Jesse, Fryniwyd Tennyson (1888–1958)

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Jesse, Fryniwyd Tennyson (1888–1958)

English playwright and novelist. Name variations: F. Tennyson Jesse; Fryn Jesse. Born Wynifried Margaret Jesse on March 1, 1888, in Chislehurst, Kent, England; died on August 6, 1958, in London, England;

the second of three daughters of Reverend Eustace Tennyson d'Eyncourt and Edith Louisa (James) Jesse; attended boarding school in Paris; studied art at the Newlyn School, Cornwell; married Harold Marsh Harwood (a playwright), on September 9, 1918.


(with H.M. Harwood) The Mask (1912); (with Harwood) Billeted (1917); (adapted from the French with Harwood) The Hotel Mouse (1921); Quarantine (1922); (with Harwood) The Pelican (1924); Anyhouse (1925); (with Harwood) How to be Healthy though Married (1930); (with Harwood) A Pin to See the Peepshow (1948); Birdcage (1949).


The Milky Way (1913), Secret Bread (1917), Tom Fool (1926), Moonraker (1927), The Lacquer Lady (1929), A Pin to See the Peepshow (1934), Act of God (1937), The Alabaster Cup (1950), The Dragon in the Heart (1956); crime novels: Murder and its Motives (1924), Comments on Cain (1948).


The Sword of Deborah: First Hand Impressions of the British Women's Army in France (1919); The White Riband (1921); Sabi Pas (1935); The Saga of San Demetrio (1942); The Story of Burma (1946).

Short stories:

Beggars on Horseback (1915); Many Latitudes (1928); The Solange Stories (1931); Poems: The Happy Bride (1920); The Compass (1951).

"Notable British trials" series:

Madeleine Smith (1927); Samuel Herbert Dougal (1928); Sidney Harry Fox (1934); Rattenbury and Stoner (1935); Ley and Smith (1947); Evans and Christie (1957).

Playwright and author Fryniwyd Jesse was christened Wynifried Margaret Jesse, the second of three daughters of Reverend Eustace Tennyson Jesse and Edith James Jesse . Her older sister Stella was unofficially adopted by her maternal grandparents and her younger sister Ermyntrude died as a baby, so Fryn grew up virtually an only child. A bout of rickets as a baby left her thin and sickly, and her early life was further complicated by her detached parents, who traveled extensively without her. Jesse arrived at her unusual name (Fryniwyd) by first shortening Wynifried to Fee as a child. That name eventually evolved into Fryn, then, in her late teens, into Fryniwyd. For her pseudonym, Jesse incorporated the family name Tennyson. (Her paternal grandmother was Emily Tennyson , sister of the poet Alfred, Lord Tennyson.)

Jesse attended boarding school in Paris and then embarked on art studies at the Newlyn School in Cornwell, England, a painters' colony run by Stanhope and Elizabeth Armstrong Forbes . Here, for the first time, Jesse lived in the company of people her own age. Here, too, she wrote a modest biography, The Look Backwards, and edited a little magazine called The Paper Chase, to which she also contributed stories and poetry. When her poetry began to show promise, she decided to trade an artistic career for that of a writer. During her early years, she worked as a reporter for The Times and the Daily Mail and wrote book reviews for the English Review, which also published her first short story "The Mask," the success of which led to the publication of her first novel The Milky Way (1913), and a collaboration with playwright Harold Marsh Harwood ("Tottie"), on an adaptation of "The Mask" for the stage.

During World War I, Jesse traveled to the Belgian front as a war correspondent for the Daily Mail, one of the first women so assigned. Her stories, commended as well-written and newsworthy, were later picked up by the Pall Mall Gazette. She was later assigned by the Ministry of Information to report on the Women's Army, which resulted in the book The Sword of Deborah: First Hand Impressions of the British Women's Army in France. The book, published after the war in 1919, provided an honest and unglamorous look at the role of the WAACs (Women's Auxiliary Army Corps), the FANYs (First Aid Nursing Yeomanry), and the VADs (Voluntary Aid Detachment) in the war effort. On the dust jacket, Jesse noted: "It appears to me that people should still be told about the women workers of the war and what they did, even now when we are all struggling back into our chiffons—perhaps more now than ever. For we should not forget, and how should we remember if we have never known." Throughout her life, Jesse continued to speak out for women, particularly as an advocate of divorce and abortion rights.

In September 1918, Jesse had secretly married Harwood in a casual ceremony before he left for a posting in Syria, although she later admitted that she did not love him at the time, but grew into love after the marriage. (The union would suffer periods of intense strain, abetted by Jesse's ill health and bouts of depression caused by her inability to have a child.) By the time of their wedding, the couple had collaborated on several other plays, including The Pelican (1916) and Billeted (1917), and they would later write How to be Healthy though Married (1930). Jesse also wrote two plays on her own: Quarantine (1922) and Anyhouse (1925), but her greatest success was in collaboration.

Jesse's first mature novel, The White Riband (1921), about an illegitimate orphan girl who passionately wants to dance, was extremely well-received. Joseph Conrad called it "this jewel in a casket," and St. John Ervine referred to Jesse as "a genius insufficiently recognized." Among her subsequent novels, Tom Fool (1926), a historical novel, Moonraker; or The French Pirate and her Friends (1927), a role-reversal adventure about a female pirate, and The Lacquer Lady (1929), inspired by a trip to Burma, are notable. Jesse was also interested in criminology and her first crime novel Murder and its Motives (1924) was called "an informative, provocative and masterly study" by the Police Review and "a fascinating piece of work" by The Sketch. Harry Hodge, then editor of the "Notable British Trials" series, was so impressed that he hired Jesse; she worked for him for many years. A later crime novel, A Pin to See the Peep Show (1934), was based on the notorious Thompson-Bywaters case of 1922, in which a young wife Edith Thompson was convicted for the murder of her husband, a crime which had actually been carried out by her lover Frederick Bywaters. Jesse's body of work also includes a book of poems, The Happy Bride (1920), and two collections of short stories, Beggars on Horseback (1915) and Many Latitudes (1928). She also published a volume of letters, While London Burns (1942), and a travel book, The Story of Burma (1946). Michael Swan in London's Sunday Times called her last novel, The Dragon in the Heart (1956), "a tearjerker in an old tradition."

The author was plagued by cataracts during her later life and died in 1958, just as she had begun to dictate the story of her life. In Jesse's obituary for The Times,Rebecca West described her as "a skillful, amusing, clandestine sort of feminist, never tired of getting in an adroit plea for the dignity and independence of womankind."


Colenbrander, Joanna. A Portrait of Fryn: A Biography of F. Tennyson Jesse. London: André Deutsch, 1984.

Shattock, Joanne. The Oxford Guide to British Women Writers. Oxford and NY: Oxford University Press, 1993.

Barbara Morgan , Melrose, Massachusetts