Penrose Halson is the author of Marriages Are Made in Bond Street and this year, Penrose and her husband Bill joined us for a week in Tuscany for The Art of Writing. I was intrigued by Penrose’s story, the fascinating purchase of a Marriage Bureau and the subsequent stories and ultimately a book that she wrote from its archives. The stories in her book Marriages Are Made in Bond Street reveal the lives, expectations, yearnings and loves of the men returning home from the Second World War and the women who remained at home, searching for a partner in life that in those years were difficult to find.
It’s a beautiful book and its rise and rise in popularity has Penrose busy with Writers and Literary Festivals all over the UK. Not only has Penrose found herself to be a successful writer within the world of publishing long after retirement, but she’s also found herself the owner of a series of stories that are very likely to become a major TV series.
Here is a peek at the Marriages Are Made in Bond Street precis:
In the spring of 1939, with the Second World War looming, two determined twenty-four-year-olds, Heather Jenner and Mary Oliver, decided to open a marriage bureau. They found a tiny office on London’s Bond Street and set about the delicate business of match-making. Drawing on the bureau’s extensive archives, Penrose Halson – who many years later found herself the proprietor of the bureau – tells their story, and those of their clients. We meet a remarkable cross-section of British society in the 1940s: gents with a ‘merry twinkle’, potential fifth-columnists, nervous spinsters, isolated farmers seeking ‘a nice quiet affekshunate girl’ and girls looking ‘exactly’ like Greta Garbo and Vivien Leigh, all desperately longing to find ‘The One’. And thanks to Heather and Mary, they almost always did just that. A riveting glimpse of life and love during and after the war, Marriages Are Made in Bond Street is a heart-warming, touching and thoroughly absorbing account of a world gone by.
Gorgeous, just gorgeous. I love everything about this book and the story behind the author so I couldn’t help but ask Penrose to be a part of my Blog on writing. Here’s how Penrose’s life changed:
In 1986 Bill and I bought the Katharine Allen Marriage & Advice Bureau, established in 1960 by Betty Allen-Andrews, a formidable Irish-American woman who conducted her business by personal interview and letter. She wrote long, detailed, graphic letters, which I read with amazement as I tried to understand how the Marriage & Advice Bureau worked. Betty’s letters were full of stories.
In 1992 the daughter of Heather Jenner, who was then running the Marriage Bureau founded by her mother in 1939, faced with a 700% rent increase, was forced to close the bureau. She asked me to take over her clients, which I did. Later she gave me the bureau’s archives.
In 2014 the speaker at a meeting of the Freelance Media Group, run by a dear friend, novelist Jane Corry, was television development producer Tara Cook. She asked if anyone had ideas for television; I said I had a lot of marriage bureau stuff. Intrigued, Tara came to see the archive – ledgers, press cuttings books, photographs, documents, letters, which smelled mustily of the old barn where they had been stored for years. She read some of the Marriage & Advice Bureau stories that I’d written up fourteen years earlier; and eventually, to my bemusement, Carnival bought an option.
At the same time I dusted off those stories, which had been sitting in a drawer for 14 years while I was otherwise busy (mother with dementia; becoming Master of a City Livery Company) and sent them to an old friend, Katie James. Katie had always been interested since she was the step grand-daughter of Heather Jenner who founded the business. She also happened to work at Pan Macmillan; and unbeknown to me, she showed the stories to the Non-fiction Publishing Director, who called me in and said that she wanted to publish the book.
Having imagined that I would have to try to persuade her to consider a book, and that I would probably fail, I was fairly taken aback, but got on with it, beavering away for about a year. It was totally absorbing and I was gripped. Originally I had imagined a book covering the entire life of the two marriage bureaux, 1939 – 2000. However, there was so much fascinating material that Marriages Are made in Bond Street covers only 1939-49.
There is enough to fill more books, so if Marriages is successful enough to warrant sequels (which may of course depend on whether a television series materialises) I could still be writing when I’m pushing 90! I have always loved writing, and did a great deal early in my so-called career (innumerable educational language magazines, readers, courses for children learning languages, and children’s books, as Penrose Colyer). But a grown-up book such as Marriages is a far more complex and engrossing activity than Parlez Français avec Dougal
Such a lovely story. And I hope it inspires you all to keep writing and to keep believing in your ideas. You never know what can happen!
I also couldn’t resist this week adding some lovely comments I received today from an alumni member of The Art of Writing, Rose. “It’s incredible how the strength of connection that we all gained two years ago in those Casentino mountains still holds firm and true. Well done on creating something so special – it remains one of the most significant weeks of my life.” Rose’s comments, along with Penrose’s magical story inspire me to keep going!