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Marchant, Bessie (1862–1941)

Marchant, Bessie (1862–1941)

Prolific British author of adventure tales for children . Name variations: Elizabeth Comfort; Bessie Marchant Comfort; (pseudonym) John Comfort. Born on December 12, 1862, in Petham, Kent, England; died in Charlbury, Oxfordshire, England, on November 10, 1941; daughter of William Marchant (a farmer) and Jane (Goucher) Marchant; married Jabez Ambrose Comfort (a minister), on December 28, 1889 (died 1915); children: Constance (1891).

Selected writings:

The Old House by the Water (1894); Yuppie (1898); Cicely Frome, The Captain's Daughter (1900); A Heroine of the Sea (1903); Athabasca Bill (1906); Juliette, The Mail Carrier (1907); A Countess from Canada (1910); A Girl of the Northland (1912); A Girl Munitions Worker (1916); A Dangerous Mission (1918); The Fortunes of Prue (1923); To Save Her School (1925); Millicent Gwent, Schoolgirl (1926); How Nell Scored (1929); Jane Fills the Breach (1932); Erica's Ranch (1934); Nancy Afloat (1936); Waifs of Woolamoo (1938).

Bessie Marchant wrote juvenile adventure fiction that was remarkable for the daring and cleverness of her young heroines. In her nearly 150 published titles, she also introduced readers to far-away locales and exotic escapades, a fact made perhaps even more remarkable because Marchant probably never ventured far from the English countryside where she spent her 78 years. Born in the Kent town of Petham in 1862, Marchant was educated primarily at home, although she may have attended a National School for a time. She had a brother and a sister, and she also attended school with the former in Canterbury so that she could become a teacher. Her family suffered from financial hardships, in part because of their Baptist religion. At one point Marchant's father was forced to give up his rented farm, the source of his livelihood, because of his beliefs. Some of these events Marchant would later use in her 1898 novel Yuppie.

As a young woman, Marchant taught at a Baptist school in London, and married a Baptist minister, Jabez Ambrose Comfort, when she was

27. Comfort was 28 years her senior, and with him she had one daughter, Constance, who was born in 1891. She had apparently been writing for some years before her marriage but, perhaps in need of extra income, began writing more seriously when her daughter was a toddler. Her first books were set in the Kent of her youth, and featured the usual moral messages imparted to young readers in all works of fiction during the Victorian era, among which was that honesty and hard work bring their own rewards. Soon, though, Marchant recognized a niche in the children's market that was relatively unfulfilled for the female reader: in this era of the vaunted British Empire, most children heard tales of, and from, relatives or neighbors sent off to exotic lands as military personnel, missionaries, or civil servants. She began writing adventure stories, featuring the usual intrepid English girl who found herself in a scrape in some far-off setting such as Borneo or Brazil.

Literary historians theorize that Marchant never ventured far from her home in Charlbury, Oxfordshire, where she lived in a place called Gothic House from 1904 onward. Instead she read voraciously, and also conducted research at Oxford University's famed Bodleian Library. Some details about life abroad were culled from National Geographic magazine, and she also corresponded with fans of her books from around the world who provided her with true-life accounts of poisonous snakes and blinding snowstorms. Marchant's books also reflected the changing geopolitical realities of her time. In A Girl Munitions Worker (1916), the heroine is employed in a factory during World War I, and A Dangerous Mission (1918) takes place during the Russian Revolution.

Marchant wrote for young women in Victorian and post-Victorian England who, despite their taste for adventure fiction, were expected to devote their future lives to their husband and children. Few women traveled independently or found themselves in such fantastical situations as her heroines did, and characters like "Di the Dauntless" and "Marta the Mainstay" were reunited in the end with the more settled goals of marriage and motherhood. Typically, one of her girl adventurers receives this compliment: "But you can do so many things no boy or man can ever manage, housekeeping and all that sort of work." Yet Marchant was also conscious of the hardships faced by women at the time who did not have the necessary protection of a male family member; in some instances, her fiction depicted young women at risk simply because of the absence of legal remedies or lack of control over their economic status. A Girl of the Northland (1912) is one example: the heroine's father is gone, and though the family owns valuable land with copper stores in it, they cannot profit from the resource because of his absence and so are forced to live in poverty.

Marchant wrote some books under the pseudonym John Comfort, and was sometimes compared with another juvenile adventure-fiction writer, G.A. Henty, whose stories were loved by boys of the era. Although her books were quite popular, she earned little money and considered herself successful if three or four publishing houses each accepted one of her books per year. Bessie Marchant remained a devout Baptist all of her life, and would sing a doxology, or hymn of praise, when she completed a novel. She died at the age of 79 in 1941.

sources:

Blain, Virginia, Patricia Clements, and Isobel Grundy. The Feminist Companion to Literature in English. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1990.

Brinkley-Willsher, Valerie. Twentieth-Century Children's Writers. 4th ed. Edited by Laura Standley Berger. Detroit, MI: St. James Press, 1995.

Hettinga, Donald R. "Bessie Marchant," in Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 160: British Children's Writers, 1914–1960. Detroit, MI: Gale Research, 1996, pp. 166–169.

Major, Alan. "Bessie Marchant," in This England. Winter 1991, pp. 30–33.

Carol Brennan , Grosse Pointe, Michigan

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