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Obituary of Dorothy Vernon Horace Smith, The Times, 28 August 1967


Novelist's widow and writer

Mrs. Hale White, widow of "Mark Rutherford", the Victorian novelist, died yesterday at the age of 90.

Dorothy Vernon Horace Smith was born in Bromley, Kent, on January 31, 1877, the daughter of Horace Smith, metropolitan magistrate and minor poet. Physically a healthy girl, famed in her county as a demon over-arm bowler in an era of lobs and long skirts, she suffered in youth from a searing sense of sin. She had always, she once wrote, been religiously inclined, "though not always wholesomely so", and at 22 she "passed through a dark cloud ; but God had been with me in the cloud, and I came out of it with the desire for service". Service for the next forty years, except for the brief interlude of her marriage, meant running classes and clubs for working-class children on Church of England principles. her understanding of young people and her complete freedom from cant or priggishness come out clearly in her two books about her work, Twelve years with my boys (anonymous, 1912) and The Children's Parish (1934). The qualities which especially endeared her to her pupils were an indestructible innocence and faith in human nature, and a bubbling sense of fun. A favourite word of the heroines of her Edwardian novels remained a favourite with her to the end of her life : she liked everything to be "jolly".

In 1907 Dorothy Smith's first novel, Miss Mona, fell into the hands of William Hale White, who thought it full of faults but determined to meet its author. The outcome of the meeting is well known to readers of biographies of Mark Rutherford. She was thirty, he was seventy-five ; they fell in love at first sight ; three and a half years later he rose from his invalid couch to marry her ; two years later he died. The joys and stresses of these few years of intimacy are describes, almost day by day, in her book The Groombridge Diary (1924), a book which explicitly contains only diary extracts pertinent to their mutual relationship : the omissions, many readers must have felt, and her other diaries, ought one day to be published if only to prove what is already implicit between the lines, that Dorothy was a fascinating personality in her own right, quite apart from her association with a distinguished novelist.

Meanwhile she had herself published two other novels Frank Burnet in 1909 and Isabel in 1911. The former, which an American critic described not long ago a "possibly a masterpiece", is a moral fable about weakness and strength of character, written with great intelligence and gusto. Isabel is a somewhat disquieting book about a husband-hunting miss, curiously cynical from so generous minded a writer, but a singularly observed picture of middle-class suburban life in the early years of the century : the author seems to have been working off the discontents of her young spinsterhood before entering in maturity and confidence, upon a marriage which could have had no charms for her flighty heroine.

After her husband's death Mrs White returned to live with her parents in Beckenham and later in Sherborne, Dorset. Apart from the books already mentioned she did no more writing. She was not, as Hale White early remarked, a particularly "literary" person : her energies went into her "children's parish". A few years ago a friend asked a local contractor whether he would do some small necessary job in her house and do it quietly, quickly and cheaply. "Mrs. White?", replied this former parishioner, now a prosperous forty ; "why, I'd do anything for Mrs. White, she taught me how to play cricket". It was more of a tribute than the mere words imply.