b. 1921 – d. 2020
Ursula Holden was elected as a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature in 2010.
Ursula Holden was novelist and short story writer. Born in Dorset, she lived in Egypt, Dublin and London throughout her life. Heralded by the Times as ‘one of the most seriously radiant new English writers,’ her Tin Toys trilogy was re-released in 2013 to wide critical acclaim.
Ursula Holden remembered – by Andrew Hewson
It was Alan Ross who recognised in Ursula’s spare and flinty prose the uniqueness of her voice. I still remember how stoically she bore all the rejections of her first novel and her joy when I wrote to tell her the small but highly distinguished list of London Magazine Editions had made an offer to publish Endless Race. To celebrate, Alan gave Ursula lunch. At this first meeting she was nervous, lit a cigarette and set fire to her corner of the paper tablecloth. She corresponded with Alan even after she had left his list until his death in 2001. In a volume of his memoirs, Coastwise Lights, he lists four of the novelists whose careers he launched, Ursula among them.
Born into rather a grand family, she would later say that her childhood years were not happy. Educated by a governess until she was eleven, she scraped School Certificate at Guildford High School, her sense of failure enforced by the headmistress’ parting shot, ‘Well, Ursula, there’s not much to be said for you.’
She joined the WRNs in 1940 and loved living and working with people from vastly different backgrounds to her own – ‘real people’ in her words. Reluctant to return to the class-conscious world of her childhood, she joined her grandmother in Donegal before moving to Dublin, where she shocked her family by working as a life model at the art school.
Aged 26, she married William Dixon. There were difficulties in the marriage. In 1952, the family moved from Dublin to Chiswick, where a third daughter was born. Divorced in 1970, she lived at the same address until she was 89, when she moved to a care home.
In 1968 she enrolled in a creative writing course. The tutor, Paul Sheridan, recognising that she had a singular talent, and under the pretence that she was researching for a book, secured a ticket for her for the typing room at the old British Library. Ursula would spend a great deal of her writing life in a booth she adopted as her own, with a locker for her portable typewriter. Like many writers, she found that this private time afforded an escape from domesticity and a few hours with her muse. When her ticket was not renewed, her garden shed became her writing sanctuary.
In 1978 Alan Ross agreed to my moving her novels to the Methuen list where Bob Woodings and Elsbeth Lindner became her enthusiastic publishers. In 1979 Methuen opened an office in New York and the gifted Marion Wheeler introduced Ursula to an American readership, bringing out Fallen Angels and simultaneously her latest, The Cloud Catchers. Both volumes received great praise, critics hailing the author as a notable newcomer. She was 58.
This burst of attention Ursula took in her stride, barely acknowledging it and heading off once more to the typing room to work on a succession of novels that were all published by Methuen. Ursula was commissioned by Virago to write introductions for three reprints of Barbara Comyns’ novels. She and Barbara were close friends. The Virago connection led Donna Coonan, editing Virago Modern Classics, to reissue three novels of Ursula’s as Tin Toys Trilogy. Ursula practised her viola at the care home. Until 2015 she wrote intermittently for The Oldie.