I’m always amazed by how easy it is for people who are well-known in their lifetimes to disappear completely from public view soon after their death. One of the things I like doing on the blog is bringing some of them back to public notice. Sometimes that’s easy – there’s plenty written about them but their work just became unfashionable or out of date but today’s subject has been extraordinarily difficult to track down. But she’s not an obscure 17thc garden-maker or an almost anonymous Georgian diarist or Victorian botanic painter. Far from it. She lived in Essex, wrote a string of books including several about gardening and died as recently as 1974. Yet there is almost literally nothing written about her and even her small home town seems hardly to have heard of her. I admit it: Ethelind Fearon almost had me beaten…
Thought so! You’ve never heard of her either. Nor has Wikipedia. I hope by the end of this post you’ll want to go and find some of her books – and then write a Wikipedia page. I am indebted to Ken Baker who sent me a copy of an article he had written about her in Thaxted parish magazine many years ago and to Mike Collins of Thaxted Parish Council who put me in touch with him. What I have been able to discover from Ken’s article and other public sources such as census and electoral registers is that she was born in 1898 in the beautiful Essex town of Thaxted, the daughter of Percy Ratcliffe, a local builder and sometime chair of the Parish Council and his wife Jane. Ethelind was the eldest of 3 children, her sister Florence, known as Flossie, was 2 years younger and their brother John 5 years younger.
We know little about her upbringing or education but when one of her publishers asked her to fill in a questionnaire so they could put together a mini-biography for a book jacket she gave her occupation as “professional gardener”. This lends credence to something mentioned in several contemporary reviews of her books is that she’d once been gardener to HG Wells. He was a friend of Daisy Countess of Warwick and had rented Easton Glebe, on her Easton Lodge estate, which isn’t that far from Thaxted, between 1910 and 1928. There is, however, as far as I can see, no documentary evidence to verify this.
In 1922 Ethelind married Cecil “Buster” Fearon, a Londoner, who was a couple of years older than her and they were living at Yew Tree Cottage when their daughter Bridget was born in Oct 1935. It then appeared from the various official sources that they’d moved to a house called Corners. In fact after lots of searching it seems they had merely renamed Yew Tree Cottage! Local newspaper reports show they were both very involved in village life. He played cricket for Thaxted and was on the committee of the Horticultural Society which ran flower shows but also dog shows & greyhound racing! She too helped organise the flower show as well as the WI and the Red Cross, and together with Flossie opened a tea room, “The Orange Tree”, in Thaxted.
Buster died aged only 41 in 1937 and perhaps short of money Ethelind and baby Bridget moved back to her father’s house in St Kilda, Town Street and let Corners to an USAF officer from nearby Wethersfield air base for 3 guineas a week. Because of his work the officer didn’t always live there and in one of his absences The pipes froze causing large amounts of damage – she sued for £75 & won in June 1939. [Its amazing what gets reported in local papers.]
It also seems she was running a smallholding of between 4 and 5 acres in the nearby village of Broxted, in partnership with the local postwoman, Phil Campbell, delivering their produce locally.
In April 1940 she bought the Recorder’s House, Thaxted at auction for £575, the first of five Tudor houses she claims in that publishers questionnaire to have restored and then rented out.
As the war came to an end she began writing although she claimed, perhaps tongue in cheek, that she hated doing it and had only one ambition : “to earn enough money out of it to stop doing it.” In fact she wrote almost continuously until the last years of her life and even won the the Society of Women Journalist’s cup for the best book of the year by a member.
By the time her first book Most Happy Husbandman was published in 1946 she had according to its cover notes “written numerous articles on gardening and country matters…and also contributed to the literary reviews including Time and Tide.” [T&T was an early feminist magazine] Most Happy Husbandman chronicles a year on an Essex farm and her passion for the countryside and love of her home town really shines through. This was later published in America as The Happiest of Men. Although not strictly autobiographical it is definitely based on and around her own life and experience.
Her first gardening book The Making of a Garden, followed in 1948 with illustrations by Alex Jardine. It begins “to make a garden is an adventure which, properly handled, will last a lifetime,” and she makes it clear “it is very certain that the size of the garden matters not at all. The soul of the true Gardener who has no other land extracts of greater joy from three broad beans flowering in a tin can on the windowsill and the blasé millionaire ever drew from 10 conservatories.”
