D K Broster
Dorothy Kathleen Broster (1877 - 1950) produced 15 popular historical novels between 1911 and 1947. An intensely private person, she wrote always under the name D K Broster and on her death in 1950 critics were surprised to find that she was neither male nor Scottish, as had often been assumed. Diligent digging in archives has only reinforced this impression of someone who guarded her privacy; we know next to nothing of her early life, and very little was written about her during her lifetime. Many will remember her Jacobite Trilogy, romantic historical novels first published in the 1920s and still in print until a year or so ago - but her other historical fiction is long out of print and unknown to a modern reader, though those who were teenagers in the 1930s and 40s may well have wept over The Yellow Poppy or laughed their way through Almond Wild Almond
Born near Liverpool on 2 September 1877 to Thomas Mawdsley Broster and Emilie Kathleen (nee Gething), D K Broster was privately educated. Her parents later moved to Cheltenham and at sixteen she went to The Cheltenham Ladies College, and then in 1896 to St Hildas College, Oxford, where she read Modern History. She was the eldest of four siblings, and two younger sisters later followed her at Cheltenham. She was among the first women students at Oxford and completed her degree studies in 1898, but had to wait for her degree award and MA until 1920 when graduation was first extended to women.
After her time as a student, she worked for some years as a private secretary to an Oxford history professor, then during the 1914-18 war she volunteered as a nurse. In April 1915 she was sent out to France with the British Red Cross, but was invalided home early in 1916 with a knee infection. While working as a secretary in Oxford before the 1914-18 war, she was also making a start on her writing, first trying short stories and poems which met with little success. Her first two published novels were joint efforts, written with a college friend Miss G W (Gertrude Winifred) Taylor. Chantemerle (1911) was a story of post-revolutionary skirmishes in La Vendee, while The Vision Splendid (1913) divided its action between the Oxford Movement, and 1830s French high society. The Vision Splendid shows the hand of two authors, with two stories which pull in different directions, and a love story which unsuccessfully tries to link two very different strands. However the depiction of the friendship between Dormer and Hungerford, (two fictional Anglican priests of the Oxford Movement) interestingly prefigures the intense male friendships which D K Broster was to explore in her later work. Sir Isumbras at the Ford followed in 1918, and is an unacknowledged echo of Baroness Orczy; so much so that my first reading of it was like encountering an undiscovered Scarlet Pimpernel story. Not only is the period the same, but the whole atmosphere of post-revolutionary France is steeped in Orczy. The breathless diction, the fast-paced action adventure, the crossing and recrossing of the channel by brave aristocrats, the schemes, ruses and high notions of personal honour, and perhaps most of all the cod French and broken English, with "what would you" and "helas, citizens" freely scattered; all are here, with the added bonus of a would-be winning, but really rather nauseating small boy. Broster remained unmarried and had no children herself, and her depictions of children tend to the romantic and sentimental. Sir Isumbras is an immature and imitative work and unsurprisingly was not a critical success, although it was reprinted several times. The best part is perhaps her creation of the spirited hero Fortune de la Vireville, who reappears in Ships in the Bay. To the best of my knowledge, after the publication of Sir Isumbras Broster did not return to secretarial work, but worked full-time as a writer. At about this time she and her close friend Gertrude Schlich started to share a house. Whether Miss Schlich supported Broster financially at this point is not known, but old college records suggest that D K Broster had few personal financial resources, and the income from one moderately popular novel would not have been enough to live on. Later on, sales of her other books would perhaps have provided a reasonable income. More novels followed at regular intervals.
1920 saw the publication of The Yellow Poppy, and here D K Broster is still on the Orczy trail, though with more success. The tide refers to the late-flowering love of the Duc and Duchesse de Trelan, married for some years without appreciating each others' good qualities, then separated by the French Revolution, and reunited after a period when each thought the other was dead. The Duc has been in exile in England; the Duchesse has been acting as caretaker for her old home of Trelan under an assumed name. They are reunited late in their marriage but have only a short time together before personal happiness must be sacrificed to honour. The autumn-flowering yellow poppy is soon scattered by the wind, and the Duchesse will have long lonely years to remember a brief time of joy. The Yellow Poppy was much criticised at the time for being too derivative of 7he Scarlet PimperneL While the style, period, and mixture of sentimentality and fiercely heroic deeds are certainly familiar, I think this assessment misses the growing maturity in D K Broster's writing, and her willingness to take a risk, resisting a conventional happy ending by killing off the hero in the final chapter. She starts to explore the themes of honour, friendship and sacrifice which were to come to the fore in her later more widely successful Scottish novels; and the picture of the Duchesse de Trelan alone with her memories in a huge neglected house is a haunting one. The fact that it was much reprinted speaks for the novel's popular success.
