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Edith L. Elias: A Short Biography

Edith Lea Elias (1879-1952) was born in Liverpool, the daughter of ship's chandler, John Lumsden Morice, and his wife, Mary Ann Lea, and the niece of John Lea, a Liverpool colliery owner, coal merchant, and, from 1904-05, Lord High Mayor of Liverpool. She was educated at the School for Girls, Grove Street, Liverpool, and at University College, Liverpool, Victoria University (subsequently Liverpool University), where she earned her BA in 1899, and her MA in 1902. She married boys' school story author Frank Elias, who later also wrote Suffolk-based adult novels under the pseudonym John Owen. Edith and Frank settled in Felixstowe soon after the end of World War I. After Frank’s death in 1949. Edith moved from Felixstowe to Merseyside to live with her sister. Edith died in 1952.

Between 1909 and 1947 Edith wrote many children’s books, 25 at the last count, but probably a fair number more. One of the most substantial of these was The Book of Polar Exploration published in 1928. In her research for this book she amassed a large collection of books which, on her death, she bequeathed to the Scott Polar Institute in Cambridge.

I love travelling, seeing different countries and meeting different ethnicities, but I have never had a desire to go to the North or South Poles! But for hundreds of years these places fascinated explorers. To begin with they were seeking alternative trade routes and then they wanted to unravel the mysteries of these forbidding places. A drive to explore was so strong that they all risked their lives doing so.

Edith’s book on these explorers was clearly very well researched, but it was written in an easy style which makes it a real page turner. She also comes over as a kind person; she was distressed to hear about the necessary killing of the hard-working dogs that pulled the sledges through the snow and ice for the explorers, when the men had run out of other food. The men themselves, of course, hated having to kill them too. At one point she mentions some of the first explorers meeting the Eskimos and worrying about causing them to be afraid or angry, and so they decided to use music on their first confrontation, by singing and playing instruments. And it worked! Music is an international language.

The book is illustrated with drawings and some photographs, which must have been difficult to take in those days. By the end of the book sledges and dogs are giving way to aeroplanes! She finishes with the attempt by Captain Scott to be the first to reach the South Pole, only to be beaten by the Norwegian Amundsen, who of course probably had a lot more experience of surviving cold weather.

Edith clearly enjoyed writing for children. One of her earliest books was Margaret and the Currant Bunny published in 1920. This book I found more difficult to read, because I thought it needed some editing, as the story was sometimes difficult to follow. It reminded me of Alice in Wonderland and the Narnia books, which were also full of fantastic situations. The characterisations are quite good. The main character, Margaret, with the help of her new friends, who she meets on her journey, is trying to find a silver key to help her escape from the place in which she finds herself; she wants to go home. The book is about their adventures on the way. One thing that might have made the book more of a publishing success is if it had been better illustrated. There are a few illustrations, but they are not contributing a great deal to helping the child to gauge what is happening. I truly believe that children love pictures in books and that the illustrations are nearly as important as the text in helping the child understand the story. How many of us remember The Wind in the Willows through the eyes of E. H. Shephard or Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland through the eyes of the many talented people who illustrated the story, especially Arthur Rackham? Both these books are out of print, unfortunately; but old copies can still be discovered online and I found both very interesting and enjoyable to read.

Stephanie Ryland


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