Born Annie Ross Pearn.
Literary agents work behind the scenes. They are known in the industry but their names rarely appear in the mainstream press. For thirty years, Nancy Pearn was one of the best, a born author’s agent who specialised in placing the work of her clients in magazines and newspapers. She acted for some of the biggest names in early 20th century literature including Winston Churchill, Dylan Thomas, Graham Greene, Virginia Woolf, Stella Gibbons, A.A. Milne, H.G. Wells and Dorothy L Sayers, championing their writing and negotiating lucrative deals on their behalf. But while their names and stories live on, hers have vanished.
Born in Jamaica, in 1892 to an American father and a British mother, Nancy was an only child. Her parents divorced in April 1900, her father re-married almost immediately (i.e. three weeks later..) and started a second family. Nancy and her mother came back to Sculcoates in Hull. She went to high school in Yorkshire and then spent some time abroad, where she picked up a good working knowledge of French and German. During the first world war she worked in a hospital and when the war was over she trained a secretary.
It was the combination of secretarial and language skills that got Nancy her first job after the First World War, when she would already have been at least 26. It happened to be in a literary agent’s office, Hughes Massie. The profession of literary agent was a relatively young one when Nancy joined its ranks. She next applied for a job as a secretary to a ‘dramatic author’ who ‘happened to be part of a literary agency’. It is not clear who this was but it seems like Fate was calling her.
In 1922, she was offered a job by Albert Curtis Brown (who during the war had been in partnership with Hughes Massie). ‘Since then’, she wrote in 1936, ‘I have been connected with this work in almost every capacity – with the notable exception of the Accounting department, which has always preferred to have me on the money-making side rather than the one responsible for the actual processes of book-keeping.’
Given her rapid success, it is not surprising her employers wanted her to keep bringing in the cash. When David Higham joined Curtis Brown in 1924, Nancy Pearn was already ‘queen of the magazines and newspapers’. He wrote that she had the love and respect of the authors she represented and the editors she worked with. ‘She had skill to match her charm: her authors throve accordingly.’
Nancy was very clear about what was needed for success: ‘It is not enough to be ‘fond of reading’ or just to be ‘interested in writers… A business sense is ..vital in this profession.’ This is because she, like every agent, works on commission – in her case it was 10%. So obviously it was in her own interests to negotiate well on her clients’ behalf with a view to both immediate business and long-term potential. This is why she put some emphasis on what she described as ‘selective instinct’ – choosing the right market for a particular manuscript, the right publisher for a given author and, most important the right moment for ‘just that move in the game which will help the author to obtain not only the immediate advantage of a better contract, but also the advancement of his aims in general.’
Nancy spent her career ensuring her client’s words were read. Her own, at least the published ones are, sadly, relatively sparse. Her official archives, held in the United States, comprise just 45 letters and cards she received from the many clients she represented. Her letters are scattered across the archives of her clients, but are seldom published: usually we read letters written to her so have to imagine her side of the conversation. She describes her attitude to work in ‘The Road To Success: Twenty Essays on the Choice of Career for Women’, published in 1936, where she wrote on ‘Literary Agency.’
However, it is probably through her relationship with D.H. Lawrence, where in a voluminous correspondence occasionally her letters to him are published alongside his to her, that we get the best picture of Nancy, encouraging, cajouling. pestering, joking with the best interests of her client top of mind.
D.H. Lawrence was a client of Curtis Brown and Nancy started working with him to generate income from magazines and newspapers in 1924 (in his first few letters to her he addressed her as ‘Miss Pearse’). Even though she didn’t know him well, Nancy uses a chatty style from the start, suggesting this was her normal way of interacting. On 29th May 1924, she writes to him in Mexico:
“Dear Mr Lawrence, I am so glad on this sunshiny day – and you know London can have perfectly beautiful Spring days now and again – to be able to send to you the good news that we have just placed ‘The Border Line’ with Hutchinsons Magazine…”
And here she is a few months later telling him the story he sent was too long:
“Dear Mr Lawrence, I was a little scared when I realised the length of the new story – between twelve and thirteen thousand words..”
She goes on to tell him that the magazine wants to edit it, reminding him at the end how much he is getting paid. He reluctantly agrees. Their relationship became a close one: she would start her letters ‘Dear darling Mr Lawrence’ when she thought he might get cross as he read further.
By 1926 Lawrence was describing Curtis Brown’s ‘magazine girl’ as ‘quite golden’. In early 1927, she was a close observer of his attempts to complete Lady Chatterley’s Lover and get it published. His decision to organise this privately and work directly with a printer to publish it cut his agents out of the picture (and any profits). No wonder he wrote to Nancy from Florence on 1st April 1928: ‘You hear I am burning my boats by publishing my ‘shocking’ novel here all by myself. I expect everybody will disapprove – you certainly will.’
