An Autobiography and other writings – Anthony Trollope

I was very pleased to be sent a review copy of this new edition of Anthony Trollope’s Autobiography, as I loved it when I read it a few years ago. Trollope is one of my favourite authors & his autobiography is a portrait of a lovable man who survived a miserable childhood & created a happy life for himself, both personally & professionally as a novelist. He was also a very practical man, who kept working in the Post Office for many years while writing his novels. He didn’t wait for inspiration to strike but was woken by a servant with a cup of coffee early every morning & wrote his quota before breakfast & heading off to work. This matter of fact attitude to writing & his descriptions of finishing one book on Monday & starting the next on Tuesday, dismayed some early reviewers of the book. His reputation didn’t suffer any lasting damage though, as his novels have stayed in print & were among the most popular books (alongside detective novels) read in air raid shelters during the Blitz.

I’ve linked to my review above but I can’t resist quoting this passage again where Trollope answers those critics who think that a writer should live a rarefied life of the mind. Practical & level-headed indeed.

I am well aware that there are many who think that an author in his authorship should not regard money,- nor a painter, or sculptor, or composer in his art. I do not know that this unnatural self-sacrifice is supposed to extend itself further. A barrister, a clergyman, a doctor, an engineer, even actors and architects, may without disgrace follow the bent of human nature, and endeavour to fill their bellies and clothe their backs, and also those of their wives and children, as comfortably as they can by the exercise of their abilities and their crafts.

This new edition also includes some of Trollope’s literary criticism, principally a lecture that he gave called On English Prose Fiction as a Rational Amusement. In the lecture, Trollope surveys English novels from the Elizabethan beginnings, through the giants of the 18th century to the present day, although he doesn’t mention any living novelists. He divides fiction writers into two camps – before & after Sir Walter Scott, whose work he sees as a high water mark for the art. Trollope declares that novel reading can not be bad for young people, one of the debates that had gone on for as long as novels had been published. Although he is dismissive of the Gothic novels of Ann Radcliffe & the even earlier work of Defoe, after Scott, there can be no hesitation in allowing the young to read fiction.

And I will begin by suggesting that if novel-reading be bad for young people, it is bad also for the old. I am disposed to think that the distinction which so many of us make in this matter is similar in its nature to that which we have instituted between the one-o’clock and the seven o’clock dinner. We who are the elders have the richer puddings and the more piquant sauces,- not because they agree with us better than with our children, but because we are able to get them. When I hear of ladies beginning to read French novels after they are married, I always think of the privilege which grown-up people have in spoiling their digestive organs. … If novels, or any classes of novels, be bad for young women, than they are also bad for young men.

Trollope also refuses to denounce Sensation novels in preference to the Realist novel. He believes that novels should be a combination of both sensation & realism. A novel with no sensational elements in the plot would be boring. His own novels contain forgery, thefts, violent death & real wickedness but just piling on the tragedy will not hold the reader if the characters are not alive to the reader so that the reader cares about them. He gives examples from Scott, Thackeray & Charlotte Brontë,

Truth let there be;- truth of description, truth of character, human truth as to men and women. If there be such truth I do not know that a novel can be too sensational.

Other articles include an extract from his writings on Nathaniel Hawthorne & a few pages on the critical biography on Thackeray that he wrote for a Men and Letters series. I can’t finish without quoting his opinions on Jane Austen. Trollope admired Austen & these comments were written in the his copy of Emma & in the travel book he wrote, The New Zealander, where he said,

With Mr and Mrs Bennet and Lady Catherine de Burgh we are quite at home. With the Mansfields and the Crofts we have our sympathies and antipathies with the surrounding families in our own village or our own circle. The return of Sir Thomas is as when our own father came upon us in our juvenile delinquencies; and we can hardly help believing that we ourselves received Mr Collins’ letters each with one of Rowland Hill’s penny stamps in the corner of the envelope.

Even here, Trollope can’t resist a mention of the Post Office.

He wasn’t quite so fond of Emma.

Her conduct to her friend Harriet,- her assumed experience and real ignorance of human nature – are terribly true; but nowadays we dare not make our heroines so little. Her weaknesses are all plain to us, but of her strengths we are only told; and even at the last we hardly know why Mr Knightley loves her.

The Introduction by Nicholas Shrimpton discusses the reception of the Autobiography, which was published after Trollope’s death, & the way that Trollope’s revelations about his working habits & his almost entire effacement of his personal life affected his reputation among critics.

Oxford University Press kindly sent me a review copy of An Autobiography and other writings.

