F Tennyson Jesse

Fryn Tennyson JesseThe writer, journalist and playwright, F Tennyson Jesse, known to her friends as Fryn, was born at Holly Bowers on 1st March 1888. Her mother Edith Jesse was a daughter of Henry James, the Cornish coal merchant who lived at Holly Bowers, and his wife Helen. Her father was a cleric and a nephew of Alfred Lord Tennyson. Fryn was the second of three daughters and was christened Wynifried Margaret Jesse. She first used her pen-name when she was 19, but adopted it for the remainder of her life.

Her father’s quest for a suitable position in the church led him to many places, and for the first twelve years of her life Fryn travelled with her parents to Cape Town, The Canary Islands, Guernsey and Sicily, and lived in Balham, Exeter and London. She had rickets as a child, and had to wear leg irons for a while. Whenever she was in England Fryn visited Holly Bowers regularly, since her elder sister, Stella, was living there permanently, and she enjoyed the company of her aunt and uncles. Her mother (like her grandmother) was something of an invalid, and became increasingly irascible, so that Fryn’s childhood appears to have been something of a trial, particularly as her father eventually took a position in Ceylon, leaving his family in England. Her times at Holly Bowers appear to have been something of a relief for her.

She was a strikingly beautiful young woman, “I have never seen a lovelier girl”, wrote Rebecca West later. At the age of 19 Fryn was able to leave home and enrolled at art school in Newlyn, Cornwall, where she was very popular with her fellow students. While she did undertake some book illustrating, it was to writing that she was drawn. Her first job was writing for The Times, but at the same time she was writing short stories. Her first, “The Mask”, received good reviews when it was published in The English Review, and in 1912 it was produced as a play at the Royalty Theatre, Shaftesbury Avenue, when Fryn was only 24.

It was around this time that Fryn badly damaged her right hand on the propeller of a light aircraft she was about to board. This required amputation of two fingers, and surgery on other parts of her hand. She had several operations, and eventually she went to New York where she had false fingers fitted. However, the lasting damage seems to have been that she became addicted for a while to morphia, which she took to ease the pain during the months after the accident.

At the outbreak of war in 1914, Fryn asked The Daily Mail to send her to Belgium to report on the war for the paper, and she reported from Antwerp, including from the front-line, until she was forced out by the German occupation of the city. The Daily Citizen wrote of her “To my mind, quite the most brilliant ... is Miss F Tennyson Jesse, who has been doing splendid work in Belgium. Not only has she an infallible nose for news, but she has unlimited courage. Best of all, she can write.” In 1915 she went to Holland, and later she went a number of times into France to report on the state of the Red Cross hospitals there, and to write about what was then called The Women’s Army.

She still found time throughout the war to write novels, plays, short stories and poetry and she also met her future husband, a budding playwright called Harold Harwood, whom she always called Tottie. They collaborated on plays as well as writing their own. They were eventually married in 1918. She was 30 and he was 44. They had no children. They were able to run two houses on their financial successes; in the winter they would stay in a house in Provence, and in the summer at a house near Goodwood, Sussex. They continued these arrangements until 1937 when they moved to London, to a smaller house in St John’s Wood.

The twenties were dazzling times for both of them, despite an undercurrent of instability due possibly to her addictions to morphia and alcohol, but also perhaps a feature of her family history; her grandmother and mother were both notably bad tempered, and the Tennyson family is said to have been known for “moods of gloomy instability”. It appears that at least twice she tried to commit suicide.

In addition to her literary works, which she continued almost up to her death, she wrote works of criminology, and went on to edit and write introductions to a number of books in the series “Notable British Trials”, which established Fryn as a perceptive authority on the criminal mind.

The number of published works diminished as she became frail, perhaps as a result of her addictions. She also suffered a great deal from migraine, for which she needed treatment throughout her life, and had operations on both eyes to clear cataracts. Fryn died in her sleep at the age of 70, in August 1958, shortly after a last cataract operation.

Fryn’s obituaries were fulsome. Rebecca West added a note to the obituary in The Times, which included the following: “In her youth she was one of the loveliest girls of her time .... Many people knew her later as a charming and clever and kindly woman, but it would be a pity if the girl that she was should be totally forgotten”.

Her husband was heart-broken and died nine months after Fryn, in April 1959. Fryn had never had a good relationship with her mother Edith, who had become increasingly bad tempered, especially after Eustace, Fryn’s father, died in 1927. Her mother died in 1941, and her sister Stella a year later, in June 1942. Fryn had one other long standing relationship; with May King, her housekeeper and companion for 43 years from 1915. May survived Fryn, and she died at the age of 92 in 1978.

Fryn had 36 works published during her life, including 9 novels, (her most famous being “A Pin to see the Peepshow”), 3 books of short stories, 2 volumes of poems, 9 plays, 8 books of criminology, 1 history book (“The Story of Burma”), 2 collections of letters from London in the early days of the 1939/45 war, and 4 books of collected essays, including ‘The Sword of Deborah” a picture of the lives of women during the Great War. She collaborated with her husband in the writing and production of 7 plays. Most of her works were published by William Heinemann, and most can be obtained through web-sites such as www.abebooks.com.

The Tennyson Research Centre in Lincoln has her correspondence and remaining papers, which include albums of news cuttings and photographs that both she and her father collated of her triumphs as well as those of her actress sister, Stella.

They have not been properly catalogued – but are available to visitors by appointment.

You can contact The Tennyson Research Centre as follows:

Grace Timmins
Collections Access Officer
Economy and Culture
Tennyson Research Centre
Lincoln Central Library
Free School Lane
Telephone Number Office: 01522 552651
Customer Service Centre: 01522 782040
Fax Number: 01522 575011
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This account is mostly taken from “A Portrait of Fryn”, by Joanna Colenbrander, Andre Deutsch 1984, by permission.