Title: A Christmas Party
Author: Georgette Heyer
Published in 1941:
Plot Summary from Goodreads: It is no ordinary Christmas at Lexham Manor.
Six holiday guests find themselves the suspects in a murder inquiry when the old Scrooge who owns the substantial estate is found stabbed in the back.
Whilst the delicate matter of inheritance could be the key to this crime, the real conundrum is how any of the suspects could have entered the locked room where the victim was found, to commit this foul deed.
For Inspector Hemingway of Scotland Yard, the investigation is also complicated by the fact that every guest at Lexham Manor is hiding something – casting suspicion far and wide…
Previously titled Envious Casca
This is not the first time that I’ve read Envious Casca, as it was originally titled. I think I’ve read it through a full three times – the first and second times I couldn’t quite remember the solution to the mystery. This time, I knew the ending and was able to see the clues as they were embedded in the story.
This is a classic English mystery – closed circle, locked room, country-house, Christmas mystery. I’ve read other Heyer mysteries, and will complete the list at some point, but, right now, I think this is her best.
The book opens with the gathering of the Herriard family for Christmas at the behest of Uncle Joseph, who lives with his brother, Nat Herriard. Nat is the patriarch of the family, and the one with all of the family money.
“Joseph, having lived for so many years abroad, hankered wistfully after a real English Christmas. Nathaniel, regarding him with a contemptuous eye, said that a real English Christmas meant, in his experience, a series of quarrels between inimical persons bound to one another only by the accident of relationship, and thrown together by a worn-out convention which decreed that at Christmas families should forgather.”
Nat has no children, but his nephew, Stephen, has been acknowledged as his heir. Stephen is the child of his other brother, who died many years ago. Stephen’s mother lives in Canada with her 3rd husband and isn’t in the picture at all. Paula, Stephen’s sister, is also a guest for Christmas. Paula has brought along her latest squeeze, a playwright named Royden, and Stephen’s vacuous but pretty fiancee, Valerie, is also there for the holiday. There’s also a random cousin, Mathilda, Nat’s business partner, Mottisfont and Joseph’s wife, Maud, to round out the guest list.
The Herriard family is an obstreperous and argumentative bunch. Nat is not so awful as Simeon Lee from Christie’s holiday classic, Hercule Poirot’s Christmas, but he enjoys a wrangle as much as the next guy. Some families get together for a game of Pictionary during the holidays, the Herriard’s get together for their own version of Festivus, which primarily relies on the airing of grievances.
‘Miss Herriard,’ responded Mathilda coolly, ‘treated the assembled company to a dramatic scene – she’s an actress, good in emotional rôles. I wasn’t present, but I’m told that she and Mr Herriard had a really splendid quarrel, and enjoyed themselves hugely.’
‘Seems a funny way to enjoy yourself, miss.’
‘It would seem funny to you or to me, Inspector, but not, believe me, to a Herriard.’
When Uncle Nat ends up dead in his locked bedroom, having been stabbed in the back, everyone is a suspect and everyone, almost, has a motive. This is an exceptionally clever mystery, relying on misdirection, and some legal and medical intricacies for the solution.
For the first time in ages, I’ve decided that I am not going to participate in any yearly challenges, and I’m just going to read what I want, when I want. I wasn’t particularly successful with last year’s challenges – and I haven’t posted to this blog in more than six months.
I still generally love the kinds of books that are the subject of All The Vintage Ladies, though, and I’m going to move forward with my existing reading projects, so long as they fit into what I want to read! I will keep plugging away at the Century of Women project, and I’ve whittled down my new Classics Club list to 75 women authors. I will start the clock ticking on 1/1/2020, and aim to finish by 12/31/2024.