Sunday Poetry – Lady Murasaki

This picture of Lady Murasaki (picture from here) hints at a winter reading project I’m contemplating at the moment.
Lady Murasaki was an early 11th century writer & poet, a lady of the Japanese Court.  Very little is known about her, even her real name is unknown. This is one of her poems.

lost in a sky
of strange and far places
a hint of a house
and treetops in the mist
guide my way to you

she gazes
into the same skies
as you do
may your thoughts also
come to be one of accord

if you answered
the tapping of every
water bird
even a wandering
moon could enter

if the haze had not
come out to go in between
the moon and flowers
otherwise even the birds nests
might have burst into blossom

boat upon high seas
if you are drifting without
a harbor or course
give me a call and I’ll row
out to teach you about ports

not even knowing
the meaning which the color
of lavender has
but watching it carefully
this one’s heart is deeply touched

Literary Ramblings

I’ve come across some wonderful websites & podcasts recently & I do love to share. After all, if I’m going to be scrambling to fit all these into my reading & listening schedule, I think you should all be under the same relentless pressure!

First though, I want to mention an audio book. Some friends have been visiting Mitford country & that may be why, when my monthly Audible credit was due, I decided to download Love in a Cold Climate by Nancy Mitford. Read by Patricia Hodge, who is the most perfect narrator for this book that I can imagine – do admit. I haven’t read Love in a Cold Climate for years & I’m loving it. It’s such a witty, funny book; Lady Montdore & Boy Dougdale are so dreadful that it’s a treat to revisit them all again even though there’s a sadness in Polly’s story which is heartbreaking. That’s my Mitford shelf at the top of the post. I have quite a few Mitfords on the tbr shelves but they’re scattered so not easy to photograph.
I’m so pleased that some of these older Chivers audio books are available on Audible. Chivers went through several name changes over the years & finally went under altogether a couple of years ago. I would love their editions of the Barbara Pym & Dorothy L Sayers (read by Ian Carmichael) audio books to be available but, I’ll take what I can get. Apart from anything else, their cover art for their classics series was always so stylish.

I came across this article about Constance Fenimore Woolson at Lithub which led me to sign up for their newsletter which links to lots of literary articles. The Woolson article was written by Anne Boyd Rioux, author of a new biography of Woolson that I’m very keen to read. Then, I discovered Boyd Rioux’s website & her Bluestocking Bulletin which began in February & I’ve read the back issues & subscribed.

While reading the Bluestocking Bulletin, I came across a mention of the New Statesman History podcast series Hidden Histories. It is a six episode exploration of women writers before Jane Austen, from Aphra Behn to Maria Edgeworth. I’ve listened to two episodes so far & it’s wonderful. You can listen at the website or subscribe to the podcast.

Another new podcast is from the people who run crowdfunding publisher, Unbound. Called Backlisted, each episode highlights a forgotten book, in the manner of the website, Neglected Books.
I’ve listened to one episode so far, on Sylvia Townsend Warner’s Lolly Willowes, one of my favourite novels. I found the episode a bit too long & a little self-indulgent. The three male hosts didn’t let their guest, Samantha Ellis, get a word in for some time, but when the discussion did get started on the book, it was fascinating. I’ve downloaded two more episodes, on Nancy Mitford’s The Blessing & J L Carr’s A Month in the Country, so I will persevere.
I heard about this podcast from a terrific Facebook group, Undervalued British Women Novelists 1930-1960. It’s worth joining if you’re interested in the period & neglected women writers.

Well, that’s it for now. More rambling to come when I have something to ramble about. Happy reading, listening & subscribing.

Tales of Angria – Charlotte Brontë

Fans of the Brontë sisters often wish that Charlotte, Emily & Anne had lived long enough to write a few more novels. Charlotte made a tentative start on a novel after her marriage & Emily may have started a second novel (& Charlotte may or may not have destroyed the manuscript after Emily’s death), but really, seven novels between them just isn’t enough for the devoted admirer. However, the three sisters & their brother Branwell did write a lot more. All through their childhoods, from the moment when their father brought home a box of toy soldiers, the Brontës turned the soldiers into characters in two long-running sagas. Emily & Anne created Gondal &, although they were still imagining Gondal into their adulthood, virtually nothing survives of these stories except some poetry. Branwell & Charlotte created Angria, an imaginary place which is a mixture of Africa & Yorkshire. A lot of the Angrian stories survive & I’ve been reading the last five novellas (or novelettes) that Charlotte wrote about Angria. These stories were written when Charlotte was in her early twenties, when she was at home at Haworth, on holidays from her teaching position at Roe Head School & after the end of her position as a governess, working for the Sidgwick family.

