Lorna Hill Portrait

Lorna Hill Portrait

Wednesday, 15 April 2009

Lorna Hill (1902-1991)

Born in Durham on February 21, 1902, the daughter of G. H. Leatham and his wife Edith (nee Rutter), and educated at Durham High School for Girls, before finishing at Le Manoir in Lausanne on the shores of Lake Geneva. She obtained her BA in English Literature in 1926 at the University of Durham where she also met her future husband, a clergyman, V. R. Hill. They married in Newcastle in 1928 and had one daughter, Shirley Victorine (known as Vicki).

In 1932, the family moved to Matfen, Northumberland, and Hill settled down to the life of a country vicar’s wife. ‘Looney’ Lorna (a nickname she earned because of her strange atire, chosen by her poetic mother) had begun writing and illustrating her own stories at around the age of 12—often at school when she should have been studying math or Latin—using them to barter with her school friends for toffee apples. These old exercise books were discovered by Hill’s 10-year-old daughter many years later and, after reading one, the young girl wished that there were more.

With money scarce due to the war, Hill sat in front of her kitchen fire and wrote Marjorie & Co. which delighted both Vicki and her school friends when it was given to her as a Christmas present. Over the next few years, Hill continued to write for her daughter’s birthdays and Christmas without thinking of publication.

A visitor to the family also happened to be a publishers’ reader and he recommended she sent her books to an agent. The first, written in longhand in an old 1/9d stiff-backed notebook, was sold to the Glasgow firm of Art & Educational Publishers who published it in August 1948, replacing Hill’s watercolour illustrations with artwork by Gilbert Dunlop. The company asked to see more, and Hill—who had by now taught herself to type, albeit only with two fingers—sent them a number of other manuscripts which were all accepted. However, only two further novels were published before Art & Educational ceased trading.

The London-based Evans Bros. began publishing her Sadler’s Wells books, written after Vicki had decided to become a dancer following a family visit to see Alicia Markova and Anton Dolin at Newcastle’s Theatre Royal. Although inspired by her own daughter’s desire to become a dance student, the new series featured an orphan who secretly practices so she can audition for the ballet school. Angela Bull, in 20th Century Children’s Writers has called A Dream of Sadler’s Wells “a wish fulfilment story about Veronica Watson, a child dancer, recently orphaned, who is sent to live with some rich, snobbish relations in Northumberland.

Here, besides riding and enjoying a romantic friendship with a boy musician, she secretly practices her dancing, until, in the end, she auditions for Sadler’s Wells Ballet School and is accepted as a student. A Dream of Sadler’s Wells was the first of a long series of inter-locking ‘Wells’ novels, following Veronica’s entirely predictable progress through the ballet school to starring roles at Covent Garden and marriage with the young musician, while at the same time widening out to include the dancing careers of other talented orphans, or daughters of Northumbrian county families.”

Bull’s assessment that the series “soon drowns in syrupy romance” was not shared by Hill’s world-wide readership, who went on buying the books for over a decade. The books were still being reprinted in the 1990s.

Hill added series’ featuring Patience, written for Burke, and the Dancing Peel books published by Thomas Nelson, but the time of prolific publishing for the children’s market came to an end in the mid-1960s and apart from an invitation to write a biography of dancer Marie Taglioni, she did not write again until the late 1970s when she wrote two adult romance novels.

At the height of her fame, Hill was also heavily involved in animal rights and the removal of gin traps from the local fields after one of her cats had to have a leg amputated. Throwing them into the river when she found them, she was summoned to Court and ordered to pay compensation. In response, she refused to pay; instead, she rented the rabbiting rights to the field herself to protect the animals and organised an animal welfare service on Matfen village green which one year attracted over 500 cars in support. In 1954, she turned her attention to fur coats.

Hill later lived in Keswick, Cumbria, where she died on August 17, 1991, aged 89.

Although many of her Sadler’s Wells were reprinted in the mid-1980s, most of the fondly-remembered Marjorie and Patience stories were long out of print. Fans visiting Hill’s daughter in 1997 discovered that one of the exercise books in which her early stories were written contained a previously unpublished novel, Northern Lights. It had been rejected for publication because the story, written in 1941, involved the war. The book finally saw print in 1999 and the same publisher, Girls Gone By Publishing, has subsequently reprinted a number of other rare Hill titles.

Hill’s daughter, Vicki, had submitted sample illustrations to Art & Educational but, to avoid any bias, used the pen-name Esmé Verity. When Border Peel appeared, Hill phoned her daughter in Manchester and told her how delighted she was with the new illustrator who, co-incidentally, must be a neighbour. When she discovered who the artist was, the two continued the joke by inviting their publisher to meet the artist for lunch.