Title: Murder on the Nile
Author: Agatha Christie
Date of First Performance: 1945
Plot summary: Agatha Christie
Full Length, Mystery
Characters: 8 male, 5 female
Simon Mostyn has recently married Kay Ridgeway, a rich woman, having thrown over his former lover Jacqueline. The couple are on their honeymoon and are at present on a paddle steamer on the Nile. With them is Canon Pennefather, Kay’s guardian, and Jacqueline, who has been dogging their footsteps all through the honeymoon. Also on the boat are a rich, ill tempered old woman with her niece and companion, a rather direct young man, a German who nurses a grudge against Kay’s father and Kay’s maid. During the voyage Jacqueline works herself into a state of hysteria and shoots at Simon, wounding him in the knee. A few moments later Kay is found shot in her bunk. By the time the boat reaches its destination, Canon Pennefather has laid bare an audacious conspiracy and has made sure the criminals shall not go free.
Let me admit at the outset that I am not a play reader, although I do love to go to live theater, and it is a lifelong dream of mine to see The Mousetrap performed, preferably in London. It’s also important to note that Death on the Nile is one of my favorite of Christie’s mysteries – the setting is wonderful, the characters are well-drawn, and the solution is satisfying even if there are rather too many side-plots going on in the book.
I will talk further about all of those elements in a later review, because I plan to do a reread of this delightful mystery around the middle of May.
For now, though, I will confine my remarks to this play. My edition was published by Samuel French, and was ordered from Amazon. Along with the script, it contains a character list, a stage schematic, a Furniture and Property Plot and a Lighting Plot. The Furniture and Property Plot was actually fairly interesting, and the Lighting Plot went right over my head.
I have never seen this play performed, although when I was googling about, I found information that a local theater actually performed it a couple of years ago, which left me quite bitter. If I had known it was being staged, I absolutely would’ve gotten tickets for it.
However, reading the script did make one of the primary complaints that I’ve read about this play quite clear to me. There is absolutely no real connection to the setting here. Egypt is mentioned, the Nile is referenced, but this is a play that occurs primarily in a single room – the observation saloon on a paddle steamer nominally travelling down the Nile. It could, however, have happened anywhere, including on the Thames.
I honestly don’t know how to stage this play to take advantage of the Egyptian setting, but, then again, I’m not a playwright. It certainly seems, as well, that Agatha Christie – who was the playwright – also didn’t really know how to do this, as throwing in a couple of random beadsellers at the very beginning of the play, during what is meant to be the embarkation process, seems to be the extent of her efforts. Weak.
The stripped down nature of the play, as well, means that we don’t really get a lot of character development. Because I’ve had the advantage of reading the original text, and having seen the Poirot adaptation, I attributed much of the character depth from other sources to these characters. Someone just seeing the play, I’m afraid, wouldn’t have the benefit of that depth and would likely feel that the play itself left a lot to be desired in terms of character development. Kay, in particular, felt extremely thin. Perhaps actors who are also familiar with the source novel would be able to imbue the characters with the depth that they lack through their performances. I don’t know.
Canon Pennefather takes the place of Poirot, which was actually fine for me. Poirot might have overwhelmed the production with his fussiness and his mannerisms anyway.
Notes for the Agathytes: As I’ve previously mentioned, Canon Pennefather “reappears” with a slight name change (Canon Pennyfather) in At Bertram’s Hotel, approximately 20 years later. The characters are completely different in personality, however.
Kay is the name that Agatha Christie chose for Linnett Ridgeway in the play. I thought that was actually somewhat interesting, because Kay is also the name of the second wife, Kay Strange, in Towards Zero, a book that was published in 1944, which was also adapted as a play in 1956. The play was first performed that same year. There are some physical similarities between the two Kays. Agatha does like to recycle.
In terms of the endings, I’ll talk about this more when we reread Death on the Nile, but there were some crucial differences between the ending of the play and the ending of the book.
Title: The Heart Is A Lonely Hunter
Author: Carson McCullers
Date Published: 1940
Plot Summary: Carson McCullers’ prodigious first novel was published to instant acclaim when she was just twenty-three. Set in a small town in the middle of the deep South, it is the story of John Singer, a lonely deaf-mute, and a disparate group of people who are drawn towards his kind, sympathetic nature. The owner of the café where Singer eats every day, a young girl desperate to grow up, an angry drunkard, a frustrated black doctor: each pours their heart out to Singer, their silent confidant, and he in turn changes their disenchanted lives in ways they could never imagine.
