Matt Houlbrook: mobile historian; beard growing, head shaving; occasional cycling.
In April 1930 the 19 year-old typist Hilda Lewis was prosecuted for stealing from her employers, the publishers Messrs Baines and Scarbrook, after “masquerade[ing] … as the millionaire heiress of a wealthy Indian tea planter” for eighteen months. During this time she convinced her sweetheart, the young clerk Bernard Sheker, that he was “courting a girl who was far above his station in life — a society woman.” Visiting Bernard’s family home in Stoke Newington, Hilda “produced expensive photographs purporting to show the interior of her luxuriously furnished house” in Mayfair; she gave his mother “costly flowers” and “appeared in evening dress,” suggesting that she “had just managed to slip away from some smart party.”
Echoing the minutiae of newspaper gossip columns, Hilda’s long letters to her Bernard “describ[ed] her imaginary society life” — Mayfair’s “marriage market,” scandalous social climbers, and “monotonous empty days” endured with a “sort of spiritless patience.” Exploring the difficulties of their romance across class lines, she noted: “We must stick it and get through: to part would be no remedy, whatever” — bringing emotional torment which, despite her external trappings of wealth, would mean “in reality I would be a beggar.” Instead she envisaged a future in which they would be “perfectly united, sharing the same hopes and aims and desires, enjoying the same sunshine and weathering the same storms.” This was, she ended, a “vision of happiness which fills me with joy.”
We have this privileged access to Hilda’s aspirations and dreams because she was arrested for stealing £138, and because her letters were read out in court when she appeared in the daunting surroundings of the County of London Sessions. The prosecution linked Hilda’s deceptions to her consumption of novels by Muriel Hine, John Galsworthy, and Marie Corelli. Dr Morton, Medical Officer at Holloway Prison, described “his similar experiences of this sort of thing:” “Girls wrote most extraordinarily fantastic stories of things they were supposed to have done although they were not actually taken from books as in this case.” He described Hilda as “perfectly normal mentally,” but Morton’s very presence indicates how the pleasures of dreaming and the imagination could be pathologized and dismissed in the 1920s and 1930s.
In the Daily Mail, by contrast, the columnist Beverley Nichols attacked those who were “convulsed with laughter” when Hilda’s letters were read out. In court Hilda appeared physically and emotionally overwhelmed by her position in the dock, her “agony” compounded by the humiliation she was forced to endure in the “pillory” of public opinion. In a coruscating article, Nichols argued: “the laughter ought not to have been allowed, ought not even to have been possible.” He recognised that the letters “were evidently absurd,” but demanded a “spark of imagination” from readers—empathy rather than “unpleasant” cruelty.
[Hilda] had written these letters in some shabby, stuffy little room. They were love letters. As she wrote them something very strange happened… She began to believe the impossible. The shabby little room slowly changed, broadened out, was lit by soft lights. She herself, this girl whom a casual reporter dismissed as ‘pale and slightly built’, became desirable and lovely. There is something royal about all women in love, and this royalty descended upon her. It was a rococo royalty—the crown was crocked, the jewels were paste, the sceptre was not hers by right—yet, in those few enchanted hours she lived.
As a young journalist, Nichols had reported sympathetically on the case of Edith Thompson and Freddy Bywaters — a moment at which the dangers of fantasy and reading cheap fiction became central to one of the most notorious murder trials of the 1920s. Here, again, he argued that reading and writing enabled an understandable desire to “escape” a “shabby” existence into an “enchanted” dream world. Nichols’ emphasis on escapism echoed the interpretive categories deployed by hostile observers. Yet he went further. Placing Hilda’s desires within everyday conditions of life and labour in a north London neighborhood, Nichols sought to understand her behavior and make sense of the complex ways in which ordinary women and men engaged with the cultural worlds they inhabited. Hilda’s only sin was stealing in order to turn her fantasy life into reality. “Cruelty,” Nichols concluded, “plays an unpleasantly important part in the psychology of modern laughter.”