The fact that Frances Bellerby’s Selected Stories has been out of print for over thirty years now is literally a case of insult being added to injury. Having damaged her spine while walking along the Lulworth Cliffs on the Dorset coast in 1930, Bellerby spent the remaining forty-five years of her life in pain and illness, yet managed to write short stories that are discussed alongside those of Katherine Mansfield, Sylvia Townsend Warner, Jean Rhys, and Elizabeth Bowen. Of the 40-plus writers profiled in David Malcolm’s recent survey, The British and Irish Short Story Handbook, only one–Bellerby–has none of her story collections currently in print.
Although no less a worthy than Robert Gittings contributed an illuminating biographical sketch for Bellerby’s Selected Poems (which is still in print, probably simply due to the fact that Amazon hasn’t sold out the 1994 printing), her life deserves a treatment similar to Jean Strouse’s classic biography of Alice James. For, like Alice James, Bellerby’s was an intense and creative spirit that burned within a body often inadequate to the task of sheltering it.
Born in Bristol, Bellerby was taught at home until the age of nine by her mother, a trained nurse who worked alongside her husband, an Anglo-Catholic cleric, in a mission among the working poor in the quarries, collieries, and factories outside the city. The family was, in Gittings’ words “exceptionally tight-knit and isolated socially.” Frances idolized her older brother, Jack, and his death in World War One was the first of a series of tragedies that left permanent imprints that can be seen clearly in her work.
Eager to join the fight after the outbreak of the war, Jack volunteered for the Coldstream Guards and was among the first of the so-called Kitchener’s Army to be sent to France. Visiting his family shortly before embarkation, Jack told his father that he expected to be killed in action, saying that he considered it a fate preferable to being wounded and sent home a permanent invalid. His prophecy proved true, as he was killed by an artillery shell on 8 August 1915 at “Windy Corner” near Givenchy. Decades later, in her story “The Carol”, his sister imagined her brother’s return to their home:
Observing a photograph which he did not remember, he went close to see what it was. It hung over the bed, and beneath it hung the old snapshot of James. To his amused surprise the photograph was of himself in uniform. Vaguely, he remembered having it taken. Funny old Mater to put that in my room! he thought, much entertained. Then, noticing written words at the foot of the photograph, he read: “Killed in Action at Givenchy, Aged i8, August 8th, 1915.” This gave him a tremendous shock.
So when his mother, hearing, as she often did, the softly whistled carol, ran upstairs and opened the door to look in, the room was, as usual, empty.
“Time is, perhaps, little more than a flimsy curtain, which under the least pressure of intensity gives way.” As Jeremy Hooker writes in his introduction to Selected Stories, this opening sentence from her story, “Soft and Fair”, “serves well to indicate the nature of Frances Bellerby’s short stories.”
She did try, at first, to break free from her family and painful memories. After attending a Catholic girls’ boarding school with the financial assistance of a family friend and a short stint writing for several newspapers in Bristol, she was hired by The Bristol Times and Mirror and sent to work in London as their drama critic. There she met and married John Rotherford Bellerby, a Fellow of Caius College, Cambridge studying conditions among workers in the East End. She supported her husband as she had seen her mother do, and her first books were, in Gittings’ estimation, little more than Sunday school tracts.
Then came her accident. Walking along the cliffside with her husband and another couple, Frances ran ahead in a burst of enthusiasm, slipped, and landed very awkwardly. She assured John that it was nothing and he and the other man walked on. When the other woman approached, however, she saw Frances dragging herself forward with only her hands, her face twisted in agony. Even after being helped back to their lodgings, she insisted it was only a passing injury. She wasn’t helped by her own tendency to dismiss the seriousness of what had happened, but, as Gittings puts it, “the 1930s were not a good time for the treatment of spinal injury.” And she did, somehow, realize that this was more than just a passing matter. As she later wrote in a notebook, when she found herself on the ground after the fall, “I saw … tall golden letters: THIS IS FOR EVER.”
From that point forward, she found much of the life she had become accustomed to impossible. Walking was difficult and soon required the help of a cane or crutches. She tried a variety of braces to support her back, none of them very effective. When she did consult a physician, she was likely to return home in worse pain from their manipulations. She railed against her plight: “I HATE my spine,” she wrote in her diary. “I am going to write this here because I want it out of me. I HATE my spine…. I am NEVER used to it. I NEVER shall be … I NEVER shall be reconciled to this.”
Adding to her difficulties was the news of her mother’s suicide in 1932. Having suffered from depression almost continuously since her son’s death, she waited one day for her husband to leave their house, then went up to her bedroom, shut the window and plugged up the door and opened up the gas cock. “I suffered and broke and died with her,” Frances later wrote of the impact of her mother’s death.
