Romance novelist Frances Frederica (Freda) Montrésor was born at Walmer on 23 September 1862. Freda was the fourth daughter of Commodore Frederick Byng Montrésor and Emily Maria Montrésor (née Delafield) who lived first at Glen Hill (The Glen) and later The Lawn, Upper Walmer. Her father was Commander in Chief of the East Indies & Cape of Good Hope Station and later rose to the rank of Admiral. He retired in 1870 and his memoirs Leaves from Memory’s Log Book…‘ were published on his death in 1887. Her mother was related to Matthew Arnold, whose poem ‘Dover Beach’ was published in 1867. The Montrésors were considerably wealthy and owned a property in Gloucester Square, Kensington, only spending part of their year in Kent.

Freda’s first novel Into the Highways and Hedges was published in February 1895. It is set in the 1840s and is the story of Meg Deane, a rich heiress who lives at Ravenshill a large house near Dover, where the ‘worthy descendants of the ruffled and powdered Deanes … looked down on them from the walls’. It was possibly inspired by Denne Hill at Womenswold, which was owned by a cousin of her father.

In the novel, Meg’s widower father relies on his sister Aunt Russelthorpe, whose own marriage had not been blessed with children, to look after his nieces. The story has echoes of Freda’s mother’s life as Aunt Russelthorpe lives in Bryanston Square, London, where Emily Delafield also lived until the death of her father.

The story begins when the Deane family come down from London to their home in Kent to begin preparations for Meg’s sisters Laura and Kate’s joint wedding. Meg is thrown more and more into the company of Aunt Russelthorpe, who is staying with them, and one day her aunt suggests that they call on a friend in Dover. The two women walk along the ‘white Dover road’1 on a blazing hot July day, a journey which would take several hours from Denne Hill, but from the fictional Ravenshill is considerably closer.

When they arrive, Meg, who is offered red and white wine to revive herself after the long walk, begins to feel giddy. Her hostess, seeing her discomfort, suggests that she get some fresh air on the beach where: ‘A fresh wind crisped the surface of the water, so that it was covered with curly white flecks, and it was hard to tell which was bluest, sea or sky. Meg’s eyes ached with sunshine; but it refreshed and exhilarated her, and so did the salt breeze that tossed against her cheek.’2

Dover beach is portrayed as a place of adventure but also danger. It is crowded with nursery-maids and children, Punch and Judy shows, minstrels, men selling indigestible gooseberries, beggars and women with false lace. As Meg takes in her surroundings, her attention is drawn to a preacher who is holding a revival meeting on the beach and she finds herself interested in his words, but when Barnabas Thorpe speaks to her: ‘The claptrappy tune, the overdone emphasis, the vulgar intonation distressed her; she was ashamed of the feeling, but could not help it; she turned to walk away.3

Freda Montrésor was probably inspired by her childhood visits to Dover, where her mother’s aunt, Frances Rennell, who looked after Emily and her sisters after the death of her father, lived until her death in 1874. Mrs Rennell’s house at 17, East Cliff would have been a short distance to the beach. It is possible also that Freda would have listened to stories told by her mother and her great aunt about the beach preachers who frequented Dover, such as Charles Smith and Harrison Ord, who were arrested for standing on a chair outside 1, Waterloo Crescent and causing a nuisance in 1866. Ord was a Middlesbrough-born Brethren preacher who was led away from Dover beach by police officers as ‘the crowd numbering some 3,000 people commenced hooting and hurrahing in a disgraceful manner’.4 Ord sang all the way to the police station and made the work of the constable who was escorting him very difficult. Frances Rennell as the widow of the Dean of Winchester would no doubt have heard about the rumpus on the seafront from friends even if she did not witness it. Freda’s fictional Barnabas Thorpe is described as a ‘narrowly strong preacher, with his northern burr, his gesticulations, his intense conviction’.5

Meg Deane finds that she cannot shake off the words of the preacher, and when she attends the ball at Ravenshill that evening in her gold and white dress and pearls, she feels uncomfortable: ‘something had occurred to change the current of her thoughts, she might be arrayed in sackcloth now for all she cared’.6 Her aunt is less than impressed when she finds out about Meg’s adventures on the beach and complains that: ‘She is unstable as water. One can never depend on her in the least. Where do you think I found her this afternoon? Just emerging from a vulgar crowd on Dover sands, where she had been staring at a singing minstrel or a play-actor or a buffoon of some kind! She came in with her head full of nothing else, and wanted to tease her father into going back with her to listen too.’7

