Mary Weston wrote three books in the 1940s: a successful travel book informing wartime Britons about the homeland of their American allies; a novel about a woman gaining wisdom from experience; and a memoir of her early life entitled One American Child.
Only the last of these revealed that she had written three previous books under the name of O.A. Merritt-Hawkes, which was almost her real name.
Onèra Amelia Merritt was born on February 15th 1877 in New York City. Throughout her childhood the family’s financial circumstances seesawed between owning a string of ponies and scrubbing floors for a living. As a child she was tomboyish and need-to-know bookish, unlike her sisters, and at about 13 was packed off to boarding school near London. Clearly the experience was formative; she settled in England.
Early dreams of being a great actress were abandoned in favour of science. She attended Fabian lectures in London, gained a B.Sc. and M.Sc. in Zoology, and married a Birmingham dental surgeon. In fact she married Richard John James Hawkes twice, once at a civil ceremony in Birmingham (1901) and again in a London church (1904). Three children followed.
Sometimes she used her legal surname Hawkes, but most of her zoological research papers were published as by O.A. Merritt Hawkes, with or without a hyphen. Under this name she also gave lectures for the Eugenics Education Society, wrote popular articles, broadcast some talks over BBC local radio, and produced three books about life and travel in Staffordshire, Persia and Mexico. In the first book she described her family’s country-cottage retreat from weekday Birmingham, writing pleasantly of the Kinver area and her neighbours who included England’s last cave-dwellers. However she gave very few details about her own life; this was to be typical of all her books, even her childhood memoir from which her real name is absent and in which her father’s name is not the one on her marriage certificates.
A deeper change of identity came when the travel book My Friend America (1944) appeared as by Mary Weston, a name she had evidently begun to adopt for some activities. She had “obtained a divorce” from R.J.J. Hawkes before World War II (although remaining Mrs Merritt-Hawkes for many purposes), and after the war her sons appeared to have taken the surname Merritt.
As early as 1934 an Arkansas newspaper had mentioned “noted British writer” Mrs O. A. Merritt Hawkes. Was this British persona adopted as a wise precaution for a traveller intending to write up her experiences? Did a similar motive lie behind her publication of My Friend America as Mary Weston? Or was there a more personal reason for the new identity?
In Mary Weston’s last book, she revealed that at one time she had “cast all convention aside, left my world and went to a house standing in a watered garden … too few months I stayed seeking a new wisdom…”
Could this unspecified upheaval have turned “O.A. Merritt-Hawkes” into “Mary Weston”? Was its cause something personal, something scientific, or both? She had had a decades-long interest in social reform, in the situation of women and in bettering people’s lives through eugenics – only to see Adolf Hitler turn her science of human improvement into a thing of horror, a perverted rationale for persecution and mass murder. Did the Nazi discrediting of eugenics throw her whole life’s work and meaning into doubt?
Whatever her reason for becoming Mary Weston, her wish to make the world better was obviously genuine. One American Child began, “This book has been written because I believe in happiness and want us to find a way to give children their simple happiness as a foundation for the deeper and more complicated happiness of maturity.” That may have been her final expression of belief. Two years later she died in a Cheltenham nursing home, on July 19th 1951. Her name was recorded as “Onera Amelia MERRITT-HAWKES”.
In her involvement with the Eugenics Society, trying to “help change the world” for the better, she must have been grappling with the fundamental Twentieth Century issues of science, progress, freedom and purpose. Yet her intellectual and personal struggle does not show in her published books, and perhaps is documented only in unseen archived letters such as those she wrote to geneticist and demographer Robert C. Cook, catalogued among his papers as from “Weston, Mary (a.k.a Colin Harris and Mrs O.A. Merritt-Hawkes)”.
Note that new name: Colin Harris. There must be more yet to discover about the mysterious inner life of Mary Weston.
As O.A. Merritt-Hawkes:
1924 The Cottage by the Common. London, Williams and Norgate Ltd. [rural memoir]
1935 Persia: Romance & Reality. London, Ivor Nicholson & Watson Ltd. [travel]
1936 High Up in Mexico. London, Ivor Nicholson & Watson Ltd. [travel]
As Mary Weston:
1944 My Friend America. London, Quality Press Ltd. [travel]
1945 Merging Streams. London, Quality Press Ltd. [novel]
1949 One American Child. London. Allan Wingate (Publishers) Ltd. [autobiography]
[Submitted by D.R. – many thanks]