In the early 1920s D K Broster started to find a more independent writing voice, with the publication of The Wounde dName (1922) and Mr Rowl (1924) although she was still writing about her favourite period of the French Revolution and its aftermath. Her character drawing improved; The Wounded Name, about an attempt to clear a rnans name from the shame of an apparently dishonourable military manoeuvre, has its full share of tortured handsome young men and an atmosphere of intense soul-searching; but D K Broster also develops her theme of male friendships against the odds, in the relationship between the temporarily disgraced rebel leader Aymar de la Rocheterie and his young champion Laurent de Courtomer. Mr Rowl, the story of a French parole prisoner in England in the early 19th century, looks at friendship with the enemy. There are also some good comic moments, not least the episode of Raoul de Sablieres' escape disguised as a woman, and his dramatic exit from an upper window via the roof. In both novels, the male characters' friendships are fraught with misunderstandings and reconciliations concerning matters of personal honour. Each of these novels includes a love interest, but the female characters are very secondary and the love stories, whilst ostensibly driving the plot at times, actually take a back seat to the interplay of male personalities which is what really seems to interest D K Broster. Male/female interaction is present but predictable; the real emotional focus is on what is going on between the men.
In 1925 The Flight of the Heron appeared. This was to be her most popular work and also the most critically acclaimed. It was the first of what is now commonly known as The Jacobite Trilogy, and was followed by 7he Gleam in the North (1927) and 7he Dark Mile (1929). The setting of 1740s Scotland was a departure for Broster, inspired by a five-week visit she made to friends in Lochaber in the Western Highlands in 1923. Copies of an outline for a lecture or article which she wrote in around 1928 survive in various archives, and in this she wrote:
'I was there five weeks (in almost constant rain) and had not when I went the slightest intention of writing about the Forty-five which as an overwritten period and one which I knew very little about, rather bored me. But the spirit of the place got such a hold on me that before I left I had the whole story planned almost in spite of myself'. She is said to have consulted eighty reference works before writing The Flight of the Heron, and in the same article she also speaks of her passion for a good combination of accuracy, character and plot:
'It is not easy to make a good blend of history and fiction, when one does really care that the historical part shall be correct and that the story itself shall have plenty of movement and not be overshadowed by the historical background .... The clash of character is far more vital than the clash of swords; but there is no reason why one should not, so to speak have both between the covers of a historical novel. I have always at least aimed at the conjunction of the two".
This successful conjunction must in part explain the Trilogy's continuing popularity; the novels are lively adventure stories, but there is also sound history, evocative description, and a compelling interplay of personalities.
The hero of The Flight of the Heron is Ewen Cameron, a young Highland chieftain and kinsman of Lochiel, and a passionate supporter of the Stuart cause. D K Broster plausibly weaves a fictional character into the real events and lives of 1745 and after. We see Ewen Cameron as an aide to Prince Charles Stuart, in flight after Culloden, in conflict with English soldiers; all situations that other writers have explored. But .Broster's character drawing in this novel is accomplished, and she creates a convincing picture of a hot-tempered, red-headed young man with tenacious loyalties and a flair for inconvenient friendships. There is conflict, action, fight, flight and heather in plenty, plus a love story with Ewen and his young wife Alison which is a little more solid than in her previous novels; but the bright thread running through the novel is Broster's exploration of Ewen's awkward and prickly friendship with the enemy English soldier Keith Windham.
