Middlebrow Feminism in Classic British Detective Fiction – Melissa Schaub

If ever there was a book title that ticked all my reading boxes, this would have to be it. The combination of middlebrow fiction with the Golden Age detective novel is irresistible. The intriguing subtitle of the book is The Female Gentleman, & I was curious to find out what this meant.

Schaub places the detective novels of Agatha Christie, Dorothy L Sayers, Ngaio Marsh, Margery Allingham & Georgette Heyer (she also discusses Heyer’s romances) in a line leading from the Victorian Angel in the House & the New Woman texts of the 1890s through to the novels of the feminism of the 1970s & 1980s. The disdain of Modernist writers like Virginia Woolf for these middlebrow writers & their audience intrigues Schaub. All these writers are still in print & their work is enjoyed today when the equally revolutionary novels of the New Woman writers – Mona Caird, George Egerton & Sarah Grand – have been largely forgotten. Schaub discusses the “boomerang” nature of many of the plots of New Women fiction. The authors allow their heroines considerable freedom until about the halfway point of the novel & then they have to be reined in & usually punished by the end of the book for their temerity in pushing the boundaries of convention.

The popularity of detective fiction has been apparent since Victorian times & Schaub briefly discusses characters such as Rachel Verinder in Wilkie Collins’s The Moonstone & Baroness Orczy’s Lady Molly of Scotland Yard, but it was only in the post WWI era, when education & political change led to women gaining the vote, that women could realistically take on the role of sleuth, becoming female gentlemen, with the same codes of honour as their male counterparts.

… the core of the ideal is a woman who is competent, courageous and self-reliant in practical situations, capable of subordinating her emotions to reason and the personal good to the social good, and possessed of ‘honor’ in the oldest sense of the term. These are personality traits, corresponding with the moral aspect of Victorian gentlemanliness. Most of the characters who fill the Female Gentleman role also fulfill the more archaic class aspect of gentlemanliness through birth or breeding, but with significant revision consistent with the class negotiations performed by the middlebrow novel as a whole.

After WWI, many of the male fictional detectives were scarred by their experiences in the trenches. Lord Peter Wimsey is probably the most famous example, suffering shell shock & eventually finding stability in his work as a detective. Even then, he’s prone to emotional collapse at the end of a case when he has to confront the fact that his actions have led to a murderer’s execution. He’s just one example of the effete young gentleman contrasted with the women in detective novels of the period who take on masculine traits almost in compensation. Emotional self-control is crucial & the heroes & heroines of these novels often display a detached ironic form of speech, Lord Peter & Harriet’s piffle is the best example.

The loosening of social conventions is also important here. Women had experienced a measure of freedom during the war, working as nurses or in munition factories. Suddenly young women could walk through London alone, without a chaperone, without the threat of being taken as prostitutes. Elizabeth Dalloway, in Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway, takes a walk through London, unchaperoned, riding on a bus, which is even more radical than her mother’s stroll to buy flowers. Women were shortening their skirts, even wearing trousers & ties, smoking in public, voting & earning a living. Although middlebrow novels are often seen as conservative, the examples here show the rewards of feminism as women became better educated & more politically active.

The Female Gentleman is characterised by her sense of honour, physical & moral courage, self-reliance, sense of submitting her personal desires to the greater good & usually belonging to the upper middle to upper classes. Often she has become an outcast from her social class because of the need to earn a living or because she has gone outside the accepted conventions of the class she was born into. Critics have called these novels conservative because of the predominance of upper class characters & the often casual racism & anti-Semitism of the times but highbrow & Modernist fiction wasn’t exempt from these attitudes & the authors often treat characters of different races with sympathy.

Harriet Vane has been to Oxford, earns a living as a writer & lived with her lover, Philip Boyes, without expecting or wanting marriage. It was only when Boyes humiliated her by offering to marry her once she had passed his “test” of devotion, that she left him & was then accused of poisoning him with arsenic in Dorothy L Sayers’s Strong Poison. Lady Amanda Fitton, in Allingham’s novels, designs airplanes & Agatha Troy, in Marsh’s novels, is an artist. All these women have the attributes of the gentleman & they are portrayed as the intellectual equals of the men they marry. It’s significant that the novels of women writers like Allingham, Marsh & Sayers all depict such an equal relationship. There may be an element of wish fulfillment here but the concept was certainly not so outrageous as to be unbelievable in the context of the times. Along with the more traditional spinster amateur sleuths like Christie’s Miss Marple & Patricia Wentworth’s Miss Silver, there were other single women like Sayers’s Miss Climpson & Miss Murchison, who represented another reality of post-war society, the surplus women who overturn the stereotype of catty old ladies in boarding houses & country villages, using their considerable skills to pursue justice & outwit villains.

