Saturday, February 20, 2010

Marie Connor Leighton

Marie Connor Leighton, like Charles Garvice, is an author whose sensational novels made her a best-seller of the day but whose name is almost unknown nowadays. And, like Garvice, she has proven to be a difficult subject to research.

I think I probably first heard of her via Bill Lofts as she was the wife of Robert Leighton, a prolific writer for boys and editor of Young Folks at the time when Robert Louis Stevenson's Treasure Island was accepted for serialisation; this was substantially true, although I believe Leighton, born in Ayr in 1858 or 1859 (depending on which source you believe), came to London in 1879 and was initially employed as an assistant editor on Young Folks. By 1881, when Stevenson's serial began, he was first assistant editor and did not become full editor until 1884.

Leighton shows up in the 1861 census living with his parents, Robert (1822-1869) and Elizabeth, in West Derby, Lancashire, aged 2, and in the 1871 census living with his mother in Everton, Lancashire. By 1881, he was in lodgings in Hampstead.

It was while he was working at Young Folks that he became acquainted with Marie Connor, a young authoress and actress who submitted poems to the magazine. According to the Oxford Companion to Edwardian Fiction the couple eloped to Scotland. Whether that's true or not, I don't know. What is certainly true is that they married in Marylebone, London, in 1889, his new wife's name given as Marie or Maria. It is certainly true that they lived for some time in Scotland after their marriage, living on "nothing at all up in that lonely Highland glen," living on a £50 loan from Alfred Harmsworth and writing Convict 99 .

What prompted this digging was a query about when Marie Connor Leighton was born and I have to admit that I'm still not certain. Most sources give her year of birth as 1869 and her place of birth as Clifton, Gloucestershire. Who's Who, although it gives no year of birth, reveals that she was the daughter of James Nenon Connor; this information also appears in her entry in The Author's and Writer's Who's Who, where her parents are given as Capt. James Nenon Connor, 87th Foot, and Elizabeth (Trelawney) Connor.

Who's Who lists her date of death on 28 January 1941 and a quick check in death records shows that her death certificate recorded her age at death as 75, which would mean she was born in 1865... or to be a little more precise, between 29 January 1865 and 28 January 1866. So 90% certain that she was born in 1865. Odds I'd normally take.

James Nenon A. Connor's death is registered in Mutford, Suffolk, in 1897, aged 62. Thus born around 1834/35. Two marriages are also registered for James Nenon Connor:

(1) Clifton Church, Clifton, Gloucestershire, 26 February 1857 to Eliza Jones, the daughter of James Allan Jones, a solicitor based in Bristol, and his wife, Charlotte Lucy, who had eight children. Eliza died in 2Q 1864.
(2) Kensington, London, 1869 to Elizabeth Ann Harris

James Nenon Connor was a soldier with the 87th (Royal Irish Fusiliers) Regiment of Foot, described as "an extravagant army officer of Irish family". I've been unable to discover anything about his army career but his life was briefly described by his granddaughter, Clare Leighton, in her book Tempestuous Petticoat, as "a dramatically alternating pattern of poverty and riches. Whenever a wealthy relative died and left them some money, my mother and her parents moved to Maidenhead, a romantic, fashionable little place up the Thames, which was notorious for illicit honeymoons. There Grandpapa indulged his extravagant taste for sailing and horses until the legacy had been used up, and so many debts contracted that it was necessary to flee. And then, in the intervals between deaths, the family retired to a miniature house in St. John's Wood, where my dandified, Thackery-like grandpapa washed the dishes and avoided contact with his creditors." She names her grandpapa as James Valentine Nenon Connor, although this would appear to be in error and reveals that his father had been Governor of Jamaica and had grown up in the West Indies, a fact I've been unable to confirm.

Grandpapa was an "impecunious aristocrat" and ran up enormous debts, a fact kept hidden from the world. "Grandpapa [would take] the Blue Atlas from outside the Eyre Arms public house in St. John's Wood, when he had been going into the "West-end," yet he would leave this omnibus about two blocks before he reached his club and, hailing a hansom, arrive before the doors in grand style, where he could have been observed tipping the cabby."

Grandmama would appear to have died the year before King Edward, who died in May 1910. Grandmama "was a Trelawny. She had a dark, Celtic beauty which, though striking, was yet less unusual than her daughter's, with the straw-coloured hair that my mother tossed around so wildly, like a lion's mane." Grandmama had a sister, Pollie, "who never seemed to have had any romance."