It has chapters on every major element of the garden, and seems pitched at “the normal garden, the acre, or rather more, or somewhat less.” Certainly the illustrations and plans are all on a grand scale. One set of plans in particular shows how she transformed her own garden from what I guess is an extremely crowded 1930s design to a equally crowded design for the 1940s, but which makes much of opening up views and vistas to the surrounding countryside.
She has a humorously bossy streak and issues endless structures as well as sound advice. In the chapter on the front garden, for example, she says that ornaments have “from time immemorial have been considered indispensable in forecourts and garden entrances of any size. But I would say, unless the ornament is good in itself, and serving some specific purpose in the scheme, don’t!… Never ornament for its own sake, and NEVER gnomes. If there must be fairies at the bottom of your garden, keep them there, out of sight, not sporting on the greensward with spotted fungi. On arriving to call at an otherwise blameless house I have more than once been somewhat taken aback by the spectacle of Snow White and all of her seven friends, in vivid blue and red and bearded to the ground, assembled around a scarlet mushroom with white spots. My hair still wrinkles at the thought, and I have always since then, made it an absolute condition before undertaking any garden layout, there shall be NO GNOMERY.”
Thaxted Horticultural Society & its Flower Show had been suspended during the war but she joined the committee to revive it in 1951. That first year there were 1000 exhibits and nearly 3000 attendees, with Ethelind winning several prizes. Following that success the society was formally relaunched as Thaxted Allotments and Gardens Association that autumn and she was elected its first President. I wonder if the restoration of the flower show to the village calendar was the inspiration for her next book Me and Mr Mountjoy.
This continues the story of the semi-factual/semi-fictional characters in Most Happy Husbandman and begins with a dryly humorous account of, surprise surprise, a village flower show at which the narrator wins a pig: the Mr Mountjoy of the title and who turns out to be Ms Mountjoy and became a much loved pet. But a pig was only one of her pets because she was by the 1950s, if not earlier, she was also breeding cats, rabbits and dogs for exhibition, and even exporting dogs to the US by air.
Next, in 1952, came another gardening book: The Reluctant Gardener. It was she said “in aid of the man who gardens because it is his duty rather than his pleasure” and again is full of advice written almost with a grin on her face, about how to simplify tasks, cut corners, stop wasted effort and look for ‘the short and easy ways to good husbandry’.
Caroline Foley writing about the book in The Guardian in 2012 dubbed Ethelind, very appropriately “the doyenne of the lazy approach”. You get a measure of what that means when she writes about ‘Dodging Vegetable Duty’: ‘You would be surprised how much of the grim toil undergone by the allotment holder is unnecessary. It is just self-martyrdom inaugurated by Adam and hallowed by custom and tradition ever since. But you will find: a. That half the things you sweat over are better bought than grown. b. The ones that are better grown can be grown much more easily than you thought. and c. Quite a lot of them will serve two purposes, thereby cutting out one operation, one ache, one moan.” before she concludes “Who wants to grow potatoes anyway?” a sentiment I’m sure many will share. The article is well worth reading for more trenchant comments about other vegetables too.
She also shows how that humorous approach extends to ornamentals too. “Any garish herbage next to the house is a piece of the most outstanding folly. It shows up the decrepit nature of the paint and the fact that the curtains have seen better days…Much better to stick to something green and restful say grass or a bit of crazy paving, nice uncompetitive things which need neither planting or unplanting, watering nor weeding, and can both, at will, be sat on. Which is more than you can say for geraniums. Actually if you are wise you will not stop at a ban on geraniums, you will refuse to have any nonsense about beds of any kind at all. Anywhere..”
She adds a study of two suburban gardens. A: The Laurels and next door B: The Poplars. “I can count in A 14 deliberate and painstaking mistakes but then they will be others. There are no prizes for discovering them.” These include things like not having the toolshed far away from the house “if you employ a man he might be asleep in such a remote sanctuary half the day and you none the wiser.” The rustic pergola came in for it too as a “nasty earwiggy excrescence running across the line of vision”. She ends with “you can see it would take at least two whole time gardeners and a retired colonel to keep the place going.”
Next door on the other hand “has practically no paths and only two sweeps of edging. The motor mower can run over the lawn in under 20 minutes and all the choice bits are planting can be seen from the house… It is very relaxing and restful just as a garden should be…” I could and perhaps should have devoted a whole post to her worldly-wise aphorisms, and once again Alex Jardine’s cartoons are a great accompaniment.
