On The Trail of Lady Dorothy Mills
by James Wallace Harris
What seems like a very long time ago, I found a tiny mention of a 1926 science fiction novel by a writer completely unknown to me. The book was Phoenix by Lady Dorothy Mills. Because I pride myself on my knowledge of science fiction history, this intrigued me. This About page is where I will chronicle my path tracking down information about Lady Dorothy Mills and her books. This is not an obsession, or even much of a quest, but it is a nice little hobby to discuss with fellow bookworms or write about from time to time.
In 1992 I subscribed to a fanzine called Futures Past, which attempted to be a serial history of science fiction. Each issue would cover one year in the chronology of the world of SF, starting with 1926. The first issue had a column, “Books of 1926” and it ran 31 one-paragraph descriptions of the SF/fantasy books published that year. Most of those books were destined to be forgotten. One of those forgotten books struck my attention, Phoenix by a Lady Dorothy Mills [Dorothy Rachael Melissa Mills (Walpole) 1889-1959]. The one paragraph summary went as follows:
Dr. Henry Antonius has developed a way to reverse the aging process. He enlists the aid of an elderly widow as his subject, and though long and painful, the experiment is a success. The (now young) woman returns home to England where she finds romance with a handsome young aristocrat. Meanwhile, Antonius has fallen in love with her himself and he becomes bitter and cruel at not being her chosen suitor. Animosities grow and by the end of the book the Doctor and his unrequited love have done each other in.
I have since found one other, fuller description of Phoenix from Science-Fiction: The Early Years by Everett F. Bleiler, a mammoth reference work that contains “A full description of more than 3,000 science-fiction stories from earliest times to the appearance of the genre magazines in 1930.” Bleiler calls Phoenix a “shopgirl romance.” Here is his synopsis of the novel:
On shipboard from Australia to England Mrs. Joanna Fersen, a wealthy widow, confides her life history to Dr. Henry Antonius. A beautiful woman with some stage experience when young, she married unfortunately, became widowed, and served as a domestic drudge for decades, until a few months ago a small investment in a gold mine exploded her into great wealth. But it is too late. She is sixty-five years old. Antonius in turn confides his secret to her: He has perfected a process for rejuvenating older people, but until now he has worked with animals. He needs a human subject. His treatment would bring her back to about age thirty-five physically. The process is long, painful, and risky, but Mrs. Fersen accepts. Two years later, she is the beautiful young Mrs. Fersen, courted in London society. She has found romance, and is engaged to marry Lord Morries. But all is not well. Antonius has fallen in love with her, and (since he is part Levantine and, the author feels, without true English honor) grows nasty. Indeed, in the later portions of the novel he may have gone mad with sexual frustration. News of Antonius's process spreads, and other rejuvenees, including a spiteful woman, make Mrs. Fersen's position with Morries precarious. When Morries learns that she is old enough to be his mother, romance dies. Both parties decide that they cannot risk marriage. Joanna and the other rejuvenees burn down Antonius's laboratory, and in retaliation he shoots her. Then himself. Literate in expression, but the values!
Not much of a story line, but it intrigued me. I started looking for the book, but had no luck. What I hoped at the time, was to find a forgotten novel that would be worth remembering, like Herland by Charlotte Perkins Gilman.
Then in 1996 I read Bruce Sterling’s Holy Fire, a novel about an elderly woman who is transformed by a rejuvenation treatment, and runs off to Europe to join the bohemian art and radical politics crowd. Seventy years later the idea has resurfaced. I’m quite sure that Sterling didn’t steal the idea, and assume that science fiction is based on reoccurring ideas that return again and again. Given time, ideas will be forgotten, and new writer will be inspired by following paths older writers took to reach similar conclusions. Imagine seventy years from now that Isaac Asimov’s The Foundation Trilogy might go out of print, and become forgotten. Further imagine a young writer gets the idea of applying The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire to a galactic history and writes a book. She won’t tell the same story, but the idea that sparks it will be from a similar inspiration.
How many forgotten classics are out there? Was H. G. Wells the first author to write about an alien invasion or the building of a time machine? I’ve since learn no.
Thinking about this made me want to find Phoenix all the more. By then the Internet was available, and so was ABEBooks.com. For years I’ve been keeping my eye out for this book trying to find it, but with no luck. I’m thinking it will make an interesting essay to compare how this idea is developed in the two novels. And I wonder, how many times has it been used before? Is H. Rider Haggard’s She another variation on the theme? And what about Lost Horizon by James Hilton? Both are different stories, but they have some common elements. In each case, did the writer think about what if an old woman could be made young again, how would she behave?
Once I returned to my search to find a copy of Phoenix I got interested in finding out more about the mysterious Lady Dorothy Mills. The Internet just gave me a couple of tantalizing glimpses. I’ve been able to buy three of her other books, including an autobiography. [10 books by 2004, 12 by 2012] Generally, they are priced beyond what I can spend. From what I can tell, Lady Mills was born to an aristocratic family, but gave up money and position for freedom and love of a common man. Or at least that’s the story she tells in A Different Drummer, Chapters in Autobiography. To make her own money, a new concept for Lady Mills, she wrote about her trips to Africa and sold them to magazines. I assume that single women visiting Africa in the 1920’s was exciting stuff and people were willing to pay to read about Lady Mill’s adventures.
