The story of the girl who came to fame with that arresting book, “The Lure of the Little Drum,” will discourage the shirkers and embolden the workers among would-be novelists. Miss Peterson’s earlier years were happy and sheltered ones, but later on she was very much up against life in its stoniest aspect.
In the years immediately preceding the Great War she had to fend for herself, and came very near despair.
Her residence was a girls’ hostel, where she had a cubicle and breakfast for a very small sum. She was entirely on her own, as her relations were abroad, and she was too proud to proclaim failure by writing to them for remittances. She had no equipment for earning a living and no idea of the value of money—just at the beginning. She spent £30 on a bogus school, which shut down in the second week after she joined it. After that she tried a number of small jobs.
She stuck on stamps in an electioneering office, and took dogs walking in the park for ladies who wanted their pets to have exercise. After that she became a waitress in a tea-shop—a job which demands much celerity of foot and of head. Her next move was to sell programmes and chocolates in a theatre.
This was a broken reed of a position, and her next move was into domestic service. She interviewed a lady in London, who liked her face—she had no recommendations to offer—and she went to Ireland as a children’s nurse. Ever since that time she has sympathised with the distaste of girls for domestic employment, which she regards as a kind of slavery, as far as her own predilections are concerned. She is of opinion that life on twenty-five shillings a week in the outer world is preferable to the comforts of a home in which one is an indoor dependent. Miss Peterson could only stand a month as a children’s nurse. During that time she saved up a little money and came back to London with fresh hope.
It was at this juncture she resolved to become a writer. Her first book, like so many other first books by all sorts and conditions of people, was autobiographical, recounting her own struggles and unhappiness in her various London ventures. She wrote it in the early mornings before breakfast and in between any odd jobs that came her way. At this time also she went to a London County Council night school to learn shorthand and typewriting.
She besieged publishers’ doors, carrying her manuscript along to save the cost of postage, but she never got beyond the office-boys, and these youths still give her a feeling of impotent nervousness.
A great day came when she saw a live publisher in Mr. Andrew Melrose, of whom she speaks with infinite gratitude. Mr. Melrose did not care for the glooms of her first book, but he encouraged her to go on and write another one. This was the famous “Lure of the Little Drum,” which brought her fame and the beginning of fortune, in the winning of the Melrose Prize Competition.
Miss Peterson is a born writer and delights in the craft, never losing her enthusiasm for her characters, regarding them as parts of herself.
She had her first savour of journalism after the publication of the book, getting a job on the staff of the Morning Leader, which afterwards became absorbed in the Daily News. She liked the work immensely, but found that the high pressure was exhausting, and was really glad, on the whole, to get out of it again.
One thing she learned from journalism, and that was never to shirk work, or to wait for inspirations that do not come, but simply to sit down to it for so many hours a day and write something. Very often what she writes displeases her and she tears it up, but the labour all helps in the working out of a plot.
She reads very little, finding that her own novels take up much of her time.
She finds plays and films much more helpful in their suggestion than fiction—especially films, because so many admirable ideas are so crudely worked out in them, and then the thought occurs of how they ought to be done. She finds however, to her whimsical despair, that the film authorities pay the scantiest attention to her bright suggestions.
Fond as she is of the novel form, she has a burning desire to succeed as a playwright. To further that end she crosses her thumbs before she goes to sleep each night. If she believed more deeply in Coué, she confesses, she would take a piece of string and knot it as she falls asleep, murmuring, “Every day and in every way I am writing plays better and better.”
With Miss Peterson’s strong dramatic gift she may strike lucky any time, though she is aware that nearly every writer in London is intent on writing for the stage. It is significant in this connection that published plays are now being read with as much interest as novels by an ever-growing public.
