English writer Mary Cholmondeley

Diana Tempest illustration

Illustration: Diana Tempest, Macmillan 1909

Largely forgotten today, Mary Cholmondeley's novel Red Pottage was one of the biggest bestsellers of 1899, with huge sales in both England and America. Born the daughter of a Shropshire rector in 1859 (the same year that saw the publication of Darwin's cataclysmic On The Origin of Species), Cholmondeley's life was seemingly unremarkable, and in line with her own early prediction, she died unmarried in 1925. Her agent Curtis Brown remembered her as 'that gentle, gracious lady', while other friends recalled her wisdom and air of serenity in the last years of her life.

Ultimately famous enough to consort with some of the most illustrious men and women of Edwardian London, Cholmondeley had in fact overcome many years of debilitating illness and a lack of education which she never quite forgave, to see her masterpiece become the talk of literary London (gaining the dubious tribute of a denunciation by name from one pulpit). Her portrayal in her most famous book of a Victorian woman writer who does not marry, and all but dies for her work, could have been the story of her own life.

Hodnet Rectory drawign room

Hodnet Rectory drawing room

I would be interested in hearing from anyone with recollections of Cholmondeley and her circle, or details of manuscript material (letters, diaries etc) that might throw further light on her life and work. Contact: carolyn.oulton@canterbury.ac.uk

Carolyn Oulton is a Reader in Victorian Literature at Canterbury Christ Church University. She is the author of Let the Flowers Go: A Life of Mary Cholmondeley, Pickering and Chatto 2009.