Carson McCullers was 23 when she wrote The Heart is the Lonely Hunter, and already married to Reese McCullers. In 1934, she left home, in Columbus, Georgia, and went to New York City to study at Julliard, by herself, with $500.00 pinned to her underwear. She was 17 years old.
It’s hard, in 2019, with a 23 year old daughter of my own, to imagine anyone having the life experience to write The Heart is a Lonely Hunter at that age. Carson McCullers was, obviously, remarkable. She died young, 3 years younger than I am right now, her body worn down from illness and alcoholism. She wasn’t a prolific writer, leaving behind a small body of work: 4 novels and a dozen or so short stories, as her claim to immortality. But what a claim she makes.
There is research that demonstrates that reading, and especially reading literary fiction, improves the reader’s ability to empathize. Reading a book like The Heart is a Lonely Hunter makes that statement almost laughably obvious. Of course, reading fiction improves empathy. How could it not?
This book is painfully resonant. McCuller’s characters are so real that they nearly leap off the page. The center of the book is John Singer, a deaf-mute who, at the beginning of the book is living with his best friend, Antonopoulos, a fellow deaf-mute. Their lives are very simple – they rise, they go to work at their disparate employments, they meet after work and return home to dinner. Singer speaks with his hands, and talks all evening to his friend. Antonopoulos does not speak in return, and it’s never clear to anyone, including Singer, that he understands what he is being told. Singer is deeply, and non-sexually, committed to Antonopoulos. After a while, Antonopoulos begins acting out in town, and his cousin has him committed to a mental institution, which is the event that really starts the book.
Singer moves out of the apartment he shared with his friend because it is too painful for him to live there alone, and he moves to the home of Mick Kelly, a teenage girl who is, to me, the true heart of the book. He begins frequenting the New York Cafe, owned by Biff Banner. He meets Benedict Copeland, the black doctor in town, and Jake Blount, usually drunk and always scrappy. And he, somewhat inexplicably, becomes the sun around which all of these characters orbit.
BY MIDSUMMER Singer had visitors more often than any other person in the house. From his room in the evening there was nearly always the sound of a voice. After dinner at the New York Café he bathed and dressed himself in one of his cool wash suits and as a rule did not go out again. The room was cool and pleasant. He had an icebox in the closet where he kept bottles of cold beer and fruit drinks. He was never busy or in a hurry. And always he met his guests at the door with a welcome smile.
We never do find out very much about Singer – his interior life is largely closed to the reader. We know that he visits his friend, Antonopoulos, in the institution and those visits give us just the smallest glimpse into Singer. But, he really serves as the catalyst for us to learn about the interior lives of the other characters.
McCuller’s portrayal of the black community in this small town in Georgia was astonishing. When I was digging around on the internet after finishing the book, still in the throes of the emotional weight of the story, I found quotes by James Baldwin and Richard Wright, author of Native Son, who said, of McCullers that she had the ability to “embrace white and black humanity in one sweep of apprehension and tenderness.”
Dr. Copeland says:
“‘My people were brought from the great plains, and the dark, green jungles,’ he said once to Mr. Singer. ‘On the long chained journeys to the coast they died by the thousands. Only the strong survived. Chained in the foul ships that brought them here they died again. Only the hardy Negroes with will could live. Beaten and chained and sold on the block, the least of these strong ones perished again. And finally through the bitter years the strongest of my people are still here. Their sons and daughters, their grandsons and great-grandsons.’”
Mick Kelly is Scout Finch, if Atticus had been an out-of-work watch repairman with too many children and not nearly enough money, and if Scout had been a musician. Mick is the character who broke my heart into one million pieces, with the futility of her love of music and the chains of her birth circumstances tightening around her as the novel progresses. She is Thea Kronberg, from The Song of the Lark, without wings to lift her. There are no happy endings here, as she submits gracelessly to her fate, working at Woolworths, saying goodbye to her dreams, for the $10.00 a week that will help her feed her family.
