Constance Savery and her Family CWS

At the Vicarage, everyone read...

Savery sisters, 1906 Approximately one hundred years ago four of the Savery sisters posed for a seaside snapshot. Their father, Rev. John Manly Savery, had exchanged livings about that time, leaving the flowering countryside of Froxfield in Wiltshire for a Birmingham parish, where there was a sooty garden, but better schools and, presumably, an extra shilling or two at month's end. Even so, times were hard, and the oldest daughter, Winifred, wrote an unpublished account of how the fire was set ablaze in the hearth and the girls dressed in church finery for a visit from the bishop's wife. When the visitor sent word that she would not be there, the fire was raked out to save coal, the Sunday dresses were hung up again, and a special treat--oranges to be sucked through sugar cubes--was distributed. Inevitably, the distinguished visitor arrived after all to be greeted by sticky girls in a chilly parlour.

As Winifred was growing up, her mother Connie told her children stories about her own parents and about her childhood in India. Some of these stories were appended to Savery's work diary when she donated it to the University of Oregon in 1973, and others were written out for her goddaughter years later. These are described with the Savery manuscripts, which provide a vivid portrait of Constance Eleanor Harbord Savery. Plaque honoring Mrs. Savery Many years later Winifred wrote:
My mother died suddenly of a heart attack in 1925. In three years she had made herself so well loved by the parishioners that they subscribed to a memorial now in the church, a bronze by Frank Taubman. She was an evangelist by nature, whereas my father was essentially a pastor. During her short ministry she was the leader of a flourishing women's Bible Class and played a very active part in the erection of a church room... [she] organized services of Song that proved very popular during her lifetime and afterwards.
Constance Winifred Savery (1897-1999) was Winifred at home, but Constance on the covers of over fifty books, beginning with Forbidden Doors in 1929 and ending with Emma in 1980. Her first published story was printed in 1913 and her last poem in 1993. What she considered her best novel, The Memoirs of Jack Chelwood, appeared posthumously in a private printing in 2004. She incorporated into Jack a three-line chant that she wrote when she was only eight, so that something she wrote in every decade of the 20th century was published eventually. Her best work was done for Longmans, Green & Co. Enemy Brothers in the 1940's, but Emma, a novel-length completion of a short fragment by Charlotte Bronte, is on the shelves of more libraries. She also wrote a great many 'books with wings' for Lutterworth Press, especially, and these are easily available from used book dealers. Her books are distinguished by excellent dialogue, lively believable children, and endings that favour reconciliation over retribution. She had the novel talent of making good people interesting, especially in Green Emeralds for the King (1938), Enemy Brothers (1943) and Blue Fields (1947). She frequently incorporated twins--and, several times, triplets--into her stories, explaining to a correspondent
... it is often more convenient in a story to have characters of the same age, rather than those with a big gap between their ages. I had a cousin who was six weeks my junior, and I looked down on her from a measureless height of superiority.
For further information about Winifred, see her Life

Christine Charlotte Alexandra Savery was born on June 22, 1902, and died in September of 1997. She was not as prolific an author as Winifred. Her second book, The Raven Flew North (1950) for Stirling, I mention particularly so that I can quote from the publisher's flyleaf: "Parents are advised, when giving their children this book, to arrange beforehand a definite understanding as to what constitutes a reasonable bedtime hour." The Raven Flew North She, too, wrote 'books with a message' for Lutterworth, including Aircraftman Poke (1958), The Far-Farers (1960), Camp Robber (1962), Journey with Mark (1965), and The Siege of Blackbrae (1971), which were intended for 12 to 16-year-old boys and signed 'Chris Savery.' Not a stay-at-home author, Christine, together with her older sister Irene, worked with the Sandes Soldiers and Airmen's Centres, which provide a Christian atmosphere for off-duty servicemen. Before you conjure up a picture of austere old maids serving tea, you should know that that the sisters were on duty in France and evacuated with the troops from Dunkirk! Both later received the M.B.E. for their service, Christine in 1953 and Irene in 1957. The LONDON GAZETTE (30 Dec. 1952, p. 20) identifies Christine as Honorary Superintendent, Sandes Home, Royal Air Force, Mildenhall.

Irene Edith Savery was born on May 7, 1899. Like Christine, she inherited her mother's evangelical fervour and, as previously noted, followed it across the world. She was, according to Winifred, "...able to write, but choose not to." She did receive a one-pound prize in 1959 for an article entitled Unfair to Tommy. On April 7, 1960, Winifred wrote in her work diary, "Irene died, carissima, carissima." Irene was the first of the sisters to go and the only one that did not live past three score and ten.

Doreen was born on October 10, 1904, and died June 2, 1984. Like Irene and Christine, she was committed to Christian service, taught in Christian schools, was an enthusiastic leader in the Girl Guides, and went to western Canada as a Christian leader in the Caravan Mission. Sorrel's Secret She wrote a best-selling Christian novel for Victory Press, Sorrel's Secret (1960), which is still pleasant reading and easily obtained used. Another Victory book, Colour-Blind (1956), is a simple love story set in Switzerland. Writing for Victory Press presented some difficulties. They printed these instructions for prospective authors:
Doreen remembered the Birmingham days with these lines that Winifred thought were undeserved:
  The Vicarage garden was sooty
  With factories all around,
  But when Winifred told her stories
  The place became holy ground.

  The noise of the busy City
  Would fade as her stories were told,
  And music stole into the garden,
  "Anemone and clarigold".

  Once.....once......upon a time
  In the Golden Age
  Winifred read us her stories,
  Page after thrilling page.