This Penguin Classics edition is beautifully edited by Heather Glen & includes copious notes explaining obscure political references & illuminating the relationships between the characters. Even so, I soon decided that I couldn’t get too caught up in who everyone was & their backstories, it was just too confusing. Even more confusing, characters often change their names between stories or are addressed as one name by one character & something else by another. This is natural in such a long-running story, all the nuances of which would have been appreciated by the original readers, the Brontës themselves. The main characters are Arthur Augustus Adrian, Duke of Zamorna, King of Angria. Zamorna is married to Mary Percy, daughter of his once great friend & now enemy, Alexander Percy, Duke of Northangerland. Northangerland is married to Lady Zenobia Ellrington, who was once in love with Zamorna but married Northangerland on the rebound. Our narrator is Charles Townshend, cynical man about town & aspiring writer. Townshend was once Lord Charles Wellesley, brother of Zamorna in his younger days when he was Marquis of Douro, son of the Duke of Wellington.

The five stories are

Mina Laury – Zamorna has returned from exile after the civil war & is now King. Northangerland has been sent into exile but, because of their family relationship, Zamorna & Mary still visit him. Mary has become jealous of Zamorna’s many love affairs & is now a shadow of the woman she once was. Zamorna’s first love, Mina Laury, shared his exile with him & is still his mistress, living in a remote country house. Lord Hartford, one of the Generals in Zamorna’s army, has long been in love with Mina & visits her to declare himself & ask her to marry him. Zamorna discovers this & challenges Hartford to a duel.

Stancliffe’s Hotel – Charles Townshend & his friend, Sir William Percy, see a beautiful young lady in church, Jane Moore, daughter of a prominent barrister. After seeing her out riding, Percy declares himself in love & they decide to visit her, claiming to be clients of her father (who they know to be out of town). Jane receives them politely but is obviously under no illusions as to who they are, thinking them counting house clerks on a joke. Zamorna’s continuing relationship with Northangerland is leading to political instability & a riot threatens to break out. Zamorna & his Duchess arrive & he quietens the rebels.

The Duke of Zamorna – Townshend begins by reliving events of the past. He remembers the younger days of Zamorna, then the Marquis of Douro; his friendship with Northangerland; Northangerland’s despair after the death of his first wife & his relationship with Louisa Vernon which resulted in the birth of his daughter, Caroline. Then, we’re back in the present day & Townshend’s friendship with Sir William Percy continues with a series of letters written by Percy about Angrian society occasions. This is really a series of sketches which move about in time but illuminate the pasts of some of the characters from the first two stories.

Henry Hastings – Sir William Percy is now working for the Government & has become more serious, undertaking undercover diplomatic missions. Townshend, on the other hand, is much the same. He tries to make conversation with a young woman on a coach journey. She is Elizabeth Hastings, who has been employed as a companion/governess to Jane Moore. Elizabeth’s brother, Henry, is an outlaw, a poet & a drunkard, who was once thought to have a promising military career until he shot his commanding officer. After years in exile, Henry has returned to Angria & Percy is on his trail. He traces him to a country house belonging to the Moore family where Elizabeth is staying alone as housekeeper.

Caroline Vernon – Caroline is the illegitimate daughter of Northangerland & the ward of Zamorna. Caroline is now a teenager, desperately bored living with her mother in the country & full of dreams of fashionable life. Northangerland decides to bring her out & she experiences society in Paris & Verdopolis, the capital of Angria. He is reluctant to introduce her to his own home or his wife & so she is sent back to her mother. Caroline is dissatisfied by her return to the country & runs away to find Zamorna, with whom she has become infatuated. Zamorna is true to his Byronic nature & seduces Caroline, proposing to set her up in the country as his mistress. Northangerland discovers what has happened & the two men have a violent argument which is where the story ends.

Soon after Charlotte wrote Caroline Vernon, she worked as a governess for a few months with the White family & then she & Emily went to Brussels. There’s no evidence that she wrote any more Angrian stories or anything else (although there’s a fragment of a novel set in Yorkshire) until 1846, when, after the failure of their book of poetry, Charlotte tried to publish her novel, The Professor, along with Anne’s Agnes Grey & Emily’s Wuthering Heights.

The last two stories in this collection – Henry Hastings & Caroline Vernon – are longer & more coherent narratives. I enjoyed all the stories but especially those two. Throughout the stories, Charlotte’s distinctive voice can be heard,. She often addresses the Reader, as she does most famously in Jane Eyre. Her descriptions of place, particularly wintry landscape, & her scene setting are as good as anything in the novels.

