Forgotten authors No 30: Gone but not forgotten

Click to follow
The Independent Culture

An uncomfortable side-effect of calling any author "forgotten" is the risk of causing offence. Nobody wants to be thought of as vanished, but shelf-life is fleeting. With stock in chain stores governed by computers, the only way of finding certain books is to head for independents or to search online.

I've been shocked by the number of writers who have produced more than 100 books, only to vanish from print. After seeing the pattern repeated, it starts to feel like a conspiracy. Marjorie Bowen, for example, wrote at least 150 volumes but is currently represented on Amazon by one anthology of short stories and a cigarette card.

Readers don't forget, only bookshops, and I rely on fans to notify me about their favourite absent authors. It's gratifying to report that a few novels have started reappearing since this column began. The superbly odd Gladys Mitchell is back courtesy of Vintage Press, which is publishing beautiful new editions of three of her mysteries, while Virago, Persephone, Tartarus and other dedicated publishers are reviving writers who've been trapped by changing tastes and times.

A few weeks ago I asked if anyone knew what had happened to Maryann Forrest. Her brilliant first novel Here (Away From it All) received wide praise, but when I tried to track down the author, the trail ended in Australia. One editor suggested that she lived on the Greek island where her book was set, but I couldn't see her doing that unless she was prepared to be lynched by the locals.

This week I received a letter from Polly Hope which began: "My first husband came across your piece about Maryann Forrest, asking if anyone knows where she is. Yes I know, for I am she."

I visited Hope, a visual artist and opera librettist, in London's Spitalfields, where she thrives in her graceful art-filled studio house, along with four dogs, a cat, chickens and friends, and found she had adopted an alias (she had an Australian grandmother) to write the novel. Polly was living in Greece during the period of the military junta, and would very likely have faced deportation upon publication.

This raises an idea I hadn't considered: perhaps other authors were also successful polymaths who simply sought to pursue varied careers. Polly covered her tracks so successfully that her three books are tough to find, but she has an unfinished novel waiting, so I'll end optimistically and ask a publisher to rediscover her uniquely powerful voice.