I’m always looking for something to read, and I enjoy finding a new (to me) author and reading the entire canon. And it doesn’t do any harm if they’re free, either, which usually means a visit to archive.org or gutenberg.org. My most recent discovery is a writer with the unusual name of Mrs Oliver Onions, better known to the reading public as Berta Ruck.
Amy Roberta Ruck was born in India to a British Army Colonel and his wife, one of eight children. The family moved to Wales, where Ruck attended school in Bangor. In 1909, at the age of 31, she married Oliver Onions. Onions was a novelist, and Ruck had already begun writing for magazines, so it must been a very literary household. Sons Oliver and William followed in 1912 and 1913 respectively, and a year later her first novel was published. This was called ‘His Official Fiancée’ and I was fascinated to discover it contained the earliest instance that I’ve encountered of that now well-known trope, a fake engagement to the boss:
“I wish it to appear to everybody—to my family, to my acquaintances, to the people in this office—that I am actually engaged,” he explained. “ I wish to find someone who, to outward appearances, could take the place of my fiancée; could go about with me, stay at my home, and be introduced all round as the girl I meant to marry. She must understand from the very beginning that it was absolutely a matter of business; that the so-called ‘engagement’ would terminate at the end of the year, and that there could be no possible question of its ending in marriage. If I found this lady, I would make it worth her while; paying her at the rate of ten pounds a week for her services. You follow me, Miss Trant ? ”
I began to “follow,” but I could scarcely believe that he really intended to carry out this mysterious scheme. It was more like the plot of a Gilbert and Sullivan opera than any “business” I’d ever heard of in real life. Still more incredible was what came next.
“It seemed to me from the first that the most suitable person for the post would be—yourself.”
“Me?” I echoed, aghast. Oh, this was getting out of comic opera, and into the realms of nightmare ! Was he really suggesting that I-
“ Yes; you, Miss Trant. You are a lady in every essential, if I may say so, of looks and manner. You seem to possess the gift of making yourself generally liked. You’re distinctly intelligent, in spite of your work, which is -” here for one instant a gleam of what looked almost like humour seemed to flash from the Governor’s eyes. But it was gone again so swiftly that I couldn’t be sure whether it had ever been there. I must have been mistaken. He went on imperturbably: “I am a very fair judge of character, and I believe you to be trustworthy. As a mark of my confidence in you, I shall pay into your account the whole sum of five hundred pounds so soon as you let me know that you consent to enter into this arrangement.”
John (Still) Waters’ cold-blooded proposal should merit a swift reproof from Miss Monica Trant but unfortunately her brother Jack, in Africa, has got in a bit of a muddle with the firm’s accounts and urgently needs a hundred pounds. Accordingly, Monica embarks on an embarrassing, sometimes comic engagement at the end of which (plot spoiler ahead) John decides he really does wish to marry her. If you’d like to find out what happens, the full text is on ww.archive.org, along with several other titles.
Ruck had begun her career as an artist and illustrator, but after switching to fiction wrote over 90 romances. These span the years 1914 to 1967’s ‘Shopping for a Husband’, as well as some autobiography and short stories. Berta Ruck had strong family connections with Merionethshire and lived in Aberdyfi from 1939 until her death in 1978, a few days after her 100th birthday. What an amazing life she must have led! – as girl, she would have heard about the war in Crimea from those who were there, and near the end of life she’ll seen footage of man walking on the moon. The National Library of Wales holds quite a lot of Ruck material, both printed and manuscript, and there’s more information here https://www.library.wales/collections/learn-more/archives/archives-of-welsh-writers-in-english/berta-ruck-archive/