However, if anything, the realisation that this book could make life very difficult for Lawrence made Nancy even more committed to shoring up his financial security. She persuaded him to write newspaper articles that would build his brand with the ‘GBP’ – Great British Public – and drive higher book sales. He bought her argument and got to work, with his first column published on 8th May of that year. The Evening News was delighted with the response and Nancy was able to negotiate an exclusive deal at a higher rate.
Lawrence acknowledged her importance in June 1928: a recent positive review of his novel-writing was a ‘little boost’ but ‘I believe I am more likely to make my living by your ‘periodical’ efforts, really’. She negotiated him deals to review books for Vogue and tried to persuade him to do a broadcast with the B.B.C. as ‘we have found that broadcasting really is quite a useful and dignified bit of publicity’. A letter he writes her on 30th October lists his responses to possible jobs for the Evening News, Film Weekly, the Sunday Dispatch (writing on ‘What is Sex Appeal?’), the Daily Express and Vanity Fair.
But by 1929, Lawrence was ill with tuberculosis and his health was starting to fail. Nancy carried on placing his essays and reviews but in January 1930, Lawrence wrote to her colleague, Laurence Pollinger, from Bandol in the south of France, that he was lying in bed or on the terrace, watching the sea and the white foam, doing no work and barely seeing anyone apart from his wife and step-daughter. Nancy, who perhaps saw the letter first, wrote on the bottom: ‘I’m very depressed about him’. Just over a month later, he was dead and a little-known literary partnership came to an end.
Nancy wrote in 1936 that ‘the agent’s job is to sell what her authors write’, taking over and organising their literary work and leaving them ‘free to concentrate on the writing itself’. We can see from her relationship with Lawrence that this is not quite the whole story: by opening up new income-earning opportunities, she was also influencing what was being written.
In 1927, D.H. Lawrence wrote to a friend that he wished his stories appealed to ‘magazines which really pay’ like Good Housekeeping. Alice Head, the editor of Good Housekeeping and Nash’s magazine relied on a strong literary offer and was willing to pay well for great content. A clear example of collaboration between editor, agent and author is the series of six essays Virginia Woolf wrote for Good Housekeeping in 1931, now known collectively as ‘The London Scene’. In working on this deal, Nancy ensured that Alice secured a prestigious name and Virginia Woolf was well-paid, getting £50 for each essay from Good Housekeeping compared to £30 from the Times Literary Supplement and £15 from the Times.
Alice clearly valued this ‘extremely able woman, full of ideas and with many lovable characteristics. If she sometimes has too many ideas, she is entirely good-tempered when I protest I am overwhelmed.’ In 1932, James Wedgwood Drawbell, writer and editor of the Sunday Chronicle wrote ‘A Gallery of Women’ where he profiled twenty notable women of the 1930s, including Alice, Viscountess Rhondda, Greta Garbo and Amy Johnson. He dedicated it to the woman he saw as the 21st, Nancy.
On Friday 9th August 1935, a notice appeared in the Daily Telegraph personal column:
‘Miss Nancy Pearn announces that she has joined forces with Laurence Pollinger and David Higham, who have commenced business as LITERARY AGENTS..under the name PEARN, POLLINGER & HIGHAM.’
Albert Curtis Brown had been planning to bring his son, Spencer, into the agency. Nancy, Laurence Pollinger and David Higham were less than keen to be managed by someone ten years their junior and started to plan a counter-offer but they were busted before they could make their move. Pollinger and Higham were fired and Nancy resigned the following week.
They started working from Higham’s flat in Fitzroy Square and eventually ended up in offices on the corner of Bedford Street and Maiden Lane, over The Lady. By the end of 1935 around 300 authors had shifted across from Curtis Brown and the new agency was a roaring success.
While Nancy clearly had a good relationship with D.H. Lawrence, dealing with authors was not always easy. One of the most important qualities a good agent needed was ‘a considerable amount of patience – be it natural or acquired!’ Maybe she was thinking of this stroppy letter from H.G. Wells, written to her when she was still at Curtis Brown…
H.G. Wells by Claud Lovat Fraser
charcoal and wash, 1910s?
NPG 5071 © National Portrait Gallery, London
47, Chiltern Court, Clarence Gate NW1
16th July 1932
Dear Miss Pearn
What is all this nonsense about my autobiography? How did it arise? I haven’t the slightest intention of writing an autobiography and if I had I should not entrust the marketing to Curtis Brown & co. Will you please stop this sort of meddling about with my prospective work. I must point out to you that you have no authorization to to tout about in my name, offering books & articles & then coming to me with proposals.
(He had already begun working on a two-volume autobiography which would be published in 1934.)
