Anyone with romantic fantasies about the life of a popular writer need only read Margaret Campbell’s autobiography The Debate Continues to get over them. Under such pseudonyms as Marjorie Bowen, Robert Paye, George R. Preedy, Joseph Shearing, and John Winch, she published over 150 books, many of them best-sellers in both the U.K. and U.S.. She tended to specialize in highly authentic but melodramatic historical novels such as The Viper of Milan (1906), which she wrote at the age of 16. Indeed, the popularity of The Viper of Milan, which was a best-seller of its time, was such that her publishers put relentless pressure on Campbell to write more like it. And the extravagant demands of her family–first her mother and then her ailing first husband–on her income, as she was typically the only bread-winner, kept her writing book after book in a genre and style she considered beneath her true abilities.
Margaret’s parents separated a few years after she was born, and she spent most of her early years moving from one cheap apartment to another as her mother, Mrs. Vere Campbell, an aspiring but utterly unsuccessful playwright, outran collection agents and leaned upon the charity of her friends. Her mother made it clear that Margaret, whom she considered thin, unattractive, and stupid, was by far the least favored of her three daughters. It made for a pretty grim childhood: “The great object of my days,” she wrote, “was to escape blame or punishment, for active pleasure or amusement was beyond hope.” Her grandmother, who was part of this wandering band, was little better: “Nana, too, would always remain as she was—slovenly, slack, with a sly, malicious tongue, untrained in everything save the shifts of poverty and the intrigues of cheap lodging-houses and tenth-rate flats.”
As what little money her mother could spend on schooling she reserved for her other daughters, Margaret largely taught herself, painstakingly working out the meaning of words in the rare book that might be lying around one of their apartments. By her early teens, however, she was spending many of her days at the British Museum, reading about history, art, and culture. She picked up a few small jobs as a fact-checker and ghost-writer, and was soon the one reliable source of income for the family. Not that this did anything to improve her standing in her mother’s eyes. Her mother was, variously, dismissive, discouraging, or bitterly envious.
Margaret’s first attempt at writing a novel was, by her own account, highly amateurish and relied heavily on guidebooks for its settings. Passed around from publisher to publisher for several years–most of them simply refusing to accept that a young girl could have written it–it was finally accepted in 1906 by Gilbert and Sullivan’s publisher, Alston Rivers. A moderate success in the U.K., The Viper of Milan became a best-seller when published by McClure in the U.S.. Quickly, the demands of both her publishers and her family turned Margaret into a full-time production machine. Although she held no great opinion of her work, Margaret did scruple to stick with subjects that required at least some knowledge and craftsmanship on her part:
… I liked historical work. It never could be as slap-dash and careless as light, modern stuff. A good deal of effort, research and painstaking, and a severe self-discipline were necessary for the writing of these books in which history was to be transformed into fiction and men and women of the past given some kind of life. The harder the work involved in the preparation of a book the better I liked it. I seemed to be giving something solid in return for the money I earned; too much money for what I gave, I always privately thought. And at least there was a certain dignity about this kind of fiction that there would not have been about ephemeral love or adventure stories of the life about me.
She also found, ironically, some relief in her tendency to favor stories of revenge, murder, and Gothic horror: “I found that, by writing of dark and gloomy subjects, I, in a way, rid my mind of them.”
“Margaret Campbell thus ended her account of her childhood and youth.” With this odd statement, Campbell opens the second half of her book and abruptly shifts from first person to third person. The transition also marks the start of her life as a married woman. In 1912, she met a Sicilian man at a party hosted by one of her mother’s friends, and more as an escape than out of love, married him soon after. Within a few weeks, they were on their way to Italy, and soon after that, Margaret found she was pregnant with their first child. Her account of the child’s delivery at the hands of a local Sicilian mid-wife, “who had every appearance of being a witch and whose knowledge of superstitions, of incantations, of good and bad omens was only equalled by her complete ignorance of medicine and hygiene” is as terrifying as anything she wrote as fiction.
Her husband then had the inspiration to rent the palace of some German prince along the Ligurian coast between La Spezia and Pisa in the off-season. There was truly nothing to be recommended in this plan: the place was gloomy, impossible to heat, sitting near stagnant water, and with little in the way of food. Margaret’s husband, who was never very healthy, quickly fell ill and began to waste away. He hung on for over a year, with Margaret all the while struggling to care for him, search for food, haggle with the local pharmacist over patent medicines, find wood for the stoves … and, in her spare time, keep writing. “There were times,” she wrote, “when she wished she could have been treated as they treated stray dogs, given some warmth, food, and quietly exterminated.”
Margaret’s husband hung on for over a year. In his last few months, she finally found a reliable doctor to care for him. Long anticipated by her maid, who spoke of the man’s legendary care-giving abilities, “The Professor” came over to the house early one summer evening. She was utterly unprepared for what happened next:
She supposed that she had read or heard of such an experience as was now hers, but she had scarcely believed in it. What had happened was that the focus of her existence had altered; she had been absorbed, to the point of obsession, with her husband, with his illness, with his approaching death. For months she had thought of nothing else, save intermittently of the child in England. Only a few stray unbidden dreams and visions had interrupted the intense concentration on this one subject.
Now, in one moment of time, the moment in which she had met this stranger on the threshold of her alien home, everything had altered. It was no longer her husband who was her chief concern, but the man who was now shut up with him, the man who had been so incongruously and absurdly termed “the Professor.”
Margaret’s feelings were fully reciprocated by the Professor, an elegant Venetian in his late sixties. As he left their villa a few days later, he spoke to her: “Before he left her he said he would come again in the morning early. Then he added, in a voice that was suddenly changed by emotion, that he loved her and would do so for the rest of his life.”
Their romance was one of the most proper to be found in literature. What few minutes they could share away from the dying man allowed time for nothing more than a short walk around the villa. And when, after the funeral, they were able to spend a few days together, concern for appearances kept things from going beyond an occasional holding of hands. Yet so convinced were they of their love that Margaret promised to marry the Professor when she returned from England with her son, who had been living with Nana.
But it was not to be. While in England, Margaret received a letter from him saying that his health was too poor to ever allow them to marry. In the space of three or four pages, she sweeps past her second marriage and two more children to arrive at the present. And switches back again to the first person: “It seems to me that it would have been simple for me to make a harmony of my own life, but it has always been cut across by the discords of other people’s lives.”
One has to respect Margaret Campbell’s dedication to her work as an income-earning writer, and in retrospect, she is certainly considered among the better genre novelists of her time. However, one is also tempted to play amateur psychoanalyst in reading her autobiography: why the shift from “I” to “Margaret” and back to “I”? And is it selflessness or resentment that lies behind this statement: “I think I should have known how to live simply, pleasantly, and gaily myself, but no life can be entirely self-contained and my designs have been overborne by those of other people”? Even without the analysis, though, The Debate Continues is an absorbing and fast-moving story that will leave you in awe of this woman’s energy.
The Debate Continues is long out of print, and, according to AddAll.com, there are no copies available for sale. However, you can find the complete text online courtesy of Project Gutenberg Australia at http://gutenberg.net.au/ebooks13/1300751h.html.