I also own The Golden Land, 1929 which chronicles Lady Dorothy Mills travels in West Africa. [See photo above.] Her claim to fame was she was a white woman traveling alone on the dark continent, but her book clearly discusses other westerners, including women living in Africa. [See References for books on other adventurous women, which proves Lady Mills was hardly unique.] She claims her travels took her further inland than any other woman at the time. I don’t know if that is true. That’s part of the mystery, I don’t know what is true if I can’t find any other sources that discuss her life. Mills wrote several travel books, a handful of novels, and then disappeared. Why?
Now I had two ideas to deal with. The first deals with ideas for stories. My theory is that story ideas have a lifetime, and except for a very few books, most stories and their ideas are forgotten after a few years by the reading public. The second idea, is authors go through a similar cycle and become forgotten, and maybe even authors, like ideas, get recycled. Are there women writing today that have thrown off family wealth and glamour and gone off to make a living writing about doing things that women have never done before?
Thus, one short paragraph in an obscure magazine, has planted the seeds for many ideas to think and develop. Now I have a whole project to develop. I want to collect the works of Lady Dorothy Mills and analyze them. Is fiction just fiction, or does it represent clues to history? Clues to literary history for sure, but also to a personal history and philosophy. I also want to collect and compare the ideas in her novels with earlier and later novels. Ideas have a life of their own. I want to explore the nature of forgotten writers, and investigate the nature of minor writers. Most people who study literature, study major writers. I’m inclined to study minor writers. If you know anything about Lady Dorothy Mills please contact me at jameswallaceharris at outlook dot com.
I finally acquired Phoenix in 2002. By then I had bought a couple of her other books, and began reading about her other forgotten novels. I decided to track down them all. I now have six of her nine novels, all of her five travel books, and her memoir.
Reading this quote led me to track down both The Laughter of Fools and Dope Girls, the book that references it.
… The wildest orgies were the Carleton set’s snow panics, at one of which the actress herself did a mad dance to the accompaniment of a world-famous violinist. This fantasy derived from popular fiction caricaturing the bohemian avant-garde, the naked young girl recalls, in particular, the nubile artist’s model Macaiea in Lady Dorothy Mills’ The Laughter of Fools (Duckworth, London 1920). The novel tells the story of a young war widow whose aristocratic bohemian friend, ensconced in a room ‘like a hashish dream that has spent a weekend in Paris’, tells her to live in a studio and wear her hair off her forehead. She soon finds herself listening to a woman reading poetry in the backroom of a working men’s restaurant, or dancing at a party in a convened garage. The ringleader of the set is an artist with a weakness for women and opium. One of his protegees is the fourteen year-old Macaiea, who recites Swinburne’s ‘Atalanta’, is plied with drink, and does a Greek dance. She is eventually found half-drowned in a bowl of wine when an opium orgy is raided, along with a huge black man seated on a dais, smoking opium from a pipe with a skull-shaped bowl. The artist’s name happens to be Manning….[This chapter of Dope Girls tells the story of one Edgar Manning, a real life person, and Kohn points out that Lady Mills uses the name Manning in her novel.]
This quote out of Marek Kohn thrilling account of the British drug subculture after WWI, implies that Lady Mills is interested in the lurid side of life for writing an exciting novel, or maybe she writes from first hand experience from this pre-jazz age bohemian subculture. Did Lady Mills know Manning, or just read about him in the newspapers?
This goes to show you how poor the Internet is as a tool for research. It gives me one tantalizing taste and then leaves a cold trail. Visiting a brick and mortar library didn’t provide that much more information either. Lady Mills is listed in some minor Who’s Who type of books, and three of her travel books are mentioned in Book Review Digest from the 1920’s. She got mixed reviews. Some reviewers considered her travel books fun and informative, but one reviewer consistently said they were worthless.
I don’t have any solid evidence, but my hunch is Lady Dorothy Mills was a very minor writer who got published at the peripheral of the literary world. Probably most would-be writers would sell their souls to get fifteen books published, I know I’d be tempted. Writers like to think their work makes them immortal, but sadly even a moderate amount of success is quickly forgotten.
My next line of research will be to search out Lady Mills periodical publications, but I’m guessing if she published shorter works, they will be in minor magazines which will be hard to track down. Reader’s Guide to Periodical Literature had no mention of her.
The most current reference I can find for Lady Mills is from British Women Fiction Writers 1900-1960 volume one, edited by Harold Bloom. When I ordered this book, Amazon listed her name with it, but unfortunately, Lady Mills isn’t one of the featured writers, but the book includes a book review of hers (2/18/26) from the Times Literary Supplement on Violent Hunt’s The Flurried Years. That one reference gives me hope that Lady Mills got published in other journals and newspapers and I might be able to track down further information about her.