In her list of qualities, Nancy highlighted that being able to appear interested in whatever was occupying your clients was critical: a successful agent needed to be ‘equally interested in the placing of a poem and in the negotiation of the Memoirs of an ex-Prime Minister – whichever way round the reader chooses to assess the cosmic importance thereof!’
Occasionally clients found her too interested: A A Milne (jokingly?) wrote her a poem about how difficult it was to respond to the commissions she was busy generating:
“O Nancy Pearn, O Nancy Pearn
I often wish I had to burn
The money you would have me earn
Yet will you never understand
That golden offers from The Strand
Which leave the Householder unmanned
Affect the Author not at all
Whose lightest thought, whose simplest scrawl
Must wait upon the Muse’s call?”
By A.A. Milne, 19th Feb 1935
Through Dorothy L Sayers we get an insight into another critical requirement for a successful literary agent. Nancy described it as ‘a sense of balance’ to avoid being wrong-footed ‘even when the clash of opposing interests is greatest’ but perhaps she might have added a willingness to be cast as bad cop.
Towards the end of the war, Noel Coward was out in India and put on a performance at the Viceroy’s House in New Delhi for Lord Wavell. Word made its way back to Dorothy L Sayers that Coward had recited one of Dorothy L Sayer’s poems – without permission… Was this true? she asked Lord Wavell in a letter: even though she would not ask for a fee if the performance was for the Forces, ‘one does expect people to go through the formality of fumbling in the pocket.’ She went on to claim that ‘Nancy Pearn…came out all over bristles when the report reached her, and prepared to go gunning for Mr Coward.’ This description of an all-guns-blazing Nancy sounds a little unlikely but it was certainly a convenient way of ensuring a shot was fired across the bow.
Indeed it seems Dorothy was happy for Nancy, or ‘Bun’ as she called her, to stand in the way of the bullets as well as shoot them.
6th March 1945: ‘Dear Bun, Here is the thing for the Radio Times, confound them! It is not in the least what they want… but they can either like it or lump it…’
29th September 1947: ‘Dear Bun, I think you are the best person to say, kindly but firmly to the enterprising Mr H. A. Bland (enclosed) that I have no time to write a serial for his parish magazine, and that anyhow he would find it an expensive business, even if I wanted to write about female saints, which I don’t!’
Nancy remained in London throughout the war. When she had lunch with James Wedgwood Drawbell in September 1940, she told him she now had the use of George Newnes’s offices during the day if there was a raid: she and her staff just nipped along the street where they had their own corner in the basement. Perhaps this offer came from her friend Alice Head, who had recently moved back to work for George Newnes as the editor of Homes and Garden and a director of Country Life.
Nancy eventually moved out of London and down to Ifield but was still very much hard at work when she died in 1950 from cancer at the age of just 58.
Clemence Dane, (the pen name of Winifred Ashton and one of Britain’s less well-known Oscar winners) wrote that her death came as ‘a grief and shock to a whole generation of writers’ who had lost ‘a great champion.’.
She was ‘at once practical, enthusiastic and constructive, and so open to new ideas that editors and authors alike found her the ideal go-between…her world was her office; but of that office she made a home where anyone..was welcomed, helped and heartened.’
Without her in the office to keep the peace, Laurence and David eventually fell out and in 1958 they agreed to go their separate ways. Laurence Pollinger and his son left to set up their own firm under the name of Laurence Pollinger Ltd and David Higham took the opportunity to rebrand as David Higham Associates. And so the name of Pearn disappeared from the literary landscape.
In her 1936 essay, Nancy wrote that: ‘there is no one quality more necessary than a natural elasticity and adaptability to the varying personalities with whom she will eventually come into contact.’ Given the stellar roster of literary talents (and egos) Nancy worked with over her thirty years, with all their quirks and demands, she would know and perhaps as their archives continue to be published, we will find out more about the fabulous Nancy Pearn.
I am very grateful to Lesley Pollinger for the help she has given me with this entry.
Sources include: The Times 16/11/1950; ‘Literary Agency’ by Nancy Pearn in The Road to Success by Margaret Cole (1936) P.88-97; ‘It Could Never Have Happened’ by Alice M. Head (1939); ‘Literary Gent’ by David Higham (1978); ‘The Letters of DH Lawrence’ Vol 5 ed James T Boulton and Lindeth Vasey; Vol 6 ed James T Boulton and Margaret H Boulton with Gerald M Lacy; Vol 7 ed. Keith Sagar and James T. Boulton; The Essays of Virginia Woolf Vol 5 ed. Andrew McNeillie and Stuart N Clarke; ‘The Long Year’ by James Wedgwood Drawbell (1958); The Letters of Dorothy L Sayers Vol 3 ed Barbara Reynolds.