Pollie was the nickname often given to Mary, and here we have a clue to the identity of James Connor's second wife as Elizabeth A. Connor, a 52-year-old widow, who can be found living in Hampstead in the 1901 census with her 41-year-old sister, Mary A. Trelawney. Elizabeth was born in Helston, Cornwall, and Pollie in Camborne, Cornwall.

We can then work backwards to discover more about the family. In 1891 they were living at 2 Loudoun Road, Marylebone, the family listed as John Connor (44), a retired Army Captain, born on voyage to the West Indies, Elizabeth Connor (37) born in Redruth, Cornwall, Valentine Connor, 15, a scholar, and Mary Trelawney (26), born in Redruth, Cornwall. In 1881, at the same address, we find James Connor (38), now listed as formerly a Corporal in the Army, born in Brislington, Gloucestershire, his wife Elizabeth (35) and son Valentine (5). [[It is not unusual for places of birth to differ between census records. Nor ages!]]

In 1871, we find Jas. T. Conner (37) living with his wife Elizabeth (26) at Marlow Road, Maidenhead, with son Alexander (3 weeks old), born in Berkshire, and Elizabeth's sister, Mary Ann Trelawney (19). Alexander was registered as Valentine Nenon Connor in Cookham, Berkshire, in 2Q 1871. This was the second child to carry the name: Nenon Valentine Alexander Connor, born in 2Q 1869 in Brentford, Middlesex, died within a matter of months, buried in July 1869 at St. Mary's, Ealing. Sadly, Valentine Nenon Connor also died an infant. Thankfully, the third Valentine Nenon Connor, whose birth was registered in Marylebone, London, in 2Q 1875, survived. Registered as Valentine Alexander Connor, he was married in Hampstead in 1898 to Nora Blanch Guttenburg; subsequently, and now registered as Valentine Alexander Nenon Connor, he had a child with Florence Mary Steele, Nenon James Connor, born in York, Ontario, Canada, on 22 December 1908, who died whilst serving with the Canadian military on 1 January 1945.

The Jamaica connection established in the 1871 census confirms that James Nenon Connor was born around 1835. In 1851 he was 16 years old and living in Hackney with his mother, Marie Lambert (37), born in Canada, whose husband at the time was abroad. Siblings included Phebe (sic) Connor (18), born in Brislington, Gloucestershire, and Marie E. Lambert (1), born in Tottenham. By 1861, mother Marie (43), described as a land-owner's wife, was living with Marie E. (10), Lydney (8) and Alice J. Lambert (6) in Clevedon, Somerset. The latter two were born in Cork, Ireland.

Phoebe (as it is more correctly spelled) was the daughter of Captain Nenon Alexander Connor, formerly of H.M. 71st Regiment, granddaughter of the Edward Connor, Esq. of the War Office, Dublin Castle, and maternal granddaughter of the last Count Brunet-dit-Dauphinay. She was married on 24 June 1853 to John Trimmer, Assistant Commissary-General, at Monkstown, near Dublin.

Nenon Alexander Connor, also James Nenon Connor's father, was the Stipendiary Magistrate of the island of Jamaica. He died at Kingston, Jamaica, on 8 February 1836.

We're now building up quite a family tree... but still no sign of the one person we're looking for.

Marie Connor was born in early February, according to her daughter.

However, a search of births registered in Clifton for the surname Connor turns up only a handful of names for the years following the 1857 marriage of James Nenon Connor and only one that looks to be the likely birth of Maria Connor, namely Mary Ann Connor, born in 1862. Unfortunately, this turns out to be a red herring as Mary Ann Connor was baptized on 4 May of that year and records show her father to be Joseph Connor and her mother Mary Ann Vickery.

Then there's the British Library Catalogue, which lists Marie Connor's full name as Marie Flora Barbara Connor, afterwards Leighton. Where the middle names came from I have no idea. There's certainly no sign of middle names on either her marriage or death record.

So I'm stumped.

Marie Connor was educated at Marquise, in the Pas-de-Calais district of Northern France, and at Tunbridge Wells. Tempestuous Petticoat reveals that Marie told the story of how she had her first "love affair" with a window cleaner (married with eight children) at the age of 10; their passion discovered there was a terrible row: "The poor window cleaner was threatened with the law, and my parents sent me off to a convent in Northern France. They thought I'd be safe there, but actually I proceeded to fall in love at one and the same time with the Mother Superior and the priest, and ended up by becoming a devout Catholic." Something in her letters alerted her parents and she was brought back to England.

