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Stacy Aumonier


Stacy Aumonier photographStacy Aumonier was born at Hampstead Road near Regent’s Park, London, on 31 March 1877 (not in 1887, as often incorrectly recorded). He came from a family with a strong and sustained tradition in the visual arts. His father, William Aumonier, was an architectural sculptor (founder of the Aumonier Studios off Tottenham Court Road) and his uncle was the painter, James Aumonier R.I.
Stacy’s brother, William (also an architectural sculptor) was responsible for recreating the interiors of Tutankhamun’s tomb at the British Empire Exhibition in Wembley in 1924. The landmark sculpture The Archer at East Finchley Station in London was the work of his nephew, Eric Aumonier. His grandson, Richard Aumonier, is also a sculptor.

The name, “Aumonier,” came from Huguenot (French Protestant) ancestors.

Stacy attended Cranleigh School in Surrey from age 13. Although he would later write critically about English public schools (including in a New York Times article, which became the subject of an editorial in that paper) for the manner in which he considered they tried to impose conformity on their students, his record indicates that he integrated comfortably into Cranleigh, He was an ardent cricket player, belonged to the Literary and Debating Society, and became a prefect in his final year there.

When he left school, he seemed destined to follow family tradition, studying and working in the visual arts, in particular as a landscape painter. He exhibited paintings at the Royal Academy in 1902 and 1903, and in 1908 he exhibited a design for the entrance hall of a house. An exhibition of his work was held at the Gouptil Gallery in 1911.  

In 1907, at Ewell in Surrey, he married the international concert pianist, Gertrude Peppercorn, daughter of the landscape painter Arthur Douglas Peppercorn (sometimes called “the English Corot”), and they had one son, Timothy, born in 1921.

A year after his marriage, Aumonier began a career in a second branch of the arts at which he enjoyed outstanding success—as a stage performer writing and performing his own sketches. So much praise was lavished on these performances that it is unfortunate no known recording of them exists.

“...the stage lost in him a real and rare genius,” said the Observer in an Appreciation published on 29th December 1928, shortly after Aumonier’s death, “he could walk out alone before any audience, from the simplest to the most sophisticated, and make it laugh or cry at will.” 

In Written in Friendship, a Book of Reminiscences, Gerald Cumberland wrote that Aumonier’s work on the stage was the perfect preparation for his later writing career, describing it as “an almost ideal apprenticeship in literature...He gave character sketches of all kinds of people—vivid little portraits of curious men he had encountered in country lanes, in town, anywhere. …
“To act well one must have observed men and women most closely; more, one must have understood them. Aumonier did act well. The theatre for him was but the entrance hall to literature.”

In 1913, Aumonier published his first short story. In 1917, he was called up for active service in World War I at age 40, serving first as a private in the Army Pay Corps, and then working as a draughtsman in the Ministry of National Service. The Army medical board in 1916 had put down his occupation as ‘actor and writer.’ By the end of the following year, he had four books published—two novels and two books of short stories—and his occupation is recorded just as ‘author.’

In the mid 1920s, Aumonier was diagnosed with tuberculosis. In the last few years of his life, he would spend long spells in various sanatoria, some better than others. In a letter to his friend, Rebecca West, written shortly before his death, he described extraordinarily uncomfortable conditions in a sanatorium in Norfolk in the winter of 1927 (where the dampness was so severe that a newspaper left beside the bed would feel ‘sodden to the touch in the morning’).

Clinique La Prairie, Clarens, SwitzerlandShortly before his death, he sought treatment in Switzerland, but died of the disease in Clinique La Prairie at Clarens beside Lake Geneva on 21 December 1928.

Contemporary accounts—and his own letters, even at the worst times of his illness—suggest that Aumonier was an immensely likeable, witty man. The chief fiction critic of the Observer, Gerald Gould wrote: “His gifts were almost fantastically various; they embraced all the arts; but it was the charm and generosity of his personality which made him—what he unquestionably was—one of the most popular men of his generation.” It went on: “The things he wrote will be remembered when the company of his friends (no man had more friends, or more devoted and admiring) are with him in the grave; but just now, to those who knew him, the thing most vividly present is the charm and wisdom of the man they knew.”

Stacy Aumonier portraitGerald Cumberland gave an interesting account of the appearance Aumonier presented:
“A distinguished man, this—distinguished both in mind and appearance. Self-conscious. Perhaps. Why not? His hair is worn a trifle long, and it is arranged so that his fine forehead, broad and high, may be fully revealed. Round his neck is a very high collar and a modern stock. When in repose, his face has a look of shy eagerness; his quick eyes glance here and there gathering a thousand impressions to be stored up in his brain. It is the face of a man extremely sensitive to external stimulus; one feels that his brain works not only rapidly, but with great accuracy.  And at heart, he takes himself and his work seriously, though he likes on occasion to pretend that he is only a philanderer.”


Stacy Aumonier's Work

There is general consensus that Aumonier’s distinctive talent was for writing short stories rather than novels, and fellow writers (notably John Galsworthy and James Hilton) stated that some of his short stories were among the best ever written.  Rebecca West said of his writing in 1922 that his ability to blend reality with the imaginary was “the envy of all artists.”

“A real master of the short story,” John Galsworthy wrote in a thoughtful and perceptive assessment of Aumonier’s writing shortly after Aumonier’s death. “The first essential in a short-story writer is the power of interesting sentence by sentence. Aumonier had this power in prime degree. You do not have to ‘get into’ his stories. He is especially notable for investing his figures with the breadth of life within a few sentences.”

There is no such thing as a typical Aumonier story or a typical Aumonier character.  Some of his stories (among his best) are comedies; some are moving stories of missed opportunity or loss. Some are war stories. He wrote with equal empathy about the very poor, the very rich, men, women, movers and shakers, hobos, pompous husbands, shallow wives, war heroes, deserters, idealists, thieves. All they have in common is a great ease of style and “a sense of line that most of us should envy,” as Galsworthy put it. Even Aumonier’s least significant stories—ones that he wrote purely as entertainments—are written with remarkable fluidity and wit.

“He was profoundly in love with live,” wrote Galsworthy. “All types were fish to his net.” It was not unusual for “all types” to appear in a single story of Aumonier’s, including, most notably, in “The Octave of Jealousy”, which James Hilton picked as his “favourite short story” when asked by Good Housekeeping in 1939.

Hilton noted that Aumonier “wrote mostly in the tradition of du Maupassant,” but Aumonier was influenced by other writers as well. “An Octave of Jealousy,” for instance, at least bows in the direction of O.Henry (in particular, towards one of his best short stories, “The Social Triangle”) another writer whom Aumonier said he greatly admired.

Astonishingly, “The Octave of Jealousy” is an almost unknown story. It remained out of print from 1939 until 2008 when this new compilation of Aumonier’s stories was published.


“The Octave of Jealousy” (James Hilton’s “Favourite Short Story”—first published in The Strand magazine, November 1922)

“The Octave of Jealousy” is a remarkably well-observed story of the different tiers of society in England at the time, and of the tiny (but hard-to-surmount) barriers separating each tier from the one just above it, and of the petty jealousies felt at every level.  From bottom to top, no one is content. It is in eight parts:

Part I: At the bottom of the ladder is a tramp. Feeling hungry, he eyes “the potential possibilities of a cottage standing back from the road.” He exchanges a word with a farm labourer, but the labourer proceeds into the cottage, while the tramp is left to continue along the road. “Lucky devil,” the tramp mutters.

Part II: Inside the cottage, the labourer is unhappy to find that his dinner is not ready and, while he waits for it, he goes to the cottage of the gamekeeper, Ambrose Baines. “Of course they had their dinner,” the labourer notes enviously. “It would be like that. Mrs Baines was a marvel.”

Part III: Ambrose, too, appreciates his wife’s capability, and wishes better for her. 
“She was the daughter of a piano-tuner at Bladestone, and the glamour of this early connection always hung between Ambrose and herself.” For the sake of his wife, Ambrose envies the slightly greater prosperity enjoyed by the shopkeepers, the Meads, and when he goes to their shop to buy candles: “A slightly disturbing sight met the eyes of Ambrose.  The parlour door was open, and he could see a maid in a cap and apron clearing away tea things in the gaily-furnished room. The Meads had got a servant.”

Part IV: Mr Mead is disturbed to learn that the publican Mr Mounthead has been able to buy a farm for his son. He thinks how much harder and less lucrative it is to run a shop than a pub: “the pettiness of it all! Little bits of cheese, penny tins of mustard, string, weighing out sugar and biscuits, cutting bacon measuring off ribbons and calico, and flannelette.  People… running up little accounts it was always hard to collect.” Whereas in Mr Mounthead’s pub: “oh, the snappy quick profit. Everybody paying on the nail.”

Part V: Mr Mounthead feels comfortable about money, but not about his social position, which is not as high as that of his neighbour, the “gentleman farmer,” Lewis Wonnicott. Mr Mounthead thinks the fault for this lies with his wife, Queenie. “He had probably as much money as Lewis Wonnicott, if not more. He certainly had a more fluid and accumulative way of making it, but there the matter stopped.  Wonnicott was a gentleman; his wife was a lady. He, James, might have been as much a gentleman as Wonnicott if circumstances had been different. Queenie could never be a lady in the sense that Mrs Wonnicott was a lady.”

Part VI: Mrs Wonnicott, in turn, is worried about her own position in the neighbourhood, complaining to her husband that they don’t move in the same social circles as their neighbours, the Burnabys. “We know no one, no one at all in the neighbourhood…who is there of any importance that we know?”

Part VII: Mrs Burnaby, in turn, complains to her husband that their son won’t be able to advance in his diplomatic career because they lack the power and influence of their neighbour, Sir Septimus Letter—an M.P., “owner of half the newspapers in the country” and a millionaire.

Part VIII: Sir Septimus finds his day full of decisions, engagements and ever-changing company (“the house party was a perpetual condition”) but he is unsure if his wife is in the house or not. An assistant thinks she may be away as he hasn’t seen her for some days. Sir Septimus in conscious of people who want “to get him down.” “Does one get to the top without making enemies?” he wonders. “Does one get to the top without suffering and bitterness and remorse?”
Stepping out of his house briefly, he sees a tramp “exchange a word with a field labourer” before continuing down the road. Watching him, Sir Septimus feels a sense of longing. 
“To be free,” he thinks. “To walk across those hills without a care, without a responsibility. The figure, with its easy gait, fascinated him.” With a groan, Sir Septimus buried his face in his hands, and murmured: “Lucky Devil!”


Other Stories by Stacy Aumonier

His plots often were startling, but Aumonier primarily was a creator of memorable, believable characters, and the plot twists displayed and developed the characterisation.

In “Miss Bracegirdle Does Her Duty”, the conservative sister of an English clergyman travels on her own to a hotel in Bordeaux. When she closes the door of her room after returning from a bath, she sees a man asleep on the bed. She realises then she is in the wrong room, but the door handle has come off in her hand, and she can’t get out.  Then she discovers the man is dead.
“To be found in a strange man’s bedroom in the night is bad enough, but to be found in a dead man’s bedroom was even worse.”
The story is very gripping and funny, but also a wonderful character study.

“Where Was Wych Street” is a type of story at which Aumonier excelled:  a trivial incident develops step by step (involving every rung of society as it grows) into a crisis that has national or global implications. Beginning at a public bar in Wapping, where “the company was certainly not a handsome one,” it proceeds through the courts and then to the home of a government minister, who is hosting a dinner party attended by, among others, his ambitious future son-in-law, who has the following thoughts about his wife-to-be:
“But the most sparkling jewel in the crown of his successes was Lady Adela Charters, the daughter of Lord Vermeer, the Minister for Foreign Affairs.  She was his fiancee and it was considered the most brilliant match of the season.  She was young and almost pretty, and Lord Vermeer was immensely wealthy and one of the most influential men in Great Britain.”
Later, altered by events, the young man becomes more thoughtful: “Was life a rag—a game played by lawyers, politicians and people?” he wonders.
(Another example of this type of plot is “One thing Leads to Another”, in which a bacon-rind thrown out a window leads to the fall of the government.)

An interesting musical motif runs through “Juxtapositions.”  It has a plot twist that arises from and illustrates the surprising depths of one of the characters, Colin St Clair Chasseloup: “the kind of man who always looked as though he had just had a cold bath, done Swedish drill, and then passed through the hairdresser’s on his way to your presence.”
Chasseloup (who is passionate about Bach) and the narrator (who verges on being intimidated by Chasseloup) are independently brought by their wives to a concert in which neither of them has any interest—a performance of the music of a “modern British composer.”
Both men make their escape from the concert, and decide to go for a drink, remembering too late that it is Sunday night and the pubs are closed.  They are dressed for the concert. 
“I must now pay a tribute to that most sound of all social conventions—namely that of evening dress.  It will carry one through almost any difficulty.  Chasseloup and I were both in evening dress.”
A dramatic, funny plot twist—and a revelation of the complexity of Chasseloup’s character—follows when Chasseloup becomes the victim of mistaken identity.

“Two of Those Women” is an interesting study of a particular section of society at a particular time—Englishwomen with little money living, of necessity, in small hotels in the South of France and Italy.
“All over the South of France and Italy particularly there are thousands of these women staying at pensions and small hotels, drifting from place to place, rudderless, unwanted, and patently unhappy.  They have the atmosphere of exiles, as of people who have committed some crime in their own country, and dare not return. And in many cases the crime that they have committed is, I suspect, the unpardonable crime of poverty.  Women who have held some kind of social position in their own country, and become impoverished, develop the not unreasonable idea that they can live more cheaply, and with more dignity, in a foreign hotel.”
The two women of the title are secondary casualties of World War I. The older woman’s son has suffered mental damage, the younger woman’s lover is unaccounted for. 
The older woman remembers her son as he used to be, as a child and as a soldier. The dialogue is moving, all the more so for being very funny:
“'Games! that was what he was so good at. Cricket, football, all those things. They said there were several colleges at both Oxford and Cambridge anxious to have him because he could run a hundred yards in—ten minutes, was it?'” and “'He was captured by the Turks, you know. Did I tell you? Was it the Turks or the Arabs?  some of those dark people, anyway, over there…' She made a vague direction in the direction of the North Pole.”
The plot leaves open the possibility of an overly neat ending—that the older woman’s son may be the younger woman’s missing lover—but this story is memorable not for its plot, but as a remarkable, sensitive portrait of a vulnerable, damaged group of people at one time and place.

“The Funny Man’s Day” is an unusually poignant story of Aumonier’s, and some people consider it his best. It is a wonderful character study of a loveable, always-performing music-hall comedian (very good at his job—he tops the bill at the Railham Empire) on a day that a girl whom he might have married is getting married to someone else. The story has great subtlety, and paints a detailed picture of a vanished way of life. It is described as “about as perfect a short story as exists.”


An Appreciation:

 “Stacy Aumonier,” John Galsworthy wrote, “is never heavy, never boring, never really trivial; interested himself, he keeps us interested. At the back of his tales, there is belief in life and a philosophy of life, and of how many short story writers can that be said? …He follows no fashion and no school. He is always himself. And can’t he write? Ah! Far better than far more pretentious writers. Nothing escapes his eye, but he describes without affection or redundancy, and you sense in him a feeling for beauty that is never obtruded.  He gets values right, and that is to say nearly everything. The easeful fidelity of his style has militated against his reputation in these somewhat posturing times. But his shade may rest in peace, for … he will outlive nearly all the writers of his day.”


[Text above © Copyright 2011 Phaeton Publishing]
[Stacy Aumonier photographs © Richard Aumonier]

Exceptional Works—Exceptional Author !