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Phillpotts, Eden (1862–1960), writer, was born on 4 November 1862 at Mount Abu, Rajputana, India, the eldest of the three sons of Henry Phillpotts (1828–1865), an officer of the Indian army and political agent to the governor-general of Rajputana, and Adelaide Matilda Sophia (1843–1921), daughter of George Jenkins Waters, of the Madras civil service. When Henry Phillpotts died in 1865 his wife took their children to England, where her father received them in his west-country home.

Eden Phillpotts was educated at Mannamead School, Plymouth (later incorporated with Plymouth College), and at seventeen went to London to work as a clerk for the Sun Fire Insurance Company. His own ambition was to be an actor, and after office hours he studied at a school of dramatic art, only to realize after two years that he was not suited to acting. He turned instead to writing, and soon he was earning £400 a year in his spare time by writing novels and short stories, and also one-act plays, sometimes in association with Arnold Bennett, who became his friend. After ten years he left the insurance company and in 1890 became assistant editor to a weekly periodical, Black and White, for three days of his writing week.

On 18 November 1892 Phillpotts married Emily (d. 1928), daughter of Robert Topham. They had a daughter, , who became an author in her own right, and a son, Henry Phillpotts. Eden Phillpotts left London in 1899 to settle in his beloved Devon, first at Torquay, where he lived from 1899 to 1929, and later at Broadclyst, near Exeter, where he lived from 1929 until his death. Both places are not far from Dartmoor, the setting for most of his fiction.

Lying Prophets (1897), Phillpotts's first important work of fiction, was commended by James Payn; his next, Children of the Mist (1898), was more generally welcomed and was praised by R. D. Blackmore, author of Lorna Doone, whose memorial Phillpotts unveiled in Exeter Cathedral six years later. For more than fifty years after these first successes Phillpotts produced an average of three or four books a year—novels, short stories, poems, plays, essays, mystery fiction, and retold legends from the classics. Phillpotts's best-known works are the eighteen novels and two collections of short stories that make up his ‘Dartmoor cycle’. What Thomas Hardy did for Dorset, Phillpotts did for Dartmoor. Each book of the series focuses on a specific part of the moor and describes it faithfully. The River (1902), set in West Dart, The Secret Woman (1905), set in Belstone, and The Thief of Virtue (1910), set in the region's heart, are among the best works of the Dartmoor cycle. Their excellence lies in their convincing dialogue in west country dialect, their depiction of the rural experience of the local people, the author's sympathy for his characters, and, most importantly, the accuracy of their described topography. Phillpotts also collaborated with his daughter, Adelaide, in producing four books: Yellow Sands (1930), The Good Old Days (1932), West Country Plays (1933), and My Lady's Mill (1935).

Phillpotts began to write plays in 1895, when he collaborated with Jerome K. Jerome in a comedy, The Prude's Progress. The Farmer's Wife, entirely his own work, was his first real success, being produced at the Birmingham Repertory Theatre in 1916. The eventual London production in 1924 was phenomenally popular. It ran for three years, a reminder that rural atmosphere and country dialogue had not been wholly superseded in English drama. There followed other plays in the same genre, notably Yellow Sands, which ran at the Haymarket Theatre, London, for 610 performances.

Only one setback marred these successes: The Secret Woman, originally a novel, was recast for the stage in 1912. It was banned by the censor because Phillpotts refused on principle to delete two sentences ‘that mattered nothing to the play and involved no sacrifice of art’, he afterwards recalled. A protest was widely signed by his fellow writers, including G. B. Shaw and Henry James, and appeared in The Times (weekly edition, 6 Feb 1912). The poetry of Eden Phillpotts—twenty-two volumes in all, beginning with Wild Fruit (1910)—and the essays, first collected in My Devon Year (1904), have, like his other works, the flavour of a rich ancestral speech. The artist's use of dialect led him, as he matured, from word distortion to rhythmic suggestion and Phillpotts's creative prose has, therefore, something of the quality of his exemplars, Thomas Hardy and Henry Fielding. His rationalist philosophy, genial and manly, but less oppressed by fatalism than Hardy's, was steadfast.

After the death of his first wife Phillpotts married in 1929 Lucy Robina Joyce (d. 1968), daughter of Dr Fortescue Webb. Eden Phillpotts died at his home, Kerswell House, Broadclyst, near Exeter, on 29 December 1960 and his ashes were interred on Dartmoor.

Thomas Moult, rev. James Y. Dayananda

Sources  

E. Phillpotts, From the angle of 88 (1951) · W. Givvan, ed., Eden Phillpotts: an assessment and tribute (1953) · P. Hinton, Eden Phillpotts: a bibliography of first editions (1931) · A. P. Ross, Reverie: an autobiography (1981) · K. F. Day, Eden Phillpotts on Dartmoor (1981) · Eden Phillpotts, 1862–1960: selected letters, ed. J. Y. Dayananda (1984) · C. W. Meadowcroft, The place of Phillpotts in English peasant drama (1924) · G. Cavaliero, The rural tradition in the English novel, 1900–1939 (1977) · private information (2004) · personal knowledge (2004)

Archives  

Brigham Young University, Provo, Utah, Harold B. Lee Library · Lock Haven University, Pennsylvania, Stevenson Library · Ransom HRC, corresp. and literary papers |  Library of Birmingham, letters to Barry Jackson · BL, corresp. with League of Dramatists, Add. MS 63424 · BL, corresp. with Macmillans, Add. MS 54962 · BL, corresp. with Society of Authors, Add. MSS 56778, 63313 · Devon RO, letters and poems to Sybil Heeley · Devon RO, letters to M. P. Willcocks · Hunt. L., letters mainly to William Morris Colles · NL Scot., letters to W. M. Parker and transcript study of Phillpotts by Parker · Ransom HRC, letters to Martin Secker and literary MSS · Richmond Local Studies Library, London, corresp. with Douglas Slades · U. Birm., letters to Francis Brett Young and Jessica Brett Young · U. Cal., Los Angeles, Research Library · U. Leeds, Brotherton L., letters to Thomas Moult

 

SOUND

 

BBC archives of E. Phillpotts's radio plays [presumed]


Likenesses  

J. Russell & Sons, photograph, 1915, NPG · B. Trist, oils, 1937, University of Exeter · A. P. F. Ritchie, caricature, NPG; repro. in VF (11 June 1913)

Wealth at death  

£2459 7s. 7d.: probate, 30 June 1961, CGPLA Eng. & Wales