This obituary of an inspirational woman was published in The Times in August 2010
Verily Anderson – Author of children’s books, histories and family biography and doughty widow who brought up five children on a shoestring
Verily Anderson was one of that breed of English lady authors whose writing received respectful attention for more than half a century. “She can write what might seem a sustained tall story,” wrote Elizabeth Bowen, “and at the same time make it convincing; at times grimly so.” She wrote initially because she loved to write, then to keep her large family when widowed. But even in old age, the books — family biography, history and children’s stories — kept rolling out.
Fame, which she enjoyed briefly, was not the point for her. She was content to keep productive, preferably in the hours of 2-4am. Last week, on the day before she died, she completed the manuscript of her final book.
Verily Bruce was born in 1915 in Edgbaston, Birmingham, the fourth of five children of the Rev Rosslyn Bruce, and grew up in East Sussex where her father was rector of Herstmonceux. She attended Normanhurst School in Sussex, where foxhunting was on the curriculum even if a girl didn’t own a horse. She learnt to read music at 4, and could play the violin while riding a bicycle. At 16 she was accepted at the Royal College of Music. But after two years, when it became clear that she would never make a concert pianist, her father stopped paying her fees. Instead, she took various jobs for which her badges as an enthusiastic Girl Guide were her qualifications: designer of toffee-papers, chauffeur, motor mechanic and writer of advertising copy. When she set up a Brownie pack, she made uniforms out of brown curtains, and used old horse reins for belts.
At the outbreak of war in 1939 she was a sub-editor on the Girl Guides’ magazine The Guide, where she had to wear her uniform to work and even in the pub afterwards. Staff on the magazine were permitted, if time hung heavy on their hands, to get on with writing their novels.
In 1939 she enlisted with the First Aid Nursing Yeomanry (FANY) on the grounds that if there was going to be war it would be “less frightening to be in the middle of things”. She was court-martialled for driving into and demolishing a gatepost (belonging to her father’s churchwarden), but was found not guilty.
In 1940 she left the FANYs to marry Donald Anderson, a scriptwriter and playwright 18 years her senior, who had served in the 1914-18 War in Mesopotamia with the Rajputana Rifles. In the 1940s and 1950s the couple supported themselves and their five children as freelance writers; he specialising in military history, she as a reader and talent scout for Warner Bros, and as editor of The Girls’ Friendly Society journal.
Her regular radio appearances included the first Woman’s Hour in 1946, an association that continued until September 2009. She also wrote television plays. In 1954 the Andersons moved to Sussex to run a children’s holiday hotel. Their professional qualifications for childcare (apart from their own) were nil. They relied on his experience as an army officer, hers as a Sunday school teacher and Brown Owl, and on the goodwill of well-connected friends in politics and the arts.
In 1956 Donald Anderson died, leaving her with five children aged from 3 to 15. Verily wrote with increased vigour, while continuing to run the holiday hotel. Her third book, Beware of the Children, was about a holiday home for children whose wealthy parents were abroad. The young residents included an Arab sheikh’s shoplifting sons, a boy ballet dancer with homicidal tendencies, and a budding arsonist. The story was turned into the film No Kidding, produced by the Carry On team, with Leslie Phillips playing Captain Anderson, Geraldine McEwan playing Verily and Joan Hickson as the drunken matron.
Anderson wrote altogether six autobiographical books about the delights of bringing up five children on a shoestring. Of the first, Spam Tomorrow (1957), Elizabeth Bowen wrote: “This is a genuinely bizarre book … Verily Anderson has had the good idea of writing about a new kind of wartime experience — new, that is, to literature; the job of marrying and having babies.” The copy in the Imperial War Museum has been used by writers such as Sarah Waters, Juliet Gardner and Virginia Nicholson as an authentic account of young married life in wartime London. The optimism of her writing, overriding any domestic disaster or genuine wartime tragedy, made her books particularly popular with readers going through their own misfortunes — the hospitalised, the bereaved, the widowed.
After her husband’s death she moved with her children to London where they lived in the studio of Anderson’s aunt Kathleen, the sculptor and widow of Captain R. F. Scott (of the Antarctic). The house was full of paints, paper, fabric and typewriters, and the children were encouraged to find their creativity: four of the five became writers. Her ten books about the adventures of a Brownie pack, from The Brownies and the Ponies (1965) to The Brownies’ Day Abroad (1984), were considered by the Girl Guide Association to be too exciting for it to endorse them.
Janet Adam-Smith, reviewing her book about her father, The Last of the Eccentrics, wrote: “Verily Anderson goes to her work with zest, combining daughterly affection with humorous detachment.”
Anderson’s friendship with Joyce Grenfell proved important. In 1951 Grenfell was appearing in Penny Plain at the St Martin’s Theatre when Anderson came to interview her. “Such a nice plump young woman,” wrote Grenfell in her diary, “with three young children and a fourth impending. She is a vicar’s daughter and refreshingly simple and nice.” In Verily Anderson’s widowhood Grenfell became a loyal benefactress, visiting her when she was in hospital, delivering goulash to the children’s doorstep, scrubbing out the kitchen, helping out financially and donating cast-off couture clothes.
In 1965 Grenfell offered to buy Anderson a home of her own in Norfolk, and found “Sally Bean’s Cottage”, near Cromer. Here Anderson wrote The Northrepps Grandchildren, inspired by Northrepps Hall, a large manor house near by, occupied by the same family for more than eight generations. The house was the centre of the Buxton, Barclay and Gurney families, from all of which Anderson was descended, including Thomas Fowell Buxton the slavery abolitionist, and Elizabeth Fry, the social reformer, who was Anderson’s great-great aunt. Her account gave a picture of family life at the house through the eyes of the children who grew up there. The book is still in print after 42 years.
In Norfolk she met her neighbour and third cousin, the architect Paul Paget, who was Surveyor of St Paul’s Cathedral, an amiable bachelor of 71 who had shared a home in Cloth Fair with his partner Lord Mottistone. They were married in 1971, the bride wearing a dress borrowed from Joyce Grenfell, with Grenfell as matron of honour and Sir John Betjeman as best man.
She was widowed for a second time in 1985, but retained her huge sense of humour and her love of throwing parties, whether things were going well or badly. She could make one chicken feed 25 people (“plenty of aspic is the trick”) and when times were tough would make punch from oranges and tea. The result was often a commission for another book or article. (She met her first literary agent, Joyce Weiner, at the christening of one of her daughters.) In 1992 she wrote a book on the Earl of Oxford as the true author of many of Shakespeare’s plays. It was optioned for a film, and resulted in a trip to Hollywood, but was sidelined when Shakespeare in Love was made instead.
For her 90th birthday party she didn’t want a sedate birthday tea but a proper dance. Grandchildren provided live music and great-grandchildren welcomed 140 relations, aged from 12 months to 104 years. She was still dancing to the jazz band at 2am. The morning after, she went riding, for the first time in 20 years.
By 2007 Anderson had begun to lose her sight and with her customary optimism undertook the rigorous training needed to host a guide dog. In the Society of Authors journal The Author she wrote a feature in which she wondered how Milton might have adapted to having a guide dog.
The day before she died she finished correcting the proofs of her latest history book, about Herstmonceux Castle in Sussex.
She is survived by her five children, who include the authors Rachel Anderson and Janie Hampton.
Verily Anderson, author, was born on January 12, 1915. She died on July 16, 2010, aged 95