A Woman of Letters by March Cost (1959)

I am so glad that I found  March Cost!

I know that that her real name was Margaret Mackie Morrison; I know that she published more than twenty novels in the middle of the 20th century; and I know that they were very well received, by critics and by readers. What I don’t know is why she and her books vanished into obscurity so very quickly.

It was the title that drew me to this book, and I am so pleased that I picked it up. I liked it so much that I have already ordered several more, and I have my eye on others …. some were easy to find but others are rather elusive ….

The writing, the story and the characters have a timeless elegance and charm; and I was captivated.

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The main thread of the story is the life of a little girl named Ditty who grew up to be a novelist named Damaris Ure but known to the world as Madame Ravary.

Ditty was an orphan, but she had the very good fortune to be taken in by an aunt who would raise her alongside her own three daughters – Judy, Hazel and Snow – who were just a little older than Ditty.

Aunt Amy was the widow of a minister determined to do her very best for the four girls she loved dearly. The church and the minister who succeeded her husband agreed that the family could stay at the manse, that there was more than enough room for two households to coexist. There was, but it wasn’t easy; until two little girls who wanted to enjoy the warm water from the new minister’s geyser horrified Aunt Amy but made the rather stiff new minister unbend quite satisfactorily.

When Ditty was the only child left at home her godmother, Miss Blount, took a hand in guiding her. When she learned that her goddaughter wanted to be a writer she warned her that it wouldn’t be easy, and that if she wanted to write well she needed to be able to earn a living first, she needed to read as much as she could, and she needed to see as much of life as she could.

Ditty saw the sense of that.

Even when she died Miss Blount was guiding her goddaughter’s future. She left her a cottage in the highlands, and instructions that she must live there to claim her inheritance. At first Ditty was horrified but when she settled into her new home she found that it was a lovely place in a beautiful setting. It was there that she became a woman of letters; first as a stand-in for the injured village postwoman and then as a published author. She realised that her clever godmother had given her the time and space to write; she had stories published in magazines and then she found a publisher for her very first novel.

She was on her way!

Her progress was complicated by the two men in her life. Galloway, Miss Blount’s nephew, was her first love but his war mission took him away from her and prevented him from explaining things to her; that made her susceptible to the advances of Baron Tallinn, and she would only realise that they were mismatched when she was abroad, when war had broken out, and when she was in enemy territory with an expired passport ….

I loved the life that March Cost gave to Ditty.

The arc of the story was perfect. It moved from a manse in the Lowlands to a cottage in the Highlands, to London, to London society, across to continental Europe, and then back to London for the war years and thee years that followed. All of the times and places were beautifully evoked.

The mixture of romance and intrigue worked beautifully; and is woven into the story so well that it is difficult to say very much without giving much too much away.

A wonderful cast of characters was beautifully drawn. Miss Blount was wonderfully capable; Galloway was lovely, and I was so sorry that he couldn’t explain and Ditty couldn’t understand; Miss Devine, a novelist whose best days were behind her was a glorious creation; Mr Trask, an old-fashioned publisher, was a lovely man ….

That reminds me to say that the ups and downs of Ditty’s writing career, her experiences with the publishing industry were utterly believable.

And that now that I’ve read about her books I so wish that I could read them.

I’m sure that March Cost wrote from experience, and she understood the changes in the book industry that the war brought and how difficult those changes were for many authors.

The telling of the story is not straightforward. It is told over two days when Damaris is staying in a London hotel, preparing to attend the funeral of a general who had been a good friend of her father. She thinks back over her own life and she is visited by friends and family. That draws out particular threads of the story, and it gives more depth to many of the characters.

It could have been confusing but it wasn’t; and I always wanted to read just one more chapter.

The relationship between the four little girls who had grown up at the manse, who were very different women was particularly well illuminated. And a visit from Baron Tallin, who Damaris was surprised to hear from for the first time in years, was very interesting.

This book was underpinned by a wonderful depth of understanding of character.

I have to think that somebody gave March Cost the same advice that Miss Blount gave to Ditty – and that she took it.

I can’t quite compare her to anyone else. But I think I might say that her work could happily sit alongside books by Margaret Kennedy, Ann Bridge, Elizabeth Von Arnim, Mary Stewart …

I am so glad that I found her.

The denouement of Ditty’s story caught me by surprise, it brought tears to my eyes and it was perfect

37 thoughts on “A Woman of Letters by March Cost (1959)

  1. The cover is so beautiful, and what you’ve written about the story inside makes me want to read it very much! Did you just happen upon the book?

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    1. I think you’d like it, Lisa. I actually stumbled across another of March Cost’s books – By The Angel Islington – and picked it up out of curiosity because the names were out of the ordinary. Then when I looked her up I read a little about this book and I couldn’t resist ordering a copy.

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  2. Surprised that my library has a few. Looking forward to them. Thanks, Jane, for recommending another author I’ve never heard of.

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  3. Sounds rather enchanting, Jane – a very lucky find for you. It makes me wonder just how many other neglected women writers from this period remain hidden or under-the-radar so to speak.

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      1. Actually your blog is my favourite for posting reviews and for pointing out different authors.I am re reading TRYST by Elswyth Thane–and you told me about this book.An all time classic i think.

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  4. I guessed the “surprise”ending of this book.And the bits about the heroine agonising over her writing career left me cold.But i am reading more of her books and agree she is very like Mary Stewart.I read a review on ANOTHER LOOK BOOK’S BLOG some time ago.”THE BESPOKEN MILE in January 2016.Thats how i found March Cost.

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    1. I didn’t spot the ending but I probably should have. I was caught up by the story in a way you weren’t, but that can be the way with books. I did like the writing career side of things, and I was pleased that it chimed with other things I’d read about the post-war literary scene,

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  5. I am halfway through BY THE ANGEL ISLINGTON by March Cost.I really like it.Set in 1930s London about Phillip an archaeologist searching for a missing artifact and his runaway lover Andra.He meets Miss Quinn who has a moustache and a Pomeranian dog and Andra is living with a wayward friend Letty.Very entertaining.

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