The wind increased, the sky darkened, and the bleached whirl of a snow-storm began to fill the air. Dashing at a rapid rate through the tempest, an open travelling carriage swept up the road. … It contained two gentlemen, one a man of between thirty or forty, having about him a good deal of the air of a nobleman, shawled to the eyes, and buttoned up in at least three surtouts, with a waterproof white beaver hat, an immense mackintosh cape, and beaver gloves. His countenance bore a half-rueful, half-jesting expression. He seemed endeavouring to bear all things as smoothly as he could, but still the cold east wind and driving snow evidently put his philosophy very much to the test. Mina Laury.

Sometimes when she was alone in the evenings, walking through her handsome drawing-room by twilight, she would think of home and long for home, till she cried passionately at the conviction that she should see it no more. So wild was her longing that when she looked out on the dusky sky, between the curtains of her bay-window, fancy seemed to trace on the horizon the blue outline of the moors, just as seen from the parlour at Colne-moss. The evening star hung above the brow of Boulshill, the farm fields stretched away between. … Again, the step of Henry himself would seem to tread in the passage, and she would distinctly hear his gun deposited in the house corner. All was a dream. Henry was changed; she was changed; those times were departed forever. She had been her brother’s and her father’s favourite; she had lost one and forsaken the other. At these moments, her heart would yearn towards the old lonely man in Angria till it almost broke. But pride is a thing not easily subdued. She would not return to him. Henry Hastings.

Heather Glen’s Introduction is very interesting in discussing the origins of the stories. Unlike other critics, she doesn’t see them as a form of “trance-writing”. She sees them as a response to the fiction that the Brontës were reading in the 1830s – the fashionable silver-fork novels, the Newgate novels about criminals & prisons & Gothic novels. There was also a vogue for short tales & sketches in the periodicals & newspapers of the time so the form of these stories may have been deliberate. Charlotte may not have wanted to write full-length novels although she also lacked the time to write longer narratives when she was teaching. Glen points out that Charlotte was in her twenties, the same age as Dickens was when he published Pickwick Papers. These Angrian stories satirise many of the conventions of the fiction of the day & there’s an exuberance in the telling of stories for her siblings who would understand the allusions to the popular books they had read. As in all her work, Charlotte’s own wide reading, especially of poetry & the Bible, is referenced everywhere. Charlotte was also in a conversation with Branwell in these stories, taking over one of his characters (Henry Hastings) for her own & turning him into a commentary on Branwell’s own dissolute habits. She even resurrected a character (Mary Percy) that Branwell had killed off in one of his stories.

I loved reading these tales of Angria. I think that anyone who craves more Brontë stories should give these a try & this edition is an excellent place to start.

Sunday Poetry – Charlotte Brontë

I’ve been reading Charlotte Brontë’s juvenilia this week, the Tales of Angria, so I thought a poem by Charlotte would be perfect for today. This is Evening Solace, and its elegiac mood makes me think it must date from later in Charlotte’s life, maybe after the deaths of Branwell, Emily & Anne, when she would pace the dining room alone in the evenings.

The human heart has hidden treasures,
In secret kept, in silence sealed;­
The thoughts, the hopes, the dreams, the pleasures,
Whose charms were broken if revealed.
And days may pass in gay confusion,
And nights in rosy riot fly,
While, lost in Fame’s or Wealth’s illusion,
The memory of the Past may die.

But, there are hours of lonely musing,
Such as in evening silence come,
When, soft as birds their pinions closing,
The heart’s best feelings gather home.
Then in our souls there seems to languish
A tender grief that is not woe;
And thoughts that once wrung groans of anguish,
Now cause but some mild tears to flow.

And feelings, once as strong as passions,
Float softly back ­a faded dream;
Our own sharp griefs and wild sensations,
The tale of others’ sufferings seem.
Oh! when the heart is freshly bleeding,
How longs it for that time to be,
When, through the mist of years receding,
Its woes but live in reverie!

And it can dwell on moonlight glimmer,
On evening shade and loneliness;
And, while the sky grows dim and dimmer,
Feel no untold and strange distress­
Only a deeper impulse given
By lonely hour and darkened room,
To solemn thoughts that soar to heaven,
Seeking a life and world to come.

