Marion Fox (b. Aldershot, Hampshire, 21 August 1885; d. reg. Richmond upon Thames, Oct.-Dec. 1973)
Between 1910 and 1928, Marion Fox published eight books, comprising seven novels and one collection of poetry. After 1928 she virtually disappeared from the literary record. Though her novels were fairly well-reviewed upon publication, they are all very rare today, and it is only with the 2006 reprint of Ape’s Face that any of her work has become readily available for re-assessment.
Marion Inez Douglas Fox came from a distinguished family. Her parents were the army officer Malcolm Fox (1843-1918) and his second wife, Marion Jane Mills (1863-1957). Malcolm Fox’s first wife had died in childbirth in July 1882 after less than one year of marriage. He married again on 23 July 1884, this time to a young heiress from Tolmers, Hertford. Their only child, named Marion after her mother, was born the following year.
Malcolm Fox had been educated at Rossall School and Brighton College before joining the army. He served with the 100th Royal Canadians from 1863-1875, becoming Lieutenant in 1865 and Captain in 1871. For some time he served in Malta. He had always been especially interested in physical conditioning, sports, and boxing, and he organized many competitions for the whole garrison. Later he transferred to the 42nd Royal Highlanders (Black Watch) and was sent to Egypt, where in 1882 he was severely wounded at Tell al-Kebir. (He was given the medal and clasp, Khedive’s star.) While in England on sick leave in 1883 he was appointed Assistant Inspector of the Army Gymnasia at Aldershot. He was soon promoted to Major, and, in 1888, to Lieutenant-Colonel. In 1889 he was appointed Inspector of the Gymnasia, and (with the aid of his wife’s money) he expanded the army athletic grounds and Gymnasia in 1894. As he had previously done in Malta, he organized many competitions. He retired in 1900 as a Colonel, but ended his career, from 1903-1910, as Inspector of Physical Training to the Board of Education. In 1908 he designed the pattern sword, used by the British cavalry in the First World War. He was knighted in 1910, and died in 1918, after a series of strokes.
His daughter Marion grew up in this military environment. She published her first book in early 1910, The Seven Nights: A Journey. It is a historical novel, and it concerns the Peasant’s Revolt of 1381, during the reign of Richard II. The publication was likely subsidized by her family, for the publisher Elliot Stock was known for such business practices. But it also seems to have brought her work to the attention of the publisher John Lane (1854-1925), whose firm distributed Elliot Stock’s titles to the book trade. Fox’s second novel, The Hand of the North, though dated 1911, was published by John Lane in October 1910. It is another historical novel, set in early 1601, concerning Queen Elizabeth and her last favorite, the Earl of Essex, who attempted to lead an uprising against the queen, an act for which he was beheaded. Fox’s third book, a small collection of poems entitled The Lost Vocation, was published simultaneously in hardcover and paperback by David Nutt in late December 1911. Many of the twenty poems have supernatural content, a hint, perhaps, of things to come.
Fox’s five remaining novels were all published by John Lane. She probably made little if any money off them, for Lane was hesitant when it came to paying his authors. And it seems likely that Fox wrote her novels with little thought of financial reward—similarly, she is not known to have pursued money by writing for periodicals. Her next book was The Bountiful Hour, published in September 1912. It is yet another historical romance, set this time in the eighteenth century, giving a personal narrative of a young girl from the age of six until her marriage.
In July 1914, Marion Fox married Stephen Burman Ward (c.1887-1964). Fox’s fourth novel, Ape’s Face, followed her marriage by a few months, appearing in September. With this novel Fox moved decisively into the supernatural, and here her particularly special theme of the intrusive effect of the past upon the present comes to the fore. Set in the lonely country of the Wiltshire downs, a well-known writer and antiquary has come to the Delane-Morton household to examine some ancestral documents. The writer finds a haunting Presence over the downs that seeks to bring about a periodic reenactment of a centuries-old curse. The novel is not entirely successful, but it has considerable merit. Fox’s characters come to life only reluctantly, while her descriptions of the natural formations of the region, and the menacing Presence embodied therein, create a kind of haunted landscape that is in itself the most powerful character of the book.
Fox’s next novel, The Mystery Keepers, appeared in early 1919, though it was apparently written in 1910 (for the dedication is so dated). Like Ape’s Face it deals with the periodic reenactment of a curse, here the curse having been placed on a family by a long dead abbess so that every direct male heir will die punctually on his twenty-first birthday. The main character is a psychic detective, and there are some effective descriptions of poltergeist activity in the Abbey. The Saturday Review for 3 May 1919 said of the book: “We have nothing but praise for the general conception and execution of this book. It is full of sensitive writing and delicate description; its bores are life-like—too much so indeed. It falls little short of being a masterpiece.”
The Luck of the Town, published in May 1922, provides another example of Fox’s obsession with the intrusion of the past upon the present. This story tells of a newly founded university in an industrial town that is built upon the site of a Roman encampment. Through the unearthing of a skeleton and an inscribed tablet, a haunting influence from the past is revived, affecting the faculty and staff of the university.
Fox’s final book, Aunt Isabel’s Lover, was published in January 1928. The Times Literary Supplement of 9 February 1928 described the book as follows: “The crisis of the story is when Dion Arnicott does not turn up at the church to be wedded to Aunt Isabel. That and his queer behaviour when he called on Mrs. Flemington are about the only concrete things about Dion Arnicott. His valet was most of his substance. For the rest he was spirit—with a not unconnected body dying in Italy. But nothing is known until the valet dies in a weird struggle in Aunt Isabel’s house, and tells a long story . . . It does decidedly touch the imagination, as well as please the romantic sense. It is a slighter book than Miss Fox’s previous ones—Ape’s Face and The Mystery Keepers, etc.—but not unworthy of them.”
For while, in the 1930s, Fox resided in Paris. In the mid-1950s she was working on a biography of Jean Ingelow, but it was never published. Marion Fox died at the age of 88 in Richmond upon Thames in late 1973.
Fox and her husband had two children, a daughter Persephone Marion Ward (1916-2011) and a son Stephen George Peregrine Ward (1917-2008). The daughter, as “Marion Ward”, published two books, The Du Barry Inheritance (1967), a biography of Jeanne Bécu, Comtesse Du Barry (1743-1793), a mistress of Louis XV of France; and Forth (1982), a life of Nathaniel Parker Forth (1744-1809), a British diplomat in France. Marion Ward was on the staff of The Historical Manuscripts Commission (which in 2003 merged with the Public Record Office to form The National Archives). Writing as “S.G.P. Ward”, the son’s books include Wellington’s Headquarters: A Study of the Administrative Problems in the Peninsula, 1809-1914 (1957); Wellington (1963); and Faithful: the Story of the Durham Light Infantry (1963). More recently he wrote the entry on his maternal grandfather for The Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (2004).
Among Fox’s other relatives, there were a few more writers. In 1888 her mother’s sister, Florence Sophia Mills (1865-1932), had married Reginald Cholmondeley (1857-1941), a brother of novelist Mary Cholmondeley (1859-1925). Fox’s novel The Mystery Keepers is dedicated “To Uncle Regie and Aunt Florie.” Reginald and Mary’s younger sister Caroline Essex Cholmondeley (1861-1934) was the mother of the novelist and travel writer Stella Benson (1892-1933).
NB: An earlier version of this entry appeared in my column “Notes on Lost and Forgotten Writers”, All Hallows no. 43 (Summer 2007).