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Adeline Sergeant

(1851—1904) novelist


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(1851–1904). Born at Ashbourne in Derbyshire, she was the daughter of a Methodist minister. Her mother, born Jane Hall, published wholesome tales for youngsters under the pseudonym ‘Adeline’ (which Emily herself later adopted). She went to school in Weston-super-Mare before attending Laleham School in Clapham, south London, and Queen's College, Harley Street, graduating with first-class honours. Sergeant began work as a governess to support herself and wrote novels in her free time. By 1884 her novels were successful enough to allow her wholly to devote herself to a literary career. Sergeant lived in Dundee from 1885 to 1887, working for the People's Friend. In the late 1880s she became interested in Fabianism and the plight of London's poor. Her output was truly prodigious—as many as seven publications a year (the first of which was a volume of verse published at 15). Esther Dennison (1889) describes the loneliness of the single working woman in London. The Story of a Penitent Soul (1892) is a novel written in journal form which reveals the miserable life of a discontented churchman. The Work of Oliver Byrd (1902) concerns two rivals for the affections of a young editor: the well-to-do Eleanor Denbigh, who takes up writing as a hobby but becomes increasingly preoccupied with the London poor, and Avis Rignold, talented and impoverished, who publishes under the male pseudonym of ‘Oliver Byrd’. The devices of conventional domestic melodrama (poison phial, burnt manuscript) are used to highlight the conflicting demands made on women, and the difficulties of independence. Sergeant's subsequent fiction tends to assemble odd families, or odd surrogate families: Beneath the Veil (1903) features an orphaned girl living in an isolated grange with her worldly, scheming half-sister; Accused and Accuser (1904) concerns an heiress, Nina Davenant, her companion, Miss Eleanor West, and her elderly guardian, Dr Kelvedon; in The Coming of the Randolphs (1906) Colonel Underwood, who already has a son and daughter by a previous marriage, takes on a new wife and her large family. Although none of her novels has stood the test of time, the best display the skills of a solid professional writer; her portrayal of provincial middle-class life is worthy of note. For many years Sergeant acted as fiction adviser for R. Bentley & Sons. She converted to Catholicism at the turn of the century, and died in Bournemouth. Her obituary in the Times (6 Dec. 1904) emphasizes her favouring of quantity over quality: ‘[She] would have made a greater reputation, and have left a more considered name in English fiction had she lived before the days of stenographers and typewriters.’

From The Oxford Companion to Edwardian Fiction in Oxford Reference.

Subjects: Literature.


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