Windham, on a foray into enemy territory, is captured by Ewen Cameron, and is held as a parole prisoner at Cameron's home for a time. He is surprised to find his 'host' cultured gallant and likeable, and an uneasy friendship starts to form in spite of opposing loyalties. On a later encounter when Prince Tearlach's troops have occupied Edinburgh, Ewen puts friendship above other allegiances, saving Windharn's life by the timely use of a secret passage when Cameron soldiers are hot on his heels. Windham pays this debt by rescuing Ewen from summary execution during Cumberland's reprisals, to the detriment of his own military career. Misunderstandings arise - did Windham suggest that Cameron might usefully inform against his own side, or was this just a device to save his life? - and are resolved, only to result in a final dreadful dilemma for Windham, who stumbles across Ewen escaping by boat to France.
Military duty demands that he capture him, personal friendship suggests he should let him go. He escapes the necessity of choice, when Ewen's foster-brother, who because of an earlier misunderstanding has promised to kill Windham, plunges a dirk in his chest just as Windham is wrestling with the conflicting demands of friendship and duty. There is only time for Windham to say goodbye to Ewen before he dies, and the friendship that has hardly begun is both ended and affirmed in the same moment.
There is more going on here, though, than a tale of gallant deeds and misunderstandings. Ewen Cameron is a true romantic hero, with high notions of chivalry which others find difficult to live up to. But in Keith Windham, Broster has created a much more complex character, for whom an unexpected friendship is a form of personal salvation. Windham has had a lonely unloved childhood, neglected by his mother and betrayed by a woman he loved; and has since resolved that he will form no other close relationships, since these have only let him down. He is resolved on a cynical approach to life and a friendless military career. His friendship with Ewen breaks through this protective shell, and the decisions he is forced to make about the competing claims of friendship, honour and duty make him re-examine his own opinions and values. Early in the novel, Ewen's foster-father who has the 'Sight' prophesies that Windham will be to Ewen both the occasion of a great service and a bitter grief, and this is fulfilled; Windham saves Ewen's life, but Windham's death is a grief which will stay with Ewen all his life. The heron of the title was thought to bring ill-luck, the murder of Windham at the moment of decision resolves the immediate choice but leaves a lasting sorrow, and even at the moment of being reunited with his wife in France, Ewen's thoughts are far away in Scotland where Windham lies dead.
The other parts of the Trilogy also explore themes of conflicting loyalties. The Gleam in the North is set in the early 1750s, when some Jacobites are quietly returning from exile, whilst others are still proscribed and hunted. Ewen Cameron is able to return home to Ardroy; but his cousin Archie Cameron is still on the run. Cameron's real life arrest and execution are recreated; while Ewen is torn between his wish for decisive action to try to save his cousin, and the need to live quietly on his estates for the sake of his family. In The Dark Mile, Ewen sets about finding the man who betrayed Archie Cameron; and there is also the story of Ewen's cousin Ian Stewart who falls in love with a girl from the rival Campbell clan. Once more, personal inclinations and relationships are in conflict with wider duties and allegiances. The Trilogy caught the popular imagination and went into multiple reprints. Critics also approved the psychological explorations in Heron, which offered more than the standard adventure story, and applauded the meticulous research. To a modern reader the style has dated a little, but they remain highly readable.
