The First Kernel: Despair, Hope and Success
Written by: Emma Rose Miller
On the third of April 1928, at the age of twenty-seven, J. Leslie Mitchell received a momentous letter from the editor of the Cornhill Magazine. After more than a year of rejections, Huxley’s letter was the first solid intimation that Leslie Mitchell would find professional success as an author. In this letter, Cornhill’s editor Leonard Huxley responds favourably to the short story “Ten Men” with a promise that “it goes into the Editor’s drawer to be used when opportunity offers.” The same letter suggests a new title for the short story, and “For Ten’s Sake” was finally published in Cornhill in January of 1929.
Letter dated 3 Apr. 1928.
Though Huxley was the first editor to assure Mitchell of commercial publication, “For Ten’s Sake” was not his first work to see publication. Years earlier, Mitchell had entered and won a story contest in T.P.’s and Cassell’s Weekly with “Siva Wins the Game.” The short story was published in the Weekly in October of 1924. And four years later, in the months in between Huxley’s letter and the publication of “Ten”, Mitchell saw his first commercial publication with a non-fiction book called Hanno: Or the Future of Exploration: an Essay on Prophecy.
“For Ten’s Sake” was, however, the first piece of literary fiction to be published commercially. More importantly, however, Huxley’s letter set Mitchell up as a “new contributor” to the magazine, an important step on the way to a professional career as an author.
The first few years of married life for Leslie Mitchell and Rebecca (Ray or Rhea) Middleton were difficult. The couple lived on Leslie’s wages from the Royal Air Force. Rebecca or “Ray” had had to leave her job with the Civil Service upon marriage to Leslie. His small earnings made finding suitable permanent lodgings difficult and his thinly-veiled autobiographical novel Stained Radiance imagines a scenario not too different from their own. In the novel, a pregnant, newly-married Thea writes to her husband, John Garland, who is serving in the RAF in Egypt:
Oh, my dear, God knows what I’ll do. I could go mad when I sit thinking: I daren’t sit thinking. I’ve no money–I’ve been without food, except for bread, for two days. Your allowances come to-morrow but it’ll hardly do more than pay off the rent . . . And the baby’s coming. Soon to be here. I’ve no clothes for it, no cot, nothing. Poor little kid! I can’t afford to see a doctor.
 J. Leslie Mitchell, Stained Radiance, (Edinburgh: Polygon, 1993),193.
Upon receiving the letter, Garland returns to England with a self-inflicted injury to discover his wife has been taken seriously ill. She suffers from “undernourishment and certain complications of advanced pregnancy, culminating in eclampsy.” She lies in the hospital unconscious as Garland tries to distract himself from her possible death. He returns one night to be apprised by the Matron that Thea had gone into labor and delivered a dead child. Garland “felt sick as he looked at the woman. Thea’s baby. Dead. Best thing. Thea’s baby. That which had grown inside the body he had loved and desired. That which he had fathered. . . Thea’s baby .”
Garland’s despair and guilt were not purely imagined. Leslie’s wife survived a difficult miscarriage herself early in their marriage and Ray spent the first months of 1926 recovering at Purley Cottage Hospital. Leslie’s letters to his wife during her convalescence reveal a man confronting his own guilt at one of the darkest times of his life. After one visit, Mitchell writes that his wife had had tears in her eyes as she lay in recovery over concern about being a “worry” to him. His letter to her is full of self-recriminations about “a strain of selfish caddishness . . .impenatracle stoniness” that he had hid from himself under his “posturing and play-acting.” He tells his wife that with her “so close to death… the stark realities wouldn’t stay hidden.” Her solicitous tears of the afternoon had recalled for him an earlier desperate moment when his wife lay moaning in a fit of semi-consciousness. He tells her “you see, I knew myself for your murderer” and that “something just crumpled inside me and I cried–cried till I was scared at myself, cried and asked you darling not to die.”
 Mitchell, SR,195.
 Mitchell, SR,204.
 Letter to Rebecca Middleton dated 10 Feb. 1926.
