…Bird thou never wert,
That from Heaven, or near it,
Pourest thy full heart
In profuse strains of unpremeditated art.”
Opening stanza of “To a Skylark” (1820) by Percy Bysshe Shelley.
Julie Robinson, Local Studies Librarian, posted at Lewisham Heritage on 4 February 2019:
“Clemence Dane, pen name of Winifred Ashton (1887-1965), was a successful screen writer, playwright and novelist. She was famous (infamous?) for her novel ‘Regiment of Women’ which claimed to be a study of lesbian relationships in a school setting. But did you know that she was born in Blackheath and went to Sydenham High School? She also lived in Sydenham from 1913-1919. After the WWI she took up teaching in a girls school. She took the pseudonym ‘Clemence Dane’ from the church, St Clement Danes on the Strand, London.
‘Regiment of Women’ was published in 1917 and was widely influential in terms of social attitudes. The novel may have inspired Radclyffe Hall to write The Well of Loneliness, but it has since has been criticised for its negative portrayal of lesbian sexuality even though Clemence Dane was almost certainly a lesbian herself.
According to Britannia’s Glory: A History of Twentieth Century Lesbians Clemence Dane was probably a lesbian who went to great lengths to keep her private life private. Using documentary evidence including Dane’s will, author Diane (sic) Hamer suggests that Dane had been in a long-term relationship with Elsie Arnold who lived with her. She also writes that the relationship came to an end and that Dane then became romantically involved with another woman-Olwen Bowen-Davies.
Dane’s other writing credits include the screen play for Anna Karenina for Greta Garbo and A Bill of Divorcement staring Katharine Hepburn.
Her play Enter Sir John was adapted into a film called Murder by Alfred Hitchcock with Sir John Gielgud.
By the time she died in 1965 she had written over 30 plays and 16 novels.”
Emily Hamer writes in Britannia’s Glory: A History of Twentieth Century Lesbians (2016):
“Olwen Bowen-Davies did not pre-decease Dane and she apparently did her job well; none of Dane’s personal papers appears to have survived.
In the light of Clemence Dane’s life it seems that Regiment of Women deserves rather more critical scrutiny than it has hitherto received. It might be better to think of Regiment of Women as a complex lesbian gothic novel written, at least in part, for a lesbian audience rather than as a lesbian horror story written in order to inculcate homophobia. What it marks is the nightmare of the abuse of power rather than the nightmare of sexual intimacy between women. Whether Clemence Dane was prompted to write Regiment of Women as a result of her own experiences as a schoolgirl or as a teacher, a nightmare from which Elsie Arnold saved her, is now lost in the mists of time.”
1932 The film version of A Bill of Divorcement was released; the screenplay was by CD herself.
1964 CD’s final play, The Godson. A Fantasy, appeared the year before her death.
July 1964 CD published London Has a Garden, a history (containing personal reminiscences) of the Covent Garden area where she lived.
From: Noel Coward – a Biography (1995), by Philip Hoare:
“(1939) Jean Giraudoux, the French minister of information, would ‘take it as a personal compliment’ if Noel were to go to Paris to set up a Bureau of Propaganda, liaising with the French Commissariat d’Information…
…(Coward) flew home (from Paris) once a month, often spending his first night at Clemence Dane’s Covent Garden house, catching up on all the news.
Coward had known Dane…since the Twenties, and admired her gusto and naivety in equal measure…Her successful novels (among them Regiment of Women (1917)) often dealt with theatrical subjects, and her first play, A Bill of Divorcement, was an immense success when it opened at St Martin’s Theatre in March 1921. (On Broadway it helped establish Katharine Cornell as a star, and was filmed by George Cukor, with Katharine Hepburn playing her first film role as Sydney Fairfield.)
Dane lived above a greengrocer’s shop at 26 Tavistock Street, Covent Garden, with her Secretary, Olwen Bowen, herself a writer of children’s books, but who now devoted herself to the care of her companion…
‘…where she would give many after-the-theatre parties…’
…As a sculptor and painter, she was talented…
For Coward it was fun to arrive at Dane’s chaotic literary and artistic salon, to hear the latest gossip, and meet his old intimates. They played The Game, a sophisticated form of charades at which Coward and Joyce Carey excelled. ‘Winifred used to go mad to try and guess the Game’, Judy Campbell recalled. ‘She was a large lady, with raven locks pushed up on top of her head with tortoiseshell combs, and I have this vision of her, hair around her shoulders and combs on her lap, desperately trying to get the clues.’
It was only a matter of time before Coward used his colourful friend in one of his dramas, and sure enough she provided the inspiration for Blithe Spirit’s Madame Arcati, the unworldly psychic riding her bicycle, described as ‘a striking woman, dressed not too extravagantly but with a decided bias towards the barbaric’ (Coward’s lesbians are often dressed ‘barbarically’). ‘I had my first trance when I was four years old and my first ectoplasmic manifestation when I was five and a half’, exults Arcati. ‘What an exciting day that was! I shall never forget it. Of course the manifestation itself was quite small and of very short duration, but, for a child of my tender years, it was most gratifying.’
…(1941) Clemence Dane declined the part created for her, and it was Margaret Rutherford who perfected the dotty eccentricity of the character, a foil for the sophistication of her sceptical hosts.”