Tag Archives: 20th century British fiction

Visitors: Anita Brookner

Old age should be a time of great and significant self-indulgence, she thought; otherwise it is too bitter.

In Anita Brookner’s novel Visitors, the arrival of an unexpected guest disrupts the quiet, ordered routine of a 70-year-old widow, and over the course of a few days she confronts her past, her present and her uncertain future.

visitors

Dorothea May, following the death of her husband Henry, has been widowed for 15 years, but in his absence, Dorothea maintains relationships with Henry’s two cousins: the very glamorous Kitty who is married to Austin, and Kitty’s sister  Molly who is married to Harold. Both Kitty and Molly are ‘sensitive’ and suffer from ‘nerves,’ and they’re both lucky enough to be married to husbands whose mission in life seems to be to protect and coddle these two women–although to be honest, of the two sisters, Kitty is much more extreme.  Dorothea maintains legacy relationships with Kitty, Molly and their husbands, dining at their houses, attending their birthdays and wedding anniversaries, but she’s always remained very much an outsider. Both Molly and Kitty phone and check on Dorothea periodically.

This was what really spurred them to keep in touch, not her own health (monotonously good they supposed, since she never complained), not the reminiscences, but their own unquestioning acceptance of Henry’s priorities. Even though she remained so puzzling a stranger, she was still Henry’s wife.

Dorothea’s routine is disrupted when Kitty’s estranged granddaughter Ann announces that she and her fiancé David are travelling from America in order to be married in England. With virtually no notice and a wedding to plan, this throws Kitty into a panic, and she asks Dorothea if she’ll house the best man, Steve Best. Reluctantly, and against her better judgement, Dorothea agrees.

To her surprise, Dorothea (Thea) finds herself rather enjoying all the domestic drama that unfolds around the upcoming nuptials. Kitty and Austin have an estranged son, “the missing link” Gerald, rumoured by some to have joined a commune, thought by others to be in prison. Austin made contact with Gerald a few years previously and the resulting meeting almost killed him. It seems possible that Gerald will attend his daughter’s wedding, a possibility fraught with tension and emotional upset.

Part of the reason that Dorothea is able to enjoy the proceedings with the very sullen Ann and her zealously religious fiancé, David, who’s always on the lookout for a convert, is that she has no emotional investment in these relationships. Whereas Kitty is constantly (and vainly) trying to please Ann, Dorothea finds Ann, David, and Stephen graceless, ungrateful and devoid of any charm. Ann’s drama brings Dorothea into the inner family circle in a way that marriage to Henry never did.

Visitors is a meditation of the unbreachable gap between youth and old age: those who think their whole lives await, and those who live with disappointment and regret. To Ann and Stephen, Dorothea and Kitty are bourgeois and mainly concerned with money–yet both the self-focused Ann and the rudderless Stephen have somewhat conveniently latched onto the wealthy David. Stephen’s presence in Dorothea’s life awakens memories of Henry and also of her first love affair. It’s because of Stephen that Dorothea and Molly think about their childlessness (which may be a blessing given how anguished Kitty and Austin are over their absent son), but also Dorothea finds herself mulling over the limitations of her life–past and present.

Mrs May found that she did not miss the young people, not even Steve. With her new old woman’s perceptions she saw them as crude, affectless. She was willing to concede that they felt affronted by their enforced contact with Kitty, with Molly, with herself, but at the same time she saw little evidence of wit or charm. Charm alone would have done, she thought, but they had not mastered the art. Worse, they were unaware it was recommended. 

The characters of Ann and Stephen were particularly annoying as, I think, they were meant to be–at one point, Dorothea thinks of them as “predators.”  Ann moans about the big wedding and all the fuss, but she must have wanted that–otherwise why contact an estranged, wealthy English grandmother and tell her that she wants to get married in England? For this reader, Stephen and Ann got away with far too much bad behaviour. One moan from Ann about the fuss, and Kitty should have put her cheque book away and cancelled the honeymoon to Paris, but Kitty and Austin are people who throw their money at problems.

As for Stephen, he manages to get under Dorothea’s skin (as he intends to) and she loses her equilibrium as a result. He awakens a deep-seated fear she has of losing her home, and yet Stephen’s barely veiled contempt for Dorothea’s restrictions leads to her wondering just how valuable her life really is and whether she has lived too “unadventurously.”

When she thought of Henry it was of someone in another room, laughing, talking on the telephone: she could almost smell the fragrant smoke of his cigar. Although he was so gregarious and she so solitary they had been good friends. Perhaps it was easier for her to make adjustments, concessions: she was of an obedient disposition. 

Visitors is my least favourite Brookner so far, but I still liked it which says a great deal, doesn’t it?

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The 12:30 from Croydon: Freeman Wills Crofts (1934)

“All this morality business was just an old wives’ tale.”

