Ethel M. Dell

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Ethel May Dell Savage
BornEthel May Dell
(1881-08-02)2 August 1881
London, England
Died17 September 1939(1939-09-17) (aged 58)
Pen nameEthel M. Dell
SpouseGerald Tahourdin Savage (1922–1939)

Ethel May Dell Savage (2 August 1881 – 17 September 1939) was a British writer, known by her pen name, Ethel M. Dell, of over 30 popular romance novels and several short stories from 1911 to 1939.


Dell was born on 2 August 1881 in Streatham, a suburb of London, England. Her father was a clerk in the City of London and she had an older sister and brother. Her family was middle class and lived a comfortable life. Dell began to write stories while very young and many of them were published in popular magazines. Her stories were mainly romantic in nature, set in the British Raj and other old British colonial possessions. They were considered to be very racy. Her cousins would pull out pencils to try and count up the number of times she used the words: passion, tremble, pant and thrill. Pictures of her are very rare and she was never interviewed by the press.

Dell worked on a novel for several years, but it was rejected by eight publishers. Finally the publisher T. Fisher Unwin bought the book for their First Novel Library, a series which introduced a writer's first book. This book, entitled The Way of an Eagle, was published in 1911 and by 1915 it had gone through thirty printings.

While readers adored her novels, critics hated them with a passion; but she did not care what the critics thought. She considered herself a good storyteller – nothing more and nothing less. Ethel M. Dell continued to write novels for a number of years. She made quite a lot of money, from £20,000 to £30,000 a year, but remained quiet and almost pathologically shy.[citation needed]

In 1922, Ethel married a soldier, Lieutenant-Colonel Gerald Tahourdin Savage, when she was forty years old, and the marriage was happy. Colonel Savage resigned his commission on his marriage and Dell became the support of the family. Her husband devoted himself to her and fiercely guarded her privacy. For her part she went on writing, eventually producing about thirty novels and several volumes of short stories.

Dell died of cancer on 17 September 1939[1] [2] aged 58.

References in literature[edit]

George Orwell, in his novel Keep the Aspidistra Flying, has his protagonist make several scathing comments about Dell and others (notably, Warwick Deeping) and reserves special venom for The Way of an Eagle. He refers to her in answers to a questionnaire The Cost of Letters (1946) on the subject of a serious writer earning a living by writing.

Noel Coward in the introduction to Three Plays writes, “There will always be a public for the Cinderella story, the same as there will always be a public for Miss Ethel M. Dell and the Girls Companion. In the world of amusement it is essential for someone to cater for the illiterate ...”

Winifred Watson, in her novel Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day, has the titular character refer to Dell as the source of her inspiration to encourage a young gentleman to punch a rival by hissing, "Sock him one" at the key moment.

In the novel In Hazard by Richard Hughes the engineer Souter aboard the steamer 'Archimedes' has a nightmare about the late chief engineer who was lost at sea. Rather than try to sleep he begins to read a book (we are told in a dry aside) by Ethel M. Dell.

P. G. Wodehouse refers to her in several of his stories. Some have opined that Wodehouse's character, Rosie M. Banks, is based on Dell; however, Wodehouse himself told his biographer Richard Usborne that Rosie is based on Ruby M. Ayres.[3] D.H.Lawrence also mentions Dell in the second draft of " The First Lady Chatterly"(Mondadori 1954), published as "John Thomas And Lady Jane" in 1972. Wodehouse mentions Dell by name in his novel Uncle Dynamite (1948), whose diffident hero, Bill Oakshott, is several times encouraged to model himself on the masterful man in The Way of an Eagle.

He also wrote the short story "Honeysuckle Cottage", which uses themes and characters very like those of Ethel M. Dell. In it, a writer of Raymond Chandler-like hard-boiled detective stories finds to his horror that his work (and later his whole life) is being possessed by characters who seem to come out of a syrupy romance novel by "Leila M. Pinkney". Here is a sample:

He shoved in a fresh sheet of paper, chewed his pipe thoughtfully for a moment, then wrote rapidly:

"For an instant Lester Gage thought that he must have been mistaken. Then the noise came again, faint but unmistakable.

His mouth set in a grim line. Silently, like a panther, he made one quick step to the desk, noiselessly opened a drawer, drew out his automatic. After that affair of the poisoned needle, he was taking no chances. Still in dead silence, he tiptoed to the door; then, flinging it suddenly open, he stood there, his weapon poised.

On the mat stood the most beautiful girl he had ever beheld. A veritable child of Faërie. She eyed him for a moment with a saucy smile; then with a pretty, roguish look of reproof shook a dainty forefinger at him. ‘I believe you've forgotten me, Mr. Gage!’ she fluted with a mock severity which her eyes belied."

James stared at the paper dumbly.

In Cornelia Otis Skinner's popular Our Hearts Were Young and Gay (1942), the narrator said her travel-mate was well read but that she herself "had a secret letch for Ethel M. Dell."

