Turbulent life of Norfolk-linked author

Two of Cynthia Stockley's many novels, hugely popular in their day.

Two of Cynthia Stockley's many novels, hugely popular in their day. - Credit: Archant

Cynthia Robinson was named after the now-forgotten Norfolk-linked novelist Cynthia Stockley. Keen to find out more, she uncovered a tale of a life spanning two continents, of literary triumph but a complicated and sometimes tragic private life.

As a young girl growing up in Norfolk I knew that I had been named after a novelist who had befriended my father. He had enlisted in the army at the age of 18, just as the First World War ended and had been sent to France and Germany in what was described as 'the clear-up mission'.

When he returned home to Sheringham he sometimes helped his father by delivering pieces of furniture, and from 1920 to 1926 he was called on to take pieces to a house in St Austen's Grove called Rainbow's End where author Cynthia Stockley had her writing room and where she wrote one of her best-known novels, Ponjola.

I took little notice of my namesake until I went to Dereham High School and found two more girls named Cynthia in my class. It seemed this woman must have been quite well known...

Over the years further inquiries came up with conflicting stories, such as information that she was born in London and that both she and her son Patrick committed suicide. In 2001 Keith Skipper used his Byways column to ask about anyone who might remember her. Liz Little got in touch and said that her grandparents, Harry and Beatrice Robertson bought Rainbow's End from Cynthia Stockley in 1926. She told him: 'Cynthia had an extension built on the side of the house especially for her writing. In the years that followed this room was much enjoyed by my family who held dances and other happy gatherings there.' Liz also wrote about a tall monument in Sheringham Cemetery. On the base is written: 'Pray for the soul of Pat, 1905-1923 and for his mother Cynthia'.

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Keith also reported on an article from The African World in 1923, praising her new novel, Ponjola, and saying: 'Cynthia Stockley is herself a pioneer of Rhodesia in its earliest years, with her husband, Captain Pelham Browne, even now one of the country's most progressive farmers.'

And there the story rested until 2015 - until I came across a biography, Veld Girl, published by Wisehouse of Sweden. It proved to be a very carefully researched documentation of her life and of her books, piecing together the fragments of facts taken from birth certificates, travel documents, letters and newspaper articles alongside her 16 novels, to tell the story of a tough and determined woman, born in Bloemfontein in the Transvaal, South Africa, in 1873. It is a masterly piece of work by Tim and Betty McLoughlin.

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Of course no-one can be sure that her novels were based on her own experiences, but certainly many of the scenes described in Africa would have been part of her early life and several of the stories reflect her own dilemmas in her adult years.

Both her parents arrived in Africa on immigration schemes, her mother from Ireland as a domestic servant, and her father, Abel Webb, as a carpenter. They had six children, of whom Cynthia (christened as Lilian Julia Webb) was the fourth child. Her mother died at the age of 34 when Cynthia (as we will call her) was just two years old. Cynthia soon had a step-mother, but was keen to move out of the family home and as a teenager spent time with her older sisters in Rhodesia. It was there that she met and married a policeman, Philip Stockley, and had a daughter, Dorothy.

Cynthia was an independent spirit and writing seemed to be in her blood, so she was soon working for South African newspapers. In 1897 she came to England with the family and Philip's parents took on the care of Dorothy. The marriage effectively ended then and Philip joined the British side in the Boer War.

In 1901 Cynthia was in London and busy writing as well as earning cash by taking walk-on parts for a drama company. In 1903 her first collection of short stories was published.

It would be fair to say that 'the plot thickened' in 1903 because Cynthia fell in love with an Irish doctor, who was a Roman Catholic (as Cynthia's mother had been). She tried to trace her first husband, but when she failed to do so, she went ahead and married Joseph Byrne anyway and they had a son, Patrick. She was by then living in New York where Joseph practised and did research.

