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Pargeter, Edith Mary [pseud. Ellis Peters]free

(1913–1995)
  • Kate Fullbrook

Pargeter, Edith Mary [pseud. Ellis Peters] (1913–1995), novelist and translator, was born on 28 September 1913 in the Shropshire hamlet of Horsehay, the youngest of three children of Edmund Valentine Pargeter (d. 1940), head clerk at Horsehay ironworks, and his wife, Edith, née Hordley (d. 1954). The household also included Edith's Welsh maternal grandmother, Emma Ellis. While the Pargeters had little money, living in a two-bedroom cottage with no gas, water, or electricity, the house was, as Edith noted 'full of books and music' (Peters and Morgan, 10). Edith's mother had antiquarian and artistic interests, and introduced her children at an early age to the historical and natural features of the surrounding countryside. For Edith this was the beginning of her notable engagement with the Welsh-English borderland which would inform her fiction so deeply. Her attachment to Shropshire was permanent: she would live within 3 miles of her birthplace throughout her life.

Education and early life

Edith attended the local Church of England elementary school at Dawley, a mile away from Horsehay, and then the Coalbrooke County High School for Girls as a scholarship pupil. Particularly interested in English, Latin, and history, she successfully gained her Oxford school certificate and left school in 1930 determined to become a writer. From 1933 to 1940 she lived at home and worked at a chemist's shop in Dawley, where she accumulated a knowledge of drugs and poisons which would feature later in her detective fiction.

Pargeter's evenings were spent writing. She had every reason to be encouraged in her apprenticeship for her profession as a writer. In 1936 her stories appeared in Good Housekeeping magazine and she sent her first book manuscript to the publisher William Heinemann who, while rejecting it, asked to see any further work she might produce. Her first novel, Hortensius, Friend of Nero, was published by Lovat Dickson in the same year and, while this did not make a great impact, The City Lies Four-Square (1939), published by Heinemann, established her reputation. By 1939 she had published six novels, including two crime novels published under the pseudonym of Jolyon Carr, and one romance, under the pen-name of Peter Benedict.

The war and after

During the Second World War Pargeter continued to write prolifically while she served in the Women's Royal Naval Service (WRNS) from 1940 to 1945. Her first posting, to Devonport in Plymouth where she worked for the western approaches command, involved tracking allied convoy routes across the Atlantic. This was her first extended period away from home. The command then moved to Liverpool, where Edith spent the rest of the war, working as a teleprinter operator in the signals office. For her 'meritorious service', she was presented with the British Empire Medal by George VI on VE-day, 8 May 1945, in London where she joined the vast crowds celebrating the end of the conflict. She was demobilized in July 1944, leaving the WRNS with the rank of petty officer. Pargeter published The Victim Needs a Nurse as John Redfern in 1940, and her first best-seller, She Goes to War, based on her war service, in 1942. The war, she believed, proved the case for the equality of men and women, and she hoped that work and pay in the post-war period would recognize this principle. In the trilogy comprising Lame Crusade (1945), Reluctant Odyssey (1946), and Warfare Accomplished (1947) Pargeter again put her time in the service to use and chronicled the progress of a young private with a much-praised eye for detail.

Pargeter's father died in 1940 and after the war Edith returned to Shropshire to live with her mother, a happy arrangement which continued until her mother's death in 1954. At this time Edith and her brother Ellis, neither of whom ever married, jointly bought Parkville, an eighteenth-century house in Madeley, which they shared for the next thirty-five years. The siblings were very close and shared many interests, including a devotion to adult education. Both were members of the Workers' Education Association and helped to found the short-lived Shropshire Adult College at Attingham Hall near Shrewsbury.

The Pargeters' passion for education also led them to attend an international summer school in Czechoslovakia in 1947. This was an important moment for Edith. She had felt deeply humiliated by Neville Chamberlain's strategy of appeasement in the Munich agreement of 1938, which allowed Germany to annex part of Czechoslovakia. The 1947 Czech summer school not only marked the beginning of friendships with many Czech readers and writers, it also sparked a permanent interest in their language. Pargeter taught herself Czech and put her expertise to work by translating major Czech poetry and prose into English. After 1947 Edith and her brother went to Czechoslovakia every year they could.

