The life of Frances Vernon, whose six novels have just been reprinted by Faber Finds, makes for sad reading. Born, as Georgina Frances Vernon, on 1 December 1963, she was the daughter of John Lawrence Venables-Vernon, tenth Baron Vernon and his wife Sheila> She was brought up in Sudbury Hall, a vast Restoration mansion in Derbyshire which was later sold to the National Trust because the family could not afford the upkeep. She was sent to the village school, where she was unhappy because, living in such a grand place, she felt like the odd one out. She was clearly an exceptional child, very creative but also often restless and frustrated. Her cousin, the photographer and author Michael Marten, remembers that
From a very young age, maybe six, certainly by eight, she spoke and behaved and thought just like an adult, and talked about adult things, with some gravitas, if you like. She didn’t behave like a child. In fact she had very strong opinions about childhood, and wanted to be treated like an adult from a much younger age than is usual.
Later she went to several boarding schools (‘too many’, her mother remembers), where she did well academically but went her own way and always felt she didn’t fit in. Just before she turned eighteen, she had her first novel, Privileged Children, accepted by the publisher Michael Joseph, and was offered a place at Cambridge. But after just two terms she decided university was not for her, and embarked on an undoubtedly lonely life in a London flat bought for her by her father. She continued to write, producing a novel almost every year, and though writing was not always easy for her, she worked at it and enjoyed it. She had a circle of friends, and a few romantic relationships, though these seem never to have worked out for her. But she suffered badly from depression, which worsened over the years despite psychiatric help, and she took her own life in July 1991 at the age of just 27. ‘It wasn’t sudden’, says Michael Marten, ‘it was a continued worsening. It was a cloud over her and it grew blacker. She seemed less able to escape the blackness’.
Though none of her novels had been bestsellers, they were consistently praised by the critics. It’s obviously useless to speculate on what she would have gone on to produce given more time; instead, let’s be grateful for what we have and happy that Faber has made the work available again.
Harriet is one of the Shiny New Books editors.
Read Harriet’s reviews of Privileged Children and The Bohemian Girl by Frances Vernon in our Reprints section here.