I feel that I’ve only skimmed the surface of this book. I found the idea of the Female Gentleman to be thought provoking & intriguing. I’ve read nearly all the novels discussed (there are some inevitable spoilers when discussing plots but I would think most readers of this book will be fans of the authors discussed & will already know the plots backwards) & Melissa Schaub’s prose is readable & blessedly free of jargon. The discussions of the books, their plots & characters are guaranteed to make you want to read or reread one or more of these books immediately. 

Conundrums for the Long Week-end – Robert Kuhn McGregor with Ethan Lewis

… the fictional history of Peter Wimsey has become emblematic of its time. Unlike practically any of the other famous fictional detectives, Lord Peter Wimsey’s career was fully defined by a single epoch. He came to life as the long week-end began in the wake of the Great War; he disappeared as World War II sealed the week-end’s close.

The subtitle of this book is England, Dorothy L Sayers & Lord Peter Wimsey. The authors have combined literary criticism & social history to place Peter Wimsey & Dorothy L Sayers in the England of the interwar period. As Sayers is my favourite Golden Age detective novelist, this book was always going to appeal to me. It was written in 2000 & I’m almost sure I read it back then. However, seeing it in a recommended list of e-books on Amazon was enough to inspire me to download it & read it again over the last few days.

McGregor & Lewis have looked at the life of Dorothy L Sayers & tell the story of how she came to write the Wimsey books. At first, she wrote them for the money. She was an avid reader of detective stories & thrillers & throughout the series she makes some quite pointed comments about other writers. She was also unhappy in her personal life with several frustrating & unfulfilling relationships & the birth of her illegitimate son, John Anthony. She kept her son’s existence a secret from almost everyone & especially her parents. She worked as a teacher &, more famously, at Benson’s advertising agency, until the success of the Wimsey novels enabled her to concentrate on her writing.

The other focus of the book is the political & social history of the period between the wars. Famously called The Long Week-end by Robert Graves & Alan Hodge in their book of this name, McGregor & Lewis trace the preoccupations of Sayers & her world in the themes & settings of the novels. Each chapter begins with an overview of the political & social situation in England & Europe & then the discussion moves on to Sayers’s life & the novels she was working on. This certainly focuses the reader on the topicality of many of the plots & social settings of the books, especially the far-reaching impact of the Great War on England. Peter Wimsey suffered from shell-shock & the after-effects of this are evident in the early books of the series. The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club begins on Armistice Day & features several characters who have been damaged by their war service. Have His Carcase is set at Wilvercombe, a watering place where middle-aged women fall in love with gigolos & the agricultural slump leads to the commission of a horrible murder.

Sayers had an intellectual interest in the writing of detective fiction & wrote Introductions to several collections of stories by the best-known authors in the genre. She especially acknowledged the influence of Wilkie Collins & Sheridan LeFanu, the 19th century writers who paved the way for Conan Doyle, Edgar Wallace & the Golden Age writers. As a graduate of Oxford, Sayers was also interested in the role of women in society & her creation of Harriet Vane, detective novelist, accused murderer & the woman Peter Wimsey wants to marry, allows her to explore this theme. Through Harriet, Sayers is able to discuss the writing of detective fiction as well as provide a compelling portrait of a professional woman. My favourite novel in the series, Gaudy Night, is the least conventional as a detective novel. Set mainly in a women’s college at Oxford, Harriet takes centre stage as she tries to discover the identity of a malicious poison pen. Discussions about the place of women in society & the importance of the intellectual life are just as important as the detection.