The 12:30 from Croydon, a 1943 crime novel from Freeman Crofts Wills, refers, not to a train schedule as I first thought, but to a flight from Croydon to France. The plane carries a handful of passengers on board: Andrew Crowther, his son-in-law Peter Morley, Peter’s daughter Rose, and Crowther’s butler/manservant Weatherup. The family members are making an emergency trip to Paris following the news that Crowther’s only daughter Elsie, Peter’s wife, has been knocked down by a taxi. However, when the plane lands, Crowther is dead. Crowther was a sickly man, and so at first it’s thought that he died of natural causes, but following an autopsy, poison is the known cause of death

This British Library Crime Classic reprint is not concerned with the mystery of the killer. The book steps back in time and quickly reveals the murderer to be Andrew Crowther’s nephew, Charles Swinburn, a middle-aged man whose business is about to go bankrupt. Swinburn hits his uncle for a loan–after all reasons Charles, he’s going to inherit half of his uncle’s estate. Everyone is of the opinion that Andrew Crowther doesn’t have many months of life left in him, and so reasons Charles, where is the harm of advancing the money in order to keep him afloat?

the-1230-from-croydon

Andrew Crowther is shown to be crotchety, unreasonable and completely out-of-touch with the 30s economy, and he thinks bankruptcy can be avoided if everyone just works harder, so it’s easy for us to have sympathy for Charles’s dilemma when faced with his uncle’s irrational objections. At the root of Charles’s distress is a woman–he’s head-over-heels in love with a local heiress, the coldly materialistic Una. He doesn’t have a hope in hell of winning her hand, and yet sadly he thinks he does as long as he can stay solvent. There’s also a degree of sympathy roused for Charles when his peers begin avoiding him yet hypocritically re-friend him when they learn that he won’t go bankrupt after all.

How strange it was, Charles ruminated, that the useless and the obstructive so often live on, while the valuable and progressive die early!

The 12:30 from Croydon, a very strong entry in the British Library Crime Classics oeuvre is primarily a psychological novel. First murder is contemplated as an abstraction but then Charles hatches a plan. The plot follows Charles’s reasoning as he argues himself into murder, and then meticulously follows the plan which Charles is sure is foolproof. …

Author  Freeman Wills Crofts shows complete mastery over the plot as he creates each stage of Charles’s emotions; we see his anxieties, his paranoia and then his joy when he thinks he’s got away with murder, but then Chief Inspector French from the Yard arrives on the scene. There’s a lot of detail here as we move through the preparation for the crime, two inquests, jury selection and a murder trial. Apart from the last couple of chapters, we always see things through Charles’s eyes, and what a convincingly deluded Dostoyevskian view it is.

Once again Charles felt a wave of bitterness sweep over him. If his uncle had only acted with reasonable decenecy. this horrible enterprise into which he had been forced would have been unneccesary. Well Andrew had only himself to thank. 

Antidote to Venom is my favourite Freeman Wills Crofts to date followed by The 12:30 from Croydon and then The Hog’s Back Mystery. 

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Hotel du Lac: Anita Brookner

“Good women always think it is their fault when someone else is being offensive. Bad women never take the blame for anything.”

Edith Hope, an unmarried author of romantic novels has done something bad. Initially we don’t know quite what ‘it‘ is, but whatever happened may have something to do with the affair she conducted with a married man. Edith is packed off, by a somewhat domineering friend, to a Swiss Hotel, the Hotel du Lac which gives “a mild form of sanctuary.”  It’s off-season in this grand, off-the beaten-track, old-fashioned hotel that accommodates to a certain type of guest catering to “the respected patrons of an earlier era of tourism.”

It seems to be permanently reserved for women. And for a certain kind of woman. Cast-off or abandoned, paid to stay away, or to do harmless womanly things, like spending money on clothes.

As an author, Edith is a veteran people-watcher and she is intrigued by the guests. There’s the very popular, elegant Mrs Pusey and her fleshy, robust daughter Jennifer, an aged comtessa who’s been shuttled off to the hotel by a daughter-in-law who doesn’t want her around, and then there’s the very beautiful, languid Monica who has an eating disorder which she shares with her co-dependent dog, Kiki.

hotel-du-lac

Edith watches Mrs Pusey “as if under hypnosis.” Mrs Pusey is a favoured guest with the hotel management and whereas Monica sometimes acts badly, Mrs Pusey can be relied upon to behave graciously.  Everything that Mrs Pusey does is an extravagant performance, from her entrance into the dining room, the tales of her tragic widowhood, to her drinking of tea. Since every performance needs an audience, Edith is co-opted by Mrs Pusey to listen to her “opinions, reminiscences, character readings or general views on life’s little problems.” The sole purpose for the Puseys to be in Switzerland seems to be shopping as “abroad was seen mainly as a repository for luxury goods,” especially lingerie. They’re always off buying knickers according to the refreshingly acidic Monica whose occasionally embarrassing displays are in welcome contrast to the affected manners of the Puseys and their self-loving, fawning mother-daughter routine.

Enter Mr. Neville… an attractive,  comfortably well off, divorced man whose presence shakes up the hotel’s female guests. It’s perhaps no surprise that he zeros in on Monica first, but by the next morning, she’s avoiding him. Assured and slightly sleazy, Mr Neville professes to have “the secret of contentment,” and he advises Edith that “to assume your own centrality may mean an entirely new life.”

