Mistress of the macabre, Dorothy Eden

“In the shadows of the night, a veiled woman lurked in the garden, staring at the house watching waiting. It all started with a mysterious telephone call that plunged Harriet Lacey into a suffocating atmosphere of terror. With no one to help her, she was forced to turn to Flynn, the brilliant but bitter writer, whose past was already interwoven with hers in a tapestry of death.”

Not quite your style? Then what about:

“When Sir John and Lady Iris Devenish set sail for their ideal colony in 1862, they take with them a young Irish girl Kate O’Connor, as a companion to their wilful, headstrong daughter, Celina. From the beginning Kate gets embroiled with the family far more than she had bargained for. What mystery are the Devenishes fleeing? Why must Celina be sedated with laudanum and how will Kate’s growing passion for Sir John be resolved.”  

Both of these stories were penned by ‘Mistress of the macabre’ Dorothy Eden. ‘No one can suggest an eerie atmosphere and the sinister trifle better than [her]’, at least that’s what her publicity said.

According to an undated interview with Eden, printed in The Press, she was an elegantly dressed, gentle and sensitive lady. She lived in Kensington, London, and her favourite store was Harrods, where she worked in the book section; her favourite city was Paris. So why has the Ashburton Museum accepted twenty nine of this woman’s novels into the collection?

A local connection

1-the-wakanui-mill-being-shifted

Top marks for guessing that there is a local connection. Dorothy Eden was born in North Canterbury (maybe Ashley) in 1912. She was the fourth child of John and Eva (nee Hannibal). When Dorothy was a young child her family moved to Wakanui. The Ashburton Guardian of April 4, 1914 states that John Eden of Ashley purchased 75 acres from William Houston.

Dorothy said she had always wanted to be a writer, so maybe this is why she described her farm as ‘isolated’ and their home as ‘large and mysterious ‘, possibly haunted, with an ‘enchanted forest’ nearby. A school friend explained that they lived in the ‘old’ Mill house. The actual Wakanui Mill had been shifted to West Street in 1906.

She was educated at Wakanui and then attended Ashburton Technical School. In her first year at high school she studied arithmetic, bookkeeping, business methods, shorthand and typing as one might expect of a commercial stream student, but she also took dressmaking, drawing and painting, english, history, geography and home nursing. Her teachers stated in her first year that she was very promising student.

Dorothy left school in 1927, aged 16, to become a legal secretary here, before moving to Christchurch. She wrote children’s stories for the Farmers Journal (published by the Canterbury Farmers Co-Op), before moving on to adult fiction. She wrote magazine articles and short stories before penning her first novel ‘The Singing Shadows’ in 1940. In 1954 she moved to London. She wrote at least 40 novels both ‘gothic romances and thrillers’ and ‘dynastic novels’ set in a number of foreign countries, reflecting her love of travel. Some of her works were translated into 18 languages and some of these stories were dramatized by the BBC.

2-cover-of-edens-novel-sleep-in-the-woods

What makes a good writer?

Dorothy, or Enid as she was often known, was a philanthropist and established a fund to allow New Zealand doctors to study in London, especially in the field of rheumatoid arthritis, which she suffered from. She also assisted struggling writers to gain the recognition she felt they deserved.

When asked what makes a good writer she said a happy childhood helps, plus tenacity and patience. She was adamant that ‘just because you live in New Zealand does not mean you can’t get into the heart of the literary world’. It must have it made slightly harder however, waiting for long periods to see if your latest work had been accepted. Once her work was even lost when the ship it was on sank.

Dorothy died in London in 1982, although she had hoped to retire to New Zealand, which she still called home. Her parents moved to Christchurch in the 1940s. As a family the Eden’s left little in the way of evidence of their time here. Mrs Eden is pictured in a group photo of the Wakanui Red Cross during the First World War, but apart from brief mentions in our archives, someone who was described as one of the 10 best novelists in the world has largely been forgotten as a resident of this area.

By Kathleen Stringer

Captions:

1. The Wakanui Mill being shifted in 1906. The Eden House may be the building behind it. ©Ashburton Museum.

2. Front cover to her 1960 novel ‘Sleep in the Woods’. Set in Taranaki, not Canterbury as some reviews state, during the New Zealand Wars this book is credited with giving Dorothy ‘international acclaim’. ©Ashburton Museum.

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