Then comes a change in course. There are several books about country life aimed at children, and several more aimed at cooks as well as a couple of what would now be called “Lifestyle Books” including The Reluctant Hostess in 1954 and How to Keep Pace with Your Daughter in 1958. This last one may have been the result of Bridget going to finishing school in Switzerland – which might also suggest that Ethelind was earning enough from writing and other sources to stop writing as she claimed she wanted to do.
Perhaps instead she decided to write to support a more luxurious lifestyle because she now upped sticks and moved from Thaxted to a house in the old quarter of Cannes. That too turned into books. 1959 saw Without my yacht: how to be at home in the south of France and it was followed two years later by the marvellously named The Marquis, the Mayonnaise and Me.
1959 also saw the publication of another fictionalised account of events in her on her own life in Essex. In the 1950s Flossie opened another tea room in Thaxted and Ken Baker thinks was the inspiration for Ethelind’s story about opening a tearoom called the The Fig and Fishbone in a Tudor house that she rescued from probable demolition.
Many of her reviewers certainly thought it was a true account, and as with all her locally based books, this are elements of truth in the story.
Certainly after publication the tenant of that house was continuously pestered by tourists looking for the tea room. She tells of gazing into an estate agents window and seeing a house that she recognised. It had once belonged to someone who worked for her mother and was now up for auction. To cut a long story short she buys the ‘Tudor two decker cottage which squatted like a galleon on a grassy sea” and then panics as it’s in a terrible state and, as you can see from the bookjacket below, her husabnd would have preferred to spend the money on an aeroplane!
But she rallies friends and begins a restoration project and in the process discovers an ancient wall painting. That apparently happened in one of the other houses she had saved.
The Fig and Fishbone didn’t really have a garden just a walled yard with a shed at the end. To create outside eating space for customers she removed the shed wall to create a loggia but was left with the problem there was no greenery. So she decided to paint a garden on the wall instead and “slammed tall spikes of delphiniums from floor to ceiling over all the roughest spots…all in the space of one evening with broad careless blobs of a pastry brush”. Her detailed account is amusing and of course it worked and “tea in the loggia became a special treat of summer Sundays.”
Two more gardening books followed. Planning a Garden in 1961 which I haven’t managed to track down, and then in 1963 Flower Growing for Ungardeners another attempt to convince the non-gardener “who instinctively dodges gardening… And is averse to any sort of toil, moil or soil and intends, by reason of a tough resistance and imperviousness to hints, bribes or threats, to remain so.” Again lots of basic advice nicely wrapped up in humour and accentuated by Jardine’s cartoons.
From Cannes she moved to Majorca which of course led to yet another book A Privy in the Cactus in 1965 which deals with her renovations of a decrepit house there.
It was to be her last book, perhaps because of illness and she returned home in about 1969 to live with her daughter Bridget at Bradwell near Braintree in Essex and it was there that she died in 1974. A memorial service was held in Thaxted on May 1st 1974. Herbs; how to grow, treats and use them was published posthumously in 1977 while The Reluctant Hostess was reissued in 2015 by Vintage Classics
I have thoroughly enjoyed researching and reading Ethelind’s many books but I’m going to leave the last word to Sadie Stein of The Paris Review who discovered Fearon in 2015 – 6 years before me and clearly fell in love with her. She started a piece about the re-issue of The Reluctant Hostess in 2015 saying “As far as I’m concerned, Fearon’s entire oeuvre should be in print always, regardless of commercial considerations. She is that idiosyncratic” and finished it as follows: “Fearon’s output was tremendous, her energy seemingly inexhaustible. To read her—on gardens, on herbs, on parenting, on fancy cakes, on travel—is to be inspired, cheered, and exhausted by proxy.
“One feels she’d be hard to keep up with, too. It’s no coincidence that the last pages of The Reluctant Hostess portray our heroine prostrate in a chair, a pen-and-ink swirl, presumably denoting exhaustion, above her head. This is how you feel, as a reader.”
I can’t really recommend anywhere you can find a great deal more about Ethelind Fearon except to suggest that you keep a look put for her gardening books in second hand bookshops and websites and check out her sense of humour for yourself. Ken Baker has compiled a complete list of all her books and you can download a copy here.