Without a huge emotional investment, one can do whatever one pleases. One can take decisions, change one’s mind, alter one’s plans. There is none of the anxiety of waiting to see if that one other person has everlasting she desires, if she is discontented, upset, restless, bored. One can be as pleasant or as ruthless as one wants. If one is prepared to do the one thing one is drilled out of doing from earliest childhood–simply please oneself-there is no reason why one should ever be unhappy again.

Brookner’s books don’t quite seem to fit in the age in which they take place. I noticed this in Dolly, Undue Influence and Look at Me. All of these books concern single, genteel solitary women engaged in bookish professions. Occasionally some reference brings the reader to a recognition of the times, but it was so easy to imagine we were in the earlier world. Incidentally, Hotel du Lac reminded me of A Month by The Lake which is set in 1937.

In Hotel du Lac there’s once again the theme that the writer’s life and marriage/cohabitation don’t mix (it also appeared in Look At Me). There’s also the idea, touched upon in Look At Me and Undue Influence, that men like a certain kind of woman–these days we’d say ‘high maintenance.’ We only see echoes of Edith’s married lover’s wife, but even these tiny glimpses hint that she is one of Brookner’s high maintenance women. Interesting that the high maintenance women land the men (and sometimes the life of ease) while Brookner’s protagonists are left solo, wondering where they went wrong.

Once again, this is a Brookner novel I loved, and after reading the very melancholy Look At Me, I was ambushed by the book’s humour. I wasn’t quite sold by the ending (can’t give away spoilers here, but I don’t think that Edith would have even contemplated going down the same road twice–if you’ve read the book you’ll know what I mean). But the rest of this wonderful book is perfect: Mrs Pusey and Monica are brilliant character studies. Monica’s edginess and irritability is in perfect contrast to Mrs Pusey’s saccharine perfection. Here’s Monica without her enabler for once:

“But where is Kiki?”

Monica’s face fell. “In disgrace. Locked in the bathroom. Well, you can’t expect a little dog like that to behave as well as he would with his own things around him. And the Swiss hate dogs. That’s what’s wrong with them, if you ask me.”

There’s one wonderful scene in which Mrs Pusey describes her married life with an emphasis on how her late husband used to spoil her, and this gives Mrs Pusey plenty of opportunity to wax on about her wonderful life, her amazing self-sacrifice and her wonderful things while commenting on how good the local shops are:

She dabbed the corners of her mouth again. “Of course, I have everything delivered,” she added. 

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Look at Me: Anita Brookner

Anita Brookner’s novel Look at Me is the story of Frances (Fanny), a young librarian, a burgeoning writer, who makes friends with a glittering handsome couple only to find that she is completely out of her depth.

Fanny lives in a large inherited London flat, which was purchased, furnished, during WWII. It’s full of wonderfully bizarre furniture “which looks like something sprung direct from the brain of an ambitious provincial tart,” and Fanny (who hates to be called that, by the way) lives with an elderly Irishwoman named Nancy. Nancy is a legacy from Fanny’s mother; she nursed Fanny’s mother in her final illness, and she still takes care of Fanny. Nothing has changed in spite of the death of Fanny’s parents, and now Fanny goes to work at a reference library of a medical research institute “dedicated to the problems of human behaviour.” There are some delicate references to a broken love affair which Fanny very occasionally refers to later in the novel as “the time of which I never speak.”

look-at-me

Some of the novel’s action centres on the library and its frequent visitors: Mrs Halloran, who drinks too much and who writes articles for psychic magazines, using the library (sometimes inappropriately) to escape her hotel room And then there’s Dr Simek, a serious, courtly “Czech or Pole,” a nice, polite man but he’s not nearly as attractive as Nick Fraser, one of the two doctors whose research is being funded by the institute. Nick is “everybody’s favourite.” And why not: he’s “tall and fair, an athlete, a socialite, well-connected, good-looking, charming.”  He makes lightening visits to the library, flirts, and with his boyish charm manages to get the two librarians, Fanny and Olivia to do his bidding. Nick is a perfect example of someone who floats by in life with superficial charm. If he were taciturn or unpleasant, his behaviour would be seen for what it really is. But neither Fanny nor Olivia mind being used by Nick because it’s enough to have that golden gaze fall upon them–if even for a moment.

Nick is married to a woman named Alix, a woman who is always the centre of attention. She’s supposedly ‘come down in life,’ and while she (and Nick) have the power to make people feel fortunate when she turns her attention to them, she is also capable of casual cruelty. In their circle of friends,  “everyone succumbs to Alix.” There’s a great scene in the book as Alix first sweeps into the library and grabs everyone’s attention when she tells Fanny that she and Nick are having an argument about how she should wear her hair.

