Life

Biography

“Mrs. Perrin was a realist, and all her work bears the stamp of sincerity and love of truth which characterized her as an individual. She wrote a simple, unforced style, and the reader feels keenly the heat, the dust, the moonrise, the night calls, and all the sights and sounds and smells of the unchanging East.”
~ from Perrin’s obituary in The Times, 15 February 1934

        Alice Perrin was born in India in 1867, the daughter of Major General John Innes Robinson, of the Bengal Cavalry, and Bertha Beidermann Robinson.[1] After her education in England, she married Charles Perrin (d. 1931), an engineer in the India Public Works Department, in 1886. They had a son, Lancelot Charles Perrin (born c.1889), who later worked in the Irrigation Branch of the Indian Public Works and married Vera Alexandrina St. John in November 1913.[2] After the Perrins’ return to England in 1899, Charles worked for the London Water Board and the Ministry of Health. Perrin’s career as a popular Anglo-Indian novelist and short story writer began with the two-volume novel Into Temptation, published in 1894. She continued publishing novels every two to three years until her last novel, Other Sheep, was published in 1932, two years before her death in Vaud, Switzerland, in 1934. In total, she published seventeen novels, many of which focus on the British colonial experience in India, such as The Spell of the Jungle (1902), The Anglo-Indians (1912), The Happy Hunting Ground (1914), Star of India (1919), and Government House (1925).

        Like many other Anglo-Indian women, the boredom and isolation of life in India led Perrin to authorship. In a conversation with Douglas Sladen, she recalled:

I think I took to writing from sheer need of occupation. When I married my husband in India, as a girl of eighteen, we were sent to a place in the jungle where he had charge of an enormous aqueduct which was under construction. He had several Coopers Hill assistants under him, not one of whom was married, and I was the only English woman in the locality. There was no station – or permanent settlement; our houses were temporary erections of mud, and we were miles from the railway. The landscape consisted of a sea of yellow grass about the height of a man, and there was only one road, which lay behind our bungalow – the grand trunk road that is the backbone of India. I began to write here, just to amuse myself, and then when we went to less isolated spots, I gained confidence and used to send little articles and turn-overs to the Pioneer – the principal Indian daily paper. These were nearly always accepted, and so I took courage and wrote a novel called Into Temptation, which ran through that prehistoric magazine London Society, long ago a novel called Into Temptation, which ran through that prehistoric magazine London Society, long ago defunct. The book came out in two volumes and had very fair notices. Then I wrote another called Late in Life, which ran serially in an Indian weekly, off-shoot of the Pioneer, and in England through the Belgravia, and then came out in two volumes. So you may imagine – or rather, realise – how long ago I began! Both these novels are now to appear revised and corrected in Messrs. Methuen’s 7d. series.

 However, I did not receive the financial encouragement I had hoped for from these first efforts, and I lost heart. For nearly ten years I wrote nothing but a few Indian short stories. Then when my husband was offered an appointment at home, and we retired  before we had ‘done’ our full time in India, I collected these stories, and they came out under the title of East of Suez. The book was a success and since then I have written and have been published steadily.

 I am deeply interested in India, in the people and their religions, and histories and social systems, and as I was sixteen years in the country I had an opportunity of receiving lasting impressions, and of gaining invaluable experience. I come of a family which has been officially connected with India for five generations. My great grandfather[3] was with Lord Cornwallis, on his staff, at the taking of Seringapatam, and the surrender to Lord Cornwallis of Tippoo Sahib’s two little sons as hostages. He was afterwards Chairman of the old East India Company – known in those days as John Company.[4]

In 1925, the Perrins moved to Switzerland. There, they hosted several British writers, including Perrin’s fellow ghost story writer, Algernon Blackwood.


        Although Perrin’s novels are traditional romances based on her experiences in India, she was also an accomplished writer of ghost stories. Like her contemporary Bithia Mary Croker (c.1850-1920), she chose to keep her supernatural writing within the genre of the short story. Perrin’s first supernatural tale, “Caulfield’s Crime,” was published in the December 1892 issue of Belgravia, and her ghost stories appear in the collections East of Suez (1901), Red Records (1906), Tales That Are Told (1917), and Rough Passages (1926). The continued success she found as a short story writer, at a time when collections of short stories were not as sure sellers as novels in the publishing world, surprised (and at times baffled) many of her contemporaries. Where authors struggled to publish in one literary form, she succeeded at both. In a 4 March 1907 letter to his literary agent, J.B. Pinker (1863-1922), Arnold Bennett complained that he had not been offered as much from Chatto & Windus as Perrin, who had been advanced £150 for A Free Solitude and £50 for a collection of short stories (presumably Red Records). Bennett went on to calculate:

