The death occurred in London on Wednesday of Mrs. B. M. Croker, the novelist. She came of a well-known Irish family, the Sheppards of Roscommon, and was the widow of Colonel John Croker, late Royal Scots and Royal Munster Fusiliers. As a soldier’s wife she spent 14 years in India and the East. A correspondent writes of her:-
“Mrs. Croker’s work was a remarkable example of that school of romance, light, wholesome, and refreshing, which unfortunately seems fast to be disappearing. ‘Pretty Miss Neville,’ the first of her novels to attract widespread attention. was published in 1883 by Tinsley, and among its most distinguished admirers was Mr. Gladstone, who was observed to be absorbed in its pages while seated in the House of Commons. From that year onwards novel followed novel from her lively, rapid pen. Among the best of them may be cited ‘A Bird of Passage’ (the scene laid in the Andaman Islands), ‘A Family Likeness,’ ‘Mr. Jervis.’ ‘Her Own People’ (a vivid presentment of Eurasian life and character), and ‘The Company’s Servant,’ perhaps the best book she ever wrote; also ‘Terence,’ an Irish romance, which she subsequently dramatized herself with a fair measure of success. ‘Peggy of the Bartons,’ an English country idyll, ran into numerous editions.
“The quality of her work did not suffer from this constant output. Much of her success was due to her sympathy with youth, her quick sense of humour untainted by vulgarity, and the skill with which she contrived to hold her public’s interest in her stories. Perhaps, also, a part of the secret of her popularity was the frank enjoyment she derived from her work and her genuine interest in her own creations—the surest medium, in clever, honest hands, of capturing the interest of readers. While never malicious, she made full use of her knowledge of human nature, which, added to unusual powers of observation, a retentive memory, and a ready vocabulary, formed a valuable equipment for one of her profession. One of the outstanding features of her work was that, though her methods retained the flavour of the old ‘three-decker’ type of romance, her novels were always up to date, missing nothing of social changes and progress. Many successful writers of yesterday and to-day owe thanks to her for her kindly advice, encouragement, and help during their early struggles; jealousy was not in her nature, and her generous admiration for all of the best in other people’s efforts was one of her many fine characteristics. In her youth she was a good rider; and in her old age she remained a true sportswoman in every sense of the term. Her daughter, Mrs. Albert Whitaker, is said to have been the model from which she drew the portraits of some of her beautiful heroines.”
The funeral will take place tomorrow from 5, Radnor-cliff, Folkestone.
— The Times, 22 October 1920, p.13.
Croker [née Sheppard], Bithia Mary (c. 1848–1920), novelist, was born in Ireland, the second child and only daughter of the Revd William Sheppard (1811–1860) and his wife, Bithia, née Watson. Her father, who had begun his career as a barrister, then entered the Church of Ireland, and was rector of Kilgefin, co. Roscommon. She was educated at Rock Ferry in Cheshire, and at Tours in France. On her return to Ireland she continued to indulge her passion for riding and acquired a considerable reputation as a horsewoman. On 16 November 1871 at Rathangan, co. Kildare, she married Lieutenant John Croker (1844–1911) of the Royal Scots Fusiliers, who came from another Anglo-Irish family. Their only child, a daughter Eileen, was born in 1872.
In 1877 Lieutenant Croker was posted with his regiment to India where he and his wife spent in all some fourteen years in different areas, including south and north India and Burma. The latter part of his service, after returning from home leave in 1882–4, was with the Royal Munster Fusiliers. With only one child to occupy her in cantonments with limited resources, Bithia Croker turned to writing, for which she had from her schooldays been noted for her ease and fluency. In 1880 in the hot season in Secunderabad in south India she wrote her first novel, Proper Pride, set largely in India; the original manuscript was lost, but with a determination which was typical of her, she rewrote the work, which was published in England in 1882. Its success was sealed when Gladstone was noted reading it during wearying hours in the House of Commons.
A second Indian novel, Pretty Miss Neville, followed quickly in 1883, setting Bithia Croker firmly on the path to a long and prolific career as a romantic novelist, during which she wrote some forty-four novels and six collections of short stories, all of which closely reflected the worlds she knew. She was best remembered for her seventeen novels set in India, and one in Burma. Seven other novels were set in Ireland, notably Beyond the Pale (1897) and Lismoyle (1914). The remaining novels reflected the lives of the professional, well-to-do, and travelled British upper classes, and feature such varied locations as France, Spain, Italy, Switzerland, Norway, Egypt, and Australia.
Bithia Croker’s novels were renowned for their wit, vivacity, and fluency. She was a born story-teller, with a strong grasp of character and plot. She also had a sensitive ear for speech, for idiom and the diction of different classes, which she reproduces in lively and entertaining dialogue. A sense of place, whether in Ireland, particularly co. Kerry, or the many areas she knew in India is another notable feature of her novels. Her view of colonial society is for the most part conservative, and her interest in peasant life is reflected most clearly in her short stories, notably Village Tales and Jungle Tragedies (1895). Dramatic tension is often created by threats to the established order in societies bound by convention. The issues of class and gender in British India provide the plot of several novels. In The Company’s Servant (1907) the hero, a ‘gentleman’, has to surmount the social disgrace of working on the railways in order to win the heroine. The Cat’s Paw (1902) narrates the story of a girl who refuses to marry the man for whom she has come to India, and, without family, connections, or money, places herself in an impossible social predicament—which is finally resolved after lively accounts of her employment as a companion, a nurse in a plague camp, a housekeeper in a Eurasian boarding-house, and a royal governess.
The Crokers left India in 1892 and settled in London, and at 5 Radnor Cliff, Folkestone. Lieutenant-Colonel Croker died in 1911. His widow carried on with her stream of writing, producing one or more novels a year until her death. She reached a wider audience through translation, some of her novels appearing in French, German, and Norwegian. An Irish novel, Terence (1899), ran for two years as a play in the United States, while her novel about Burma, The Road to Mandalay (1917), was made into a film in 1926. Meanwhile she pursued her interests of reading, the theatre, and travelling. She was a friend of many writers—Angel (1901) was dedicated to another creator of Indian fiction, Alice Perrin—and assisted many aspiring authors.
Bithia Croker died on 20 October 1920 at 30 Dorset Square, London, and was buried in Folkestone three days later. A tribute on her death noted, ‘jealousy was not in her nature, and her generous admiration for all of the best in other people’s efforts was one of her many fine characteristics’ (The Times, 22 Oct 1920, 13). She left the bulk of her estate in England and Ireland to her daughter, who was said to have been the model for many of her heroines. Among the personal items she specially asked her to keep were her writing-table, and her diamond and ruby ring, with the request that she should wear it occasionally.
Wealth at Death: £8421 10s. 9d.: probate, 28 Dec 1920
(Oxford Dictionary of National Biography)