She had "short stays" at an unfashionable "finishing school" in Tunbridge Wells, but was taken out of school when funds were low and allowed to do as she pleased at home. "Her parents had no interest in her education. Although they liked her to associate with these diplomats' daughters, they sent her to school chiefly in order to keep her out of mischief, in the same way that she had been dispatched to a convent in France." The school, run by Miss Fanny Dothie, was called The Elms.

"Her Trelawny mother and her Irish father had little interest in her. Left to her own devices, she had devoted her time to writing. When she was only just able to form her letters she saved her pocket money for many weeks, and with this accumulated wealth bought a large supply of paper, pens and ink. Little Pattie, as her parents called her, was always a quiet child, and so nobody wondered what kept her satisfactorily occupied in her bedroom all the day long. But a few months later they discovered, for someone from a London publishing house came to visit her. It seems she was copying an entire novel by Mrs. Henry Wood, word for word, and sending it to the publisher as her own. The trick was found out, but the publisher was so puzzled by the childish handwriting that he took the trouble to come and see what sort of person had undertaken such an absurd labour...

"On her return from the French convent, she fell in love with Wilson Barrett, a well-known actor of those days, and he became the inspiration for her poems. She was also stage-struck. This caused many family tussles. Finally her parents decided that the only thing to cure her would be a short time on the stage, in order that she might see how glamourless it was. And so, when she was about fifteen, Wilson Barrett took her on tour. She was chaperoned and accompanied by her self-sacrificing Aunt Pollie..."

The tour cured her of her of any ambitions to take to the stage. "I found no romance anywhere--only hard work and the tiredness of everybody," her daughter quoted her as saying, although she remained in contact with Wilson Barrett, even during his trips to America. On her return home she informed her family that she had made up her mind to write books. She had her first novel published in 1884. The rest, as they say, is literary history.

The Leightons had three surviving children (their first child was accidentally smothered by a nurse in infancy):
  • Roland Aubrey Leighton, born 27 March 1895, who died in WWI. A comprehensive biographical sketch can be found here. He was the fiancĂ© of Vera Brittain and one of the subjects of her most famous book, Testament of Youth.
  • Clare Marie Veronica Leighton, born 12 April 1898, who became an artist and moved to America; she died in 1989. An interesting article about her family background by David Leighton can be found here.
  • Evelyn Ivor Robert Leighton, born 31 May 1901, who served with the Royal Navy and died in Bullingdon, Oxfordshire, in 1969
All three children were born at Vallombrosa, 40 Abbey Road, St. John's Wood, London. Summer's were spent at a house in Lowestoft; many years later they moved fully to Lowestoft to Heather Cliff, but financial problems led to another move to a rented cottage at Keymer, Massocks, Sussex. After the war they returned to St. John's Wood and then to The Garth, Crescent Road, Bishops Stortford, Herts.

Robert Leighton died on 11 May 1934, aged 75. Marie Connor Leighton died in hospital at Aylesbury, Buckinghamshire, on 28 January 1941.

Of her birth I can still find no record. However, there is perhaps a vital clue in Clare Leighton's account of her mother, Tempestuous Petticoat, which mentions in passing that Aunt Pollie [Mary Trelawny] later moved to Canada to live with Marie Connor Leighton's half-brother in Toronto. Presumably this would be Valentine Alexander Nenon Connor, known to have moved to Canada.

The term "half-brother" implies that she was either born during James Nenon Connor's first marriage to Eliza Jones (1857-64), or was, perhaps the daughter of Elizabeth Ann Trelawny, who's marriage to James Nenon Connor was registered under the name Elizabeth Ann Harris. I've yet to find a marriage of a Trelawny to Harris and have no idea if this resulted in any children.

Update: 14 August 2010

A minor update: I've managed to track down some information on Marie Connor Leighton's mother. The clue—for which I have to thank Gerald Lambert, who is distantly related to Marie—came from the marriage certificate of James Connor and Elizabeth Ann Harris, which lists her as a 24-year-old widow. It also lists her father's name, William Treglown, and his occupation, civil engineer. Enough to establish that Elizabeth Ann Treglown was born in Cambourne, Cornwall, or possibly nearby Wendron, in 1841. She can be found living with her parents William and Mary Ann Treglown in both the 1851 census and 1861 (as Treglowan). In the latter, her younger sister, Mary, also appears, aged 10. Presumably, as there is still no sign of a certificate, Elizabeth Ann married someone called Harris between 1861-69 and, in that same period, had a daughter and was widowed—I'm still convinced that Marie Connor Leighton was born in February 1865, which means she was possibly born Maria Harris, or perhaps Mary Ann Harris, or something similar.