Now at a royalty of 5d per copy, they would have to sell nearly 7,500 copies to get back their money on the novel. Whereas the royalties on 2500 copies of The Ghost will only be about £50. Why can they afford to be, comparatively, so generous when they buy outright as they do from Mrs. Perrin? This lady is a particular friend of mine & I am sure she told me the truth as to the price. They offered her £100, and it was I who urged her to stick it out. If everything is quite on the square, the inference is that Mrs. Perrin’s books sell three times as well as mine: which I do not believe.[5]

Though not quite three times Bennett’s novel, Chatto & Windus’s sales figures verify that Perrin’s A Free Solitude sold more than twice as many copies as The Ghost.[6] Despite his concern over sales, and perhaps a bit jealous over the fact that he was being outsold by a “lady romancer,” Bennett did encourage Perrin in her career and freely offered her professional advice. One area where they generally differed, however, was over Perrin’s choice to pursue publication of her short story collections instead of longer fiction. In an 8 November 1908 letter to Pinker, Bennett reluctantly admits that she had achieved success, despite his advice:

I did my very best to put her in the way of salvation; but she would not have it. She says she once went to you (apropos of East of Suez, I think) and that you snubbed her so effectually that she would never dare to approach you again. She must have felt hurt, whether she was or not. This is her version, to which I attach no importance; but she does. I expect you told her that there was no hope for short stories. In general there isn’t. But it did just happen that East of Suez sold well, & brought her into prominence. With Kipling, Barrie, Crockett, Quiller-Couch, Arthur Morrison, Doyle, Jacobs, & sundry others she is an example of a reputation built on short stories—which publishers, who ought to know their business, will never touch if they can help it. If it is any consolation to you, she has no agent at all,—or had not when I last saw her.[7]

The Times obituary for Perrin gave a positive estimation of her writing career and offered  some additional details of her personality, saying, “She was tall and handsome with an exuberant sense of humour and a gift of conversation which made her the best of good company.”[8] The obituary goes on to say that Perrin was supportive of other writers, “an excellent literary critic, and a most generous and large-hearted admirer of many authors whose merits she had been among the first to discern.”[9] After the Perrins returned from India in 1899, Alice became involved in many London literary societies, including the Society of Women Journalists, the Royal Literary Fund, and the Incorporated Society of Authors, Playwrights, and Composers. Perrin was also active in the Women Writers’ Club and spoke at many of their meetings. According to G.B. Burgin’s Memoirs of a Clubman (1921), Perrin and Mrs. Baillie Reynolds[10] were two of the leading figures at the club. He remembers his visits to the club fondly, “At these debates, Mrs. Baillie Reynolds, Mrs. Alice Perrin and a host of other accomplished women writers generally speak, and they all speak well. The speeches of the women members are full of humour and, as a rule, much livelier than those of the visitors.”[11] Burgin goes on to differentiate Perrin and Reynolds as professionals who take their work seriously, as opposed to other would-be women authors of the day: “The great charm about the Women Writers is that they are all workers, whereas at another women’s club with literary pretensions there are occasional social butterflies who get someone else to write their books, and pose as literary characters on the strength of them.”[12] Perrin herself reiterated Burgin’s point in an interview included in Meredith Starr’s The Future of the Novel (1921), which included his conversations with several “renowned authors.” In a passage that could be considered a brief summation of her theory on the composition of fiction, she stresses that writing should be considered an art, and as such, should only be undertaken with a commitment to hard work and artistic integrity:

Novel writing is about the only profession into which people will rush without training, or study, or practice. Given the talent, which is no more to be acquired than the shape of one’s nose or the colour of one’s eyes, it is an Art that can be learnt, that must be learnt, since genuine success can never be achieved without a working knowledge of the tools that have been given us….Yet novels get accepted and published (never mind how!) that betray the writer’s ignorance of form, technique, and construction, not to mention the word grammar; and though from their very spontaneity such productions may meet with an ephemeral success, that success cannot continue because it is not founded on real work. It is novel-writing ‘by ear.’[13] 

In the interview, Perrin shows a good understanding of the literary marketplace and offers her predictions on future trends in the publishing world: “If printers and binders and paper-makers continue to obtain the large wages and prices we hear of, it seems to me that the novel must come down in price, since it would be quite possible to produce even cheaper bindings, less good print, and more horrible paper than is being ‘put out’ at present; more millions of the public would buy, and the incurable novel reader would rejoice.”[14] Perrin thus predicts an increased circulation of novels and the rise of the cheap paperback which would remain popular for the rest of the century and beyond.

