Page 1: Biography
Escott, Cicely Margaret
Novelist, drama teacher, poet
This biography, written by Aorewa McLeod, was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography in 1998.
Margaret Escott is best remembered as the author of the novel Show down. Born Cicely Margaret Escott on 9 July 1908 at Eltham, London, England, and usually known as Peg, she was the daughter of Emily Allen and her husband, Harry Frederick Escott, a bank clerk. The youngest in a family of three boys and two girls, Margaret was educated at the City of London School, Blackfriars. She showed an early interest in theatre, producing plays while still at school. In 1926 she came to New Zealand with her parents and brother Alan, who farmed in Waikato and later bought a farm at Tuakau. When her parents settled in the Auckland suburb of Milford, she spent a year as a pupil-teacher at Seddon Memorial Technical College, and then in 1928 returned to London alone and worked at the Times Book Club.
Her first two novels, Insolence of office (1934) and Awake at noon (1935), were published by Sampson Low and Company of London after being rejected by numerous publishers. For both these novels, which are set in England, Escott used the pen-name C. M. Allen. The first book was sufficiently well received for Escott to resign her job in 1934 to write full time.
Insolence of office deals with the choices faced by a lower-middle-class London teenager who is a talented pianist. The novel ends with her breaking off her engagement to an upper-class musician, but the real emotional focus is her troubled and intense relationships with her women friends. In Awake at noon, a middle-aged male London publisher who has had emotionally damaging experiences in the First World War gradually falls in love with a woman doctor. The novel is concerned with the consequences of war and the impact of modernity in the 1930s.
Escott's next novel, Show down, was set in New Zealand. It was published in 1936 by Chatto and Windus under her own name. The American publisher W. W. Norton brought it out the same year under the title I told my love. The novel's male narrator, a Waikato dairy farmer, recounts his love affair and marriage with an upper-class Englishwoman visiting New Zealand. Written in a clear, spare style, the tale is remarkable for the sensitivity, insight and passion with which it depicts a relationship from its beginning to the final break-up. It was immediately recognised in England and the United States as the work of a highly competent and original writer, but some New Zealand critics found it problematic because of its departure from recognised themes and techniques. It has, however, had a lasting reputation, enhanced by its republication in 1973 as part of the New Zealand Fiction series.
Following the publication of Show down, Margaret Escott returned to New Zealand via Australia, stayed with her brother Alan for a while, then settled in Milford in a one-roomed bach. Soon after, she stopped writing novels. At first this seemed temporary: in 1939 she wrote to her brother Phil, 'I cannot write. Perhaps soon it will come back, but I haven't done anything really sure for two years.' Much later she explained, 'I gave up writing because I just hadn't the courage to look at myself in print – couldn't face reading what I'd written.'
She ran occasional drama classes for the WEA and the Auckland Regional Council of Adult Education in the late 1950s and early 1960s. She was also an adjudicator for the British Drama League (New Zealand Branch) and was on the radio 1YC arts panel. Escott was very active in amateur drama and directed plays, particularly for a local North Shore group, the Mairangi Players. As well as Shakespeare and Chekhov, she produced the works of Pinter, Beckett and Genet. But apart from a play, Saved (a melodrama set in colonial Auckland and performed at the opening of the Pumphouse theatre on the North Shore in 1977), and a few unpublished stories for radio, she apparently wrote little.
From the 1950s Margaret Escott lived in a cottage next door but one to her parents, who needed constant care: her father died in 1959 and her mother in 1962. She eked out their pensions by doing odd jobs, growing her own vegetables and making home-brew. She finally saved some money when she herself qualified for the old-age pension. During her life she had emotional, intellectual and in some cases sexual ties with women. Described as mannish in her appearance, she was well known locally for her witty and attractive public persona.
Margaret Escott's body was found in the Waitemata Harbour on 15 August 1977. The coroner concluded that she had committed suicide by drowning. In the last six months before her death, in a final creative burst, she wrote poetry which was published posthumously in a volume entitled Separation and/or greeting (1980).