The King is Dead : the last will and testament of Henry VIII – Suzannah Lipscomb

I love books that focus on one incident or a particular period of a person’s life. I sometimes enjoy them more than a grand, sweeping history that takes in centuries of time & a cast of thousands – although I love the odd grand, sweeping history too. Suzannah Lipscomb’s new book focuses on the last few months of the life of Henry VIII & the immediate aftermath of his death.

The last will of Henry VIII has been a contested document for centuries. There have been debates about when exactly it was written, what Henry’s intentions were & how competent he was to draft a will by the final weeks of his life. By December 1546, Henry was very ill. Obese, suffering from intermittent fevers because of the ulcer on his leg, distressed by the factionalism of his Court, with religious conservatives & reformers jostling for position, Henry was determined to leave England with a blueprint for the future of the realm.

The main players at Court by the end of the reign were the King’s brother-in-law, Edward Seymour, Earl of Hertford, John Dudley, Lord Lisle & Sir William Paget, the King’s Chief Secretary. Stephen Gardiner, Bishop of Winchester was the leading conservative clergyman & Thomas Cranmer, Archbishop of Canterbury was the leading reformer. Henry’s last wife, Kateryn Parr, had narrowly escaped arrest for her reforming religious views just months earlier & since then, Gardiner had lost favour with the King. Thomas Howard, Duke of Norfolk, uncle of two of Henry’s queens, had fallen from favour along with his impetuous son, Henry Howard, Earl of Surrey, who was executed for treason in the last weeks of the reign.

Henry began his Will with a list of the men who would constitute the Regency Council for his heir, Edward. He realised that he would be leaving his nine year old son to succeed him & he wanted to prevent the rise of one man as Lord Protector. He named ten men, members of his Privy Council, as his executors & members of the Regency Council & a further six men who were not Privy Councilors. Henry’s personal control over the composition of the Council is evident in that men like Bishop Gardiner & Thomas Howard, Duke of Norfolk were excluded when they might have been thought essential members of the Council, as they had been close to the King for many years.

Henry VIII’s desire to secure the succession influenced his actions throughout his reign. Would he have married six times if it wasn’t for the desperate need for a male heir? Even in his final months, as his health declined, Henry’s obsessive need to control the future of the House of Tudor & of England, fed into the drafting of his final will. After naming the Regency Council whom he envisaged ruling until Edward was old enough to take power, he enumerated many different scenarios if the unthinkable happened & Edward did not live long enough to marry & have heirs of his own. Although Henry’s daughters, Mary & Elizabeth, had been declared illegitimate, Henry designated them next in line for the throne after Edward although he failed to legitimise them which caused trouble in later years. After his daughters, he ignored the line of his elder sister, Margaret, who had married James IV of Scotland & named the descendants of his younger sister, Mary, known as the French Queen after her short-lived marriage to Louis XI. She had later married Charles Brandon, Duke of Suffolk & had two daughters. No other will of a medieval king had set out the succession in this way & the provisions caused discussion in later years as, one after another, Henry’s three children ascended the throne & then died childless.

Henry also set out his religious beliefs. Henry’s break with Rome had led to him formulating his own peculiar religious belief, somewhere between Catholicism & Protestantism.  He obviously wished that neither extreme should prevail but his wishes in this matter, as in so much else, were ignored. He also set out his bequests to his family & closest friends & servants. The will was dated December 30th 1546 & Henry died three weeks later in January 1547.

Controversy surrounds this last will & testament. Historians have debated Henry’s fitness to make the will, citing his health. The fact that the King didn’t physically sign the will (it was signed with a dry stamp, an impression of the King’s signature that was inked in by his clerks) has led to accusations that it was contrary to his wishes or that it was tampered with after his death to favour Hertford & his faction who swiftly overturned the provisions for a Regency Council & became Lord Protector. Henry’s death wasn’t formally announced for several days & it has been speculated that Hertford & Paget had time to insert clauses that favoured them. Suzannah Lipscomb deals with all these theories very briskly. She discounts most of them by going back to the original sources, most importantly, to the will itself, which has survived & is in the National Archives. Where David Starkey has written that the last lines of the will are cramped & somehow added above the signatures of the witnesses (implying additions to the will after it was signed), Lipscomb disproves this by reproducing the last page of the will which is evenly spaced & written in the same hand as the rest of the document. The fact that his councilors did ignore the will so thoroughly & so quickly has led to speculation that a coup was planned before the King’s death but Lipscomb believes that it’s easy to see this with hindsight &, in reality, fear of treason kept Hertford & Paget from planning their takeover until literally the last hours of the King’s life.

