A Woman Missing From The World Of Words



Nets To Catch The Wind - Barbara Worsley-Gough (Cassell & Company, London, 1935)

A literary twilight is an unusual state of affairs akin to the value put on obscure vinyl. Certain authors continue to matter despite their work being steadfastly out of print for decades. The books when they do surface are expensive and invariably realize their asking price. 

You'd imagine it would be easy to find copies of the novels of Barbara Worsley-Gough, such is her obscurity. Her two cookery books and her tome on London fashion are easily uncovered, but her nine novels remain expensive, elusive and therefore have a following or a select coterie of admirers. I can subscribe to this as I have for years scoured many a dusty shelf for her work, and therefore count myself a fan of a forgotten woman who died in 1961. From that moment her reputation became a faltering one, her volumes slipping into neglect, and as I can source no reference to her having children, there was no-one left to carry or curate the flame of her brief celebrity. It can be be co-incidence that she once more picked up her pen after the early death of her husband, though I imagine she was the kind of figure whose writing was a capricious act, rather than one burdened by any financial necessity.

Her career, and indeed there was one, splits into two distinctive strands. In the 1930s she published five novels Public Affaires, Sweet Home, A Feather In Her Cap, How To Be A Lady, and Nets To Catch The Wind, and worked as a reviewer. They are erroneously considered light and gaudy pieces of literary froth, it indeed they are considered at all. Most mentions of her cannot even add a death date to her life. She died in Purley, Surrey in 1961. It seems that her youthful output stalled from the late 1930's and the outbreak of war. Worsley-Gough married in 1932 and was five years older than her barrister husband. James Lyall Sheridan Hale, 1908-1949. She  began publishing once again in the 1950s. Two detective novels Alibi Innings and Lantern Hill, the previously mentioned cookery books, the one on fashion and two novels of satiric bite The Sly Hyena and Old Father Antic. Her return marked a distinct change in her literary voice and tone. The lightness of the the 1930's was replaced with waspish, at times withering observations about human nature, a mixture of the now celebrated Barbara Pym, 1913-1980, and the yet to be rediscovered and reassessed, Kathleen Farrell, 1912-1999.

Fairly recently I picked up a battered but intact copy of Nets To Catch The Wind and put it to one side for perusal at some future date. If ever a year was one for such obligations being realised, 2020 allowed me to give Mss Worsley-Gough the full attention of a curious spin. I sensed from her 1950s books a presence I might not have altogether liked. Flinty and brittle I gleaned she would not have been the kind of woman good at putting one at one's ease. It was therefore a shock to discover kindness and an insightful nature in Nets To Catch The Wind. It possess a great understanding of the human condition, and is kindly, tolerant and benign. Her characters are flawed, but not dissected in a forensic manner, and the book reads like a pure delight. It matters not at all that there are no more modern means of communication than letters or telephones, and the story unfolds after a funeral, with the inevitable obligations and expectations such an event entails. Sam Allen has become a widower, his wife of five weeks died, and in his late twenties, she being ten years his senior, a rather bold move for a novel of the time, has become step-father to twins, the diffident but sweet Leonora and her brother, the ambitious Angus, and their younger sister by a year, Elizabeth, who is remote, intelligent, calculating and determined. Allen is committed to honouring his familial obligations to his late wife, though he is only ten years distant from her brood in age. They in turn do no wish to have a young rich step-father who looks more like a brother.

The myriad of emotions that seep out are the core and the petrol of the novel. It becomes a wise treatise on obligation, expectation and compromise. The characters are largely sympathetic, flawed but likeable and the book cuts an interesting swathe through the social structures, the snobbery and decay at the heart of 1930s London. It has a canny, and for the time, honest conclusion, an ending of a certain but uncertain happiness of sorts. From far from ideal rooming houses the reader meets disagreeable landladies, a pompous academic with wandering hands, and a blind wife, and the spoilt and rather lost John whose sense of entitlement is mirrored by his inability to harness his life. His overbearing mother is the root of much of his diffidence and the book is a wonderful cavalcade of a lost brief era that the Second World War was waiting to destroy. It is a novel of cinematic scope, and one of resigned optimism tempered by harsh reality. Since it sketches the nature of our our interior worlds, it is also strangely timeless.

Barbara Worsley-Gough is a writer ripe for rediscovery. Her pre-war efforts have a lightness of touch and possess a sense of kindly consideration. It is therefore hardly surprising that her literary second act in the 1950s was a more cutting and impatient output. Her mutation from a pretty and bright young thing, to an impression of tweedy foreboding was perhaps inevitable having witnessed two world wars. Her later books are very funny, in the way that certain forms of entertainment are best viewed from a safe distance. She remains a character waiting in the wings for a benign act of appreciation. Whilst there may be a few who might remember her, it is hoped that this small barb of a reminder might be the spark to reignite her valuable literary flame. She is a beguilingly elusive talent, but one that amuses and rewards if you happen to stumble across her on a stall or on a shelf. She really is a rather original lady in waiting.

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