“I think it looks very nice either way,” I said lamely, but that didn’t seem to matter either because she had already turned to Nick and posed with one hand on her hip and the other smoothing up the escaping strands on her neck. Mrs. Halloran and Dr Simek had suspended their research and were looking on as if some voluptuous cabaret had been devised for their entertainment.

A more experienced woman would see Alix’s behaviour for what it really is, but Fanny,  who is lonely and who sees the Frasers as offering her an option to her staid boring life, launches full steam ahead into a close friendship with Nick and Alix.

With Alix, everyone in her circle must be inferior and owned, added to the circle to be part of the selected audience to admire this golden couple, and it’s when it comes to ownership that the situation becomes destructive and painful.

She is one of those fortunate women who create circles of loyal friends wherever she goes, so that being with her is like belonging to a club.

I loved Look at Me, and of the three Brookners I’ve read so far, this is my favourite, and I was rather surprised to discover that it was written early in her career (1983). Dolly was published ten years later in 1993 and Undue Influence appeared in 1999.  In Look at Me, Brookner gives us another quiet, solitary woman who has a bookish job, and there’s another legacy relationship (Fanny inherits Nancy from her mother) just as Jane inherits Dolly from her mother. Alix reminded me of Cynthia in Undue Influence, but Alix is crueler, more destructive.

I loved Fanny’s dreaded visits to the former librarian, Miss Morpeth who “seems sealed off from the vital interests of the living world.” This is another relationship that gives Fanny a shock–how funny to think we are being so gracious and kind to visit someone only to discover that they loathe our visits every bit as much as we loathe to make them. There’s quite a bit of self-deception going on which Fanny manages, painfully, to finally shirk at the end of the book. She says she needs the Frasers “for material,” but the pull towards the Frasers originates in a desire to avoid “that withering little routine that would eventually transform me into a version of Miss Morpeth.” We see destruction and unhappiness rolling towards Fanny long before she does. Fanny is an introvert, and her attraction to the Frasers and her desperate gratitude to be included is the action of an introvert admiring an extrovert when really there’s very little to admire. And finally why am I not surprised to read that Brookner never married and nursed her aged parents?

Gert’s review is here

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Undue Influence: Anita Brookner

Fresh on the heels of Anita Brookner’s Dolly, I turned to Undue Influence, the story of a young, single woman who becomes embroiled in a peculiar marriage. Claire Pitts’s mother has recently died when Claire meets an attractive married man who comes into the bookshop where she works. He’s looking for a copy of Jenny Triebel, and Claire, remembering where a copy is located in the shop, offers to drop it by. She doesn’t waste any time, and on the way home from work, she stops by his house only to discover that he’s married…but what a strange marriage it is. His wife, Cynthia Gibson, an attractive woman, is an invalid. She never leaves her room and has the care of a daily nurse. It’s her heart, apparently, but in spite of the fact that Cynthia is bedbound, she controls everyone in her orbit–starting with her husband Martin and soon Claire is swept up in the Gibson’s self-focused world.

“She’s lovely,” I said, quite sincerely. That air of a full-blown rose just going to seed was one I could appreciate. It went with ample forms, still visible beneath the elaborate negligées, anxious eyes, and a mouth that implied that no quarter would be given. She looked like what she was: a hardened coquette.

undue-influence

Claire has a habit, and we know this very early in the novel, of writing scripts for the lives of the people she’s met. This is an imaginative way of filling in the blanks. Claire does this with her employers–two elderly spinsters: Hester and Muriel Collier, the Gibsons, a neighbour she barely knows and even her own mother. While this speculation is mostly harmless, Claire assigns emotion and difficulty to people where it is perhaps absent, or at the very least different. She tells us within the first few pages of the book that her speculations can be wrong:

People are mysterious, I know that. And they do reveal mysterious connections. But sometimes one is merely anxious to alter the script. It was not the first time I had been guilty of a misapprehension.

Claire is intrigued by the Gibsons, and perhaps some of that interest is sparked by her own father’s long illness and by the sacrifices, as she sees it, made by her mother as she nursed her husband for about a decade. And of course, Claire’s interest in Martin Gibson is warped by attraction–she imagines Martin and Cynthia’s courtship, and their marriage ruled by the “tyranny” of the ill. Over time she builds an entire narrative of the Gibsons’ relationship, and it’s easy to see why; the Gibsons live in their own world, and other people are the entertainment.

This was their secret, I decided; they had both decreed, with some justification, that they were tragic figures, whose pleas must be heard at a higher court. They were not simply solipsists, they were soliloquists, drawn together in a fateful bond which demanded witnesses There was no room, there was no place, for outsiders, for third parties. my role was to register their predicament, in which they were so far gone that nobody but themselves could understand it. 

As in  Dolly, this is the story of a young woman whose parents are dead, but whereas in Dolly, the main character Jane is alone, but not lonely, Claire is definitely feeling the need for attachment. Claire is employed by the Collier sisters to memorialize their beloved father’s work, but as Claire pieces together the long-dead St John Collier’s work, she realises that this is the mediocre work of an unhappy man. Hester and Muriel Collier were devoted to their father, and their own long lives are sterile as a result of that devotion. Claire understands that sickness and devotion can create a sort of serfdom, and she has a horror of being trapped in a relationship in which her partner becomes ill. There are undercurrents buried in the sentences here of Claire’s sexual flings which seem to occur while she is on holiday–adventures which occur separately, and far from, her regular life.