  And year after year she has written
  Giving joy to thousands untold,
  Guiding and helping and showing
  The way to "The City of Gold".
Birmingham photo of sisters

The Vicarage sisters, left to right: 

Winifred, Christine, Irene, Doreen, and Phyllis 
(Peter, Brown Bunny, Tim, Ging, and Pems) 

Winifred's characters preached by example, and she went to considerable lengths to keep them from sounding like cardboard Sunday School teachers. Doreen, her mother's child, allowed her characters to preach a little, although not tiresomely, about their faith.

Phyllis Evelyn Mary Savery (1901-1978) was in poor health throughout a long life. Savery recalls that as early as 1925 "Phyllis, who was very delicate (rheumatism and heart trouble), was not working." A typical entry in Winifred's diary reads: "Jan. 18--about Feb. 17 [1957]. Phyl ill--influenza and laryngitis. Again very difficult to work." Winifred, in addition to nursing Phyllis, often typed her many short stories and articles, which were published in a wide variety of periodicals. The diary mentions thirty-two pieces typed by Winifred between 1950 and 1965. Presumably Phyllis wrote others. Here, as a sample, are are the titles for 1955: Daffodil Country (published?); Letters of Gold in the British Messenger; Primrose Country in the Marborough Times; Wild Trehern Moor in the Lily Library.
The Book At the Vicarage everyone read, and the sisters were taught at home prior to the move to Birmingham. According to Winifred's obituary, their father wrote about theology and church architecture, but the only book with his name that survives in the British Library, the Bodleian, or the shelves of used book dealers is 'The Book' and its Story (1911), left, which combines transparent credulity with contemporaneous archaeological discoveries. The Reverend John Savery was a persistent note-taker, and Winifred inherited a suitcase full of his notebooks crammed with tiny copperplate handwriting, among them a proud father's 'autobiography' of Winifred with entries such as: "16 (June)   1st began playing at peep. Cut first tooth this week."

One of Christine's letters remarked that Winifred was "still writing at age 82 and had been at it since the age of 3." At eight, she edited a family magazine by "writing in the blank spaces of a church leaflet. . . and featuring a story by Homer and Hans Christian Anderson." The full account is in Rise and Fall of a Family Magazine, published in METHODIST MAGAZINE in February of 1958. The first magazine was followed by a succession of others with contributions from her sisters and playmates. Mrs. E.C.W. Hummerstone, Winifred's goddaughter and literary heir, possesses many of these, filled with careful, clear handwriting and colourful illustrations. After her older sisters had left the vicarage, Doreen continued the tradition.

Winifred and Christine attended the King Edward VI High School for Girls in Birmingham. Winifred featured the school in two of her books, Danny and the Alabaster Box (1937) and Redhead at School (1951), and a couple of short stories, and she commemorated composer Albert Gaul, who taught there, in a 1958 article for The Times of London. Both sisters did well at King Edward's--except in mathematics-- and went on to Oxford, where Winifred graduated in 1920, the first year in which degrees were awarded to women, followed by Christine in 1924. Oxford, too, is featured in Winifred's fiction, especially an unpublished two-volume prequel and sequel to Emeralds for the King that she wrote around 1985 to amuse Doreen when she was terminally ill. This book, Haggiston Hall, along with scores of other Savery manuscripts, is in the Knight Library at the University of Oregon.

Although Doreen and Phyllis refused proposals, none of the sisters married, a partial consequence of the great number of potential husbands that were lost in the Great War. The sisters remained close, and a voluminous correspondence attests to their mutual affection. The letters retain childhood names. Longing for a brother, they responded to the fifth girl by adopting boys' nicknames. Winifred was "Peter" or "Petah," Irene was "Tim" or "Tib," Phyllis was "Phyl" or, from her initials, "Pems," Christine was "Chris" when she was not "Brown Rabbit" or some variant thereof, and Doreen was "Ging" or, even years later, "Baby." Among the letters is one from 'Wicked Xtine' at Oxford:
...I have an awful sin on my conscience. Oh Pete you never did anything really bad when you were up here but I specs you understand badness because of all the people in your stories although they aren't ever really bad & wicked but then I am not usually as wicked as sometimes...
Christine might have been wickeder. She had gone into town on a hot day with a another girl, and (gasp!) they entered a pub to purchase lemonade, which they drank outside. When they were about to return their glasses, they realised there was a proctor watching and walked off, forfeiting their deposits.

Another writer in the family was a cousin, Mysie Forsythe McFarlane (1861-1956). Signing herself M. E. Fraser, she wrote Young Sir Ralph, Madcap of the Family, The Luck of the Treherns, and Barbara in Charge. A year before she died, aged 90[?] in 1956, her book Audrey at the Grey House, was retyped and shortened by the ever-obliging Winifred.

When Winifred was 98 years old, she picked up the manuscript to The Quicksilver Chronicles, a novel which began in 1918 as a short story and had been altered to suit prospective editors for decades. No longer able to move, except in a wheelchair, her eyesight deteriorated so that she could not read either what she was writing or her previous draft, she completed a new version of her story in three manuscript books, a total of 692 pages. Her hymn on the last page is shaky, but still legible. It was a remarkable triumph of the will and a fitting climax to her career.

This web site © 2010 by Eric Schonblom. Portions of this page were previously published by Stella & Rose's Books at www.stellabooks.com/ and are reproduced here with their permission. The unpublished works of Constance Savery are reproduced with the permission of her literary heir and copyright owner, E.C.W. Hummerstone.