Beauty's Queen. London, F. V. White & Co., 3 vols., 1884.
A Morganatic Marriage. London, F. V. White & Co., 3 vols., 1885.
Two Black Pearls. London, F. V. White & Co., 3 vols., 1886.
Sweet Magdalen. London, F. V. White & Co., 3 vols., 1887.
Husband and Wife. London, F. V. White & Co., 3 vols., 1888.
The Triumph of Manhood. London, Chapman & Hall, 3 vols., 1889.
The Lady of Balmerino. London, Trischler & Co., 3 vols., 1891.
The Heart's Awakening. London, Chapman & Hall, 3 vols., 1893.
The Red-Painted Box. Being the narrative of a curious experience in the life of the Reverend Mark Bessemer. London, John Macqueen, 1897.
Convict 99. A true story of penal servitude, with Robert Leighton, illus. Stanley L. Wood. London, Grant Richards, 1898; New York, Brentano's, 1900; abridged, London, Mellifont Press, 1935.
The Harvest of Sin. London, James Bowden, 1898.
Michael Dred, Detective, with Robert Leighton. London, Grant Richards, 1899; New York, Arno Press, 1976; as Who Killed Lord Luxmore?, London, C. Arthur Pearson, 1929.
A Napoleon of the Press. London, Hodder & Stoughton, 1900.
In the Shadow of Guilt, with Robert Leighton, illus. F. C. Luckhurst. London, Grant Richards, 1901.
In God's Good Time. London, Grant Richards, 1903.
The Amazing Verdict. London, Grant Richards, 1904.
Sealed Lips, illus. Harold Piffard. London, Ward, Lock & Co., 1906.
Her Ladyship's Silence. London, Cassell & Co., 1907.
Put Yourself in Her Place. London, Ward, Lock & Co., 1908.
"Money". London & Melbourne, Ward, Lock & Co., 1909.
Deep Waters. London, Ward, Lock & Co., 1909.
An Eye for an Eye. London, Ward, Lock & Co., 1909.
Convict 413L. London, Ward, Lock & Co., 1910.
Joan Mar, Detective. London, Ward, Lock & Co., 1910.
Justice! London, Ward, Lock & Co., 1910.
The Bride of Dutton Market. London, Ward, Lock & Co., 1911.
Builders of Ships. London, Ward, Lock & Co., 1911.
Greed. London, Ward, Lock & Co., 1911.
Her Marriage Lines. London, Ward, Lock & Co., 1912.
The Missing Miss Randolph. London, Ward, Lock & Co., 1912.
The Triangle. London, Ward, Lock & Co., 1912.
Black Silence. London, Ward, Lock & Co., 1913.
Ducks and Drakes. London, Ward, Lock & Co., 1913.
Her Convict Husband. London, Ward, Lock & Co., 1913.
Geraldine WaltonWoman! London, Ward, Lock & Co., 1914.
The Silver Stair. London, Ward, Lock & Co., 1914.
Under the Broad Arrow. London, Hodder & Stoughton, 1914.
The Way of Sinners. London, Ward, Lock & Co., 1914.
The Fires of Love. London, Ward, Lock & Co., 1915.
The Gates of Sorrow. London, Ward, Lock & Co., 1915.
Dark Peril. London, Hodder & Stoughton, 1916.
Human Nature. London, Ward, Lock & Co., 1916.
In the Grip of a Lie. London, John Long, 1916.
The Man Who Knew All. London, John Long, 1916.
A Marked Woman. London, Hodder & Stoughton, 1916.
The Mystery of Three Fingers. London, John Long, 1916.
The Story of a Great Sin. London, Ward, Lock & Co., 1916.
Every Man Has His Price. London, Ward, Lock & Co., 1917.
The Shame of Silence. London, John Long, 1917.
Vengeance is Mine. London, Ward, Lock & Co., 1917.
The Duchess Grace. London, Ward, Lock & Co., 1918.
Guilty or Innocent? London, Ward, Lock & Co., 1918.
The Hand of the Unseen. London, Ward, Lock & Co., 1918.
Hidden Hands. London, George Newnes, 1918.
Lucile Dare, Detective. London, Ward, Lock & Co., 1919.
Red Gold. London, Ward, Lock & Co., 1919.
Convict 100. London & Melbourne, Ward, Lock & Co., 1920.
The Girl of the Yellow Diamonds. London, C. Arthur Pearson, 1920.
The Opal Heart. London & Melbourne, Ward, Lock & Co., 1920.
Her Fate and His. London & Melbourne, Ward, Lock & Co., 1921.
The Silent Clue. London & Melbourne, Ward, Lock & Co., 1921.
The Stolen Honeymoon. London, Odhams Press, 1921.
For Love or Money. London & Melbourne, Ward, Lock & Co., 1922.
Was She Worth It?. London, Aldine Publishing Co., (Mascot Novels 183), 1922.
The Torry Diamonds Mystery. London, C. Arthur Pearson, 1930.
The Woman Bars the Way. London, Gramol Publications (Adelphi Novels 27), 1933.
The Money Spider. London, Mellifont Press, 1936.
In the Plotter's Web. London, Mellifont Press, 1937.
The Silence of Dr. Duveen. London, Mellifont Press, 1937.

