‘Clemence Dane’ was the pseudonym of Winifred Ashton, an English playwright and novelist with a celebrity status in London when she joined Time and Tide’s pages in the early 1920s. Over the course of her career spanning nearly half a century she wrote over twenty plays, thirteen novels and a novella, numerous short stories, plus poetry, non-fiction and literary criticism. She was also a journalist, broadcaster and painter.
Dane was born in Blackheath, Surrey on 21 February 1888 to Florence (née Bentley) and Arthur Ashton, a commission agent. Her mother died when Dane was just two years old and her father quickly married Lydia Bentley, his deceased wife’s sister. The family regularly relocated: in the ten years after her mother’s death, Dane lived in Knockholy in Surrey, Sydenham, Sevenoaks, and Bromley in Kent, and Russell Square, London. Her education involved multiple transitions too. Her secondary schooling began with a brief and unhappy sojourn at Wycombe Abbey boarding school in Buckinghamshire, and after pleading with her father to withdraw her after just two terms, she attended a local school for the rest of the year. Subsequently, she became a pupil in an educational establishment in Dresden for a year and then enrolled at the Slade in 1904, graduating three years later. Lacking personal wealth, she embarked on a career – teaching in Geneva, Dresden and Sligo, Ireland before a radical change in direction brought her to the theatre in 1910, where she became an actress, changing her name to Diana Cortis to avoid family recriminations. When theatre work dried up during the First World War, she took to writing to make her living. Her first novel, the lesbian-themed Regiment of Women, was published in 1917. In her personal life, Dane was briefly engaged for a time but never married, and from the 1920s onwards, she lived in succession with two women, Elsie Arnold and Olwen Bowen-Davies, whom she referred to as her secretaries, in a rambling home in Devon, a basic gypsy caravan in a field in Midhurst in West Sussex and a flat in Covent Garden. At her London address, she regularly hosted a coterie of thespians, artists and writers, her good friend, Noël Coward among them. He referred to her as his lesbian muse and modelled upon her, one Madame Arcarti, a key protagonist in his famous play, Blythe Spirit (1941).
The enormous success of her first two plays, Bill of Divorcement and Will Shakespeare (both premiered on the London stage in 1921), made her an ideal celebrity contributor to Time and Tide which made her the subject of its ‘Personalities and Powers’ column in January 1923. Her press reputation as ‘one of the most notorious feminists of her generation’ (Gale 49) also suited the paper perfectly. Her first contribution, ‘Facts’ (21 January 1921), a protest against child abuse, accorded with Lady Rhondda’s feminist campaign alliance the Six Point Group which included ‘legislation on child assault’ among its aims. Dane was a member of the Group from its inception and the first speaker at its inaugural meeting in March 1922 (The Vote 10 March 1922). Her next article ‘Trafalgar Square’ (4 February 1921) was more politically neutral in gender terms, a whimsical appeal to her fellow London rate payers to campaign to green-up the city space surrounding Nelson’s column that had recently been paved in ‘asphalt and grime’. Subsequent contributions included articles on current art exhibitions and book reviews. The last of these, a review of Cicely Hamilton and Lillian Baylis’s book on The Old Vic theatre, marks a return to feminist argument: namely, that the history of this theatre is one in which ‘generation after generation of men ruined a theatre till a woman came along to lift it out of the mud and make it into the nearest approach to a National Theatre that we possess.’ (‘The Old Vic’, 26 February 1926). Dane’s relationship with Time and Tide was beneficial to her own career too. The paper reviewed her fiction, stage and screen plays, and offered her a way into journalism. She produced articles for Good Housekeeping between 1922 and 1933, becoming the magazine’s book editor between 1923 and 1933. Between 1939 and 1959, she was president of the Society of Women Journalists.