Upon her recovery, Ray went on a long holiday to her “ain countrie” where Leslie joined her for a couple of weeks.. Upon their return to England, however, they had to move house to Harrow upon Leslie’s RAF transfer to Uxbridge. Between his RAF duties, Ray’s illness, the holiday, and moving house, Leslie’s literary ambitions had to be put on hold. Finally, by early October of 1926, life had settled down enough that Ray was able to write to friend Dorothy Tweed that “Leslie is busy writing again. Got the craze, so I hope he really publishes something this time.” Six weeks later, she wrote to Tweed again, asking her friend to read and review some new short stories of his. Following his wife’s letter, Leslie wrote to Dorothy in December and enclosed “Macabre” and “The Ten Men of Sodom” for her perusal and review. He sent similar requests to three others, including Alexander Gray, to “gather some idea of the G.B.P’s [great British population’s] opinion”.Upon favorable reviews from friends, Mitchell began sending “The Ten Men” out to editors in the hopes of publication.
Unfortunately, 1927 did not do much to support his friends’ good opinion of the short story. Rejections from four different magazines led Mitchell to doubt his ability. He writes to Gray of the “odyssey of the Ten Men of Sodom”:
Four magazines declined the Ten Men. Thereat Rhea (who was once Rebecca) and I laid our heads together. Could I write or could I not? Was I merely boring an already-overweary world? We would put the matter to test and send the Ten Men to some noted author for his opinion. Mr. H.G. Wells was selected as victim. Probably his secretary would return it without remark. No matter.
Mitchell tells Gray that Well’s had written him back “from Olympus” with encouragement. Wells enjoyed his work enough that he connected Mitchell to literary agents A.P. Watt and Son. Even with the solid, if not robust, praise of Wells and literary agents working on his behalf, Mitchell entered 1928 still unpublished. The “footsore” story “Ten Men” was declined by a “long list of magazines… more magazines than I had ever heard of.” He even proposed to print copies of the story himself and “hawk them on the streets.”
The Mitchells made one last attempt to send Leslie’s “Ten Men” out into the public. In the radio program “The Places of the Sunset: An Impression of Lewis Grassic Gibbon,” put together by biographer Ian. S. Munro and produced by Robin Richardson for the Scottish Home Service in 1958, Ray recalls her own part in this first moment of literary success:
I knew Leslie would never be happy unless he was writing, and I felt it was in him. But we couldn’t go on like this. We had to do something. On my own I sent the story and the HG WELLS letter with it to Dr. Leonard Huxley of the Cornhill Magazine. He wrote back that he liked the story and asking Leslie to come and see him and bring more work. I was so excited I didn’t know how to control myself. How could I wait until Leslie came home on the Friday night? The moment he came in he sensed there was something in the air.”
 Letter to Dorothy Tweed dated 21 Mar. 1926.
 Letter to Dorothy Tweed dated 12 Oct. 1926.
 Letter to Dorothy Tweed dated 10 Dec. 1926.
 Letter to Alexander Gray dated 4 Jan. 1928.
 Letter to Alexander Gray undated.
 “The Places of the Sunset: An Impression of Lewis Grassic Gibbon”, Scottish Home Service. 11 December 1958. Transcript, National Library of Scotland, p. 20.
After these lean years of personal and professional disappointment, Leslie and Ray must have read Huxley’s letter with incredible relief and excitement. Finally, here was Leslie’s first proof that the much-desired career in writing was indeed a possibility. In his letter of April 3, Huxley assured Leslie that his was “an excellent story, excellently told” and only needed a few minor edits and the right opportunity for publication. Ultimately, “For Ten’s Sake” opened up a productive relationship between author and magazine, as more than half of his published short stories appearing in the Cornhill between 1928 and 1931. Many of these “Polychromata” stories were republished by Jarrolds in 1931 in an anthology called The Calends of Cairo in 1931. Huxley’s letter of April 3rd was the first commercial acceptance of Leslie’s fictional work and as biographer Ian Munro writes, “things were beginning to move now.” If Ray’s recollection is accurate and Leslie had to wait until Friday for the news, then right after reading Huxley’s letter, Leslie dashed one off to his old schoolmaster and friend Alexander Gray declaring his intentions. Huxley had so buoyed up his confidence that Leslie felt himself destined for a full-time career in writing. He declares to Gray that “within eighteen months I’ll be free of the Air Force.”
Stay tuned for the upcoming review of “For Ten’s Sake.”
 Ian S. Munro. Leslie Mitchell: Lewis Grassic Gibbon.(Edinburgh: Oliver and Boyd Ltd., 1966), 52.
 Letter to Alexander Gray dated 6 April 1928.