Martin isn’t a particularly attractive figure, but Claire’s fascination seems to reside in his devotion to his wife, but there’s also something darker here; Claire identifies with Martin’s subjugation to the sick bed, and that makes her vulnerable. Brookner seems to argue that we can never really understand other people no matter how hard we work at building scripts of their lives.

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Dolly: Anita Brookner

“I reflected how easy it is for a man to reduce women of a certain age to imbecility. All he has to do is give an impersonation of desire, or better still, of secret knowledge, for a woman to feel herself a source of power”

Anita Brookner’s novel Dolly is an introspective, quiet, beautifully written novel, placed squarely in the character-study category. The novel describes the minuscule world of our narrator, Jane, the only child of a very happy loving marriage between her two parents, Henrietta Ferber and Paul Manning. As the only, much loved child brought up in a happy home, the single cloud of discontent to appear on the horizon appears in the form of Jane’s rather exotic Aunt Dolly, who is married to Henrietta’s brother, Hugo. Dolly, at first, appears as a very minor, distant character in Jane’s life, but over the years her importance grows.

Dolly begins when Jane is a child, and one of the significant events in her childhood is the arrival of Aunt Dolly and Uncle Hugo from Brussels. Jane is fascinated by Dolly for her exoticism–her powerful perfume, her foreign mannerisms and her expensive clothing. Dolly, who is childless, isn’t exactly a doting aunt, however, and her entrances and exits into Jane’s childhood, adolescence and young adulthood are punctuated with advice–mainly directed towards getting a man. These snippets of advice that could so easily wither a girl of weaker character serve only to intrigue Jane in their disconnect and frank absurdity. Wise, self-possessed Jane realises that Dolly’s barbed comments reveal more about the speaker than her intended target.

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A great deal of the story goes back into the recent Ferber/Manning family history, and we see that Toni Ferber, Jane’s grandmother, who originally hailed from Vienna, is a spoiled, autocratic, selfish woman whose husband eventually gets the sense and courage to run off. Toni Ferber, left to her own affluent devices, dominates the life of her son, Hugo, and mostly ignores her daughter, Henrietta. When Toni Ferber and Hugo meet Dolly and her German mother at a seaside resort, Toni, fatally underestimating Dolly’s character and imagining that she will make a malleable daughter-in-law, pushes her son into Dolly’s arms. For his part, Hugo is content to exchange one domineering woman for another.

On the other side of the family, there’s Jane’s Manning grandmother:

My other grandmother I knew even less, a fact which I did not regret since she seemed, from what I heard of her, to be slightly mad, and may even have been so for all I know. She was a widow living in South Kensington with two small wire-haired terriers to whom she devoted all her leisure hours. She really should have been a dog breeder rather than a mother, for she felt for her son a mild affection only one degree warmer than indifference, whereas she would actually play games with the dogs, for whom she bought expensive rubber toys. The dogs were taken out morning and afternoon for an extensive run in Hyde Park, where my tireless grandmother, dressed winter and summer in trousers, a short-sleeved blouse, and an old tweed jacket belonging to her dead husband, threw balls and sticks, shouted instructions and encouragements, and scarcely noticed the seasons changing all around her. 

Jane’s observant eye records Dolly’s behaviour and mannerisms from her “meaningless smile” to her irritation and constant barbed comments about money. Dolly has a way of diminishing other women, and it’s that power that fascinates Jane. She records the trajectory of Dolly’s life, and quietly, in the background, Jane. alone but not lonely, evolves into an accomplished woman.

Not a great deal happens in the novel, and for its treacly-slow pace, some readers may not enjoy Dolly. Possibly because I once had an exotic aunt of my own, Dolly had great appeal. Anita Brookner creates some powerful characters here–the Manning grandmother, for example, who doesn’t actually appear except as a description. I like the way Brookner divided her characters into quiet people and those who dominate and take control. Jane’s parents are indeed “a haven to each other,” and their relationship, given their respective backgrounds, makes a great deal of sense.

I wasn’t quite sure about the ending which, while it rather nicely focuses on Jane’s career, extrapolates on the idea of Sleeping Beauty, and what women want. The novel covers many decades and slips in the idea of the shifting roles of women. This connects to Dolly and how a woman who has used her looks and her sex to get ahead in life adjusts to aging, but I wasn’t entirely pleased with that last chapter.

I have to send out a thank you to Jacqui for pointing me towards Brookner with her review of Providence. I thought, from reading the review that I’d like the book, but then at the same time I also thought I’d read an Anita Brookner book and disliked it. The title of the book I’d read eluded me (I initially thought it was Hotel du Lac), and then after some digging I realised I’d read a book by Anita Shreve NOT Anita Brookner and in all fairness to the latter, I had to read one.

