R.H. Mottram

Mottram in old ageRalph Hale Mottram (1883-1971) was a banker and writer whose most successful work was the Spanish Farm trilogy (1924-1926), based on his Great War experiences. His sf novel, The Visit of the Princess: A Romance of the Nineteen-Sixties (1946), shows a dystopian near-future Britain, changed by the visit of a princess from a mysterious island. He wrote fantasy as well, including The Old Man of the Stones: A Christmas Allegory (1930), The Ghost and the Maiden (1940), The Gentleman of Leisure: A Romance (1948), in which the protagonist travels to Heaven, and To Hell, with Crabb Robinson (1962), in which he doesn’t. For more detail, see the Encyclopedia of Science Fiction.

Mottram was born above the eighteenth-century Gurney’s Bank among the old streets of Norwich, the son of a third-generation banker working for Gurney’s. His mother had been educated at Versailles, so after attending schools in Norwich he spent 1899 in Lausanne perfecting his French, which came in useful during the War. He joined Gurney’s later in that year, shortly after it had been taken over by Barclays.

Apart from the war years, Mottram’s adult life, up to the age of 45, was spent working in a bank, and longing to be a writer. He published two volumes of poetry (under the name of J. Marjoram) before the war, but the rest of his writing came after the success of The Spanish Farm.

Because of his knowledge of French, he spent the latter part of the war investigating complaints against the British Army by those living near the Front. The Spanish Farm (1924) was about the ancient Ferme l’Espagnole, which had lived through the Spanish occupation of Flanders, and about its experience of proximity to the Great War. Mottram had no success in publishing it until his friend John Galsworthy agreed to Chatto and Windus’s condition that he write the preface, for no payment. It won the Hawthornden Prize and became a best-seller.

There were two popular sequels, Sixty-Four, Ninety-Four (1925) and The Crime at Vanderlynden’s (1926); in the second, the protagonist is a former bank clerk who was given the job of investigating complaints against British troops: in other words, it is semi-autobiographical. Weintraub in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography comments that  “The novels were less about the carnage of war than about the nearly self-contained civilization, with its administrative hierarchies and arcane social codes, that an enormous army away from home became, seen in the perspective of its impact upon a large farm in Flanders that embodied the continuity of human concerns that survived mere wars.”

The Spanish Farm was filmed in 1927 as Roses of Picardy, which enabled Mottram to give up his bank job. He became a full-time writer, employing, as he said, the time-keeping of a bank-clerk and the discipline of a soldier. He wrote books about Norfolk, history, novels, autobiography: ‘Nothing very spectacular’, he said in his autobiographical Vanities and Verities (54): “It is what I wished to do with my life and I have done it.”

During the Second World War Mottram was British Council representative to the American force division that was stationed in Norfolk. He was Lord Mayor of Norwich, in the coronation year 1953; he worked for the foundation of University of East Anglia, which opened in 1963, and and which made him an honorary DLitt in 1966.

He married Madge Allen in 1918, and they had two sons and a daughter. When his wife died in 1970 he went to live with his daughter in King’s Lynn, and died there in 1971.

My information mostly comes from Stanley Weintraub’s entry in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. 

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