Dane moved in starry circles; working in Hollywood in the 1930s, she became acquainted with Greta Garbo, Katharine Hepburn and Celia Johnson of Brief Encounter fame, all of whom appeared either in her plays or in cinematic adaptations of her work. She had a cross-Atlantic reputation as a novelist, playwright, and screenplay writer. Virginia Woolf regarded her as a literary competitor, writing in her diary of feeling envious of press admiration of Dane’s 1919 novel, Legend. Many of her novels and novellas were best-sellers, she co-wrote detective-stories with the likes of Dorothy Sayers and Agatha Christie, and a crime novel on which she collaborated with Helen Simpson was adapted by Hitchcock into his 1930 film Murder! She won an Oscar for her original story for Alex Korda’s 1946 film, Perfect Strangers, during World War Two made morale-raising broadcasts for BBC radio, and in the 1950s and 1960s created television dramas. She was awarded a C.B.E in 1953.
On the evening of 27 March 1965, Dane managed to put on a purple scarf and apply a little lipstick ready for her final party at her Covent Garden flat. The next day she died of cancer. Such was her generosity to her friends, that despite her professional success, she left only a modest estate upon her death. As her friend, the actor, David Niven, warmly declared in his 1976 autobiography, ‘despite the fact that she was permanently teetering on the verge of bankruptcy, [she] was the richest human being I have ever known’ (336).
By Dr Louise McDonald.
Louise McDonald is Senior Lecturer in English at Birmingham Newman University and Administrator of the Middlebrow Network. She is the author of Clemence Dane: Forgotten Feminist Writer of the Inter-War Years (Routledge, 2020). She has published two book chapters on Dane’s work: ‘Utopian spaces, public places: Considering the perils and pleasures of crossing domestic thresholds in The Women’s Side and The More I See of Men’ in Baker, K and Walker, N (eds.) A Space of Their Own: Women, Writing and Place 1850-1950, and ‘Clemence Dane’s Fantastical Fiction and Feminist Consciousness’ in Ehland, Christoph and Wachter, Cornelia (2016) Middlebrow and Gender 1980-1945 (Brill Rodopi). She has also contributed four articles on Dane’s life and work to The Literary Encyclopaedia, an online publication for which she is also the commissioning editor, and is currently working on a chapter on Dane’s work in the theatre for a forthcoming essay collection for Routledge, British Theatre and the 1920s, edited by Andrew Maunder.
Barrow, Kenneth. Winifred: The Life of Clemence Dane. V&A Theatre and Performance Collections: Kenneth Barrow Bequests. THM/164.
‘Facts’, Time and Tide. 21 Jan. 1921, pp. 55-57
‘Trafalgar Square’, Time and Tide. 4 Feb.1921, pp. 108-109
‘The Old Vic’, Time and Tide. 26 Feb 1926, pp. 201-202
Deen, Stella. ‘Clemence Dane’s Literary Criticism for Good Housekeeping: Cultivating a “Small, Comical, Lovable, Eternal Public” of Book Lovers.’ Women’s Periodicals and Print Culture in Britain, 1918-1939: The Interwar Period. Ed. Catherine Clay, Maria DiCenzo, Barbara Green and Fiona Hackney. Edinburgh University Press, 2017, pp. 58-71.
Gale, Maggie, B. ‘The Many Masks of Clemence Dane.’ Theatre and Celebrity in Britain 1600–2000. Ed. Mary Lockhurst and Jane Moody. London: Palgrave, 2005, pp. 48-64.
McDonald, Louise. Clemence Dane: Forgotten Feminist Writer of the Inter-War Years. Routledge, 2020.
Niven, David. Bring on the Empty Horses. London: Coronet Books: Hodder and Stoughton, 1976.
The Vote 10 March 1922 www.britishnewspaperarchive.co.uk/viewer/ [accessed 11 Mar. 2019]
Woolf, Virginia. The Diary of Virginia Woolf: Volume 1: 1915–1919. Ed. Anne Oliver Bell, assisted by Andrew McNeillie. London: Hogarth Press, 1977.