Photograph of Alison Lindsay with Jane ShawThe Jane Shaw Archive

Alison Lindsay writes:

When I began my research into the life and work of Jane Shaw, I was fortunate enough to make contact with her, and enjoy her friendship for a number of years. Following her death, her family allowed me to look through her surviving literary and business papers, which have now been deposited in the National Library of Scotland. The papers include a number of unpublished stories, which can be found in Susan and Friends - they also shed a great deal of light on her working processes and relations with her various publishers, as well as revealing her as a thoroughly professional writer.

Jane Shaw was born Jeannie Bell Shaw Patrick in Glasgow on 3 December 1910, daughter of Dr John Patrick and his wife Margaret, neé Shaw. Educated first by a governess and then at the Park School, Jean moved on to Glasgow University in 1928, and graduated with Honours in English Literature and Language in 1932. After a year or two in London, Jean returned to Glasgow to work for the old-established publishing firm William Collins and Sons. One of the editors there, Jocelyn Oliver, encouraged her to write by promising that, if she could finish a book, he would publish it. This was Breton Holiday (1939), published a year after her marriage to Robert Evans, an accountant then living in London but who, like Jean, came from Glasgow.

The Evans settled in the top floor flat of 11 College Road, Dulwich, which, as 12 Tollgate Road, Jean later bestowed on the Carmichael family in her Susan books. There were eventually eleven books in this, her best-known series, published between 1952 (Susan Pulls the Strings) and 1969 (A Job for Susan), as well as four short stories published in Collins’ annuals. Jean’s papers reveal that a twelfth title, Susan in Trouble, was planned, although only the first chapter was written. This book would have taken Susan to New York, a city Jean visited in the 1960s when her daughter was working there. This fragment and the four Susan short stories are included in Susan and Friends.

The war years saw the birth of Jean’s first child, Jane, and a son, Ian, although the family had to cope with being bombed out of their much-loved Dulwich home. Robert remained in London but Jean and her children led a somewhat nomadic life, staying with friends in Bath and Kent (settings later employed in her books), before they were fortunately able to return to Dulwich after the war. In 1952 Robert took up a job in South Africa, and Jean, with Jane and Ian, sailed to join him. Once settled in Johannesburg, Jean quickly found work at the nearby Children’s Bookshop. Working full-time in the bookshop meant that Jean could only write in the evenings and weekends. Her son Ian remembers Jean sitting with her family in the living room, balancing a lined writing tablet and a few pencils on her knee, and eventually typing the final manuscript on a flimsy portable on the dining room table. Several manuscripts amongst her papers are written on these large, inexpensive tablets in her characteristic round hand, and show that Jean made very few alterations between first draft and finished typescript. Plots were evidently well worked out before she began writing, and changes are usually limited to the substitution of a more telling phrase.

Jean managed to make a return trip to Switzerland from South Africa in 1955, and her journal of the trip shows that she was already planning to use this as the setting for Susan Interferes (1957) since the first pages carry drafts of several scenes in the book. Jean spent two weeks at Weggis on Lake Lucerne with Katherine McGowan, an old friend from Glasgow, and Katherine’s friend Mary Hill Jack; Susan Interferes is dedicated to the two women. This is the most comprehensive diary in the papers (although Jean also kept notes on the voyage to South Africa and the Evans’ subsequent holiday trips round that country), and the one which it is easiest to trace in her subsequent writings.

As political troubles in South Africa grew in the 1960s, friends in Scotland became alarmed for the safety of the family, and their letters speak of their concerns. However, it was not until 1978, and Robert’s retirement, that Jean and her husband left South Africa, and moved back to Scotland to renew their acquaintance with friends from their Glasgow and Arran days. They bought a bungalow in Arran, part of a new development named Balmichael, in the Shiskine valley. At Robert’s request the builder reversed the plans so that the sitting room looked north up the valley towards Goatfell, which they knew so well from their childhood stays; Jean never tired of the view from this window. Robert died very suddenly in 1987, and Jean carried on living by herself at Balmichael, absorbed in reading (including her life-long favourite Jane Austen as well as vast quantities of detective stories) and needlepoint. Family and friends kept in close touch, and Jean especially enjoyed the visits of her children Jane and Ian, and the latter’s daughter Kim, her only grandchild. After a very short illness, Jean died in her sleep on 19 November 2000; she and Robert now lie buried beside each other in the little cemetery at Shiskine.

Jean Evans’ papers illuminate her life as a writer - and as a person held in much affection by family, publishers and friends. It is fitting that, after accompanying her half-way round the globe on her temporary exile to South Africa, they return to the country which she always considered her home, and to permanent preservation in Scotland’s National Library. The one dissenting voice to that might well have been Jean’s, since she was invariably modest, if not disparaging, about her own work. But as an insight into the mind of a writer who gave a great deal of pleasure and amusement to several generation of readers, they merit nothing less.

Photograph: Jane Shaw with Alison Lindsay by Ernest Marchand

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