        Perrin’s generosity to other writers extended into current cultural interests as well, and through her ghost stories, she became well known among the Spiritualists of the early twentieth century. She was involved in the infamous report by Radclyffe Hall and Una Troubridge, published in the December 1919 issue of the Proceedings of the Society for Psychical Research, which was dedicated to reports on a series of séances held by the professional medium, Mrs. Osbourne Leonard, between August 1916 and August 1917.[15] In an attempt to resolve contrasting opinions about “Knowledge of Matters Unknown to Sitters,” the two women contacted Perrin and five other “well qualified” people (including Helen Salter, editor of the journal) asking for their opinions “as to whether, in view of the words spoken at the sitting, [they] must conclude that both men were dead, or one dead and the other alive on February 21st 1917.”[16] Perrin had a continuing friendship with Radclyffe Hall and Troubridge. After the publication of Adam’s Breed in 1926, Hall hosted a dinner for Perrin, Violet Hunt,[17] and several other writers. Perrin and Hunt also served on the British committee of the Prix Femina Vie Heureuse, which presented an annual award for the year’s best British novel.[18]

 

Notes


[1] John Innes Robinson served in the Bengal Cavalry from 1849-1889. In October 1861, he married Bertha Beidermann in Ramoan, Co. Antrim. Bertha was the widow of Col. Swyny of the British army and daughter of the Rev. G.A. Beidermann, Rector of Dauntsey, Wiltshire. (“Marriages,” Gentleman’s Magazine 211 [November 1861]:  p. 559).

[2] British marriage records indicate that Lancelot later married Annie Lloyd in 1925. A few years after their marriage, according to a brief announcement in the Times for 19 June 1928: “Lancelot Charles Perrin, aged 39, was found dead, and Annie Perrin, 35, unconscious, in a gas-filled room at Ossington-street, Bayswater” (p. 15). This may explain the vague reference in Alice Perrin’s Times obituary: “With a high sense of duty she combined a courage which carried her through private sorrows of no ordinary kind…” (p. 9).

[3] Perrin’s great-grandfather was Sir George Abercrombie Robinson, 1st Bart (1758-1832). He served in the Bengal Army from 1779-1802 and as Military Auditor-General in 1798. Robinson became Director of the East India Company in 1808 and held the position until 1829. He served as Chairman of the Company in 1820 and 1826. Robinson’s sons continued the family’s influence in India, both in military and administrative roles. The Robinson Baronetcy of Batts House, Somerset, which began with Sir George Abercrombie was passed down to his son, George Best Robinson (1797-1855), and George Best’s son, George Abercrombie Robinson (1826-1891). On the death of George Abercrombie in 1891, the baronetcy passed to William Le Fleming Robinson (1830-1895), and then to two of Alice Perrin’s brothers, Ernest William Robinson (1862-1924) and Douglas Innes Robinson (1863-1944). Douglas served in the British army and was officially commissioned a lieutenant in the Garrison Artillery in January 1890. As Douglas had no heirs, the baronetcy became extinct in 1944.

[4] Perrin quoted in Sladen, Twenty Years of My Life (London: Constable, 1915), pp. 122-23.

[5] Letters of Arnold Bennett, James Hepburn, ed., Vol. 1 (London and New York: Oxford University Press, 1966),  p. 78.

[6] For more information on these sales figures, see Letters of Arnold Bennett (James Hepburn, ed.), Vol. 1, p. 80n.

[7] Letters of Arnold Bennett , pp. 105-06.

[8] “Mrs. Alice Perrin,” The Times (February 15, 1934), p. 9.

[9] “Mrs. Alice Perrin,” The Times, p. 9.

[10] Mrs. Baillie Reynolds (1861-1939), who formerly published under her maiden name of G[ertrude] M[innie] Robins, was a fellow author of the supernatural. Her first novel was the three-volume Keep My Secret (1886), which was followed by several other novels throughout the 1890s, including The Silence Broken: A Story of the Unexplained (1897). Her most famous ghost story collection, The Relations and What They Related, was serialized in The Lady’s Realm in 1902 and published in book form by the end of the year. For more on Reynolds, see Richard Dalby’s introduction in his Sarob Press edition of The Relations and What They Related and Other Weird Tales (2003), volume six in his “Mistresses of the Macabre” series.

[11] G.B. Burgin, Memoirs of a Clubman, 2nd ed. (New York: E.P. Dutton, 1922), p. 284.

[12] Burgin, Memoirs, p. 284.

[13] Perrin quoted in Meredith Starr, The Future of the Novel (Boston: Small, Maynard, 1921), pp. 120-21.

[14] Perrin quoted in Starr, Future of the Novel, p. 120.

[15] For more on the debate over this article, see Michael Baker’s Our Three Selves: The Life of Radclyffe Hall (1985), pp. 103-109.

[16] Radclyffe Hall and Una Troubridge, “Knowledge of Matters Unknown to Sitters,” Proceedings of the Society for Psychical Research, Vol. 30 (December 1919), p. 543.

[17] Like Perrin, Violet Hunt (1862-1942) wrote supernatural tales, many of which were collected in Tales of the Uneasy (1911) and More Tales of the Uneasy (1925). She also founded the Women Writers’ Suffrage League, of which Perrin was an active member.

[18] Baker, p. 182.