps someone with experience of overseas travel. I'll pass on any information to my correspondent.

Passage House Inn, Topsham - from Geograph - © Copyright N Chadwick
Licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence
- Ray

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