SIMPSON, Helen de Guerry (1897-1940)

SIMPSON, Helen de Guerry (1897-1940)
was born in Sydney on 1 December 1897. She came of a family that had been settled in New South Wales for over a 100 years. Her great-grandfather, Piers Simpson, R.N., was associated with Sir Thomas Mitchell (q.v.), and her maternal grandfather, the Marquis de Lauret, settled at Goulburn some 50 years before her birth. Her father, Edward Percy Simpson, was a well-known solicitor at Sydney who married Anne de Lauret. Helen Simpson was educated at the Rose Bay convent, and at Abbotsleigh, Wahroonga, and in 1914 she went to France for further study. When war broke out she crossed to England and was employed by the admiralty in decoding messages in foreign languages. She then went to Oxford, studied music, and failing in her examination for the mus. bach. degree took up writing. Her first appearance in print was a slight volume of verse, Philosophies in Little, published at Sydney in a limited edition in 1921. It attracted little notice but was included by Serle in his list of the more important volumes in his Bibliography of Australasian Poetry and Verse, published in 1925. Her play, A Man of His Time, based on the life of Benvenuto Cellini and written partly in blank verse, was a remarkable piece of work for a girl of less than 25. it was played by McMahon's repertory company at Sydney and published there by Angus and Robertson in 1923. Her first novel, Acquittal, appeared in London in 1925 and was followed by The Baseless Fabric (short stories) in 1925 and Caps, Wands and Swords (1927). The Women's Comedy (a play) was privately printed in 1926. Miss Simpson visited Australia in 1927 and in the same year married Denis John Browne, F.R.C.S., a fellow Australian practising in London and a nephew of T. A. Browne, "Rolf Boldrewood" (q.v.). Mumbudget, a collection of fairy stories, appeared in 1928, followed by The Desolate House (1929) and Vantage Striker (1931). These books were all capably written but had comparatively little success. It was not until Boomerang was published in 1932 that Helen Simpson came into her own. Here was a long rambling novel beginning in Paris at the end of the eighteenth century, wandering all over the world, including Australia, and ending in the trenches in France during the 1914-18 war, always interesting and vivid, and often exciting. It was awarded the James Tait Black memorial prize. This was followed by The Woman on the Beast, in 1933, consisting of a prologue, three books and an epilogue. The three books have no connexion with each other; in reality they form three separate short novels with the common basis that the most hateful things may be done for apparently the best of reasons. An admirable historical novel Saraband for Dead Lovers, came out in 1935, as did also The Female Felon, a long short story. In 1937 Miss Simpson came out to Australia under engagement to the Australian broadcasting commission. She gave an excellent series of talks and while in Australia collected material for a novel set in Sydney about a 100 years before, Under Capricorn, which appeared in 1937. She was then apparently in perfect health but became ill in 1938. She was operated on in 1940, but died after months of suffering on 14 October 1940. Her husband survived her with a daughter. Her last novel, Maid No More, was published in 1940. In addition to the books already mentioned Miss Simpson was the author of two pieces of historical biography, The Spanish Marriage (1933), and Henry VIII (1934). The Happy Housewife, a book of household management was published in 1934, and A Woman Among Wild Men, an account of Mary Kingsley, came out in 1938. The Waiting City, which appeared in 1933, is an interesting selection from Louis-Sebastien Mercier's Le Tableau de Paris, translated by Miss Simpson. Three novels, Enter Sir John (1929), Printer's Devil (1930), and Re-enter Sir John (1932), were written in conjunction with Miss Clemence Dane.
Helen Simpson was tall and handsome with much richness and charm of personality. She was a good musician, widely read, and full of unusual knowledge; her hobbies ranged from cookery past and present, to the collection of books on witchcraft. She was an excellent broadcaster and public speaker, and was much admired in London literary circles where she had made a place of her own. She was a natural writer; there is not a touch of the amateur in even her earliest books. At her best, in Boomerang, in spite of an occasional flowing with too much facility, in the Woman on the Beast, and in Saraband for Dead Lovers, she ranks very high as a novelist. The scenes at the end of the last-named, between the Electress Sophia and Sophia Dorothea, and between the Electress and Clara von Platen, are among the unforgettable things in the fiction of this period.
The Times, 15 October 1940; The Manchester Guardian, 16 October 1940; E. Morris Miller, Australian Literature; The Age, Melbourne, 14 December 1940; The Sydney Morning Herald, 16 October 1940; The Herald, Melbourne, 16 October 1940; The Argus, Melbourne, 26 July 1937; personal knowledge.

Dictionary of Australian Biography by PERCIVAL SERLE. . 1949.

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