Suzannah Lipscomb does an excellent job of filling in the background of Henry’s life before plunging into the more detailed story of his final months. Far from seeing Henry as a doddering old man at the mercy of his courtiers, she sees him as in control right to the very end. In her opinion, the will is consistent with Henry’s beliefs & view of himself throughout his reign. That he could write, in his plans for the succession, of the possibility that Queen Kateryn might yet have a child or that he might remarry, shows an essential optimism that’s quite touching. He believed that his councilors would follow his wishes for his son’s reign & would have been horrified to know how quickly the provisions of his will were discarded.

The book itself is a beautiful object. The illustrations, many of the portraits of the main players are by Holbein, remind us that these names on the page were real people & how lucky we are to have Holbein’s drawings to bring them to life. The entire text of the will is reproduced in the book as well as part of an inventory of Henry’s belongings that gives a taste of his wealth & the magnificence of the trappings of the Tudor Court. The King is Dead is a fascinating look at the politics of the final months of Henry’s life & the story of how the will was written emphasizes Henry’s control of his Court. His hand was on the wheel until the very end, even though he was unable to ensure that his last wishes were followed.

Sunday Poetry – Julia Ward Howe

I’m reading Elaine Showalter’s new biography of Julia Ward Howe at the moment so the only possible poem for today is her most famous work, The Battle Hymn of the Republic. It’s impossible to begin reading it (or even write the title) without humming the famous tune.

The biography is fascinating as I knew nothing about Julia Ward Howe except the fact that she wrote the Battle Hymn. Her marriage to a famous doctor, Samuel Gridley Howe (he ran the Perkins Institute for the Blind that Dickens visited & wrote about in his American Notes), was fraught with tension. The Civil Wars of the title of Showalter’s biography don’t just refer to the conflict that began in 1861.

Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord:
He is trampling out the vintage where the grapes of wrath are stored;
He hath loosed the fatal lightning of his terrible swift sword:
      His truth is marching on.

I have seen Him in the watch-fires of a hundred circling camps;
They have builded Him an altar in the evening dews and damps;
I can read His righteous sentence by the dim and flaring lamps.
      His Day is marching on.

I have read a fiery gospel, writ in burnished rows of steel:
“As ye deal with my contemners, so with you my grace shall deal;
Let the Hero, born of woman, crush the serpent with his heel,
      Since God is marching on.”

He has sounded forth the trumpet that shall never call retreat;
He is sifting out the hearts of men before his judgment-seat:
Oh! be swift, my soul, to answer Him! be jubilant, my feet!
      Our God is marching on.

In the beauty of the lilies Christ was born across the sea,
With a glory in his bosom that transfigures you and me:
As he died to make men holy, let us die to make men free,
      While God is marching on.

Deadlier Than the Male – Jessica Mann

In 1981, Jessica Mann wrote Deadlier Than the Male. As the subtitle says, it’s An investigation into feminine crime writing. Last year, it was released as an eBook with a new Foreward by the author. As I’ve always been interested in the authors Mann investigates – Agatha Christie, Dorothy L Sayers, Ngaio Marsh, Margery Allingham & Josephine Tey – I’m almost sure I read the book when it was first published. However, that was a long time ago & I was interested to see what the landscape of women’s crime writing was like 35 years ago & whether I would agree with Mann’s opinions on the women known as the Queens of Crime.

The first half of the book is a survey of the development of the crime novel & the different types of hero & heroine. The second half concentrates on the five authors & gives an account of their lives & careers. I found it fascinating to read of the many forgotten novelists whose work had not survived but who have recently been reprinted in series such as the British Library Crime Classics. Mann suggests that their work just wasn’t good enough to survive but tastes change & what was seen as irredeemably old-fashioned 50 years after publication is seen as fascinatingly retro after 85 years. The availability of digital publishing has also made the work of a lot of forgotten authors available again & I think that phenomenon helped to create the appetite for Golden Age mysteries that has been satisfied by the many reprints we’re enjoying now.

One comment that I had to smile at referred to

… the numerous excellent writers like Margaret Kennedy, E M Delafield, Angela Thirkell and Storm Jameson, to mention only a few, whose sensitive and literate novels are out of fashion now.

All these authors have been reprinted as paperback or eBook editions in the last few years & are enjoying quite a revival. Even more delicious is that the revival of “sensitive and literate” women’s fiction owes so much to Jessica Mann’s sister, Nicola Beauman, founder of Persephone Books. That’s just a tangent but I couldn’t resist quoting it as an example of how our reading lives have changed for the better & our access to books has broadened since the 1980s.