And then we have Jake Blount, the drunken communist with a dark past.
“And the reason I think like I do is this: We live in the richest country in the world. There’s plenty and to spare for no man, woman, or child to be in want. And in addition to this our country was founded on what should have been a great, true principle—the freedom, equality, and rights of each individual. Huh! And what has come of that start? There are corporations worth billions of dollars—and hundreds of thousands of people who don’t get to eat.”
This book was written during the grimmest part of the Great Depression, and yet the more things change, the more things stay the same. Like all of the very best fiction, it shows the reader things that are true in the way that only fiction can be true. I think that I could read this book a hundred times and I would get something different out of it with each reading.
Title: Mary Barton
Author: Elizabeth Gaskell
Page count: 393
Plot summary from Goodreads: Mary Barton, the daughter of a disillusioned trade unionist, rejects her working class lover Jem Wilson in the hope of marrying Henry Carson, the mill-owner’s son, and making a better life for herself and her father. But when Henry is shot down in the street and Jem becomes the main suspect, Mary finds herself painfully torn between the two men. Through Mary’s dilemma and the moving portrayal of her father the embittered and courageous activist John Barton Mary Barton (1848) powerfully dramatizes the class divisions of the ‘hungry forties’ as personal tragedy. In its social and political setting, it looks forward to Elizabeth Gaskell’s great of the industrial revolution, in particular North and South.
This was Elizabeth Gaskell’s first book, and is the second book by her which I’ve read. It’s really two books in one – the first, concentrating on John Barton (father of the titular Mary Barton) is a screed about structural inequality and capital versus labor, and the second, a courtroom drama focused around Mary Barton’s romantic travails.
As is often the case with Victorian melodramas, Mrs. Gaskell took her time getting going – about the first third of the book, focused on John Barton and the plight of the laborers is fascinating, but not precisely action packed.
I can’t overstate how relevant this book is to the conditions between capital and labor today – it’s disturbing how so much has remained the same between the excesses of the industrial revolution and today.
At all times it is a bewildering thing to the poor weaver to see his employer removing from house to house, each one grander than the last, till he ends in building one more magnificent than all, or withdraws his money from the concern, or sells his mill to buy an estate in the country, while all the time the weaver, who thinks he and his fellows are the real makers of this wealth, is struggling on for bread for their children, through the vicissitudes of lowered wages, short hours, fewer hands employed, &c. And when he knows trade is bad, and could understand (at least partially) that there are not buyers enough in the market to purchase the goods already made, and consequently that there is no demand for more; when he would bear and endure much without complaining, could he also see that his employers were bearing their share; he is, I say, bewildered and (to use his own word) “aggravated” to see that all goes on just as usual with the mill-owners. Large houses are still occupied, while spinners’ and weavers’ cottages stand empty, because the families that once occupied them are obliged to live in rooms or cellars. Carriages still roll along the streets, concerts are still crowded.
We are quite literally having the same conversations in 2019 that Elizabeth Gaskell was describing in 1848 when this book was published. The single distinction is that there is at least a minimal safety net now, that didn’t exist then. John Barton had a little boy, Tom, who starved to death because his father couldn’t afford sufficient food to keep him alive.
She reminds us:
Remember, too, that though it may take much suffering to kill the able-bodied and effective members of society, it does not take much to reduce them to worn, listless, diseased creatures, who thenceforward crawl through life with moody hearts and pain-stricken bodies.
I’ve often thought to myself that “Conservatives” (at least as they self-identify in the U.S.) should better be called the “New Victorians.” They are fine with this type of extreme economic winner vs. loser scenario, and with government policies that are intended to ensure that this economic Darwinism proceeds apace (so long as they are among the winners). I think often of Dickens and Gaskell when Republican politicians talk about dismantling our barely existent safety net – because history tells us what happens when we dehumanize the poor. Rich people most emphatically do not step into the breach to ensure that children don’t die of starvation and anyone who believes otherwise needs to pick up a book written during that time.