Ellis Peters

Following her return to Shropshire after the war Pargeter lived by her writing. In the 1940s, publishing with Heinemann, she produced mainly historical and romantic novels, many of which drew on her own experiences, but she returned to crime fiction in 1951 with Fallen into the Pit, which was the first of her successful series of novels to feature Inspector George Felse. Death Mask (1959) was the first crime novel Pargeter published under the pseudonym of Ellis Peters, a name she constructed from her brother's and grandmother's name, Ellis, and from Petra, the name of the daughter of her close Czech friends whom she loved for forty years 'without in the least wanting to get married' (The Times). Ellis Peters became Pargeter's most successful literary incarnation and the name by which she is best known as a writer.

In the 1960s and 1970s Pargeter, as Peters, produced seventeen crime novels, most of them featuring Felse, first with the publishing house of Collins and then with Macmillan. During the same period she continued to publish historical and romantic fiction for Heinemann and later Macmillan, which included the Heaven Tree trilogy of novels in the early 1960s. She always regarded this trio of books, The Heaven Tree (1960), The Green Branch (1962), and The Scarlet Seed (1963), set in the twelfth century, as her finest work. Her non-crime fiction, notable for its historical depth and accuracy, and often drawing skilfully on the history of Shropshire and the Welsh borders, was widely admired. However, she attracted the greatest accolades for her crime writing. To her enormous pleasure, she was awarded the Edgar Allan Poe award by the Mystery Writers of America in 1963 for Death and the Joyful Woman (1962) which featured Inspector Felse.

In 1968 Pargeter's sixteen volumes of translations of Czech poetry and prose by distinguished authors, such as Jan Neruda, were gratefully recognized by the Czechoslovak Society for International Relations with the award of their gold medal and ribbon at the Prague Writers' Club in the spring. A period of the Czech communist government restrictions in the early 1950s had prevented her visits to Czechoslovakia, but after 1956 she and her brother returned each year for long summer holidays. They made many friends and delighted in the increasing liberalization of the country in the 1960s. A week after Pargeter returned home to England after her Czech summer holiday in 1968, however, Soviet tanks moved into the country. By 1969 the Union of Czechoslovak Writers which had honoured her was outlawed and censorship imposed. Pargeter published no more translations from Czech after 1970, though she maintained her Czech friendships and her compassionate interest in developments in the country. Her Prague connections also led to her invitation to travel in India in 1961, an experience which stood behind her two novels set in the subcontinent: Mourning Raga (1969) and Death to the Landlords! (1972).

Brother Cadfael

Successful as Pargeter's writing career had been for nearly five decades, it was lifted to new heights with the publication in 1977 of her first Brother Cadfael crime novel, A Morbid Taste for Bones. With Cadfael, a former crusader and herbalist turned Benedictine monk at Shrewsbury Abbey in the twelfth century, Pargeter created one of the most memorable and greatly loved of fictional detectives. Although A Morbid Taste for Bones was not initially intended to launch a series, Pargeter was so intrigued by the character that she wrote twenty further Cadfael novels. In these books she helped to develop the highly popular subgenre of historical detective fiction, which only attracted wholehearted publishers' support after the international success of Umberto Eco's post-modern medieval detective novel The Name of the Rose (1981). Slightly annoyed by the comparison, Pargeter pointed out that by the time Eco's best-seller appeared, she had already published seven Cadfael novels.

Nevertheless, the fashion for medieval mysteries drew a large and faithful international readership to Pargeter's work. Cadfael attracted attention and affection not only for the character but for his author. An Ellis Peters Appreciation Society was founded in the United States in 1989, and there are official leaflets for Cadfael walks in Shrewsbury. Cadfael needlework kits, goblets, pot-pourri, notepaper, and mystery weekends, over which Pargeter had right of veto during her life, have all proved popular. A variety of rose called the ‘Cadfael’ was introduced at the Chelsea Flower Show in 1990.

Pargeter's Cadfael novels were not only a popular success. Producing them, she said, gave her the greatest pleasure of her writing life. In addition, her 'medieval whodunnits' attracted high praise and recognition. In 1981 she was honoured by her fellow crime writers in Britain by the award of the Crime Writers' Association's silver dagger for Monk's Hood (1980), and in 1993 by the award of the Cartier diamond dagger for her lifetime's achievement in crime writing, an accolade shared since its inception in 1986 with only a small group of other writers such as Eric Ambler, P. D. James, Ruth Rendell, and John le Carré. The latter award was presented in a ceremony in the House of Lords. Pargeter was further honoured with an OBE in 1994 and an honorary MA from Birmingham University.

