Tuesday August 10th, 2010

“She was a really lovable person, if you were careful.”

Gaby Wood writes in the Telegraph about Eunice Frost, an editor at Penguin starting in the late 1930s who went on to become the house’s first female director. Frost is now largely forgotten, and Wood goes through heaps of her old files to paint a full, tender portrait (pardon the backwards quotation marks; WordPress stubbornly wants them to look that way for some reason):

In making up for men who were at the Front, Frost developed a career she probably wouldn’t have had without the war. Perhaps as a result, she sacrificed her life to hard work and assisted in the birth of a publishing house of great idealism and zeal. Much of the paperwork found in the archive was administrative – rights bought from agents, photographs requested and returned.

But she certainly had more than her fair share of eminent correspondents. There are letters here from Edith Sitwell (”Dear Miss Frost, What a very charming woman you must be – if I may say so.”); Dorothy L Sayers (”Dear Miss Frost, If you must write me up, for God’s sake keep off the personal. This concupiscence for intimate details about people is rotting away the brains of our civilisation…”); Graham Greene (”What I’d like to see you publish is one of my travel books”); Evelyn Waugh (”I saw the photograph your informant thought ‘wistful.’ It made me look like an ill-tempered publican. I expect that is a characteristic aspect but I don’t think it likely to excite the sympathy of your readers”). There are invitations to the memorial services of TS Eliot, Winston Churchill and Henry Moore. But by far the most interesting character to emerge from these boxes is Frost herself.

The second half of the piece, spurred by the more personal writings of Frost, is awfully sad but beautifully done:

Among Frost’s boxes is a set of 11 pages written in pencil, in a hand characteristic of something produced at great speed. It was obvious to me that the piece was some sort of autobiographical sketch, but the writing was so unclear I wanted to give up on it. I was just about to set it aside when I finally deciphered the first sentence, and knew I couldn’t let it go: “I was born the fourth, last, and unwanted child of parents who should never have had children at all.”