There is strong drama in Miss Peterson’s latest book, ”Guilty, My Lord” (7s. 6d.; Hutchinson). Claire Holland has the vigour of life with her. She is not an irreproachable young woman. When Tremayne, with an unhappy wife, whose unhappiness he caused, made love to Claire, she was not shocked, but she recognised that she could be guilty of no disloyalty to her employer’s wife. Very tense is the situation in which Claire, called up by Mrs. Tremayne on the phone, goes in to her flat to find her lying dead. That is just the beginning of a terrible tangle. Tarleton, from Scotland Yard, knows that Claire is more deeply involved in the circumstances of the crime than she can admit. His view is not shared by his assistant, Jack Wellsley, quite a new type of detective, in his warm humanity. Marrying Denis Tremayne, Claire goes with him to East Africa. He is pursued by the wraith of his wife, Madelaine.
The novel is a good ghost story as well as a good detective story. Jack Wellsley puts in an appearance again just when Claire needs him most.
“Guilty, My Lord” almost completes a score of Margaret Peterson’s novels. Its simple strength explains why she has sold 250,000 copies of her works.
Most of our women novelists keep their maiden names. Miss Peterson was married during the war to Mr. A. O. Lister, who was at that time serving with the H.A.C. in Flanders. He had a terrible experience in his campaigning, being blown up and buried during an attack on Ypres. Dug up two hours afterwards, he had to endure a life of invalidism for two years. He migrated to Africa in search of sunshine in 1917, and has since then been appointed to the Administration Colonial Civil Service in Uganda. His wife and he come home to London every two and a half years on his six months’ leave. Margaret Peterson (as one continues to call her) finds this return an acute joy, and departure from London a deep sorrow. She loves London, like most of us, and her affection for it is increased by the vicissitudes she endured in it before success came.
Miss Peterson was sure to have succeeded in any vocation in life she had taken up. She has magnificent vitality and a great faculty of concentration. Pessimism has never had any appeal to her; and she could be contented where other people would be miserable, because of her philosophy of life, which teaches her that there is an eternal law of compensation even in this fortuitous little universe of ours.
I almost forgot to say that one of the sources of her happiness is her small son, who is growing up quite rapidly. She feels in her bones that he is going to be a writer, and is determined to warn him of wearing his heart on his sleeve when he takes to fiction. She knows, however, better than most folk that the writer who does not reveal a heart is not likely to stir our pulses.
Louis J. McQuilland.
The Bookman. 1926-06: Vol 70, Issue 417, pp. 158-9.
Mrs. A. O. Fisher
Margaret Peterson, The Novelist
Mrs. A. O. Fisher, the novelist, who wrote under the name of “Margaret Peterson,” died on Thursday night at her home, the Old School House, Rudgwick, Sussex, at the age of 50. She had been ill for about three years.
Born on November 6, 1883, she was the daughter of Dr. Peter Peterson, Professor of Sanskrit, Elphinstone College, Bombay. In 1915 she married Mr. A. O. Fisher, a Colonial Civil Servant. She spent the early part of her life in India, and came to London at the age of 27. During the War she worked for some months in a British hospital lent to the French Army.
A prolific writer, who had considerable success from the first, she was awarded the 250 guinea prize given by Mr. Andrew Melrose for the best first novel in 1913. Her book was entitled “The Lure of the Little Drum,” and the judges who chose it as the winning novel were Mr. Joseph Conrad, Miss Cholmondeley, and Mr. W. J. Locke. Its leading motif was the mesmeric attraction exercised by a native prince on the young wife of an Anglo-Indian. From then on her novels appeared with regularity. She had written nearly 30, one of which, “Dust of Desire,” was filmed as The Song of Love. Her books make a popular appeal, and are read extensively by women. Among others are “Blind Eyes,” “Just Because,” “Love of Navarre,” “Butterfly Wings,” “Sword Points of Love,” “Moon Mountains,” “Love’s Burden,” “Love is Enough,” “Ninon,” “Deadly Nightshade,” “Scent of the Rose,” “Passionate Particles,” “Like a Rose,” “Life-and a Fortnight,” “The Thing that Cannot be Named,” “Dear Lovely One,” “Flame of the Forest,” “Daughter of Jog,” “Love’s Service,” “Red Rose of Love,” and “Twice Broken,” which was published this year. In 1915 poems entitled “The Women’s Message,” appeared, and she also wrote a play, The Summons.
The Times. Saturday, December 30 1933, p. 12.