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The Lake District Murder: John Bude (1935)

“One wet and windy” night in March, farmer Perryman, returning from Keswick, is looking forward to getting home, when his car comes to a halt. Discovering that he needs petrol, Perryman legs it to the Derwent garage about a quarter of a mile away. This area of the county is “a bleak and uninhabited stretch of road,” and at this time of night, despite the fact that this is tourist country, there’s no traffic.

The garage seems “curiously deserted,” but there’s a “glimmer of light” coming from the shed. Perryman goes inside and discovers that one of the garage owners, a young man named Clayton, is inside his vehicle with the engine running. From the exhaust, there’s an attached hosepipe which is tucked under a mackintosh encasing Clayton’s head and shoulders. It looks like a clear-cut case of suicide.

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Inspector Meredith is called to the scene, and although Clayton’s death certainly appears to be a classic suicide, there are other elements to the case which don’t add up. Clayton was engaged to a local girl, and he’d planned to emigrate to Canada after the wedding. The garage isn’t exactly a prosperous concern, but it’s a steady stream of income, even if Clayton, who has a ne’er-do-well partner, does most of the work.

Inspector Meredith’s suspicions are already aroused when he fails to find a motive for suicide, but then when he learns of a suicide that took place involving another garage owner just a few years ago, he insists on an autopsy on Clayton and begins digging into the case. …

The Lake District Murder is an interesting entry into the British Library Crime Classic list. Both The Sussex Downs Murder a tale of adultery, and The Cornish Coast Murder include amateur sleuths who enjoy the topic of crime, while  Death on the Riviera (which has more than a smattering of humour) involves a counterfeiting ring. The Lake District Murder, with its undercurrent of organized crime (which would seem to connect to Death on the Riviera) is much darker and much more realistic than the other Bude novels from the British Crime Library.

Inspector Meredith is challenged by the fact that he must investigate the murder of Clayton and not the nefarious doings at the garage–as to do so would possibly alert the criminals involved to temporarily shut down operations. In the absence of an amateur sleuth to offer assistance, Meredith bounces his ideas off of other police officers.  Meredith’s investigation is a hard, humourless slog as he stakes out various locations, questions numerous people and travels on a motorbike and sidecar. This police procedural is detailed with Meredith piecing together pieces of evidence and trying to create a plausible murder scenario. This section of the book will either intrigue or lose readers depending on the reader’s eye for detail and desire to solve the crime. Meredith is a rewarding character, very stable, and roping his son in for assistance when necessary against his wife’s wishes.

Lately I’ve been chewing over how some fictional/television detectives suck at their jobs and need to move onto new gigs. Nancy Devlin in The Level is just the latest example of someone who should forget police work and look for another way to make a living. The temperament of Bude’s Inspector Meredith clearly suits his career; he’s calm, patient, low-key and adaptable.

The introduction from Martin Edwards mentions how John Bude (Ernest Carpenter Elmore 1901-1957) knew the Lake District well, and this aspect of the story definitely comes across strongly with descriptions of terrain, landscapes and weather.

For the first time since the Inspector had started to investigate the Clayton case, he could look up over the roofs of Keswick and see the snow-capped ridge of the Skiddaw range etched in details against a hard, blue sky.

review copy

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Sweet William: Beryl Bainbridge

Beryl Bainbridge’s darkly comic novel Sweet William is the story of the sentimental education of a young woman named Ann who lives in London and works for the BBC.  The novel opens with Ann saying goodbye to her stuffy fiancé, Gerald. He’s leaving for a university position in America, and although Ann and Gerald lived together in London, he’s decided that it would not be appropriate to have Ann join him. He’s promised to ‘send for’ her though, and he’s fobbing her off with excuses while she resents him for his lack of commitment. Entwined with Ann’s resentment is the uncertainty of the engagement to a man she doesn’t know well. Ann is feeling a bit lost when she meets William McClusky, a blonde, curly-haired playwright, a chronic philanderer, who invades and then takes over her life, persuading her to give up her job and enter into some slippery domestic arrangement with him:

In ten days she had encouraged adultery, committed a breach of promise, given up her job, abetted an abortion. She had not been aware, throughout these happenings, of any unease of distress. She had become like one of those insect specimens under glass, sucked dry of her old internal organs, pumped full and firm with an unknown preservative. She was transfixed by William. 

William, at least initially, appears to be an attentive, caring man, railing at Ann’s lack of ring on her finger, asking if her fiancé is unemployed (and thus can’t afford a ring) while he states, the very first day he meets Ann:

‘If you were my woman,’ he said, ‘You’d have a ring for your finger.’

Amidst a few gentle protests that she’s an engaged woman, Ann passively accepts William’s ardent, urgent attentions. William stakes out his claim in Ann’s life like an explorer marking his territory with the arrival of a television set so she can watch him on a talk show.

sweet-william

This book could so easily have been a tragedy but in Bainbridge’s hands a terrible comedy ensues as William’s many lives, countless lies and his innumerable women gradually, and messily tumble out of the closet. He’s married (still) and there’s a violent divorce somewhere in his past, but his present is also peppered with women, a fluctuating sea of women, some of whom are known to Ann, and some of whom are his most ardent supporters and defenders. Ann’s life disintegrates into chaos as William comes and goes, leaves her pregnant, he pops back, floats away, and makes promises which he rarely keeps.

