John Strange Winter (1856-1911)
Given the inevitable scepticism levelled at a woman who wrote fictional accounts of military matters in patriarchal Victorian Britain, it will hardly surprise you to learn that immensely successful nineteenth-century novelist “John Strange Winter” was born Henrietta Eliza Vaughan Palmer in Trinity Lane, York, on 13 January 1856. Her father, Henry Vaughan Palmer, rector of Saint Margaret’s Church in York, had served as an officer in the Royal Artillery and was a descendant of a long line of military men. This circumstance, coupled with the proximity of the Vaughan Palmer household to the York Cavalry Barracks, and the regular visits paid by the men stationed there, gave young Henrietta plenty of material for her early novels.
A disinterested scholar, she was educated at Bootham House School in York; in John Strange Winter: a volume of personal record, her biographer, Oliver Bainbridge, quoted her as saying:
“I never missed an opportunity of playing truant and attending a review. Races also were my keen delight, and I would ostensibly go to school, in reality to watch a big race from some safe and unseen coign of vantage.”
Yet, she was a voracious reader from an early age: “I always read,” she told Bainbridge.
“I think I was two and a quarter when I read aloud from a poetry book to a tax collector whom I found waiting in the hall. I suppose I thought I would beguile the tedium of his waiting.”
Henrietta, who was, in her own words, “an insatiable novel reader” from the age of four, submitted her first work of fiction to Wedding Bells magazine when she was just fourteen. She never received a reply from its editor. From the age of eighteen onwards, Henrietta, under the pseudonym Violet Whyte, wrote stories, many of them on a military theme, for the Family Herald and other popular journals. She soon attracted enthusiastic readers: Art critic John Ruskin, later godfather to two of her children, wrote a letter to the Daily Telegraph in which he referred to Henrietta as:
“the author to whom we owe the most finished and faithful rendering ever yet given of the British soldier.”
Yet, in 1881, publisher Chatto and Windus refused to bring out Cavalry Life, a collection of her “regimental sketches,” under a woman’s name, arguing that no reader would believe it was not written by a man. To circumvent this, Henrietta borrowed the name “John Strange Winter” from one of her characters in Cavalry Life.
Readers and reviewers were duped. One reviewer for the Morning Post insisted:
“His [sic] intimate knowledge of the inner life of barracks, and his tales of soldiers and their ways are accurate, whilst they are without exception bright and amusing.”
So convincing was this assumed identity that the committee of the Royal Literary Fund wrote to her publishers inviting eminent literary gentleman Mr. John Strange Winter to act as a steward at their anniversary dinner. Henrietta was obliged to write and point out that, as she was a woman, this was not allowable under their rules. To their credit, once the Royal Literary Fund voted to allow women members, she was the first they approached.
In time, Henrietta was outed as a woman, most notably when an announcement appeared in the press congratulating John Strange Winter on the birth of twins. She had four children, three girls and a boy, with her husband Arthur Stannard, who she married in 1884 after a very short courtship. Once her identity was revealed, Henrietta was free to appear in public. She made her debut as a public reader in the Putney Assembly Rooms in 1886, at a charity event she had organised on behalf of a local man who had fallen on hard times. This was characteristically generous of her. The proceeds of her novel A Soldier’s Children were donated to the Victoria Hospital for Children in Chelsea.
Henrietta enjoyed huge success with Bootles’ Baby: A story of the Scarlet Lancers, which was serialised in the Graphic in 1885 and sold two million copies in book form. A dramatised version, first staged in 1889, toured for four years. In 1891, she also launched Golden Gates, a penny weekly illustrated magazine that she ran almost single-handedly. She changed its name to Winter’s Weekly after twelve months and it survived until 1895. Henrietta did much to help fellow women writers too. Well regarded in journalistic circles, she played a pivotal role in convincing the Society of Authors to facilitate the election of women to official positions. She also helped establish the Writers’ Club, a rival women-only body; in 1892, she was appointed its first president. That same year, she established the Anti-Crinoline League, a crusade against “ridiculous, vulgar, inelegant, and ungraceful” skirts that often caught fire, resulting in the death of the wearer.
In 1896, as Arthur’s health was deteriorating, the Stannard family moved to Dieppe on the advice of his doctors. An enthusiastic ex-pat, Henrietta is credited with turning the town into a popular tourist resort by means of her glowing accounts of its many charms. She returned to London in 1901, but retained a holiday home in Dieppe until 1909. (Michael Seeney’s article ‘John Strange Winter and Dieppe’, published in The Wildean No. 23, July 2003, gives an excellent account of her time there.)
On her return, Henrietta was elected president of the Society of Women Journalists. As sole supporter of her family, she was obliged to earn a second income from the sale of cosmetic preparations of her own devising after a paper she had started failed, leaving her in debt. By then, her own health was poor; she had been diagnosed with breast cancer and undergone a mastectomy. Henrietta Vaughan Stannard died in 1911 following complications arising from an accident. She was fifty-five. Her last novel as John Strange Winter, Miss Peggy: the Story of a Very Modern Girl, was published posthumously the year after her death, adding to more than one hundred novels and story collections from her pen. Many can be read online here.