Her situation also strained her relationship with John Bellerby. She found living in a busy place like London or Cambridge, where he needed to work, increasingly difficult, and she began spending more and more of her time in isolated cottages in the countryside. They separated permanently in 1942. Although this added to her practical challenges, she also found that being away from him freed creative energies she had not experienced since the early days of their marriage. While she had managed to write and publish enough stories for her first collection, Come to an End (1939), before the separation, she now became to write poetry and fiction in earnest.
Writing provided a way for her to channel some of her frustrations. As Sabine Coelsch-Foisner writes in her article, “Finding a Voice: Women Writing the Short Story (to 1945),” included in A Companion to the British and Irish Short Story, “Springing from her own tragic life, Bellerby’s stories focus on exceptional experiences and events too large or formidable to understand: the traumas of war, pain, and bereavement.” Understanding something of her life’s story undoubtedly helps a reader see that Bellerby often transfers painful episodes from it into the experiences of her characters–as in the example from “The Carol” above.
She mustered the energy to write an extended work of fiction, the novel Hath the Rain a Father (1946), but her talent was shown to best advantage at a smaller scale. Some of Bellerby’s best stories deal with situations seen through a child’s eyes and with a child’s sensibility. She had a remarkable understanding of the fragility of a child’s world. As she writes in “The Little Lamps”,
A child is so strong. A child is the strongest creature on earth. A child is integrated, is its own. A child needs no loved one to share the experiencing of beauty, yet has always the underlying certainty that sharing would be easily achieved if need arose: that there is, in fact, no involuntary aloneness.
For some people, growing-up is largely a matter of the death of this certainty. A sudden death, perhaps, or perhaps a very lingering affair.
For Bellerby herself, her brother Jack’s death was undoubtedly such a death of certainty. For her characters, however, it may be merely the suspicion that some stable element in their world is about to break up. In “Pre-War”, a brother and sister are at loose ends, left to play by themselves in their house: “Life had suddenly become a stranger. For three days their mother had been shut away from them in her bedroom.” In “The Cut Finger”, a family suddenly goes to the seaside for what the children are told is a holiday, so that their father can rest. Coming back to their rooms after playing on the beach, the little girl sees her mother crying, and somehow realizes the tragic weight that lies behind this moment:
How could such a thing be? What frightful hurt had brought it about? Her mother! The one person to whom Judith had always gone, by right, without shame or doubt, whenever she herself had been broken to tears. This cherishing omnipotence writhing face-downwards on a bed, sobbing into the pillow–so that the whole world, yes, the whole established world, had been blown sky-high and come hurtling down in fragments anyhow, anywhere.
Most of her work during the 1940s was devoted to short stories. Bellerby published two further collections of stories, The Acorn and The Cup (1948) and A Breathless Child (1952). Perhaps because of her diminishing strength from dealing with her spinal injury, however, she turned increasingly to the more concentrated form of poetry. Her first collection, Plash Mill and Other Poems, named after the Devon cottage where she spend much of the decade, was published in 1946, and The Brightening Cloud in 1949. By the end of the 1940s her poems began to be read on a regular basis on BBC radio, selected by presenter Charles Causley.
With the start of the new decade, however, the fragility of her own situation only increased. In 1950, she was diagnosed with cancer in both breasts. She was given “perhaps a year, perhaps about five months” to live. A double mastectomy, followed by radiation treatment, suspended this sentence for some years, but she continued to suffer from respiratory problems and other frequent illnesses. Their impacts can be seen in the titles of poems from her next collection, The Stone Angel and the Stone Man, published in 1957: “Convalescence,” “Hospital Car,” “Chronic Ward,” “Dying in June”. She was increasingly confined to the little cottage in Cornwall she had bought, and eventually lost the ability to use a typewriter. She tried to direct her waning energies toward an autobiography, but gave up the effort after working on it for over fifteen years. She confided to her diary: “Desolate. Desolate. Desolate. Frightened, broken, alone.”
Yet the memory of her family traumas was never far away. When, in 1970, with the help of a friend, the publisher Alan Clodd, the first edition of her Selected Poems was released by Enitharmon Press, she dedicated the book “To the brief and everlasting life of my brother”. Clodd and others also helped her gain a Civil List pension in 1973, but it did little to relieve her situation. After years of remission, her cancer returned and she died just short of the age of 75 in July 1975. The following poem serves as a fitting epitaph for this woman whose life and work were filled with such pain and struggle:
Before the Light Fades
Before the light fades
Someone should be found to explain
With sufficient wisdom and patience
Everything I have seen.
And before owl and moth
Shock by remembered flight
The deep, tombed, silence
Of the world of night,
There should appear some linguist
Hot-blooded as a bird,
To translate with a single sentence
Everything I have heard.
Might prove home,
And eternal silence
The kingdom come.