Meg’s next encounter with Barnabas takes place on her 21st birthday. Awaking early, she wanders outside in the garden, where she meets a dirty beggar woman standing by the gate who tells fortunes, and predicts that great change is coming soon. At that moment the ‘preacher of the beach’ appears and gives Meg a locket containing a picture of her mother which had been stolen by a maid at Ravenshill. Barnabas encourages her to come and visit the repentant maid, who is now dying in a cottage near River:

‘The sun was beginning to beat down on their heads, when they reached the little hamlet of River. It consisted of one chalk road, on either side of which were very white cottages, which had a deceptive air of comfort and prettiness. Pink china roses clustered against their walls, and low-thatched roofs shone gold in the morning light. The villagers were out in the fields: only one old man, and a baby with sore eyes and an eruption all over its face, stared open-mouthed at the oddly matched pair. Barnabas stooped to pass through the doorway of one of the cottages; and Meg following him would have tumbled down the one step into the room, if he had not held out his hand to save her.’8

Meg unused to the labourers’ cottages: ‘stood leaning against the door, watching the preacher; too shy to venture further. Her eyes dilated, and she turned whiter as she looked. The damp clay floor, the sickening odour, the room that was bedroom and sitting-room as well, horrified her.’9

Meg’s aunt is equally horrified when she hears of her niece’s adventures and decides that Meg must attend the next ball (presumably so she can find a husband). However, Meg refuses to attend the ball at ‘The Heights’ and tongues wag that Miss Deane is ‘in love with a canting tub-preacher!’10 Freda’s mother attended military balls at Dover Castle with her aunt Mrs Rennell in the 1840s and it is here that she may have danced with her future husband.11 It is possible that Freda took inspiration from her mother’s reminiscences of these earlier events, although the ball in the novel is held at the military barracks on the Western Heights. Mrs Rennell also held her own ball in 1845 with a supper supplied by A. Winter and Sons and it is possible that when Freda describes Aunt Russelthorpe as ‘a brilliant talker, and her parties were the rage at one time, though she was a shade too fond of monopolising attention to be a perfect hostess’ that we are getting a glimpse of Mrs Rennell.

As her aunt leaves for the ball in her carriage, Meg sets off at 8 o’clock in the evening on a ‘long lonely walk’ to take a letter she has written to her father to the Dover post office: ‘The sky still glowed behind Dover Castle, though the sun had disappeared; there was hardly a breath of wind to stir the short crisp grass, the broad downs lay still and peaceful in the gathering dusk: Meg was the only human being to be seen, but the little brown rabbits scurried by, and peeped at her from a safe distance, making her smile in spite of her sadness. She was as easily moved to smiles as she was to sighs.’12 Her journey along the cliffs, with the sun setting behind the castle places Ravenshill on a path north-east of Dover, near Fox Hill Down, Langdon.

The story continues: ‘It had been a hot summer, and there were ominous cracks across the footway, which had been deserted of late. Meg, who was Kentish born, ought to have known what those fissures and gaps meant. Perhaps the rabbits would have warned her if they could; for one of them loosened a morsel of chalk as he leaped, which bounded and rebounded down the side of the cliff.’13 A thunderstorm earlier in the day had dislodged some of the chalk. Freda may have remembered similar cliff falls from her childhood such as the one at East Cliff on the 17 November 1872 when a large quantity of chalk fell after heavy rains almost burying two houses.14

Unheeding the rabbit’s warnings, Meg continues along the cliff ‘listening to the echo among the chalk caves below, —smuggling haunts, where many a keg of brandy had been hidden’15 (presumably the caves at East Cliff). Suddenly the cliff gives way and she falls a quarter of the way down the cliff onto a narrow ledge and has to cling fast to ‘the friendly poppy root that was keeping her from death’.16

As she holds on in terror, ‘She could hear the sea washing hungrily, with a sullen break, and a strong backward suck, many feet below; she shuddered, and then screamed with all her might, again and again, waking the echoes and the seagulls, who answered her derisively.’17

Eventually salvation comes when Barnabas Thorpe, who is walking along the cliffs, hears her screams and fetches ropes from the coastguard station on the downs. After rescuing her he asks her to join him in his religious crusade crying: ‘Come with me! Let us go out together and preach the Master in the Highways and Hedges. Your example shall be as a shining light to guide the feet of those who are snared by riches. Come!’18

Turning her back on her family, Meg leaves Dover with Barnabas and travels to Sheerhaven ‘a fishing hamlet on the Kentish coast that consisted of just one line of tarred wooden huts, and a square-towered chapel’ where they marry.19 It is possible that Sheerhaven is a corruption of Sheerness, although the busy port town bears no resemblance to Montresor’s fictional setting.

