Ethel Dell's married name is recorded as Ethel Mary Savage. She was born in Streatham, a suburb of London. Her father was a clerk in the City of London and she had an older sister and brother. Her family was middle class and lived a comfortable life. Ethel Dell was a very shy, quiet girl and was content to be dominated by her family. She began to write stories while very young and many of them were published in popular magazines. Beneath her shy exterior, she had a passionate heart and most of her stories were stories of passion and love set in India and other British colonial possessions. They were considered to be very racy and her cousins would pull out pencils to try and count up the number of times she used the words: passion, tremble, pant and thrill.
Ethel Dell worked on a novel for several years, but it was rejected by eight publishers. Finally the publisher T. Fisher Unwin bought the book for their First Novel Library, a series which introduced a writer's first book. This book, titled The Way of an Eagle, was published in 1912 and by 1915 it had gone through thirty printings.
The Way of an Eagle is very characteristic of Ethel M. Dell's novels. There is a very feminine woman, an alpha male, a setting in India, passion galore liberally mixed with some surprisingly shocking violence and religious sentiments sprinkled throughout.
While readers adored Ethel M. Dell's novels, critics hated them with a passion; but she did not care what the critics thought. She considered herself a good storyteller – nothing more and nothing less. Ethel M. Dell continued to write novels for a number of years. She made quite a lot of money, from 20,000 to 30,000 pounds a year, but remained quiet and almost pathologically shy.
Pictures of her are very rare and she was never interviewed by the press. She married a soldier, Lieutenant-Colonel Gerald Savage when she was forty years old, and the marriage was happy. Colonel Savage resigned his commission on his marriage and Ethel Dell became the support of the family. Her husband devoted himself to her and fiercely guarded her privacy. For her part she went on writing, eventually producing about thirty novels and several volumes of short stories. Her readers remained loyal and the critics simply gave up. Ethel M. Dell died of cancer when she was fifty-eight.
Wodehouse mentions Dell by name in his novel Uncle Dynamite (1948), whose diffident hero, Bill Oakshott, is several times encouraged to model himself on the masterful man in The Way of an Eagle.
He also wrote the short story "Honeysuckle Cottage", which uses themes and characters very like those of Ethel M. Dell. In it, a writer of Raymond Chandler-like hard-boiled detective stories finds to his horror that his work (and later his whole life) is being possessed by characters who seem to come out of a syrupy romance novel by "Leila M. Pinkney". Here is a sample:
Additional, uncertain titles found in some lists: