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Henrietta Eliza Stannard (1856 -1911)

by Michael Seeney

Henrietta Eliza Stannard, who wrote as John Strange Winter, has not featured in lists of “New Woman” novelists and has been almost forgotten in the revival of interest in women’s writing in the late nineteenth century. She was an extremely popular and prolific novelist: the British Library catalogue contains over one hundred entries in her name and she sold over two million copies of those books. She was an entrepreneur and campaigner for reform and worked throughout her life to improve the lot of women writers.

She was born Henrietta Eliza Vaughan Palmer on 13 January 1856 in Trinity Lane, York, the only daughter of Henry Vaughan Palmer, rector of St Margaret’s, and his wife Emily Catherine Cowling. Henry had been an officer in the Royal Artillery and the Palmers’ home, “The Cottage” in Trinity Lane, was “within a stone’s throw of the York Cavalry Barracks” (Bainbridge 2). Her first published stories, written under the name “Violet Whyte,” were military in their subject matter, but she had been writing since she was a child. She was seventeen when a story first appeared in print, in a York paper. The editor’s belief that the honour of publication was reward enough gave her a lifelong interest in the economics of writing.

Winter's first payment for a story was towards the end of 1873 when she received ten shillings for a “Violet Whyte” story. As she explained, “I disposed of a good many stories in the same quarter at starvation prices, ranging from the original ten shillings to thirty-five” (My First Book 240)): in just one year. In 1874, she then had a story accepted by the Family Herald in 1874, and over the next ten years wrote more than forty short stories and long serials for that paper.

In Jerome K. Jerome’s 1894 collection of the experiences of writers, My First Book, Winter recounts her shock at being asked to pay a publisher to have her first book published and her dismissal of the offer. Fortunately, a better offer followed shortly after and her first collection, Cavalry Life: or, Sketches and Stories In Barracks and Out, was published in 1881 by Chatto & Windus.

Three years later, Winter became engaged to an engineer named Arthur Stannard after knowing him for five days. Four months later they married and Arthur almost immediately became her – very successful – business manager. Winter had ambitions which required a lot of money and she worked hard to earn it. The year of their marriage also saw the publication of her most successful novel, Bootles Baby: A Story of the Scarlet Lancers. This was to sell 250,000 copies in her lifetime, and although she earned very little on the first 150,000, she successfully renegotiated a higher royalty for the sixth edition. It was made into a very successful stage play which toured the country for many years.

Although Winter named her children after characters in her books, and she professed to be very fond of them and of family life, nothing was allowed to stand in the way of her productivity. The dedication of her 1896 novel The Strange Story of My Life was to her daughter Nancy, who was born on Christmas Day 1895 – “the day on which this story was finished.”

In 1891 Winter and her husband founded a weekly paper, originally called Golden Gates but later renamed Winter’s Weekly as Golden Gates was thought to sound too religious. Molly Youngkin has demonstrated the range of subjects and the increasing emphasis on gender issues in the paper. Although Winter’s Weekly was reasonably successful, her husband’s ill-health meant the family relocated to Dieppe in 1896 and the paper was sold at a considerable loss. Before the move Winter had been a founder member and first president of the Writers’ Club, and on her return to London she became president of the Society of Women Journalists (1901-03).

Winter maintained her extraordinary output to such an extent that when the newspapers reported the publication of her ninety-sixth title in 1907 they could not agree on the title, giving both Miss Dering’s Price and The Love of Philip Hampden. Nonetheless, with their finances damaged by the sale of the paper, falling sales of her novels and the bankruptcy of her publisher F. V. White, Winter turned her hand to a second career as a manufacturer and seller of hair products and other cosmetic preparations. This enterprise was carried out from her kitchen and the products won her a number of medals at international exhibitions. Leveraging the popularity of her military stories, she advertised her merchandise successfully in The Army and Navy Gazette.

Around 1900, Winter was diagnosed with breast cancer and had a mastectomy. Seven years later, a fall resulted in a broken collar bone and, late in 1911, another fall while exiting a lift at an underground station seems to have broken her wrist and reopened the scars from her mastectomy. She died on 13 December 1911 and was cremated at Woking Crematorium in Surrey.

At the height of her fame Winter earned over £3000 a year and made some £40,000 from her writing during her life. Sales declined after 1900, which her husband blamed partly on the disastrous effect the Boer War had had on the book trade. By the time of her death she had published 103 books, but she left a gross estate of only £547 10s 10d. ( ("'John Strange Winter's'").

Obituaries of Winter in the press were fulsome, but her popularity was already waning and apart from Oliver Bainbridge’s uncritical biography of her in 1916 almost no attention was paid to her or her work until very recently. That interest has focused rather on her friendship with Oscar Wilde and her association with The Writers’ Club and the Society of Women Journalists than on her novels.

A significant collection of the works of John Strange Winter is at the International Centre for Victorian Women Writers at Canterbury University

Michael Seeney is a book collector and author with an interest in Oscar Wilde and the wider 1890s period. He has written extensively on the period. His books include Wilde's Wittiest Woman: Ada Leverson's Uncollected Writings, and From Bow Street to the Ritz: Oscar Wilde's Theatrical Career from 1895 to 1908 both published by the Rivendale Press.

Works Cited and Consulted

Bainbridge, Oliver. John Strange Winter: A Volume of Personal Record. London: East and West, 1916.

Black, Helen C. Notable Women Authors of the Day Glasgow: David Bryce & Son, 1893.

Dictionary of National Biography Ed. Lawrence Goldman. Oxford U P, 2004-16. Online edition.

"'John Strange Winter's' Book Sales: The Curtain Lifted."  St. Andrews Citizen, 27 January 1912, p. 6.

My First Book:  The Experiences of Walter Besant, James Payn, W. Clark Russell, Grant Allen, Hall Caine, George R. Sims, Rudyard Kipling, A. Conan Doyle, M. E. Braddon, F. W. Robinson, H. Rider Haggard, R. M. Ballantyne, I. Zangwill, Morley Roberts, David Christie Murray, Marie Corelli, Jerome K. Jerome, John Strange Winter, Bret Harte, “Q.”, Robert Buchanan, Robert Louis Stevenson, introduction by Jerome K. Jerome,  London: Chatto & Windus, 1894.

Youngkin, Molly. “Independent in Thought and Expression, Kindly and Tolerant in Tone”: Henrietta Stannard, Golden Gates, and Gender Controversies in Fin-de-Siècle Periodicals. Victorian Periodicals Review, vol. 38, no.3, 2005, pp. 307-29.