Invisible Ink: No 151 - Marie Belloc Lowndes

She was a prolific author, but her fame rests on a single novel. The only daughter of a French barrister and an English feminist, Marie Belloc Lowndes (1868-1947) was the sister of Hilaire Belloc, the granddaughter of the painter Jean-Hilaire Belloc, and the great-granddaughter of a famous theologian who invented soda water. She was one of the first to join the Women Writers' Suffrage League, and married a Times journalist. After her husband was left a legacy of £2,000 she had the financial security to risk a writing career, and began pouring out novels, essays, plays and memoirs at a rate of one a year, (I tally her total output at around 72 volumes but there may have been more).

Lowndes proved to be brilliant at combining suspenseful, exciting plotting with psychological insight. Her novel Letty Lynton became a film vehicle for Joan Crawford, but there was another far more sensational book. In 1913, her novel The Lodger was slow to attract readers but gradually became a smash hit, eventually selling more than a million copies. It was loosely based around the Jack the Ripper murders, an outrage that had occurred just 25 years earlier and was still being discussed and analysed across the country. The book's inspiration came from a dinner party during which she overheard the hostess talking about her butler and cook, who kept lodgers and were convinced that one of them was the Ripper. In the novel, the landlady's suspicions grow when she discovers her lodger is a religious fanatic who walks the streets late at night and has an aversion to the engravings of beautiful women in his room. He reads sections of the Bible that rail against women, and returns home with a bloodstained cape. The novel's US version was championed by Gertrude Stein and Ernest Hemingway.

Meanwhile, Alfred Hitchcock once again enters the story. He'd already made two silent films in Germany but The Lodger was to be set in London. Hitchcock and Lowndes had much in common, including their Catholicism and their preference for gentleman villains whose cruelty was concealed by their civility. In style and theme, The Lodger was the first film to embody the true Hitchcock style, complete with a signature blonde and a man wrongly accused. Lowndes's version made the lodger guilty, but as Ivor Novello was the film's leading man, this had to be reconsidered. Both book and film are now reissued.

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