In M. John Harrison's novel The Centauri Device, "a calf-bound set of Ethel M. Dell firsts, signed and numbered by the author" are part of the detritus of the 20th Century arranged with other objets d'art at a narcotics party on 24th century Earth.

In Gladys Mitchell's The Saltmarsh Murders, the curate mentions Ethel M. Dell.

In Dorothy Sayers's novel The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club, first published in 1928, Ethel M. Dell is mentioned as an example of escapist literature. "Servants and factory girls read about beautiful girls loved by dark, handsome men, all covered over with jewels and moving in scenes of gilded splendour. And passionate spinsters read Ethel M. Dell. And dull men in offices read detective stories."[4]

Kenneth Halliwell and Joe Orton 'interfered' with the cover of a library copy of Storm Drift.[1], This defacement is, at first glance, designed to affront "Romance" writing but the complexity of this collage and that of many other library books carried out between 1960 and April, 1962 has yet to be completely unravelled.

Ogden Nash mentions her by name in his poem, "I Always Say A Good Saint Is No Worse Than A Bad Cold."


Single novels[edit]

  • The Way of an Eagle (1911)
  • The Knave of Diamonds (1913)
  • The Rocks of Valpré (1914)
  • The Bars of Iron (1916)
  • The Hundredeth Chance (1917) – also as The Hundredth Chance
  • The Rose of Dawn (1917)
  • Greatheart (1918)
  • The Lamp in the Desert (1919)
  • The Desire of His Life (1920)
  • The Top of the World (1920)
  • The Obstacle Race (1921)
  • The Knight-Errant (1922)
  • Charles Rex (1922)
  • Verses (1923)
  • Tetherstones (1923)
  • The Unknown Quantity (1924)
  • A Man Under Authority (1926)
  • The Black Knight (1926)
  • The Gate Marked Private (1928)
  • The Altar of Honour (1929)
  • Storm Drift (1930)
  • The Silver Bride (1932)
  • The Silver Wedding (1932)
  • Storm Drift (1930)
  • Dona Celestis (1933)
  • The Prison Wall (1933)
  • The Electric Torch (1934)
  • Where Three Roads Meet (1935)
  • Honeyball Farm (1937)
  • The Juice of the Pomegranate (1938)
  • The Serpent in the Garden (1938)
  • Sown Among Thorns (1939)

The Keeper of the Door Series[edit]

  1. The Keeper of the Door (1915)
  2. By Request (1928) – U.S. title Peggy by Request

Omnibus collections[edit]

  • The Safety Curtain and Other Stories (1917) Includes:
The Safety Curtain
The Experiment
Those Who Wait
The Eleventh Hour
The Place of Honour
  • The Tidal Wave and Other Stories (1920) Includes:
The Tidal Wave
The Magic Circle
The Looker-On
The Second Fiddle
The Woman of His Dreams
The Return Game
Rosa Mundi and Other Stories (1921) Includes:
Rosa Mundi
A Debt of Honor
The Deliverer
The Prey of the Dragon
The Secret Service Man
The Penalty
  • The Odds and Other Stories (1922) Includes:
The Odds
Without Prejudice
Her Own Free Will
The Consolation Prize
Her Freedom
Death's Property
The Sacrifice
  • The Swindler and Other Stories (1923) Includes:
The Swindler
The Swindler's Handicap
The Nonentity
Her Hero
The Example
The Friend Who Stood By
The Right Man
The Knight Errant – [1922 movie, novel's date uncertain]
A Question of Trust
Where the Heart Is
  • The Passer-By and Other Stories (1925) Includes:
The Passer-By
The Tenth Point
The Lucky Number
The Money Monster
  • The House of Happiness and Other Stories (1927)
  • The Live Bait and Other Stories (1932)

Additional, uncertain titles found in some lists:

  • The Princess's Game (1920)
  • Pullman (1930)


Further reading[edit]

  • The Book World: Selling and Distributing British Literature, 1900-1940, BRILL (2016)[5]


  1. ^ The Times published 19th Sept 1939
  2. ^ Online probate index at website
  3. ^ Murphy, Norman (2006). A Wodehouse Handbook. London: Popgood & Groolley. p. 386. ISBN 0-9554209-1-1.
  4. ^ Sayers, Dorothy (1928): The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club. Coronet Books, Hodder and Stoughton 1989, p. 216 (Chapter 20).
  5. ^ David Tanner (2016). "5. Literary Success and Popular Romantic Fiction: Ethel M. Dell, a Case Study". In Nicola Louise Wilson (ed.). The Book World: Selling and Distributing British Literature, 1900-1940. BRILL. pp. 83–94. ISBN 9789004315884. Retrieved 25 May 2019.
Sources consulted (biography)
  • Dell, Penelope (1977). Nettie and Sissie: the biography of Ethel M. Dell and her sister Ella. London: Hamilton. ISBN 0-241-89663-0.
Sources consulted (bibliography)

External links[edit]

Public domain online works