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Edith Mary Pargeter, better known as Ellis Peters, was born in Horsehay, Shropshire in 1913. She attended the Dawley Church of England School and Coalbrookdale High School for Girls, and never lost her love of the landscape and history of Shropshire, where she lived for her whole life. She began writing while still a young girl, from poems when she was seven to writing for the school magazine when she was a teenager. On leaving school, she became a temporary Labour Exchange clerk, before working as a chemist's assistant in Dawley. The experience of medicines she gained here would become invaluable in her future novels. She spent all her spare time writing, with her first novel, Hortensius Friend of Nero, being published in 1936, and her work also appearing in the magazines 20-Story and Good Housekeeping. Her first novel was not well received, however, and she had to wait until 1939 and her second novel, The City Lies Foursquare before she tasted success.
Wartime and Czechoslovakia
During the Second World War, in 1940, Edith Pargeter became a Petty Officer in the Wrens1 in Liverpool, and received the British Empire Medal. During this time she wrote numerous novels, including She Goes To War which was based on her own experience of war.
Edith Pargeter joined a young worker's summer school in Czechoslovakia in 1947, which led to her novel Fair Young Phoenix, and also to her learning Czech and becoming a teacher of the language and a translator of Czech poetry and prose in to English. She was recognised for her work in service of Czech literature with the Gold Medal of the Czechoslovak Society.
She wrote under pseudonyms at times, including John Redfern, Jolyon Carr, and Peter Benedict. Most people, however, know Edith Pargeter best as the mystery writer, Ellis Peters. This was a name she adopted to draw the distinction between her mystery works and her other projects. The name came from her brother Ellis, and a Czech friend, Petra. Her first mystery novel was Fallen in to the Pit which introduces Sergeant George Felse as the investigating officer.
Ellis Peters' most famous creation, however, is Brother Cadfael, the mystery-solving monk. He first appeared in A Morbid Taste for Bones which was, along with the rest of the Cadfael series, set in Shrewsbury Abbey in the 1100s, and which was inspired by the bones of Saint Winifred2. The title character is an ex-crusader turned monk who solves crimes with his knowledge of human nature and medicinal herbs. He appeared in 21 novels3 for the next 18 years, until Edith Pargeter, and Ellis Peters with her, died in Madeley, Shropshire in 1995.
Edith Pargeter won numerous awards for her work. In addition to the Czech award she was also honoured with awards from the British Crime Writers' Association and the Mystery Writers of America. She also received an OBE and an honorary Masters Degree from Birmingham University. A memorial to her can be found in Shrewsbury Abbey, and at one time there was a Cadfael-themed 'Shrewsbury Quest' attraction next to the Abbey. There, visitors could immerse themselves in the world created by Ellis Peters as they tried to solve a Cadfael-type mystery.