Birkinshaw, Margaret 1907–2003

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BIRKINSHAW, Margaret 1907–2003

PERSONAL: Born August 3, 1907, in England; died January 11, 2003, in London, England; daughter of Edgar (a writer and critic) and Frieda (a concert pianist) Jepson; married Frank Birkinshaw (a physician), 1928 (separated, 1935); children: Jane, Franklin (Fay). Education: Attended London City College and Ealing Technical College Library School. Hobbies and other interests: Teaching Sunday school, theater, needlework.

CAREER: Writer, artist, and librarian. Founded an advertising agency, 1940s; worked for Hospital of St. John and St. Elizabeth, 1953–55, and British Broadcasting Corporation, London, England, 1955–63.


Via Panama, Hamish Hamilton (London, England), 1934.

Velvet and Steel, Herbert Jenkins (London, England), 1935.

Author of romance novels and serials.

SIDELIGHTS: Margaret Birkinshaw was a writer in a family of writers, and her daughter, Fay Weldon, has become a noted author. Birkinshaw's father was Edgar Jepson, a novelist and critic who could count as friends H. G. Wells and Ezra Pound, while her mother was a concert pianist. At age twenty-one, Birkinshaw married doctor Frank Birkinshaw, who had been in the company of noted soldier and author T. E. Lawrence in the Arabian desert, where Lawrence earned the name "Lawrence of Arabia."

The couple had their first child, Jane, the following year, and in 1930, they left England for New Zealand. In February, 1931, alone with her baby and pregnant with Fay, Birkinshaw survived the worst earthquake ever to be recorded in New Zealand, and she then joined her husband, who had found a position in a practice in Christchurch.

Birkinshaw published her first novel, Via Panama, in 1934. While praised by both the noted author George Bernard Shaw and Wells, the book caused an uproar and proved to be an embarrassment for her husband, who was then running for a seat in Parliament as a Labour candidate. The marriage was failing when she published Velvet and Steel, and Birkinshaw soon traveled alone to London on a cargo ship, planning to send for her children as soon as possible.

When Birkinshaw's husband threatened to take the girls to South Africa, she returned to New Zealand to collect them. In order to support her daughters, she wrote romance novels, often as many as four a year, as well as stories that were published as serials. Her manuscripts and contracts were sent and delivered by ship, but with the advent of World War II, shipping stopped, forcing Birkinshaw to find other work. Her mother joined her in 1942, and they both worked in the small ad agency Birkinshaw had set up, writing copy and working in film. In 1946, the two women and the girls returned to England.

Birkinshaw put her daughters through college, and their volatile lives kept her involved as she helped with the care of their children during difficult times. Jane, who with her three children had been abandoned by husband Guido Morris, never recovered; ill with cancer, she died in 1969, and Birkinshaw took over the care of her grandchildren. In a London Times obituary, a writer noted that "she managed heroically. But at heart, she was an adventurer, and the tribulations of single-parenthood by proxy for Jane in a succession of dreary towns must at times have been almost too much to bear." In 2000, Birkinshaw broke her hip, after which she moved into a residential home, then a nursing home where she died.

Although Birkinshaw never wrote her own autobiography, her daughter Fay, of whom Birkinshaw was very proud, did. Weldon, who was actually named Franklin at birth, as though she were male, reflects on her years with her parents and her early life in Auto da Fay, the first volume of a planned two-volume memoir. The second book will recall Weldon's life as a writer.



Weldon, Fay, Auto da Fay: A Memoir, Grove Press (New York, NY), 2003.


Times Online, (January 24, 2003).