Publications

Novels (series: Dancing Peel; Marjorie; Patience; Sadler’s Wells; The Vicarage Children)
Marjorie & Co. (Marjorie), illus. Gilbert Dunlop. London & Glasgow, Art & Educational, 1948.
Stolen Holiday (Marjorie), illus. Gilbert Dunlop. London & Glasgow, Art & Educational, 1948.
Border Peel (Marjorie), illus. Esmé Verity. London & Glasgow, Art & Educational, 1950.
A Dream of Sadler’s Wells (Wells), illus. Eve Guthrie. London, Evans Bros., 1950; New York, Holt, 1955.
Veronica at the Wells (Wells), illus. Eve Guthrie. London, Evans Bros., 1951; as Veronica at Sadler’s Wells, New York, Holt, 1954.
They Called Her Patience (Patience), illus. Gilbert Dunlop. London, Burke, 1951.
Masquerade at the Wells (Wells), illus. Eve Guthrie. London, Evans Bros., 1952; as Masquerade at the Ballet, New York, Holt, 1957.
It Was All Through Patience (Patience), illus. Gilbert Dunlop. London, Burke, 1952.
No Castanets at the Wells (Wells), illus. Eve Guthrie. London, Evans Bros., 1953; as Castanets for Caroline, New York, Holt, 1956.
Jane Leaves the Wells (Wells), illus. Eve Guthrie. London, Evans Bros., 1953.
Castle in Northumbria (Marjorie), illus. Gilbert Dunlop. London, Burke, 1953.
Ella at the Wells (Wells), illus. Eve Guthrie. London, Evans Bros., 1954.
Dancing Peel (Peel), illus. Esmé Verity. London, Thomas Nelson & Sons, 1954.
So Guy Came Too (Patience), illus. Joanna Curzon. London, Burke, 1954.
Return to the Wells (Wells), illus. Eve Guthrie. London, Evans Bros., 1955.
Dancer’s Luck (Peel), illus. Esmé Verity. London, Thomas Nelson & Sons, 1955.
The Five Shilling Holiday (Patience), illus. Joanna Curzon. London, Burke, 1955.
Rosanna Joins the Wells (Wells), illus. Eve Guthrie. London, Evans Bros., 1956.
The Little Dancer (Peel), illus. Esmé Verity. London, Thomas Nelson & Sons, 1956; New York, Thomas Nelson & Sons, 1957.
Principal Role (Wells), illus. Esmé Verity. London, Evans Bros., 1957.
Swan Feather (Wells), illus. Esmé Verity. London, Evans Bros., 1958.
Dancer in the Wings (Peel), illus. Esmé Verity. London, Evans Bros., 1959.
Dress-Rehearsal (Wells), illus. Esmé Verity. London, Evans Bros., 1959.
Back-Stage (Wells), illus. Esmé Verity. London, Evans Bros., 1960.
Dancer in Danger (Peel), illus. Esmé Verity. London, Thomas Nelson & Sons, 1960.
The Vicarage Children (Vicarage Children), illus. Marcia Lane Foster. London, Evans Bros., 1961.
Vicki in Venice (Wells), illus. Esmé Verity. London, Evans Bros., 1962.
Dancer on Holiday (Peel), illus. Esmé Verity. London, Nelson, 1962.
No Medals for Guy (Marjorie), illus. Gilbert Dunlop. London, Nelson, 1962.
More About Mandy (Vicarage Children), illus. Ann Kent Robinson. London, Evans Bros., 1963.
The Secret, illus. Esmé Verity. London, Evans Bros., 1964.
The Vicarage Children in Skye (Vicarage Children), illus. Elizabeth Grant. London, Evans Bros., 1966.
The Other Miss Perkin. London, Hale, 1978.
The Scent of Rosemary. London, Hale, 1978; New York, Pinnacle, 1980.
Northern Lights. Bath, Somerset, Girls Gone By Publishers, 1999.

Omnibus
A Dream of Sadler’s Wells. Veronica at the Wells. London, Piper, 1994.

Non-fiction
La Sylphide: The Life of Marie Taglioni. London, Evans Bros., 1967.

1 comment:

  1. A fascinating post Jan! I had no idea there were soo many Wells books! I have a little request. I've just read 'Return to the wells' (alongside 3 other Wells books!) and I am posting a little summary and review on my small nad insignificant blog- would you mind if I used your image of this book on my blog alongside my review - I would of course acknowledge you as the source with a link!

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