Helen Simpson (1897 – 1940)

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Helen de Guerry Simpson (1897-1940), was born on 1 December 1897 in Sydney, fourth and youngest child of native-born parents Edward Percy Simpson, solicitor, and his wife Anna Maria Alexandra Guerry, daughter of the French Marquis de Guerry de Lauret. Helen grew up at her father’s home, St Mervyn’s, Point Piper; one of her governesses was Winifred West. Her parents separated and her Catholic mother moved to London. Her father, an Anglican, sent her as a boarder to the Convent of the Sacred Heart, Rose Bay (1910-11, 1913) and to Abbotsleigh (1911-12).

Arriving in England in April 1914, Helen joined her mother. She went to Oxford in September 1915, joining the Society of Oxford Home Students (later St Anne’s College), and read French at the university (1916-17). In April 1918 she joined the Women’s Royal Naval Service as a chief section officer of decoding at the Admiralty. She returned to Oxford in September 1919 to study music, intending to become a composer, and matriculated on 13 October 1920. At Oxford she became very interested in the theatre, publishing several short plays and founding the Oxford Women’s Dramatic Society. Reputedly breaking strict regulations prohibiting male and female students from acting together, she was sent down without completing her degree in 1921.

That year Simpson returned to Sydney for her brother’s wedding. She published Philosophies in Little (1921), a collection of her own verse with her translations from French, Italian and Spanish. In 1922 she entered a play, A Man of his Time (1923), based on the life of Benvenuto Cellini, in the Daily Telegraph literary competition; it was staged next year by Gregan McMahon. At Oxford again by February 1924, she made a bet that she could write a novel in five weeks: the result was a detective story, Acquittal (London, 1925). Further books followed quickly: The Baseless Fabric (1925), a collection of short stories; The Women’s Comedy (1926), another play set in Renaissance Italy; and Cups, Wands and Swords (1927), which combined her principal interests, detective fiction and demonology.

Helen Simpson visited Australia in 1927. On returning to London she married (Sir) Denis John Browne, nephew of ‘Rolf Boldrewood’, at the Catholic Cathedral, Ashley Place, on 21 April. He became a famous paediatric surgeon at The Hospital for Sick Children, Great Ormond Street. Their daughter Clemence was born on 1 November 1928.

Prolific and versatile, she continued to write: Mumbudget (1928), The Desolate House (1928) and Vantage Striker (1931). Through her publisher she became a close friend of Clemence Dane; they collaborated in three detective novels between 1928 and 1932. In 1932 she published Boomerang which won the James Tait Black memorial prize and marked her arrival as a significant contemporary novelist: based in part on her mother’s family, it was her first book to deal with Australia. Her other literary works include The Woman on the Beast (1933), a fantasy partly set in Australia in 1999; the historical biographies, The Spanish Marriage (1933), Henry VIII (1934) and A Woman Among Wild Men (1938); works on domestic economy and cookery, The Happy Housewife (1934) and The Cold Table (1935); the historical novels, Saraband for Dead Lovers (1935), and Under Capricorn (1937) set in colonial New South Wales; and the novels, The Female Felon (1935) and Maid No More (1940).

In the 1930s Simpson lectured and broadcasted on literary, historical and topical subjects. She was also deeply involved in literary society in London and belonged to the P.E.N. and the Detection Club. Her literary friends included Dorothy Sayers, Margaret Kennedy and John Masefield. She visited Australia again in 1937 to launch Under Capricorn, to broadcast for the Australian Broadcasting Commission and to collect material for a new epic novel. She returned to England in 1938 through the United States of America where she also lectured. With deteriorating eyesight she wrote less and turned to current affairs. In 1938 she was endorsed as the Liberal candidate for the Isle of Wight. Survived by her husband and daughter, Helen Simpson died of cancer on 14 October 1940 at Overbury, near Evesham, Worcestershire, and was buried in the village churchyard. [Excerpts from Simpson, Helen de Guerry (1897–1940) by Alan Roberts, published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 11, (MUP), 1988]. 

Detective Bibliography:

  • In conjunction with Clemence Dane: Enter Sir John (1929), Printer’s Devil (1930), and Re-enter Sir John (1932).
  • Alone: Acquittal (1925), Cups, Wands, and Swords (1927), Vantage Striker aka The Prime Minister is Dead (1931), and Under Capricorn (1937).

To my knowledge, some of Helen Simpson short stories have been included in some anthologies, like Ask a Policeman (2012) “Mrs Bradley’s Dilemma”; The Anatomy of Murder (2014)“Death of Henry Kinder”; Resorting to Murder (2015) “A Posteriori”; and Bodies from the Library 2 (2019) “Hotel Evidence”.

Martin Edward’s articles on Helen Simpson are at ‘Do You Write Under Your Own Name?’

Kate Jackson’s articles on Helen Simpson are at Cross-Examining Crime.

Curtis Evans’ articles on Helen Simpson are at The Passing Tramp.

Vantage Striker (1931) – a term taken from tennis – is included in Martin Edwards’ The Story of Classic Crime in 100 Books.

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(Source: Facsimile Dust Jackets LLC. Heinemann (UK), 1937)

From Wikipedia: Under Capricorn is a 1937 historical novel by Helen Simpson. The story is set in Sydney in the then colony of New South Wales in the 1830s, at the time when many of the convicts had completed their sentences and were becoming prosperous citizens in a new country. The streets, the sounds, the smells, the convict gangs, the English officials and their wives, the rum traders, speculators and adventurers are realistically described. In 1949 the novel was adapted into a film Under Capricorn starring Ingrid Bergman and Joseph Cotten. It was directed by Alfred Hitchcock, who had previously directed an adaptation of Simpson’s 1928 novel Enter Sir John. It was also filmed in 1983 as a mini-series.

Synopsis: First published in 1937, Under Capricorn is a unique classic. Set in Sydney, Australia, 1831, the story begins with a young gentleman who arrives in this colony of convicts to make his fortune. Fit only to scribble poetry, he soon discovers a living work of art gone awry, a beautiful woman who is lost in a tragic way. Setting himself the challenge of saving her, he earns her husband’s jealousy, and yet it was her husband who had lured him into their home. But for what purpose? Filled with conflicting motives and unexpected psychological twists, this beautifully written tale creates a series of love triangles that explore the kind of world Australia was offering a hardy breed men, who sought freedom above all, because life for them began in chains. (Source: Amazon)

My primary interest on this book is for personal reasons, I’d managed to get hold of a copy and I’m looking forward to reading it soon.