Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Simpson, Helen de Guerry (1897–1940)

by Alan Roberts

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 11, (MUP), 1988

Helen de Guerry Simpson (1897-1940), writer, was born on 1 December 1897 in Sydney, fourth and youngest child of native-born parents Edward Percy Simpson, solicitor, and his wife Anna Maria Alexandra Guerry, daughter of the French Marquis de Guerry de Lauret. Helen grew up at her father's home, St Mervyn's, Point Piper; one of her governesses was Winifred West. Her parents separated and her Catholic mother moved to London. Her father, an Anglican, sent her as a boarder to the Convent of the Sacred Heart, Rose Bay (1910-11, 1913) and to Abbotsleigh (1911-12).

Arriving in England in April 1914, Helen joined her mother. She went to Oxford in September 1915, joining the Society of Oxford Home Students (later St Anne's College), and read French at the university (1916-17). In April 1918 she joined the Women's Royal Naval Service as a chief section officer of decoding at the Admiralty. She returned to Oxford in September 1919 to study music, intending to become a composer, and matriculated on 13 October 1920. At Oxford she became very interested in the theatre, publishing several short plays and founding the Oxford Women's Dramatic Society. Reputedly breaking strict regulations prohibiting male and female students from acting together, she was sent down without completing her degree in 1921.

That year Simpson returned to Sydney for her brother's wedding. She published Philosophies in Little (1921), a collection of her own verse with her translations from French, Italian and Spanish. In 1922 she entered a play, A Man of his Time (1923), based on the life of Benvenuto Cellini, in the Daily Telegraph literary competition; it was staged next year by Gregan McMahon. At Oxford again by February 1924, she made a bet that she could write a novel in five weeks: the result was a detective story, Acquittal (London, 1925). Further books followed quickly: The Baseless Fabric (1925), a collection of short stories; The Women's Comedy (1926), another play set in Renaissance Italy; and Cups, Wands and Swords (1927), which combined her principal interests, detective fiction and demonology.

Helen Simpson visited Australia in 1927. On returning to London she married (Sir) Denis John Browne, nephew of 'Rolf Boldrewood', at the Catholic Cathedral, Ashley Place, on 21 April. He became a famous paediatric surgeon at The Hospital for Sick Children, Great Ormond Street. Their daughter Clemence was born on 1 November 1928. Handsome, dark, with 'bright brown eyes' and a determined chin, Helen was a fine horsewoman and fencer, who collected antiques, Elizabethan cookery books and works on witchcraft. She had great charm and vitality and developed a forceful style, with a touch of showmanship in some mannerisms such as taking snuff.

Prolific and versatile, she continued to write: Mumbudget (1928), The Desolate House (1928) and Vantage Striker (1931). Through her publisher she became a close friend of Clemence Dane; they collaborated in three detective novels between 1928 and 1932. In 1932 she published Boomerang which won the James Tait Black memorial prize and marked her arrival as a significant contemporary novelist: based in part on her mother's family, it was her first book to deal with Australia. Her other literary works include The Woman on the Beast (1933), a fantasy partly set in Australia in 1999; the historical biographies, The Spanish Marriage (1933), Henry VIII (1934) and A Woman Among Wild Men (1938); works on domestic economy and cookery, The Happy Housewife (1934) and The Cold Table (1935); the historical novels, Saraband for Dead Lovers (1935), and Under Capricorn (1937) set in colonial New South Wales; and the novels, The Female Felon (1935) and Maid No More (1940).

In the 1930s Simpson lectured and broadcasted on literary, historical and topical subjects. She was also deeply involved in literary society in London and belonged to the P.E.N. and the Detection clubs. Her literary friends included Dorothy Sayers, Margaret Kennedy and John Masefield. She visited Australia again in 1937 to launch Under Capricorn, to broadcast for the Australian Broadcasting Commission and to collect material for a new epic novel. She returned to England in 1938 through the United States of America where she also lectured. With deteriorating eyesight she wrote less and turned to current affairs. In 1938 she was endorsed as the Liberal candidate for the Isle of Wight.

Survived by her husband and daughter, Helen Simpson died of cancer on 14 October 1940 at Overbury, near Evesham, Worcestershire, and was buried in the village churchyard. Her portrait by Aletta Lewis is held by her daughter.

Her rich imagination, 'all-pervading high spirits' and carelessness of convention, are more evident in scenes and actions than characterization. H. M. Green found her style 'concise, short-sentenced and sometimes staccato, clear-cut and lucid, always telling, always entertaining'. Saraband for Dead Lovers was filmed in 1948 and Under Capricorn (by Alfred Hitchcock) in 1949.

Select Bibliography

  • Bulletin, 21 July 1921
  • Sun News-Pictorial (Melbourne), 11 Sept 1940
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 16 Oct 1940
  • Herald (Melbourne), 7 June 1932, 23 July 1937, 6 Mar, 16 Oct 1940
  • D. N. McNevin, Bibliography of Helen Simpson, (manuscript, State Library of New South Wales)
  • Simpson manuscripts (State Library of New South Wales)
  • typescript articles and plays by Helen Simpson (privately held).

Citation details

Alan Roberts, 'Simpson, Helen de Guerry (1897–1940)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/simpson-helen-de-guerry-8433/text14821, published in hardcopy 1988, accessed online 1 September 2014.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 11, (MUP), 1988

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2014

Helen Simpson, n.d.

Helen Simpson, n.d.

State Library of Victoria, H34226

Life Summary [details]

Alternative Names
  • Browne, Helen de Guerry
Birth

1 December 1897
Sydney, New South Wales, Australia

Death

14 October 1940
Overbury, Worcestershire, England

Cultural Heritage
Religious Influence
Occupation