Helen de Guerry Simpson
Youth and education
Simpson was born in Sydney into a family that had been settled in New South Wales for over 100 years. Her great-grandfather, Piers Simpson, R.N., was associated with Sir Thomas Mitchell and her maternal grandfather, the Marquis de Lauret, settled at Goulburn some 50 years before her birth. Her father, Edward Percy Simpson, was a well-known solicitor at Sydney who married Anne de Lauret. Helen Simpson was educated at the Rose Bay convent (now called Kincoppal-Rose Bay, School of the Sacred Heart) and at Abbotsleigh, Wahroonga and, in 1914, she went to France for further study. When war broke out she crossed to England and was employed by the admiralty in decoding messages in foreign languages. She then went to Oxford, studied music and, failing in her examination for the music bachelor's degree, took up writing.
Career as a writer
Her first appearance in print was a slight volume of verse, Philosophies in Little, published at Sydney in a limited edition in 1921. It attracted little notice but was included by Serle in his list of the more important volumes in his Bibliography of Australasian Poetry and Verse, published in 1925. Her play, A Man of His Time, based on the life of Benvenuto Cellini and written partly in blank verse, was a remarkable piece of work for a girl of less than 25. It was performed by McMahon's repertory company at Sydney and published there by Angus and Robertson in 1923. Her first novel, Acquittal, appeared in London in 1925 and was followed by The Baseless Fabric (short stories) in 1925 and Cups, Wands and Swords (1927). The Women's Comedy (a play) was privately printed in 1926.
Simpson visited Australia in 1927 and, in the same year, married Denis John Browne, F.R.C.S., a fellow Australian practising in London who was a nephew of Thomas Alexander Browne, "Rolf Boldrewood". Mumbudget, a collection of fairy stories, appeared in 1928 followed by The Desolate House (1929) and Vantage Striker (1931). These books were all capably written, but had comparatively little success. It was not until Boomerang was published in 1932 that Helen Simpson came into her own. Here was a long, rambling novel in which the plot began in Paris at the end of the eighteenth century, wandered all over the world, including Australia, and ended in the trenches in France during World War I. It was awarded the James Tait Black Memorial Prize for fiction and serialised for radio by William Power in 1937. This was followed by The Woman on the Beast in 1933, which consisted of a prologue, three books and an epilogue. The three books have no connection with each other; in reality they form three separate short novels with the common basis that the most hateful things may be done for apparently the best of reasons. An historical novel, Saraband for Dead Lovers, came out in 1935, as did The Female Felon, a long short story.
In addition to the books already mentioned, Simpson was the author of two pieces of historical biography, The Spanish Marriage (1933) and Henry VIII (1934). The Happy Housewife, a book of household management, was published in 1934 and A Woman Among Wild Men, an account of the life of Mary Kingsley, came out in 1938. The Waiting City, which appeared in 1933, is her translation of an interesting selection from Louis-Sebastien Mercier's Le Tableau de Paris. Three novels, Enter Sir John (1929), Printer's Devil (1930) and Re-enter Sir John (1932), were written in conjunction with Clemence Dane. Enter Sir John was filmed as Murder! (1930) directed by Alfred Hitchcock, who later directed the film version of Under Capricorn (1949). Helen Simpson also wrote portions of the dialogue for Hitchcock's movie (Sabotage) (1936).
In 1937 Simpson went to Australia under engagement to the Australian Broadcasting Commission. She gave an excellent series of lectures and, while in Australia, collected material for the novel Under Capricorn, which appeared in 1937 and was set in Sydney about 100 years earlier. In 1938, she published A Woman Among Wild Men - an account of Mary Kingsley. This was later published in 1950 as a Puffin Story Book under the title A Woman Among Savages.
In 1939 she was selected by the Isle of Wight Liberal Association to be their parliamentary candidate at the UK General Election which was expected to take place in 1939 or 1940. The seat was held by the Conservatives but the Liberals were expected to challenge strongly to recapture the seat they last won in 1923. She attended the Liberal Party Assembly at Scarborough in June 1939 and travelled around England speaking for the Liberal Party.
She became ill and underwent a surgical operation in 1940, but died from cancer after months of suffering on 14 October 1940. Her husband survived her with a daughter. Her last novel, Maid No More, was published in 1940.
Helen and Denis Browne had a daughter Clemence, named for her collaborator Clemence Dane.
- See her biography in the Dictionary of Australian Biography: http://gutenberg.net.au/dictbiog/0-dict-biogSa-Sp.html Accessed 2012-07-01
- "Famous Novel Dramatised for Radio". The Australian Women's Weekly (1933 - 1982) (1933 - 1982: National Library of Australia). 21 August 1937. p. 37. Retrieved 3 May 2012.
- see the film's credits
- See List of early Puffin Story Books under PS 63.
- The Liberal Magazine - Volume 47 (1939)
- "Miss Helen Simpson in Australia" Sydney Morning Herald " 22 July 1937 p.19
- Serle, Percival (1949). "Simpson, Helen". Dictionary of Australian Biography. Sydney: Angus and Robertson.
- Simpson portrait in 1935: http://www.gettyimages.co.uk/detail/news-photo/australian-novelist-and-playwright-helen-de-guerry-simpson-news-photo/56195681
- Works by Helen Simpson at Project Gutenberg Australia
- Simpson photograph at Liberal Assembly in 1939: http://www.gettyimages.co.uk/detail/news-photo/liberal-mp-for-north-cumberland-wilfred-roberts-addressing-news-photo/3400454