Mann discusses the appeal of crime fiction in the twentieth century & argues that the chaos of life leads to a desire for order which is satisfied by a novel that creates order out of strife. The popularity of mystery novels focusing on murder & disruption during WWII would seem counter-intuitive but, on the contrary, there was a feeling of reassurance in reading a novel that tied up all the loose ends & restored normal life at the end. Crime was the most popular genre during the War & the puzzle detective novel was at its height during the 1940s. Exotic settings, in an age when foreign travel was more difficult & unusual, added another layer to the reader’s enjoyment. Agatha Christie set her books in the Middle East, Egypt & the south of France as well as in St Mary Mead & London. Closed communities – from a wartime hospital to a fashion house, theatre or Oxford college – were also popular & the authors that used these settings often knew them intimately. If you’re a reader of Golden Age crime, you’ll recognize those settings & the authors all made use of either personal experience or detailed research to make the books unforgettable.

Mann also contrasts the formulaic novels of the Golden Age with their stock characters & bloodless corpses with the more realistic thrillers that were published in the 1960s & 1970s. She describes the difference as …between optimism and pessimism, almost, in some cases between hope and despair. Formula may bring a sense of comfort but greater realism was inevitable as society changed after the War. Even Agatha Christie, whose novels relied more on fiendish plotting than on description of either character or place, tried, not always successfully, to move with the times in her novels written in the 1950s & 1960s. The continued popularity of these writers is also remarkable & most of them continued writing after the period that has become known as the Golden Age. Dorothy L Sayers stopped writing detective fiction in the late 1930s but her books have never been out of print & Mann sees them as the books that can be read with pleasure as novels even after the reader knows the denouement of the plot (I agree with that. Sayers is one of the few detective novelists I reread often for the pleasure of revisiting the 1930s). Margery Allingham died in 1966 & Josephine Tey in 1952 but they are still popular, maybe even more so now than in the 1980s when Mann was writing. Ngaio Marsh was the only one of the five authors alive when Mann wrote Deadlier Than the Male (Marsh died in 1982).

In her quest to discover why these “respectable English women” (Marsh was a New Zealander & Tey was Scottish but they both mainly set their books in England) are so good at writing about murder, Mann looks at their lives & careers.

… I believe that their experiences tended to induce in them similar assumptions: that stability was desirable, and when threatened, should be restored; that reason should prevail over violence; that the customs of a secure and unthreatened class had an intrinsic merit. I think that the ethos they expressed in fictional form was acquired during and from their own lives, and was equally attractive and admirable to readers less able to express it.

The biographical details of the writers’ lives are briskly told. She looks at the trajectory of each author’s career, from Dorothy L Sayers quite openly admitting that she wrote the Wimsey books for money & stopped when she discovered something else that she wanted to devote herself to (her translations of Dante) to Margery Allingham’s pragmatic desire to write books that will sell (she came from a family of writers). Josephine Tey & Ngaio Marsh were much more interested in the theatre. Tey wrote some successful plays & referred to her detective novels as her knitting while Marsh wrote to finance her theatrical work, producing plays, especially Shakespeare & her crime fiction was very much in second place. Mann knows the work of all these writers well & can discuss plot & the development of character. The reticence of these five writers about their personal lives may have led them to write detective fiction with its strict rules & conventions rather than more personal forms of fiction. They would be unlikely to be completely comfortable writing thrillers like Patricia Highsmith, with her fascination in the character of the criminal or like Ruth Rendell & P D James, who write much more realistically & graphically about murder & about the effects on those who come into contact with it. She sees writers of romantic suspense, like Mary Stewart & Helen MacInnes, as the heirs to the Golden Age writers, rather than crime writers who tear away the veil of respectability & look at evil so directly.

Deadlier Than the Male is a great overview of the development of detective fiction & the work of these five women writers in particular. Although there have been many biographies & critical volumes devoted to these writers, Mann’s insights into the influence of the life on the work & her judgements on the work, are still very relevant today.

Murder of a Lady – Anthony Wynne

The murder of Mary Gregor shocks everyone who knew her. By all accounts she was a kind, gentle elderly lady, sister of the local Laird, Duchlan, & devoted to his son, her nephew, Eoghan.The circumstances of Mary’s death are also peculiar. She was found kneeling by her bed in a room with  door & windows locked. There seemed no way for the murderer to have left the room & there’s no murder weapon to be seen, just a jagged wound near her neck. The only clue is a silver herring scale found near the fatal wound. There was also the scar of a long-healed wound on the victim’s chest. How could Miss Gregor have inspired murderous rage not once but twice in her life?

