Before Mills & Boon became known as a purveyor of romance novels, it was a general publishing enterprise producing both fiction and non-fiction. Ethel Stefana Stevens (1879-1972) was one of its early authors. Stevens’ travel book My Sudan Year, published by Mills & Boon in November 1912, recounts her journey from London to Khartoum and beyond into what is now South Sudan.
Sudan had been under Anglo-Egyptian occupation since 1898. In her introduction Stevens promoted her work to a female audience, stating:
“Perhaps the mothers and sisters of Englishmen whose work lies out in the Sudan may find in this book a setting for their thoughts, a coloured background for their imaginings of the lives and doings of those in whom they are interested.”
For me, one of the highlights of browsing through Stevens’ book was finding her passing reference to spotting Liverpool University archaeologist John Garstang’s excavations at Meroë, Sudan through the window of the train travelling from Atbara to Khartoum. Among her “occasional excitements” on the long, extremely hot journey to Sudan’s administrative capital was glimpsing the “squat pyramids of Meroë against the skyline”, with Garstang’s white excavation tents clustered close to the railway tracks.
During Stevens’ 1911 journey Garstang was in his third season at Meroë excavating the remains of the “Meroitic” civilisation’s capital city. The previous year, the spectacular and highly publicised Roman-era bronze “Head of Augustus”, as it became known, was discovered during his excavations. The object’s popular appeal may have accounted for Stevens’ note of Garstang’s work at the site. The British Museum acquired the head in 1911, and it is still on display there in Room 70. (Its appeal remains undiminished; it is a Highlight Object and featured in the History of the World in 100 Objects series.)
Stevens’ book, priced at 10 shillings and sixpence, was part of Mills & Boons’ “My Year” series. The series covered life and travels in France, Ireland, Spain, Italy, Germany and Russia and had both male and female contributors. By the time Stevens wrote My Sudan Year she was a seasoned traveller and author, having lived in Turkey and Syria. From these previous experiences she produced an essay, “The Womankind of Young Turkey” in the May 1911 Contemporary Review, as well as a novel, Sarah Eden, and travelogue, The Mountain of God based on her time in Syria.
The ‘lite’ popular fiction and non-fiction that Stevens wrote in early life is now obscured by the detailed scholarly work of her later years – studying the history, language and culture of a small gnostic sect called the Mandeans in Iran and Iraq.
The Bookman published a profile this vicar’s daughter in 1916. The short biographical sketch yields a fascinating picture of a woman in her early thirties making her way in the world through her pen and her remarkable experiences. Her obituary in The Times noted that that she published as E. S. Stevens even after she became Mrs (later Lady) Edwin Drower. You might say that Stevens’ daughter, the archaeologist and biographer of Flinders Petrie Margaret “Peggy” Drower (1911-2012), had a formidable legacy to match.
Perhaps E. S. Stevens should be included among other female (fiction) writers of the period such as Olive Shreiner and Sarah Grand, now considered stars of the “New Woman” era. Her passing reference to Garstang’s Meroë excavation, meanwhile, speaks to the visibility of archaeological work in Sudan during this period, all wrapped up in the early history of a famous publishing house.
McAleer, J. 1999. Passion’s Fortune: the Story of Mills & Boon. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Stevens, E. S. 1912. My Sudan Year. London: Mills and Boon.
The Bookman. March 1916. News Notes. The Bookman XLIX (294): 170-171.
The Times. 31 January 1972. Lady Drower. Authority on gnostic sect. The Times 58389, Col G p 14.