Wealthy Victorians treated the poor and vulnerable with a harsh inhumanity that negates their very right to exist. Period. #notallrichpeople, blah, blah, blah.
When we move into the second half of the book, Elizabeth Gaskell has written a pot-boiler and it becomes unputdownable. The only son of the mill owner, Henry Carson, is murdered and it looks like a completely different story. The motive is believed to have been over Mary Barton, who has been keeping company with Henry Carson, but who has spurned him when she realizes that he had no plans to marry her. Jem Wilson, the man she truly loves, is accused of the murder, and goes on trial.
It’s hard to really talk about the genius behind this book without spoiling the story. Also, I am of a mind that people who object to spoilers in a book written in 1848 are a bit unrealistic, so here I go. Ignore what follows if you plan to read this book – and I do recommend that you read this book – and you want it unspoiled.
It isn’t Jem who has murdered Henry, it is Mary’s father, and the murder is in retribution for the mill owners ignoring the plight of the working men. The decision to murder one of the owners is a decision by a group of men who have just finished degrading themselves and begging the mill owners to put them back to work because their families are starving.
John Barton began to speak; they turned to him with great attention. “It makes me more than sad, it makes my heart burn within me, to see that folk can make a jest of earnest men; of chaps who comed to ask for a bit o’ fire for th’ old granny, as shivers in th’ cold; for a bit o’ bedding, and some warm clothing to the poor wife as lies in labour on th’ damp flags; and for victuals for the childer, whose little voices are getting too faint and weak to cry aloud wi’ hunger. For, brothers, is not them the things we ask for when we ask for more wage? We donnot want dainties, we want bellyfuls; we donnot want gimcrack coats and waistcoats, we want warm clothes, and so that we get ’em we’d not quarrel wi’ what they’re made on. We donnot want their grand houses, we want a roof to cover us from the rain, and the snow, and the storm; ay, and not alone to cover us, but the helpless ones that cling to us in the keen wind, and ask us with their eyes why we brought ’em into th’ world to suffer?” He lowered his deep voice almost to a whisper.
The owners respond, not just with a no, but with a hell no, fuck you, whatever your plight means nothing to us. They respond with mockery.
Mr. Carson responds to the murder of his son in exactly the way that you think he would – he is a powerful man who has had something he valued immeasurably taken from him. He wants vengeance, and he wants it now. And so Jem Wilson is fixed upon as the sacrificial lamb and Mary, who figures out that it is actually her father who is the murderer, is caught between Scylla and Charybdis, trying to navigate an outcome where she saves them both.
The ending of the book is almost unbearably melodramatic, but still effective. John Barton is a broken man – committing the murder of Henry Carson has destroyed him. This, yet again, demonstrates the deep humanity of the poor in contrast to the wealthy. He confesses to the elder Mr. Carson, and is truly remorseful for what he did, and then he conveniently dies. At no point, though, does he confront Mr. Carson with the argument that he was simply evening the score – that the exploitation of labor to the benefit of Mr. Carson was responsible for the death of his own beloved son. There is a symmetry there that is, I’m sure, intentional, but which is left unspoken. I really would’ve liked to have seen Mr. Carson wrestle with the reality that what he experienced was, in a sense, the “eye for an eye,” which he was demanding. That an argument can be made that the murder of his son was a re-balancing of the scales.
I plan to read more Elizabeth Gaskell this year. She is so very timely. In 1848, long before Ronald Reagan was born or the preposterous fiction that putting more money in the heads of the wealthy will spur job creation, she wrote this:
“We come to th’ masters wi’ full hearts, to ask for them things I named afore. We know that they’ve gotten money, as we’ve earned for ’em; we know trade is mending, and that they’ve large orders, for which they’ll be well paid; we ask for our share o’ th’ payment; for, say we, if th’ masters get our share of payment it will only go to keep servants and horses, to more dress and pomp. Well and good, if yo choose to be fools we’ll not hinder you, so long as you’re just; but our share we must and will have; we’ll not be cheated. We want it for daily bread, for life itself; and not for our own lives neither (for there’s many a one here, I know by mysel, as would be glad and thankful to lie down and die out o’ this weary world), but for the lives of them little ones, who don’t yet know what life is, and are afeard of death.