While waiting for the arrival of the local police, the Procurator Fiscal, Mr McLeod, calls in Dr Eustace Hailey, a well-known amateur detective who happens to be staying nearby. Dr Hailey examines the murder scene & talks to Duchlan who speaks of his sister in glowing terms, of the devotion of her personal maid, Christina, & the piper, Angus, who performed some of the duties of a butler. His daughter-in-law, Oonagh, was also in the house but had retired early. Oonagh’s husband, Eoghan, arrived by motor boat that same evening from Ayrshire where his regiment was stationed. When Inspector Dundas arrives, he immediatly takes charge of the investigation & rejects Dr Hailey’s offer of help.

It soon becomes clear that Mary Gregor was a deceptively mild character. In reality, she ruled Duchlan Castle with an iron will & brooked no opposition from anyone. Her insinuating ways left her victims with no concrete action or word to complain of but the results of her poisonous tongue were very real. Oonagh had quarreled with her aunt about the care of her son & she had given Eoghan an ultimatum – give me a home of our own or I will leave you. Eoghan was on his way to Duchlan that night to ask his aunt for a loan to pay his gambling debts, a loan that his aunt was likely to refuse as her high moral standards disapproved of gambling. However, Eoghan would benefit greatly from Mary’s will as she was the only one of the family with money. Oonagh had become friends with the local doctor, MacDonald, & Mary Gregor believed they were having an affair. She had threatened to tell Eoghan about it, as she had continually sowed discord between Oonagh & Eoghan & interfered with the upbringing of their young son Hamish. As Dr MacDonald was in the house that night, attending Hamish who was prone to fits, he joins Inspector Dundas’s list of suspects.

However, the locked room & lack of a weapon baffle the Inspector & he eventually has to climb down & ask for Dr Hailey’s help with the investigation. Then, another murder takes place with a similar method to the first & the uncanny circumstances, including the discovery of more fish scales at the scene, lead to whispers about the strange creatures from nearby Loch Fyne that the fishermen believe bring bad luck & evil. Could the answer be supernatural after all?

Murder of a Lady is an ingeniously plotted locked room mystery in an atmospheric Highland setting. I love books set in Scotland & this one has everything – a castle by a loch with tales of a seal-like creature lurking in the depths; a respectable woman who rules her family with insinuating cruelty; a young woman at the end of her tether & an old man who turns his face from the truth & is completely under the sway of a stronger character. The murders are very puzzling & the fish scales (the book was originally published in 1931 as The Silver Scale Mystery) add a distinctive oddness to the investigation. I enjoyed the character of Dr Hailey. He’s kind, sympathetic, but determined to pursue the truth, no matter how much sympathy he may feel for the suspects. He prevents several crimes in the course of his investigation, including a suicide, but can’t stop the murderer striking again as he desperately tries to put together the clues.

Murder of a Lady is one of the very successful British Library Crime Classics series. I have lots of them on the tbr shelves (& there are more to be published later this year). It’s fascinating to have a chance to read these long-forgotten authors. I’d like to read more Anthony Wynne so I hope they choose another of his books to reprint in the future.

Sunday Poetry – Alice Coats

As I’ve just read Julie Summers’ book Jambusters & I’m in the middle of watching Home Fires, the TV series based on the book, this week’s poem had to be from the Home Front. Alice Coats worked in the Land Army throughout the war & I think her poem, The ‘Monstrous Regiment’, reflects wartime England as it was seen by many women at the time.

What hosts of women everywhere I see!
I’m sick to death of them – and they of me.
(The few remaining men are small and pale – 
War lends a spurious value to the male.)
Mechanics are supplanted by their mothers;
Aunts take the place of artisans and others;
Wives sell the sago, daughters drive the van,
even the mansion is without a man!
Females are farming who were frail before,
Matrons attending meetings by the score,
Maidens are mending multiple machines,
And virgins vending station-magazines.
Dames, hoydens, wenches, harridans and hussies
Cram to congestion all the trams and buses;
Misses and grandmas, mistresses and nieces,
Infest bombed buildings, picking up the pieces.
Girls from the South and lassies from the North,
Sisters and sweethearts, bustle back and forth.
The newsboy and the boy who drives the plough:
Postman and milkman – all are ladies now.
Doctors and engineers – yes, even these – 
Poets and politicians, all are shes.
(The very beasts that in the meadow browse
Are ewes and mares, heifers and hens and cows…)
All, doubtless, worthy to a high degree;
But oh, how boring! Yes, including me.