At some stage the Jacobite Trilogv, already enormously popular in the adult market, started to be recommended to and read by children, as had already happened to many earlier adventure stories. Contemporary evidence shows that teenage girls were enjoying these by the 1940s; Antonia Forest in her excellent children's novel Autumn Term (1948) writes of 12 year old twins: "Nicola had handed on The Flight of the Heron and all Lawrie's sympathy was, for the time being at least, with the disgraced and disinherited." By the 1950s they were on recommended reading lists for 12-14 year olds in critical works such as Kathleen Lines Four to Fourteen (1956) and Nerina Shute's Favourite Books for Boys and Girls (1955). As interest in D K Broster's other works started to fade, the Jacobite Trilogy remained popular and in print, and started to be seen as well-written junior romantic adventures; a halfway house between childrens and adult fiction. Anecdotal evidence suggests that they were also studied as set texts in schools in the 1960s. It is easy to see why they appealed to teenage readers, especially girls; the combination of fast action and a romantic hero certainly appealed to adolescent girls, and the lack of any explicit sex would have likewise appealed to their parents! The basically sound history and sensitive treatment of deeper themes of friendship, honour and loyalty, meant that children's critics such as Margery Fisher also appraised them favourably. More recent evidence of D K Broster being viewed as a children's writer is a mention of The Flight of the Heron in Humphrey Carpenter's 1984 Oxford Companion to Children's Literature. The Flight of the Heron was dramatised for radio and broadcast on BBC Scotland in 1957, and then again in six episodes on Children's Hour in 1959. It was then serialised in 1968 by Scottish Television in several 30-minute episodes, starting with "Capture". This version must have been shown in England too at some stage - probably during a weekend teatime slot - as I can recall seeing part of it as a child. The accessibility of The Jacobite Trilogy to the junior market was further increased by its publication in separate volumes from 1963 onwards by Peacock Paperbacks, the Young Adult imprint of Penguin Books. This ensured them a place in the children's library as well as in the adult section, and must have been a factor in their continuing popularity. The Peacock paperbacks were reprinted several times and I first read The Flight of the Heron in this edition. Interest in the trilogy continued in the 1980s and 90s, with their 1984 publication in one volume by Penguin, subsequently reprinted. Other one volume editions also appeared, for instance in hardback by Lomond Books in the mid 1990s. The most recent one-volume edition went out of print only about a year ago and new stock copies are still around in some bookshops, particularly in Scotland.
Almond Wild Almond (1933) is a light romantic story set in the same period as' The Flight of the Heron, and has an incidental interest for Heron devotees with the cameo appearance of Ewen Cameron at a Highland ball. A few more historical novels appeared during the 1930s and 40s, finishing with The Captain's Lady in 1947. One reasonably successful departure from her favourite period was Child Royal (1937), a slight but readable novel of the childhood of Mary Queen of Scots. In the 1930s, following the success of the Trilogy, Broster was well-regarded as a popular novelist whose books sold well, but her later novels were lighter works than The Jacobite Trilogy. A particular feature of Broster's fiction is the way in which she portrays friendships between men. There is much stress laid on misunderstanding and reconciliation, and many intense conversations reflecting on minute points of honour. Long passages of dialogue, and some authorial omniscience, enable us to see the characters interior worlds. Often one man saves another from false accusations of dishonour, or from execution, and the commitments of friendship often take precedence over other allegiances. There is also much emphasis on physical and emotional suffering, and one friend watching over another while he recovers from illness and fever. Blood, sweat and tears are followed by physical and emotional recovery. Some would say that such scenes have a homoerotic element; Im wary of reading back later interpretations into 1920s fiction, but it would be difficult to write in this way for a modem audience without creating an impression of more than a passionate friendship. I am inclined to say that whilst we may well read homosexual overtones into The Flight of the Heron, and others of her novels where the emotional focus is firmly on the male characters, this wasn't consciously intended by Broster, and my impression is that it was not picked up by contemporary critics. As for D K Broster herself, she was unmarried and lived with her close friend Gertrude Schlich for more than thirty years; but this wasn't uncommon then, and assumptions from a modem perspective about two women sharing a home would only be speculative.
No assessment of D K Broster's work would be complete without a look at The Jacobite Trilogy's place in the 'Scottish school' of historical adventure fiction. Margery Fisher, in Chapter 5 of her critical appraisal of the adventure story, The Bright Face of Danger (1986) argues convincingly that Broster is in a direct line of descent from Scott, Stevenson and Buchan. Id agree that Broster combines elements from earlier writers - the romanticism and descriptive writing of Scott (without Scotts historical licence) plus the characterisation of Stevenson and the pace of Buchan. She uses some of the same adventure devices of fight, flight and misunderstandings; and inhabits their world, where fictional adventures overlap historical events. The Gleam in the North contains several references to the Appin murder so central to Catriona, and I would not be surprised to find that Ewen Cameron knew Alan Breck Stewart! Her books however are more than a thin echo of earlier writers; her treatments of friendship, honour and allegiance, whilst owing something to Stevenson, are convincing explorations of character in their own right.