“I’ve never,” he said, ‘felt like this about anyone. You’ll just have to believe me. I do have compartments  to my life, I can’t deny that, but I’ve never loved anyone like this before.’ He looked at her smooth face, the small wanton mouth, the gullible eyes that watched him greedily.

Later Ann asks herself, “what kind of compartments did he mean–air-tight ones or the sort on railway trains? Was she locked away on her own, or was he in the compartment with her?” Many of the things William says with such intensity sound good at the time, especially to the innocent Ann, and it can be argued that William, a rather nebulous figure, could mean what he says at the time he says it, or he could just be a heartless, serial adulterer. He says he visits the children from his ex-wife to read them bedtime stories every night, but when he’s caught in a lie, the story shifts to his obligations to his current wife:

‘she doesn’t want to be done out of cooking for me. Who am I to deny her that?’

He bent his head humbly. There was a flaw in his argument, she knew, but she couldn’t put it into words.

He claims to have plenty of money, and his current, much older wife confirms that, yet many of the presents William brings or sends to Ann have questionable origins. He’s a playwright, and that’s confirmed, and yet his plays appear to be almost parodies of working class woes. Is he talented or not? Does William take advantage of women or does he simply fill each need as he comes across sadness and loneliness? Is William just a conman wrapped up in tinsel prose and cheap tenderness? Are the many women he meets and beds his victims or his muses?

But I can’t finish the review without mention of one of the book’s most marvelous characters-another fuzzy around the edges person–Mrs Walton, Ann’s mother. She interferes, criticises, and behaves inappropriately at all the wrong moments in Ann’s life. At one point she hears William moaning outside trying to get into Ann’s flat:

‘What’s wrong with the fool’ hissed Mrs Walton. ‘Does he think he’s Heathcliff?’ She had never known anything like it. Not even during the war when things were more casual.

Ann makes a visit to Brighton to visit her parents and somehow their warped domesticity connects to Ann’s acceptance of William’s behaviour and his dreadful lies. Even William seems to attain some new dizzying heights of deception with his incredible story of how one trip to the dentist ended with the dentist assaulting him and throwing away William’s clothes.

Beryl Bainbridge based the character of William on Alan Sharp; they had a child together.

Here’s another review at Cleopatra Loves Books

Review copy

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Loving: Henry Green (1945)

Henry Green’s novel Back  is the story of a soldier, now an amputee who returns home to England while WWII rages on. The title, obviously, refers to the man’s return; he’s changed, his world has changed. Loving, published a year before Back, must then refer to the relationship between the newly appointed butler, Raunce and the maid, Elsie. There’s a secondary romance but more of that later.  The story is set in a grand house owned by an upper class Anglo-Irish family with the servants, in theory, making sure that everything runs smoothly. These two groups of people–the masters and the servants–move in different worlds, but when things go wrong, as they do several times in the novel, there are comic results which reveal the inherent paradoxes within the upstairs-downstairs relationships.

loving

The grand country house is owned by the Tennants, but the son (and heir) of the house, Jack, is off at war, and most of the servants are British (the one irish servant isn’t allowed in the house). There are rumours that the Germans may invade, rumours that the IRA may attack, and the servants, isolated from events in Britain, except for the occasional letters, are cocooned from the deprivations of rationing, and spared the German bombing raids. The male staff members know that if they step foot back on British soil, they’ll be conscripted. So here they are, sitting out the war, hearing its distant rumblings, isolated from their home land.

The novel opens with the death of the elderly butler, Eldon, who unbeknownst to the lady of the house, Mrs Tennant, has been steadily ripping her off over the years. Charley Raunce, formerly the head footman and now butler by default (where else would Mrs Tennant get a replacement in wartime?) ‘inherits’ Eldon’s notebooks. One shows how much he’s been siphoning off the estate, and the other is a sort of reference guide of visitors–its information directed towards getting tips.

The death of Eldon heralds a mini-crisis within the household as head housemaid, Mrs Burch can’t accept Raunce’s promotion. Raunce’s promotion is a shake-up of the established power structure, the unspoken element the entire house runs on.

Not a great deal happens in this story: the cook’s disruptive nephew arrives, scrawny and ill-fed from England, a peacock is murdered, the peacocks are locked up, a valuable ring goes missing, and Mrs Jack (whose husband is away fighting) is caught in bed with a naked man. Through all of these incidents, just what should be aired and what should be kept secret (away from Mrs Tennant) become the points of action. These incidents serve to underscore the separate worlds of the two classes, and the problems that ensue when those world collide.

