Warwick Deeping, the middlebrow's novelist
Born May 22 1877. Died 20 April 1950
Professional details: MA (Cantab), MB,BS.
The year was 1919. The Great War was over. Warwick Deeping and his wife Maude moved into Eastlands, the Georgian house in Weybridge where he would write the novels that brought him an international readership.
Up to that point most of his novels had been historical romances. Now, in his forties, he had more experience of life to draw on. He began to write contemporary fiction. The change was to reap extraordinary rewards. In 1925 his thirtieth novel, Sorrell and Son, was published. Until then he had enjoyed moderate success but Sorrell and Son catapulted him into best seller status. It enjoyed such sales that his publisher republished all his previous work and in a variety of languages. It was the moment all novelists (and publishers) dream about.
There was little in Deeping's early life to suggest he would become a successful novelist. He was born in 1877 at Southend the son of a doctor who was himself the offspring of a medical man. He was educated at Merchant Taylors' school and Trinity College, Cambridge where he read medicine. He went on to the Middlesex Hospital to complete his medical training. By this time he had started writing and his first novel Uther and Igraine- a medieval romance - was published in 1903. This kick- started a prodigious level of output which he maintained throughout his life - apart from a modest decline during the war years.
After qualifying as a doctor he spent a year in a country practice which may well have served as useful experience for his later writing. Doctors and medicine are recurring subjects in many of his books. He married and decided to devote himself to writing. He and his young wife moved to Sussex. To replace his doctor's income he set up a landscaping business which was to provide useful knowledge in the future. But he spent the majority of his time on writing. Writing in longhand he had produced over a dozen novels by the time the Great War began.
He returned to medicine in 1915 when he joined the Royal Army Medical Corp. During the Great War he served in France, Belgium, Gallipoli and Egypt where he had direct and vivid experience of the physical horrors of war He left the RAMC in 1919 with the rank of Major.
He immediately returned to writing. But now his focus had changed from historical romances to more contemporary subjects. His medical career, his wartime experiences and foreign travel provided rich veins of life to mine. Now he needed somewhere to live where he could concentrate totally on writing.
Eastlands, in Weybridge, provided him with the ideal environment for this. The house which began life in 1780 as a Georgian cottage was a substantial property by virtue of a series of extensions. It was approached from Brooklands Lane by an imposing long drive and beyond the house lay several acres of garden and woodland. It afforded Warwick Deeping and his wife Maude tranquillity for his work and opportunity to apply his interest in landscaping and gardening. They had no children - it has been suggested that he was greatly affected by the death of his baby sister and the plight of another sister born with a harelip.
In his first five Weybridge years Deeping alternated contemporary, mainly wartime, subjects with the historical themes he had so often used pre war. Then in 1925 he published Sorrell and Son.
It is the story of an officer who falls on hard times after the war. His wife has left him and he has the task of looking after their son. He sets out to make a good life for his young son whatever the cost to him personally. He suffers poverty, humiliation and hard labour but wins through in the end. It throws a perceptive light on English social mores between the wars.
The novel touched a nerve in the reading public. Overnight it became a best seller. Cassells , Deeping's publishers, recognized they had a publishing opportunity of major proportions on their hands and reprinted Deeping's previous novels for an international market. The storyline was ideal for film treatment and over a period of ten years two films based on the novel were made- silent as was the mode at the time. Many years later in 1984 it was taken up again to be produced as a mini series by Granada TV.
For Deeping, this sudden fame was not an entirely welcome consequence of his success. Admirers began gathering outside Eastlands to see where their favourite novelist lived. He had no intention of living in a goldfish bowl. To block their view he had a twenty-feet-high trellis fence erected along the Brooklands Lane boundary and redirected the drive into a dog leg shape.
He now had the funds to develop Eastlands. He added a first floor to an earlier extension taking care to include a second staircase and a green baize door to separate staff from guests. Over the next decade he negotiated the purchase of several parcels of adjoining land and a neighbouring cottage. He used the cottage to hold cocktail dances for his friends often after tennis parties on the tennis court he built.
