Out of the shadows
13:00 04 May 2015
In her 95th year, Jane Bowlby of South Raynham is about to see the novel she wrote in the 1950s reprinted for today’s readers.
“The brothers stopped talking to me, for some years actually,” says Jane Bowlby, a trace of what could be mistaken for naughtiness fleeting across her face as she recalls the family controversy that followed the original publication of her novel.
It is hard to believe that the intelligent, elegant nonagenarian would have caused any storm that so stretched her sibling ties, but in 1963 this was the reaction to Vain Shadow, a beautifully observed portrait of a family funeral and its repercussions. That the inspiration was clearly Jane’s own family’s reactions at the time of her father’s death, and that, although names were changed, personalities and events were very closely mirrored, certainly did cause great ructions.
Now, 52 years on, Jane - who wrote the book as Jane Hervey - is about to witness a remarkable return to print as Vain Shadow is published by Persephone Books. Encouraged by her daughter Rosalind, she submitted the book for consideration and was thrilled when it was immediately accepted. With her brothers long passed, there will not be the accompanying family scandal this time, but Jane hopes the story will chime with today’s readers as the story unfolds of a sibling rivalries, marriages under pressure and secret dreams. All facets were captured by Jane’s keen eye and brought to the page with a great sense of the ridiculous.
She explains: “Of course what started it off was the funeral of my father, but the situations got funnier and funnier - when they were talking about taking his body out in the serving hatch, it was like a farce.”
The story tells of the family gathering at Otterley Hall in a world familiar to Jane, who was born in 1920. She attended Heron’s Ghyll School for The Daughters of Gentlemen Only, then finishing school in Paris before “coming out” into society.
Her first love was a writer 30 years her senior - they didn’t marry but he encouraged Jane with her early attempts at writing short stories. Her first husband was a captain in the Welsh Fusiliers, though six months later he was sent to Madagascar and they never met again. When she was 21, Jane met her second husband, a Canadian soldier 10 years older than her who she married in 1948, but he abused and controlled her, burning all her writings. Jane eventually broke out of the decade of abuse after falling in love with the writer and businessman George Bowlby - then the husband of her niece - who would become her third husband. She went through the divorce courts, attracting controversy and scandal, but finally felt free to be herself and bring up her family.
The Bowlbys moved to Norfolk after a spell as chicken farmers in Derbyshire, running a business in Devon, and living in Surrey - it was at the latter that Jane returned to her story for Vain Shadow and saw it published, 10 years after she had written it. The writer Elizabeth Jane Howard - who lived at Bungay until her death last year - commented that Jane wrote “with the most enviably skilful ease. She should have a dazzling future”.
But life got in the way of this promise - the Bowlbys set up Norfolk Country Cottages, developing holiday properties from the 1970s to 1990s for this new tourism venture which built up into English Country Cottages.
“George wrote and we should both have kept on with it, but we were building the country cottages business which was a full-time job. We had a huge number of cottages, all over the country. Norfolk was wide open when we came up here, and we got in at the right time, but when he died in 2000 and I was running it on my own, I realised there was a market for six-monthly tenancies, so we now only have 10 properties and have gone down that route.”
Jane’s home - the former dower house of Raynham Hall, near Fakenham - is filled with hundreds of sunflowers, pictures and ornaments of birds and animals, and it is here, in rooms flooded with morning sunshine, that Jane writes still. She is planning a sequel to Vain Shadow - perhaps one in which the character inspired by her mother finds new happiness.
“I love living in Norfolk,” she says. “It’s not too cut off and it’s not in the rat race. Also, you are never far from the sea in Norfolk, which I love. It is so peaceful - and there is not a lot of peace in the world these days.”
Vain Shadow by Jane Hervey, £12, is published by Persephone Books on May 7. She will be talking about the book at a reception with refreshments at Byfords in Holt at 5pm on July 1.