The final book about Peter & Harriet, Busman’s Honeymoon, started life as a play &, apart from the beginning of a novel, Thrones, Dominations (later finished by Jill Paton Walsh in 1998) & a few short stories written during WWII, that was the end of the story. McGregor & Lewis examine the reasons behind Sayers’s decision to abandon this unfinished novel. Apart from having finally married off her two leading characters, Sayers was writing Thrones, Dominations during the period of the death of George V & the Abdication crisis of 1936. Suddenly the theme of marriage was just a little too delicate. Sayers was also becoming interested in other work, including her plays on religious themes & so the novel was put aside & never resumed.

Conundrums for the Long Week-end is a book for Wimsey fans who have read all the books as the plots are fully discussed & the murderers are named. You have been warned! I enjoyed it because of the way that the authors tied together the wider social history of the period with Sayers’s life & the progress of her creation of two of the most intriguing characters in detective fiction.

Back to Work

Back to work this morning after a lovely week off. The tomatoes, basil & lettuce have been planted, the vegie garden mulched, the Christmas cake made & lots of reading, walking & playing with the cats has been done. A perfect holiday, in fact.

At one point last week, I had four books on the go, which is a lot, even for me. I reread Gaudy Night by Dorothy L Sayers & then realised that it’s less than a year since I last reread it. I finished two other books that I’ll be reviewing later this week. And I’ve been dipping into Persephone no 100, The Persephone Book of Short Stories. This is a celebratory collection of short stories because one of  the specialties of Persephone Books is the short story collection. About a third of these stories have been published in short story collections in the Persephone collection, another third have featured in the Persephone Quarterly & Biannual & the rest are stories by authors not published by Persephone. The authors include Persephone favourites Dorothy Whipple, E M Delafield, Mollie Panter-Downes & Dorothy Canfield Fisher. The “new” authors include several who would be perfect for Persephone’s list in the future – Phyllis Bentley, Malachi Whitaker & Helen Hull (who is about to become a Persephone author when her book, Heat Lightning, is published next year).

Two of my favourite short stories are in the collection. Good Evening, Mrs Craven by Mollie Panter-Downes is the title story of the WWII short story collection that was one of Persephone’s early successes. I love this poignant story of a woman who is a mistress, not a wife. She has met her lover every Thursday night but when war breaks out & he’s posted overseas, she realises that she will have no right to be told if he’s wounded or killed. Roman Fever by Edith Wharton is a story of secrets & misunderstandings between two women who meet again after many years on a visit to Rome. It’s a beautifully subtle story with an ending that you will never forget. I’ve read it many times & I’m always moved by the last few lines.

I’ve bought several cookbooks lately & this lovely book about baking was one of them. I couldn’t wait to try a recipe so I chose the Marbled Chocolate Crumble Cake.

Whether it looks like the picture in the book will have to wait until morning tea time when I see if I followed Rachel’s directions properly or overdid the swirling! The recipe called for two bowls of cake batter, one plain & one chocolate. Spoonfuls of each mixture are placed in the tin & then it’s swirled together with a skewer to give a marbled effect when it’s cut. It’s so easy to give the mixture one more swirl but it looks alright from the outside. Fingers crossed!

Gaudy Night – Dorothy L Sayers

I’ve been watching the latest series of Lewis with Kevin Whately & Laurence Fox. One episode was set at a Gaudy at an Oxford women’s college & as soon as the program finished, I grabbed Gaudy Night & started reading it for the umpteenth time. This is one of my favourite books. Dorothy L Sayers is one of the few mystery writers I can reread. Even when I know whodunit, I read her books for the atmosphere & flavour of England in the 1920s & 30s. As P D James has said, if you want to know what it was like to work in an advertising agency in the 20s, you read Murder Must Advertise. Sayers worked in such an agency & she gets the office politics just right. The Nine Tailors is a loving portrait of life in a village in the Fens, the same kind of place where she grew up. Have His Carcase is a portrait of a seedy watering place where rich widows are seduced by gigolos. In some ways, the investigation takes second place for me to the evocation of a period that has gone.

