Sinabada, by Elinor Mordaunt

This 1938 memoir by the prolific and highly skilled author Elinor Mordaunt (not her birth name) floats airily between the firm land of fact and history and the boundless seas of improbable possibilities.

Mordaunt is an extraordinary character. I commissioned the publication of a collection of her supernatural short stories last year, and I was fascinated by the book’s introduction, written by Melissa Edmundson, which drew heavily on Sinabada for Mordaunt’s biographical information. Melissa did an impressive job hunting down fact, and then verifying what she could. The unverifiable things could be considered as Mordaunt’s deliberate or indifferent faulty recall. But we also have to ask: if a memoir hides so much, skips over and elides so much, and forgets to mention basics like the surname of her first (non-bigamous) husband, and was written by a superb novelist and plotter, how big a pinch of salt should we apply to the rest of what she says? Sinabada is also a frankly astounding memoir that has the potential to show Mordaunt as one of the great 20th-century women travellers.

Evelyn Clowes was born in Nottingham in 1872, one of eight children. Her childhood and adolescence were happy, her education from governesses appears to have been intense, and she seems to have been a passionate and joyful young woman. She became happily engaged to a nice young man called Bill Wright, and describes with gusto the heavy petting they enjoyed before he went back to South Africa. (I was quite startled to read such an explicit description of what they got up to: Evelyn clearly feared no censure, but then, she was in her mid-sixties when she wrote Sinabada. She could write whatever she wanted). Days before Evelyn was to sail to South Africa for the wedding Bill died of fever while taking part in an expedition along the Zambezi near Bulawayo, in what was then Matebeleland, possibly as part of British colonial forces in the First Matebele War. Evelyn was completely distraught, and took a long time to get over Bill’s death. She probably didn’t.

In 1897 she travelled to Mauritius on a visit with a girl cousin, and on the day her cousin returned to Britain Evelyn married a sugar planter called Maurice Wiehe. This was not a happy marriage. Mordaunt reports, in one of many asides in this memoir that scream for more details, that her husband once put her up as a stake while gambling. After suffering the deaths of two stillborn children Evelyn left her husband to return to England, and then, desperate to get as far away as she could (from what, or whom, she doesn’t say), she had an eventful and strenuous sea voyage to Australia, on her own, the only woman on the ship, which was by no means elegant or luxurious. During this time she was nearly washed overboard, and assisted with an emergency operation on an injured crewman. Soon after arriving in Australia, she says, she gave birth to her son.

Yes, me too. She says nothing in her very entertaining sea voyage account about being pregnant. She probably wasn’t: her entry in Wikipedia notes that she arrived in Australia in June 1902 and that Godfrey (her son) was born in March 1903, facts which the Dictionary of Australian Biography would have verified from the historical records. She gave her son her estranged husband’s surname, but Wiehe was not the father. So in Sinabada Evelyn moves swiftly over this tricky moment, giving the distinct impression that she was practically in labour as soon as she came down the gangplank. For her son’s sake I suppose she had to elide his illegitimacy, and Sinabada certainly gives no impression at all that she was having flings on the ship.

That’s just one example of verifiable invention, such an easily checked fact that it reinforces my impression that Mordaunt the famous author wrote what she wanted. In Sinabada she doesn’t give her son’s name: to protect his anonymity, or from anyone checking the Australian birth records? She often mentions him in company with her as an adult, and as the father of her grandchildren, so they were clearly on reasonable terms. And so they should have been, because Evelyn supported her son solely by her own efforts. After the birth and with her savings running low she quickly set herself up as a designer of fancy goods, making stencils for embroidery, interior decor and soft furnishings. Since she has barely said anything about these skills in her education (apparently she excelled in Classics), we have no idea that her native talent for this work could maintain her in this way for some years. (Or was that all she did? Since invention and elision have already entered the narrative, what else is being missed out, or invented?)

Then she turned to fiction: before she came to Australia she had written her first book, The Garden of Contentment, which sold well enough to pay her royalties. (How long was she in Britain after Mauritius? Sinabada suggests she had only just arrived when she was off on the next ship to Melbourne.) On the strength of this Evelyn began writing short stories, and landed a job as a woman’s magazine editor and the lead (only) writer. She became a landscape gardener, but after a complicated professional relationship which she ended when her employer proposed marriage, she and her son sailed for Britain in 1909. One book led to another, and then a very successful literary career mentored by the great publisher William Heinemann himself. In 1931 she was revealed as the author of a satirical novel called Gin and Bitters, which savaged the leading English novelists Somerset Maugham and Hugh Walpole, apparently because she objected to Maugham’s remarks about Mrs Thomas Hardy. Walpole was terribly upset and Maugham was tremendously vengeful: I remember this from the Walpole biography I read recently which rather skated over the original crime against good manners inflicted upon Mrs Hardy. Anyway, Mordaunt (Evelyn had changed her name by deed poll to Elinor Mordaunt many years earlier) had to withdraw the book. Still, she wrote what she wanted.

The name Elinor Mordaunt is absolutely perfect for a writer of supernatural fiction, and indeed any other genre. She is a hugely readable author when writing in her own voice, and a superb writer of short stories (I have not read any of her novels but want to have a try). Her gumption, perseverance and talent for making kind and loyal friends are seriously impressive, since they came to her rescue many times during illness after illness. What comes across clearly in Sinabada, and also in her earlier memoir Purely For Pleasure (1931), is that Mordaunt did exactly what she wanted, and was resourceful at finding the ways and funds to do so. She made her name as a travel writer from a ‘round-the-world trip by sail and cargo steamer for the London Daily Mail in 1923‘. Persuading newspaper editors to pay them to write despatches of their travels to Tahiti, or South America, would have been impressive enough for a conventional literary figure, young men like Evelyn Waugh or Lawrence Durrell: as a middle-aged woman travelling with energy and curiosity in exotic locations Mordaunt was a formidable figure, and her writing must have inspired others to follow her example.

The great pity is that her autobiographical writing is simply not trustworthy. It is fantastically entertaining, and the dramatic events roll along with the regularity required to keep an easily distracted audience engaged. But, after checking the available facts and surveying the missing information, I simply cannot believe that what she wrote was all true. I am sure much of it might have been true, but since an unknowable amount must also be selectively imaginative copy to keep her readers amused, Sinbada is entertainment, not memoir.

[On the bigamous marriage: Mordaunt married her second husband in 1933, after apparently advertising in London for news of Maurice Wiehe’s whereabouts. On not receiving any information about his location or death, she assumed she was free to marry and did so. Her second marriage ‘ended in tragedy’, and three years later she was describing herself as a widow. Melissa Edmundson has uncovered Census and electoral records data showing that Wiehe actually outlived his wife. Whether she knew or not that she was committing bigamy is unknown. She may simply not have cared.]

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