Which is one of the best refutations of the arguments behind “trickle down economics” and “rich people are job creators” that I’ve read. Perhaps the Democrats should start tweeting out Gaskell quotes when the Republicans talk about more tax cuts for the (already obscenely) wealthy.
Title: Excellent Women
Author: Barbara Pym
Published in 1952
Plot summary from Goodreads: Mildred Lathbury is one of those ‘excellent women’ who is often taken for granted. She is a godsend, ‘capable of dealing with most of the stock situations of life – birth, marriage, death, the successful jumble sales, the garden fete spoilt by bad weather’. As such, she often gets herself embroiled in other people’s lives – especially those of her glamorous new neighbours, the Napiers, whose marriage seems to be on the rocks. One cannot take sides in these matters, though it is tricky, especially as Mildred, teetering on the edge of spinsterhood, has a soft spot for dashing young Rockingham Napier. This is Barbara Pym’s world at its funniest and most touching.
This review does contain some mild spoilers, although this is not a book that is particularly suspenseful, nor does it rely on a mystery to move the plot forward.
I suppose an unmarried woman just over thirty, who lives alone and has no apparent ties, must expect to find herself involved or interested in other people’s business, and if she is a clergyman’s daughter then one might really say that there is no hope for her.
And so we meet Mildred Lathbury, the first person narrator of Excellent Women, Barbara Pym’s second novel, published in 1952. The book opens with the arrival of a new resident in Mildred’s building – Helena Napier, whose husband, Rockingham, has not returned from Italy, where he was stationed with the Navy. Helena is a type of woman that is almost completely foreign to Mildred – an anthropologist with little interest in her marriage, and less interest in housekeeping, cooking or church, the things that Mildred understands the best.
I loved Mildred – she is a bit bewildered by her new neighbors, but is also unapologetically interested in the oddness of their lives. She is a sheltered gentlewoman who, over the course of Excellent Women, allows a talent for mild rebellion to emerge. Her attitude is generally one of rueful irony, and there are times that she is positively funny. She, rather than Helena, might have been the anthropologist, but the object of her study is the doings of post-war Brits, especially her neighbors.
In addition to the Napiers, Everard Bone, one of Helena’s colleagues, ends up insinuating himself into Mildred’s life. There is much scandal around Helena’s relationship with Everard, and Mildred finds herself in the middle of it. One of my favorite moments in the book occurs when Everard, lurking about waiting for her to leave work, persuades her to go for a drink with him.
“Women are quite impossible to understand sometimes.”
I pondered over this remark for a while, asking myself what it was going to lead up to, and then wondered why had been so stupid as not to realise that he wanted to say something about Helena Napier…
And, he does want to say something about Helena Napier, who has been behaving most indiscreetly, indeed. The two of them have been seen by their colleagues, at a time when they should not have been together.
“I suppose you would not want to marry Helena even if she were free. I mean, divorced would be against your principles.”
“Naturally”, he said stiffly. And I don’t love her anyway.”
“Oh, poor Helena. I think she may love you,” I said rashly.
“I’m sure she does,” said Everard in what seemed to be a satisfied tone. “She has told me so,”
“Oh, no! Not without encouragement! Do women declare themselves like that?”
“Oh, yes. It is not so very unusual.”
“But what did you tell her?”
“I told her that it was quite impossible that I should love her.”
“You must have been rather startled,”I said, “Unless you had expected it, and perhaps you had if it can happen. But it must have been like having something like a large white rabbit thrust into your arms and not knowing what to do with it.”
So, on the one hand, we have the Napiers, whose relationship and marital breakdown causes much upset in her home, and then on the other hand, we have Allegra Gray, who moves in with her vicar, Julian Malory and his sister Winifred, and immediately makes a play for Julian. Mildred, as a single woman, is accepted as the person who is going to deal with the fall out from this arrangement: is Allegra going to marry Julian? Is Winifred going to have to move out?