He indulged his fascination for gardens and extended the formal gardens with a formal Italianate garden rising to an upper lawn surrounded by specimen rhododendrons. He added a balustrade allegedly from the old Bank of England building, deployed marble busts of Roman emperors at the corners, erected a small Greek temple and a pergola over which was trained a magnificent wisteria.
"One no sooner enters its gate than one is filled with a sense of peace and harmony" trilled the Surrey County Journal after a visit to Eastlands, "They are gracious hosts, evidently on the most friendly terms with their neighbours at Weybridge. Mr Deeping makes no pretentious fuss over his work and appears to prefer talking about anything but books and authors"
Indeed, Deeping was a hard man to be persuaded to give interviews about his work and even harder to attract to literary functions.
Privately he and Maude were sociable people. They entertained frequently, opened the gardens willingly to the public in support of charities but were averse to invasion of their privacy as a result of his work.
Deeping's attraction to readers was that his novels fulfilled their expectations. His characters were well drawn - decent fellows, often former participants in the Great War, who suffer misfortune through no fault of their own but have the moral core to battle through and ultimately succeed. Many live their lives in an England of teashops, idyllic gardens, a sharply structured class society and stiff upper lips.
The growing middle class had more time and inclination to read books and Deeping's novels, boosted by Sorrell and Son's success, flew off the shelves.
He drew on his own experiences at every turn. Country doctors, warfare, veterans adjusting to civilian life, gardens and gardeners, even varieties of apple trees ( there is an orchard at Eastlands with seven different species of apple). He was not averse to recycling plot lines which may have helped him on occasions to meet his publisher's demands.
The literati were not so easily won over by Deeping's work. George Orwell bemoaned the fact that Deeping commanded enormous commercial success with such 'middlebrow' content while great writers were ignored by the masses. Graham Greene delivered his own subtle barb in his Brighton Rock novel. He named Deeping and J B Priestley as the favourite authors of Ida, his poorly educated heroine, to stress her ordinariness .
Warwick Deeping never laid claim to literary genius. His basic theme was that good people ultimately find happiness and overcome obstacles. In the 1942 edition of Twentieth Century Authors he said ' One set out to see life, its pathos and heroism, and I have managed to find it more splendid than sordid. A negative cynicism seems to me to be a form of cowardice'.
Life after death
After his death Maude Deeping continued to live at Eastlands until her own death in 1971. In 1959 she gifted Eastlands to the National Trust stipulating that its character should not be changed and no other dwelling would be built there. She continued to pursue her interests in astrology, embroidery and gardening. She also played an active role in publishing a further six novels Deeping had produced before his death. Staff numbers had diminished to a housekeeper and one gardener. Neighbours were still invited to tea at four in the afternoon. They would be served by the housekeeper in her formal black dress, white apron and lace cap. Cakes would be served from a silver cake stand. Later Maude became more eccentric. She indulged her favourite colour green everywhere - walls, curtains, staircases, clothes, suitcases - even the chauffeur's livery to match the green Rolls Royce. She was familiar to her neighbours as The Lady in Green.
Interest in Warwick Deeping was rekindled by Granada TV's adaptation of Sorrell and Son as a mini series in 1984 and a 41st edition of the novel was published at the same time. A Warwick Deeping Appreciation Society was formed and was well supported until the death of the founder in 2008. Dr Mary Grover has authored several studies on middlebrow authors and readership including one entitled Warwick Deeping and cultural legitimacy. While a German academic Ingrid Wotschke produced her doctoral thesis at Leipzig University entitled 'Portrait of the English gentleman in the novels of Warwick Deeping.' His prolific output spanned that period from 1920 to 1950 when England was approaching a fundamental adjustment in its social and cultural structure. The world has become a very different place but Warwick Deeping's novels provide a fascinating portrait of a way of life existing before that change.
Footnote : My wife and I owned and lived at Eastlands for over twenty years. It remains one of the hidden gems of Weybridge hidden away from prying eyes yet a step away from the town. When we negotiated the freehold ownership in 2002 we were happy to covenant with the National Trust that no other dwelling would be built there in line with Maude Deeping's specific request.