Loving is a sort of upstairs-downstairs book with an emphasis on the latter. Dozens of peacocks roam the estate–beautiful and yet rather useless, and somehow they seem emblematic of the Tennant family who are largely clueless about what is going on under their noses. The war rages on outside this country, but the Tennants, who care nothing for Ireland, are mostly concerned with the cold dinners delivered to the nursery and the dearth of coloured blotting paper:

“You write to London for the blotting paper of course?”

“Yes Madam but this is all Mr. Eldon could get. I believe he was going to speak about it.”

“No, he never did,” she said, “and naturally it would be hopeless trying to buy anything in this wretched country. But tell me why if there are several pastel blues can they do only one shade of pink?” 

“I believe it’s the war Madam.”

She laughed and faced him. “Oh yes the shops will be using that as an excuse for everything soon.”

If Raunce’s promotion leads to a mini-crisis in the house, the disappearance of a ring is near catastrophic. The servants, and not Mrs. Tennant’s well-known carelessness, are immediately blamed, and this leads to a very funny scene with the insurance investigator and even accusations that the cook is a drunk:

“I think everything’s partly to do with the servants,” Mrs. Tennant announced as if drawing to a logical conclusion.

“The servants?” Mrs. Jack echoed, it might have been from a great distance.

“Well one gets no rest. It’s always on one’s mind, Violet.”

There’s very much the bitter-sweet sense that we are privileged to see a vanishing world. Violet, Mrs Jack, is in love with another man, in a relationship that will not survive if her husband returns from war. If Jack dies in war, what will happen to the house? The Raunces of this world are not the Eldons. The servants are restless and consider other lives; there are no ties to Ireland, no sense of permanence:

“No, what’s going’ on over in Britain is what bothers me. The ways things are shapin’ it wouldn’t come as a surprise if places such as this weren’t doomed to a natural death so to say.”

Another wonderful revival from New York Review Books

Lisa’s review is here.

Review copy

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Harriet Said: Beryl Bainbridge

“I don’t know if we were ever innocent.”

Harriet Said, Beryl Bainbridge’s first novel, is inspired by the Parker-Hulme murder which took place in New Zealand in 1954 and involved two, closely bonded teenage girls who murdered one of the girls’ mothers. The incident inspired the wonderful film Heavenly Creatures.  And of course, most of us know that one of the girls, Juliet Hulme, is now the author, Anne Perry. Apart from the bare bones of the real-life murder case, any other connections vaporize in Bainbridge’s book which explores the rich fantasy life of two teenage girls who obsess, dangerously, over a middle-aged married man.

Harriet Said takes place in England and the story is narrated by an unnamed 13 year old girl who has just returned home from boarding school to Formby. She was sent away thanks to her relationship with Harriet, who’s a year older, and the much more dominant of the pair. “Dirty stories” were found written in the narrator’s notebook, and then a neighbor, Mrs. Biggs, reported that the girls were behaving inappropriately with Italian prisoners of war.  So the narrator is packed off to boarding school as a time-out move, but the girls reconnect when Harriet returns from Wales. And, of course, they return to their old patterns of behaviour….

harriet-said

Unfortunately, what none of the adults in this story understand is that Harriet, and not the less attractive, lumpish narrator, is the true trouble maker here. Harriet dictates the diary, but it’s the narrator who writes the diary in case it is discovered. It’s Harriet who comes up with diabolical plans with the narrator passively agreeing. Harriet is dangerous because she is so charming; she’s the more attractive of the two girls, and even though she’s a known bad influence, she still manages to sway people in her favour. Self-possessed Harriet is much more dominant, taking the lead, controlling the action, creating meaning, and devising the rules in various transgressive events, but she’s also the leader because she’s more attractive, and the other girl, our narrator, always plays catch up and admires Harriet for her sangfroid and her “calm refusal to be blackmailed into submissiveness by parental grief.” Here’s an example of Harriet rewriting events:

“What’s that got to do with it?” asked Harriet, but not crossly. “I wrote that after we met those boys from the remand home when I took my clothes off and you wouldn’t because your knickers were filthy.”

“They weren’t filthy,” I protested. “I told you, they were my mum’s and they were pink with awful lace.”

These two girls are cocooned in their own fantasy life. Reality, in the form of their parents (and Harriet’s parents are a bit odd), is minimally intrusive, and as the weeks spin out, gradually the girls’ fantasies become increasingly dangerous as they begin to focus on Mr Biggs, a man they call the Tsar.  All teenage girls have fantasy lives (well to be honest, it’s part of the human condition, isn’t it?), but in the case of teenage girls, fantasy can take on a more dangerous edge especially if they experiment with sexuality and their newfound sexual power.

While the subject matter is intriguing, and the author does an excellent job of showing how these girls create, and exist, in a separate adolescent world, I’d place Harriet Said on the bottom of the Beryl Bainbridge stack read so far; the pacing plodded at times with little tension. I kept thinking of Charles Lambert’s Little Monsters, the tale of another teenage girl, and Harriet Said faded in comparison. Cleo, however, loved the book. So see  Cleo’s review for a different opinion.

Review copy.

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