Broster's novels also form a bridge between the classic Scottish historical adventures of Stevenson and co, and more recent writers such as the very. popular American novelist Diana Gabaldon, whose hugely successful Outlander series covers the same period, in its earlier books, as The Jacobite Trilogy. Gabaldon's highly entertaining historical adventures are particularly memorable for the fresh twist she gives to friendships between men, especially the convoluted friendship between the young Highland chieftain Jamie Fraser and the English soldier Lord John Grey. Gabaldon's companion volume to the series, Through the Stones, includes a list of suggested reading which she feels her fans may enjoy, and The Jacobite Trilogy is listed there. It is clear that Gabaldon has read the Trilogy; and the Fraser/Grey relationship surely owes something to Ewen Cameron and Keith Windham. Like Cameron, Gabaldon's tall redheaded hero is saved from a firing squad after Culloden by an English soldier who owes him a debt of honour; and Gabaldon looks at similar themes of friendship and allegiance. Broster's psychological explorations of character took the Scottish historical adventure a step further, and suggested perspectives which Diana Gabaldon has developed further and, as a modem writer, more explicitly.
As a person, D K Broster remains something of an enigma. At school and university, some liked and respected her, whilst others found her very aloof. My impression is of someone with a small circle of close friends who was essentially very reserved. I could find no mention of contact with her family after her time at Cheltenham. She remained working in Oxford after her student days rather than returning to a family home, and later lived in Sussex for some years; and at her funeral, the only family representative was a nephew. Was there some sort of family rift, or could she have been orphaned as a young girl? At St Hildas she relied on scholarships for financial support, and although she stayed in contact with her old college, archive correspondence tells nothing further about her personal circumstances, so there are unanswered questions. She certainly had a much darker side to her imagination, not found in her historical novels but clear in her short stories of the supernatural. Her collection Couching at the Door is very highly regarded in ghost/ supernatural story circles, as are a couple of the stories in another collection, Fires of Driftwood. These are bleak weird stories with none of the romanticism of her novels, and indicate a very different side to her character. Very little is known of her personal life; at some point after the 1914-18 war she and her friend Gertrude Schlich moved to Sussex, and lived near Battle for some years. D K Broster died in Bexhill Hospital on 7 February 1950. A short volume of her poetry was collated and published posthumously by Gertrude Schlich.
All D K Broster's books are currently out of print, but it is possible to collect many of them inexpensively in cheap reprint editions, and they do turn up for sale reasonably often. Secondhand copies of the one volume Jacobite Trilogy should be easy to find. Her supernatural stories collection, Couching at the Door, however, is likely to prove very elusive; there was only one edition of this, in 1942 during paper restrictions, and it is highly sought after by ghost/mystery story fans, though some stories have appeared in other anthologies. A paperback collection of some of her short stories is being reprinted in 2000 by Ash Tree Press (Canada), edited by Jack Adrian; a welcome revival of a neglected side of Broster's writing. With the current trend for publishers such as Methven's to revive classic historical fiction, it is to be hoped that some of D K Broster's historical novels may also reappear in print again.
In preparing this article I have appreciated the generous assistance of the archivists at Cheltenham Ladies College and St Hilda's College, Oxford; of Dr Hilda D Spear of Dundee University, and of the writer Jack Adrian; and of Joy Wotton, for the lengthy loan of her D K Broster collection.
Novels: Chantemerle 1911 (with G W Taylor); The Vision Splendid 1913 (with G W Taylor); Sir Isumbras at the Ford 1918; The Yellow Poppy 1920; The Wounded Name 1922; Mr Rowl 1924; The Flight of the Heron 1925: The Gleam in the North 1927: The Dark Mile 1929; Ships in the Bay! 1931; Almond, Wild Almond 1933; World Under Snow (with G Forester) 1935; Child Royal 1937; The Sea Without a Haven 1941; The Captain's Lady 1947.
Short Stories: A Fire of Driftwood 1932; Couching at the Door 1942
Poetry; The Short Voyage, and Other Verses (privately printed booklet) 1950
Other: The Happy Warrior (1926) (a short biography of the Comte de Neuilly 1777- 1863 - Cayme Press pamphlets no 1)
*This article is copyright to Belinda Copson, Hertfordshire UK, May 2000, and may not be reproduced without permission.