Although she was a woman of the world, Cynthia did seem to act impulsively when she fell in love, and she was not happy when her new husband said he did not wish her to write. Inevitably the writing won, and Cynthia and the children moved around England and Europe and also spent a year in Jersey, while her husband visited each summer. By now her novels were being published to acclaim.

The bombshell of finding that, in fact, her first husband was not dead meant that her marriage to Joseph did not exist in the eyes of the Roman Catholic Church. Although Joseph wanted his son to be with him, Cynthia prevailed as her 'mothering gene' had finally emerged. She stayed in Paris before the First World War, and having sorted out her divorce from husband number one she married Harold Pelham Browne. Given his interest in farming, she bought two farms for him in Rhodesia.

But still the writing bug was with her and in 1919 she bought a house at Aylmerton on the road between Sheringham and Cromer. The next year she moved to Sheringham, while also keeping a flat in London. During all of this time she took a keen interest in the welfare of her sickly son, Patrick, and oversaw the needs of Dorothy, the chikld of her first marriage; although inevitably the two children went to a number of different schools in Britain, America, Belgium and France.

My sympathy for Cynthia grew as it seemed that writing was a drug for her, both bringing success and at the same time pulling her towards exhaustion; indeed she was in a nursing home after a mental breakdown for a short period in 1919.

Then she settled for a little while in Sheringham, a period of life which was her most successful writing time. It was a great joy to her to be received into the Catholic Church by Father Tom Walmsley Carter, the priest of St Joseph's Church in the town, and the man who had been responsible for the establishment of the Church designed by Giles Gilbert Scott in 1908.

Her much-loved son, Patrick, had been baptised a Catholic, but Cynthia had been excluded from that. Then, at the highpoint of her spiritual life, she and Patrick received communion together at Midnight Mass at St Joseph's in 1921. And another connection with my own life: this also happens to be the church where I worship.

By the 1920s Cynthia had published nine novels, all recounting life and love on the African continent and I can only imagine the effect she had on my father as he delivered furniture and then stayed on for hours to be captivated by her flamboyant stories.

As in most novels the course of events in real life is rarely straightforward, and 1923 was another ghastly year for Cynthia. Patrick was taken ill with the post-First World War illness of sleeping sickness and died that summer in his mother's arms in a nursing home in Norwich. He was buried in Sheringham Cemetery after a Requiem Mass at St Joseph's Church.

His death was devastating for Cynthia, and as if she had lost her anchorage, she dashed off to different parts of the world, while still publishing novels. On the occasions when she was at home in St Austen's Grove, I like to think that my father's visits and admiration might have helped to soften her loss.

In 1926 her house in Sheringham was sold and she kept a flat in London, but perhaps by now her energy was waning. Her books were being made into films, big Hollywood films with famous stars, but Cynthia was not party to the scripts and it seems that little attention was paid to the plots that she had carefully constructed, which featured strong, go-getting girls. Neither, it seems, did she benefit financially in the way that an author would nowadays. She visited her husband on the farm in Rhodesia, but he was not doing well and the land was not in good heart.

So, with her body aging, her bank balance diminishing and her life stories being crassly re-hashed for cinema audiences, we end this story with Cynthia dying by her own hand in her flat in London in January 1936. A most loving priest, Father Walmsley Carter was informed that the Coroner's verdict was 'suicide while of unsound mind'. He was able to agree to her having a Requiem Mass at Sheringham before she was buried beside her son in Sheringham Cemetery. According to the Eastern Daily Press of the same month, a wreath was sent by the High Commissioner of Southern Rhodesia.

So a woman who had risen to fame by her writing, fearlessly fighting the expectations of women as obedient homewives in the early twentieth century, who befriended suffragettes and spoke at their meetings, died at the age of 62.

Almost certainly the prevailing stigma of suicide served to erase her from the annals of highly successful women authors. It's time this remarkable woman was re-discovered.

With acknowledgement to Veld Girl, by Tim and Betty McLoughlin, published by Wisehouse, 2015.

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