Later life and reputation

Pargeter's latter years, after her beloved brother's death in 1984, and in spite of increasing frailty, were contented ones. She moved from the house she shared with her brother to a convenient modern house next door to her cousins Mavis and Roy Morgan. Pargeter and Roy Morgan, a retired architect with interests in photography, collaborated on two illustrated volumes on the local area: Shropshire (1992) and Strongholds and Sanctuaries (1993). Her first book-signing tour took place in 1991, when she visited five cities in the United States. During the 1990s, in old age but at the height of her fame, Pargeter took pleasure in the broadcasting of several of her novels on BBC Radio 4 in 1991 and 1993, and was pleased with the filming of Cadfael mysteries by Central TV on a set she visited near Budapest in Hungary. Pargeter produced nearly eighty books as well as many short stories and articles during her life and was working on a Cadfael novel at her death.

Pargeter, who had her right leg amputated at the knee at the age of eighty-two, died a few weeks after a stroke at home at Troya, 3 Lee Dingle, Madeley, Shropshire, on 14 October 1995. Her funeral was held at the Coalbrookdale church and her body was cremated at the Emstry crematorium near Shrewsbury, where her ashes were scattered in the garden. Her family and friends held a further memorial service to celebrate her life at Shrewsbury Abbey on 18 February 1996. A window in the abbey, depicting St Benedict, is dedicated to her.

Pargeter was a private, humane, modest, loyal, intelligent, and scholarly woman. A Christian believer but not a regular churchgoer, a woman of generous left-wing convictions who declared herself uninterested in common party politics, she had a great affection for every aspect of her locality, for her family and friends, and for her terriers. As a writer she was a realist, immersed in history and attuned to moral questions. She said that she did not find 'vice and evil more interesting than virtue', and she hoped her books would 'go some way to defy that too-easily accepted judgment' (Pargeter, Edith Mary, 2279). 'The thriller', she insisted:

must be a morality. If it strays from the side of the angels … takes pleasure in evil, that is the unforgiveable sin … It is probably true that I am not very good at villains. The good interest me so much more.

Gottschalk, 848

This serious ethical intent always informed Pargeter's pioneering work in medieval historical crime fiction, whose popularity she did so much to consolidate. In 1999 the Crime Writers' Association honoured her further with the institution and award of its first annual Ellis Peters historical dagger, sponsored by Pargeter's estate, for the best novel in the genre in which she so excelled.

Sources

  • M. Lewis, Edith Pargeter: Ellis Peters (1994)
  • The Times (16 Oct 1995)
  • The Independent (16 Oct 1995)
  • ‘Pargeter, Edith Mary’, Major twentieth-century writers, ed. B. Ryan, 3 (1991), 2277–80
  • P. Altner, ‘Pargeter, Edith (Mary)’, Twentieth-century romance and historical writers, ed. L. Henderson, 2nd edn (1990), 506–8
  • J. Gottschalk, ‘Peters, Ellis’, Twentieth-century crime and mystery writers, ed. J. M. Reilly, 2nd edn (1985), 707–10
  • S. Feder, ‘Peters, Ellis’, Twentieth-century crime and mystery writers, ed. L. Henderson, 3rd edn (1991), 846–9
  • D. Wynter, ‘The green detective’, The Guardian (22 Nov 1989)
  • S. Pile, ‘Murder is her habit’, Telegraph Magazine (12 Oct 1991)
  • S. B. Conroy, ‘The prime crimes of Ellis Peters’, Washington Post (28 Sept 1991)
  • R. Herbert, ‘Ellis Peters’, Publishers' Weekly (9 Aug 1991)
  • A. M. Coreeley, ‘Ellis Peters: another Umberto Eco?’, Armchair Detective, 18/3 (1985)
  • www.twbooks.co.uk [Crime Writers' Association website], 24 June 2000
  • E. Peters and R. Morgan, Ellis Peters' Shropshire (1992)
  • d. cert.

Likenesses

  • photograph, repro. in The Times
  • photograph, repro. in The Independent

Wealth at Death

£7,960,790: probate, 18 April 1996, CGPLA Eng. & Wales

Calendars of the grants of probate … made in … HM court of probate [England and Wales]