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The life and times of Alice Chetwynd Ley.

Alice Chetwynd Ley, romantic historical novelist, was born on 12 October 1913 in Halifax, Yorkshire, the first child of a journalist, Fred Humphrey and his wife, Alice Mary (née Chetwynd): she was given the name and surname of her mother in addition to her father’s surname. Her parents had met in Merthyr Tydfil, where her maternal grandfather had been a Surveyor of Customs and Excise; he was also to prove a highly skilled chess player and a county champion. Alice was the eldest of five children who survived to adulthood. The others, in order of birth, were: Fred, Florence (known as Jo), Geoff and Kathleen (known as Bunty).

[Photo: Alice with her mother, 1913]

Her father Fred Humphrey left home to serve overseas as an officer in the First World War in Palestine, Egypt and France, but returned to take up again his chosen profession of journalism. The family moved around the country as the father took jobs on different regional newspapers, and Alice’s early schooling took place in Selkirk and Sheffield, but when they settled in Birmingham she went to King Edward VI Grammar School for Girls in Edgbaston.

[Photo: Alice in the garden at Selkirk, aged 11]

It is clear that Alice proved to be a good scholar, and she was awarded school prizes for the study of English Literature. She also wrote poetry, and plays for her brothers and sisters, but she tore them all up when she was fourteen. However, she did publish at least one story in the school magazine, when she was fifteen, and it is likely there were others. She was destined for Cambridge by her teachers, but the hard facts of life were that the City of Birmingham only supported those young women who would pledge to be teachers after their degree, and at the same time ruled out from teaching those with severe short sight like Alice: an early version of a Catch-22 situation. As a result, she took clerical work in a bank, and then more ambitiously ran a shop and post office in a suburb of Birmingham with a friend, becoming involved with the Girl Guides movement in her spare time and cycling with the oldest of her two brothers, Fred (named after his father).

[Photo: Alice and Ken Ley, on their engagement 1944

So when war broke out in 1939, Alice was in an exempt form of employment. She met her husband through the profession of both their fathers, who were active members of the National Union of Journalists, each becoming President. She was taken to annual delegate meetings by her mother, as was Kenneth Ley, who first met Alice when he was still at school. That meeting came to nothing, but the mothers kept in touch, and when Ken’s father died through an accident in the blackout in Bristol in 1943, contact was made again. Wartime travel was difficult, but the postal service remained excellent and, as a courting couple with printer’s ink in their veins, they wrote to each other with astonishing regularity, sometimes twice a day! They became engaged, and were married on 3 February 1945, when they were confident that the war would be won and that there was a future for them.

[Photo: Alice and Ken's wedding 1945]

Although Ken Ley had also been a journalist, immediately after the war he applied to join the Civil Service as an information officer, and he remained an information and press officer for the rest of his working life. The couple lived at first in Bristol, where their son Richard was born in January 1946, and then moved to London, to Highbury in Islington and then out into what they both called ‘the leafy suburbs’, to an area near both Pinner and Eastcote in outer north-west London. There they stayed for the rest of their lives, moving from one semi-detached house down the road to another, which was considerably larger. Their second son, Graham, was born in May 1951 after the move to the suburbs. Both sons recall the fact that during the 1950s there was no fridge, but a larder with a stone, that there was a coal-fired stove, and that in the winter there would be ice on the inside of the metal windows! But no one froze, because there were electric fires to take the edge off it all.

Alice ran these houses, and looked after the daily lives of her children, taking up what was – in that post-war period – the role of a typical suburban housewife with a husband commuting on the local Metropolitan railway into London, where he worked for many years for the central headquarters of the Post Office. There were the summer holidays, often on the beach at Weston-super-Mare in Somerset where Ken’s mother lived, a journey which became far easier with , first the hire, and then the purchase of a second-hand car, an old Ford Prefect. As salary improved, so did facilities, but perhaps the decisive change came when the younger son started school in the mid-1950s, and Alice found that she had more time on her hands.

In 1959 Alice enrolled part-time for an extra-mural Diploma in Sociology of the University of London, for which she studied at the relatively local Harrow College. This course included work on the eighteenth century, and in October of the same year she published her first novel, The Jewelled Snuff Box with the London-based publisher, Robert Hale. A newspaper feature mentions that it was the result of nine months’ effort, an interesting irony for a mother, and that it was accepted by the first publisher to whom she sent it.

