Ethel Livesey was born in Manchester in 1897 as Florence Elizabeth Edith Swindells (an ironic name given her future career). She led a life of criminal deception & fraud. Married eight times, mostly bigamously, divorced five times, she had over forty aliases. Ethel (I’ll call her Ethel as that was her most famous alias) was a sociopath who “couldn’t lie straight in bed” as one of her victims said of her in court. She lived in a fantasy world where she was a famous film star or opera singer & often took her aliases from the names of famous people. She felt she was entitled to an easy life & she had no compunction about the means she used to achieve it. Freda Marnie Nicholls has written the book as faction, which is my one real problem with the telling of Ethel’s story, but I’ll come back to that.
Ethel’s life of deception began when she married a young soldier, Alec Carter, in 1914. He was a few years older, a stationer who worked with his father. Alec enlisted in 1916 & went to the Front, leaving Ethel with his family in Manchester. Ethel was pregnant & soon became bored, especially as she disliked her in-laws. She was able to access Alec’s pay by using a ring paper, which was given to the dependents of soldiers serving overseas. Instead of helping out with expenses at home, Ethel spent the money on clothes & partying. When Alec was reported missing in November 1916, Ethel took to her bed. She gave birth to a son, Frank, a few weeks later but refused to care for the baby. One night, she slipped out of the house & disappeared. She never saw her son again. Soon, Ethel was living with another soldier & was in court for the first time when a boarding house keeper reported them to the police for fraud. Ethel convinced the magistrate that she had been taken advantage of when ill & plied with drink. He believed her & the charge against her was dismissed.
Ethel married Ray Ward just a few months later, another soldier (bigamously as it turned out because Alec wasn’t dead). She soon had two ring papers to draw on after meeting yet another soldier while Ray was on active service. She successfully juggled her two identities for a while but slipped up & ended up on a good behaviour bond. Ethel also made a practice of deceiving shopkeepers into giving her credit. She was attractive, well-spoken & confident. She had no compunction about obtaining clothes & jewellery on false pretences. I won’t go through her whole career but at one time or another, Ethel stowed away on a cruise ship, attached herself to a vice-regal party by claiming to be an opera singer, pretended that she had entertained the Duke & Duchess of Windsor on the French Riviera, claimed to have nursed survivors of the Blitz during WWII, was connected to the famous Coats cotton family & married one man after another, usually without obtaining a divorce from the previous husband.
She spent time on the Isle of Man with Thomas Livesey & she changed her name by deed poll as his wife wouldn’t divorce him. She convinced him to put all his assets in her name so that his wife couldn’t access them & then walked out, taking everything with her. She even claimed to be the wife of an Australian Test cricketer. She had a few stints in prison for fraud & obtaining goods by deception but, when released, she just moved to a new town, adopted a new name & started all over again. The worst thing Ethel did was abandon her children. She had two children, Frank & Basil, when she was married to a man called Anderson. She would leave the boys, aged only six & five, for days at a time, leaving a shilling on the table for every day that she planned to be absent. One day, she just didn’t come back. It was during the Depression & neighbours looked after the boys until Social Services took over.
Ethel’s biggest crash came after her planned wedding to a Sydney civil servant, Rex Beach, was called off in spectacular circumstances. It was December 1945 & Ethel was spending the money she’d stolen from Thomas Livesey. The wedding was to be one of the social events of the season with extravagant amounts of money spent on food, flowers & the wedding dress. There was maximum publicity in the newspapers leading up to the event but, on the day of the wedding, Rex called it off after a friend alerted him to Ethel’s past.Ethel was still being pursued for unpaid bills relating to the wedding years later. She eventually served more time in jail for fraud (there were outstanding warrants for her in most states of Australia) & then disappeared again after briefly reconnecting with her sons.
I read The Amazing Mrs Livesey in a day. I know it’s a cliche but it’s a real page-turner. However, I was disappointed at the author’s decision to fictionalise parts of the narrative, making it faction instead of either fact or fiction. The Author’s Note at the end of the book made it all even murkier.
Written as narrative or factional history, real people and actual events have been woven together with fictitious character names, and imagined conversations to bridge occasional gaps in the storyline or account for unnamed people.
I was expecting a non-fictional narrative & was surprised by the fictional scenes. I wish the Author’s Note had been at the beginning of the book rather than the end. It was easy to see which chapters had been sourced in court documents & newspaper research & this was the part of the book I really enjoyed. Marnie Nicholls also writes that there were several stories where Ethel might have been the culprit but these couldn’t be proved so she left them out. However, the story of the stowaway opera singer, also unverified, was too good a story to leave out! I suppose I was expecting a bit more intellectual honesty from a book marketed by the publishers as biography. I can understand why Marnie Nicholls didn’t write a novel as the facts are just too unbelievable. I was reminded of Jane Austen’s advice to her novel-writing niece, Anna,
“I have scratched out Sir Thos. from walking with the other men to the stables, &c. the very day after his breaking his arm – for, though I find your papa did walk out immediately after his arm was set, I think it can be so little usual as to appear unnatural in a book.” (Letter. August 10th 1814)
No one would believe Ethel Livesey’s story if it was written as fiction & I’m impressed by the amount of research that has gone into the book. Marnie Nicholls heard of the story from Ethel’s granddaughter, who had done a little digging while searching for her father, Frank’s, birth certificate. Frank had talked about his mother but was very bitter about her abandonment of him as a child. The most amazing find was a Cinesound newsreel that Ethel paid for in the aftermath of the abandoned wedding. The newsreel was shown in cinemas around Australia & featured Ethel proclaiming her innocence & pleading for understanding in her troubles. She also takes a swipe at “Sydney society” who have abandoned her. Ethel seems to have been a completely heartless, amoral woman who had no compunction about the shopkeepers she defrauded, the friends she stole from, the men she deceived or the children she abandoned. The most amazing thing about the amazing Mrs Livesey was that she managed to elude detection & keep deceiving people for as long as she did.