After this the plot moves to the North, where Meg learns to live in poverty, discovers that boots wear out and feet get blistered, that in-laws can be difficult and sees her husband wrongly accused of theft. Unwavering in her conviction, Meg stands by Barnabas whilst he waits trial and then eventually tracks down the diamonds he is accused of taking. In the final scenes, Barnabas recognises that his wife is more than just a convert, but a loyal and loving wife.

Into the Highways and Hedges appeared at the top of Mudie’s list along with Sarah Grand’s The Heavenly Twins.20 and ran into five editions in its first six months. Montréesor was compared to George Eliot by literary critic Katherine Tynan21 and in 1896 joined the Committee of the Women Writer’s Club. When she attended the 1904 Women Writers dinner which was held at The Criterion restaurant, Kent writers Netta Syrett and Mrs Croker, author of Miss Balmaine’s Past were also in attendance.22

Montrésor wrote ten novels, featuring rebellious daughters and women who are at odds with their families, but none of her later novels received the acclaim of her first. Nevertheless, reviewers respected her craft, with one writing: ‘she is one of the few writers who remain unspoilt by popularity and have too much respect to perpetrate “potboilers”’.23 In 1899, her novel The One who looked on was given away with The Lady’s Realm. Her last novel The Strictly Trained Mother (1913) focussed on a bullied mother and her assertive daughters.

After the death of her mother in 1913, Montrésor moved to 18, Cheyne Walk, formerly Don Saltero’s Coffee House and Curiosity Museum.24 No more books appeared during the war years, but in 1920, Montrésor wrote her first play ‘Katherine the Quene’ based on the life of Katherine Parr which was performed at the Nottingham Repertory Theatre in March 1921. Montrésor died in Sheffield after being taken ill whilst on holiday in Matlock in 193425 and left £75,908 in her will.26

This article was published: 31 December 2022.


Kemp, S., Mitchell, C., and Trotter, D. (1997) The Oxford Companion to Edwardian Fiction Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Montrésor, F.F. (1895) Into the Highways and Hedges


  1. Montrésor, F.F. (1895) Into the Highways and Hedges, p.16. 

  2. Montrésor, F.F. (1895) Into the Highways and Hedges, p.16. 

  3. Montrésor, F.F. (1895) Into the Highways and Hedges, p.16. 

  4. Dover Telegraph and Cinque Ports General Advertiser - Wednesday 17 June 1868. 

  5. Montrésor, F.F. (1895) Into the Highways and Hedges, p.62. 

  6. Montrésor, F.F. (1895) Into the Highways and Hedges, p.22. 

  7. Montrésor, F.F. (1895) Into the Highways and Hedges, p.22. 

  8. Montrésor, F.F. (1895) Into the Highways and Hedges, p.52. 

  9. Montrésor, F.F. (1895) Into the Highways and Hedges, p.52. 

  10. Montrésor, F.F. (1895) Into the Highways and Hedges, p.68. 

  11. Dover Chronicle - Saturday 20 April 1844; Dover Telegraph and Cinque Ports General Advertiser - Saturday 03 February 1849. 

  12. Montrésor, F.F. (1895) Into the Highways and Hedges, p.80. 

  13. Montrésor, F.F. (1895) Into the Highways and Hedges, p.81. 

  14. Dublin Evening Telegraph - Monday 18 November 1872. 

  15. Montrésor, F.F. (1895) Into the Highways and Hedges, p.81. 

  16. Montrésor, F.F. (1895) Into the Highways and Hedges, p.81. 

  17. Montrésor, F.F. (1895) Into the Highways and Hedges, p.82. 

  18. Montrésor, F.F. (1895) Into the Highways and Hedges, p.87. 

  19. Montrésor, F.F. (1895) Into the Highways and Hedges, p.90 

  20. Bognor Regis Observer - Wednesday 06 November 1895. 

  21. The Sketch - Wednesday 03 July 1895; and Into the Highways and Hedges

  22. ‘Women Writers’ Dinner’. The Times Tuesday, June 21, 1904. 

  23. ‘Books of the Day’. Manchester Courier and Lancashire General Advertiser. Friday, Nov. 4, 1904. 

  24. Westminster & Pimlico News - Friday 26 October 1934. 

  25. Sheffield Independent - Friday 19 October 1934. 

  26. The Scotsman. Saturday 01 December 1934.