[Photo: Alice, on the publication of The Jewelled Snuff Box in 1959]

These features were based on interviews with the author, and another one tells us that Alice had made an earlier attempt at a novel, but she regarded that as an experiment. Her routine was to deal with getting the children off to school and doing housework in the morning, and then settle down to two hours writing and studying. From another feature, we gather that her studies of social history helped her to research period details, and that ‘if an idea or an incident, or a phrase came to mind’ she wrote it down at once in a notebook, which could be covered in flour if she had been baking at the time! The novels were hand-written, and ‘revised two or three times’ before being typed by a professional typist. A long quotation from these early days, in 1960, summarises Alice’s writing method:

‘I plan the main lines of the story, but not in complete detail, because that would be too mechanical. I follow my main objectives, leaving myself free to use my imagination, and the development of events as they proceed. I find that one incident unexpectedly gives birth to another, that one idea germinates another idea, and so I can manoeuvre and use them without losing sight of the main story. In this way the novel becomes flesh and blood, intellect and emotion, lifelike, and satisfying.’

The second novel followed into publication in the late summer of 1960. The Georgian Rake had the great distinction of being adapted for BBC radio, and it was first broadcast on Saturday 26 May 1962, at 8.30 p.m. in the prestigious ‘Saturday Night Theatre’ slot on the Home Service as it was then called (now Radio 4). It was dramatised by Cynthia Pughe, and starred Valerie Kirkbright and John Westbrook in the leading roles, in a production by Audrey Cameron; it was re-broadcast as ‘The Sunday Play’ four years later, at 2.30 p.m. on Sunday 11 December 1966. One of the reasons it was selected was the fact that it was a novel with much, good, lively dialogue.

Alice’s Diploma in Sociology had been completed in 1962, and by 1977 she had published an astonishing thirteen novels: the full bibliography which continues to 1989 is given on other pages of this site. She joined the Romantic Novelists Association, and was Chair from 1971-73; she was also a member of the Society of Women Writers and Journalists.

Alice was undoubtedly drawn to teaching. She gave classes in sociology for a few years, and ran a highly popular class in creative writing for many years, both at Harrow College initially, where she had studied for her Diploma, and later at home when the college ceased the course. Several of those she taught remained close friends.

It is interesting to note that Alice’s grandfather, Thomas Chetwynd, and her father Fred Humphrey both wrote stories: Chetwynd was principally a poet, but also a children’s author, and her father wrote occasionally, at times with a slant towards crime themes. There can be no doubt that the major influence on Alice was Jane Austen, all of whose works she had already read several times over by her late teens. She became an enthusiastic member of the Jane Austen Society, and clearly loved that immersion in an earlier age, notably one of elegance. But she would also have read widely in more recent popular writing, and it is hard not to see some influence stemming from the tastes instilled in the reading public by Georgette Heyer. Alice enjoyed crime fiction too, although not of the hard-boiled kind, and after mixing romantic themes with intrigue, and exploiting the implications of ‘reputation’ - for both men and women - in her chosen period, she did launch in later years a new hero who solved crimes with the help of his adventurous niece; this series (the Anthea and Justin Rutherford saga) was how she ended her career.

Apart from historical research conducted through the local library and via the printed word, Alice also did a great deal of field research into locations, taking short holidays in likely settings, and exploring many aspects of the Napoleonic period, from old inns to smugglers’ coves. She was well-informed on costume and ‘manners’ generally, and would become indignant when costume dramas on television ‘got it wrong’. There is a particularly telling story of how, in The Georgian Rake, she formed the idea of the heroine climbing a tree and, unsure how practical that would have been in the long dresses of the period, donned her nightdress to make the experiment – much to the amazement of a neighbour who witnessed it all!

Some of her novels go back from the Regency (strictly speaking, 1811-20) and the overlapping Napoleonic period into the later part of the eighteenth century, and she created one family whose fortunes she followed in a short series (the Eversley saga). Her novels were translated into a number of foreign languages, and keenly read in the United States, as well as Canada and Australia. Paperback and large-print rights were sold, and most recently the novels have undergone a revival in e-book form with Sapere Books, and are being read widely once again.

She outlived her husband Ken, who died in 1994, by ten years. Both her sons, Richard and Graham, have written books, and Richard’s trilogy of novels, Seven Crowns of Oscalidor, is now available in e-book form while Graham has published academic books on theatre, although he has also taken recently to writing children’s stories.