Harriet Vane is one of my literary heroines & Gaudy Night is her story. Peter Wimsey makes only fleeting appearances until quite late in the book. Harriet is a successful detective novelist. It’s five years since she was tried for the murder of her lover, Philip Boyes, & acquitted with the help of Lord Peter Wimsey, who was convinced of her innocence from the moment he first saw her. Wimsey has pursued Harriet with proposals of marriage ever since & she has done her best to reject him. When she is invited to her old college’s Gaudy, she decides to go, if only to meet a friend who is now ill & wanting to see her. Harriet has avoided Oxford since she went down. She had to work hard to make a living & then her notoriety made her wary of going back. Now, she’s made a success of her professional life, however unsatisfied she may be personally, & she returns to Oxford.

The Gaudy reunites Harriet with old friends, some of whom she’s happier to see than others. She finds she grown apart from Mary Stokes, the friend she came to meet, but is happy to be reacquainted with others, including the Dean, Miss Martin, & her English tutor, Miss Lydgate. Some of the other dons, including spiky Miss Hillyard, are less pleased at Harriet’s return. When Harriet finds an anonymous letter in her gown, accusing her of murder, she thinks nothing of it. There have been many such letters & she returns to London after the Gaudy reflecting on how soothing a little time at Oxford pursuing some research would be.

A letter from Miss Martin, asking Harriet to visit Shrewsbury College for the opening of the new Library, awakens Harriet’s desire to retreat to academe for a while. The Dean & the Warden of the College want to consult Harriet about a spate of unpleasant practical jokes & anonymous letters that have been sent to dons & students. The letters are explicit & very nasty, accusing people of disgusting crimes & unnatural acts. They all seem to be against the idea of women intellectuals, seeing an unmarried woman as an abomination against nature. Harriet realises that the letter she found was part of the same campaign & therefore the culprit could only be a don or one of the college servants as very few students were in college during the Gaudy.

Harriet agrees to investigate & returns to College to research the life of Sheridan LeFanu as well as helping Miss Lydgate with the proofs of her new book as a cover for her investigations. While there, she makes the acquaintance of Peter Wimsey’s nephew, Lord St George, & is pursued by Reggie Pomfret, a young undergraduate who she discovers helping a very drunk Shrewsbury student over the College wall in the middle of the night. The incidents & letters keep coming, including the vandalising of the Library the night before the official opening & letters being sent to a vulnerable student who attempts suicide as a result. As the atmosphere among the dons grows more poisonous, Harriet realises that she needs help & decides to consult Peter.

Gaudy Night isn’t just a mystery novel though. It’s really Dorothy L Sayers’s love letter to Oxford. She writes so lovingly about Oxford, the University life, the College & all the personalities who inhabit it. The dons are beautifully drawn. Miss Martin is a delight as is Miss Lydgate, a scatty, lovable woman who is devising a new theory of prosody that requires her to rewrite her book endlessly while driving the printers mad with her use of different fonts & notation styles. The clash of personalities among the dons is convincing & Harriet discovers the downside of community life as well as the joys of scholarship & the ordered beauty of a life devoted to the mind rather than the messiness of personal relationships. This description of Oxford is idyllic & full of nostalgia for the days of Sayers’s youth,

April was running out, chilly and fickle, but with the promise of good things to come; and the city wore the withdrawn and secretive beauty that wraps her about in vacation. No clamour of young voices echoed along her ancient stones; the tumult of flying bicycles was stilled in the narrow strait of the Turl; in Radcliffe Square the Camera slept like a cat in the sunshine, disturbed only by the occasional visit of a slow-footed don; even in the High, the roar of car and charabanc seemed minished and brought low, for the holiday season was not yet; punts and canoes, new-fettled for the summer term, began to put forth upon the Cherwell like the varnished buds upon the horse-chestnut tree, but as yet there was no press of traffic upon the shining reaches; the mellow bells, soaring and singing in tower and steeple, told of time’s flight through an eternity of peace; and Great Tom, tolling his nightly hundred-and-one, called home only the rooks from off Christ Church Meadow.

Harriet pursues her investigations & comes to terms with her feelings for Peter, finally seeing a way forward  that will allow her to preserve her hard-won independence while allowing someone else into her life. I always find the last few pages, as Peter & Harriet stroll through the College grounds after hearing Bach’s Double Violin Concerto, very moving.

The pictures by Natacha Ledwidge are from my lovely Folio Society edition of Gaudy Night. I don’t feel I’m done with Dorothy just yet though. In the middle of a hot Melbourne summer, maybe The Nine Tailors should be next or The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club?