Non-fiction (published anonymously)
Boy of my Heart. London, Hodder & Stoughton, 1916.
The Baked Bread (by the author of 'Boy of my Heart'). London, Hodder & Stoughton, 1917.
Letters of an Expectant Grandmother (by the author of 'Boy of my Heart'). London, Hodder & Stoughton, 1918.

Verses of a V.A.D. by Vera M. Brittain, foreword by Marie Connor Leighton. London, Erskine Macdonald, 1918.

(* Quotes are taken from Tempestuous Petticoat. The story of an invincible Edwardian by Clare Leighton.)


  1. Some of the titles look tempting, but for books almost twice as old as I am (well, maybe one and a half times), a chapter or two is usually all I need for me to know if I'll ever finish it or not.

    No matter. I have to give her a try, don't I?

    --- Steve

  2. Browsing through her books as offered for sale online, I found the following interesting comments:

    Wolff notes: "Before she was married to Leighton, Marie Connor wrote a number of sensational three-deckers . . . . After their marriage, she continued to write, sometimes alone and sometimes in partnership with him . . . . Leighton, who was on the staff of the 'Daily Mail' (where he could intercept reviews of his and his wife's works that he found unsatisfactory), died in 1934."


    "This is the first detective novel written by a husband-and-wife team, and the first detective novel in which the detective himself is the murderer."

    I don't know if any of these assertions are true, but if so, then certainly the last two make the Leightons of more than passing interest.

    --- Steve

  3. Fascinating article on Marie Leighton. One of the books listed isn't a novel - "Boy of my heart". This was published anonymously in 1916 and is a short biography of her son Roland. I read it years ago and it was very sentimental, but perhaps very much of its time!

  4. Cochranegirl,

    You're right, of course... I've now located a copy of Boy of my Heart and it's an incredibly sentimental and gushing biography of her son, Roland, in which everyone runs around saying things like "This boy has the stuff of kings in him," or words to that effect. His poor younger sister is nicknamed The Bystander, which seems awfully insulting.

    The other two anonymous volumes also look like non-fiction, so I've moved them into their own category.

  5. Fantastic research! I've been reading Tempestuous Petticoat, which forms a striking contrast with Testament of Youth. If Vera Brittain actually had become Marie Connor Leighton's daughter-in-law there might have been war indeed!

    It is so difficult to discover any information about Marie, I was delighted to come upon your excellent article. Thank you.

    Diana Birchall

  6. Fascinating stuff, thanks. My g-gf-was the son of Ellen Armstrong (Mason) whose Aunt Margaret Armstrong 1764-1818 was older sister of Ellen's father General Alexander Armstrong. Much information on this family can be found in 'Descendants of Lt. Nenon Armstrong, R.I.A.'online. My gt-gf. went to Uppingham School alongside 2 Armstrong first cousins. Roland Leighton 1895-1915 went there too but in the next generation. Meanwhile the Bishop of Peterborough and later Archb. of York, William Connor Magee 1821-1891 was another Armstrong descendant. The Edward Connor you mention was married to Lt. Nenon Armstrong's daughter Margaret.

  7. Great research. I have the Ward Lock archive and I have a romance called the story of a great sin published under her name. I wonder what title it was taken from?



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