I loved Mildred’s reaction when Winifred shows up at her house, hair disarranged and somewhat wild, wearing no hat or coat and sodden bedroom slippers, and asks if she can move in – poor Mildred sees all of her independence disappearing before her very eyes as Winifred explains that she has disliked Allegra since Lady Farmer’s lilies ended up on the floor.
“Oh, but, Mildred, I hoped I could come and live with you,” said Winifred with appalling simplicity.
For a moment I was too taken aback to say anything and I knew that I must think carefully before I answered.”
Reading Excellent Women, I was reminded of Jane Austen, and especially of Anne Elliott after she turned down Captain Wentworth. Mildred is fighting against a culture that wants to deny her value because she is an unmarried gentlewoman – and therefore her emotional and physical labor are available to her community with or without her consent. Contrast Mildred with school headmistress Sarah Burton from South Riding, a book I read in December 2018, published decades earlier in 1936, who says of herself.
“No chance of a love-affair here in the South Riding and a good thing too. I was born to be a spinster, and by God, I’m going to spin.
But although Mildred is a much gentler person, must more quiescent and willing to accept societal boundaries, she’s not a pushover. It’s frustrating to her that everyone believes that she is crushed by Julian getting engaged to Allegra Gray, because they assume she wanted him for herself. But she didn’t and she doesn’t, and she can’t protest because they will assume she is lying to protect her pride. And her relationship with Everard, it seems, is to be one of friendship, once Rockingham and Helena Napier make up their silly quarrel and reunite. He has asked her to help him in his work, and she has acquiesced – this may lead to marriage or it may not.
I just don’t get the feeling, at the end of the book, that she wants to marry anyone – and she’s decided that on her own.
She says of herself:
And then another picture came into my mind. Julian Malory, standing by the electric fire, wearing his speckled mackintosh, holding a couple of ping-pong bats and quoting a not very appropriate bit of Keats. He might need to be protected from the women who were going to live in his house. So, what with my duty there and the work I was going to do for Everard, it seemed as if I might be going to have what Helena called “a full life” after all.
I hope so, Mildred. I hope you got everything you wanted, and then some. Not every woman needs to be married to find purpose. Not even in 1952.
I’m also going to link to an article from 2013, the centenary of Barbara Pym’s birth, written by Philip Hensher that talks about Barbara Pym and her career. She wrote a total of 13 books, divided into two distinct periods. Excellent Women is from her first period, and then her publisher dropped her in 1962. She wasn’t able to find a publisher again until Philip Larkin helped her to resurrect her career in 1977. Link to the article here.
Title: At Bertram’s Hotel
Author: Agatha Christie
Series: Miss Marple #11
Plot summary from Goodreads: Miss Jane Marple has checked into Bertram’s Hotel in London for a much-needed vacation. The last thing she expects is that this elegant establishment, known for its service and old-world charm, could be embroiled in scandal. But after a series of strange events—including the disappearance of a fellow guest, the arrival of a notorious celebrity bad boy, and finally, a shocking murder—she finds herself drawn into a multifaceted mystery.
The hotel is full of suspects who have potential motives—and convenient alibis. While the local inspector is preoccupied with a series of recent robberies, only Miss Marple, with her shrewd observations and keen understanding of human nature, can sort out the puzzling sequence of events and zero in on the killer.
At Bertram’s Hotel is the 11th Miss Marple, published in 1944, and Jane is winding down her career – there are only two more Miss Marple mysteries after this one: Nemesis, published in 1971 and The Sleeping Murder, published in 1976 (but apparently written much earlier).
Bertram’s Hotel is an old-fashioned hotel in London, with an impeccable reputation and an equally impeccable tea tray. One can get *real* muffins here, slathered in butter, to go with one’s tea. As an American, I have no idea what these real muffins look like – I’m concluding from the discussion that they are not our blueberry studded, cake-like confections, and are, perhaps, something more like what I would call an English muffin.
Anyway, the whole book had me wanting to eat something. Because these people drank a lot of tea, and ate a lot of tea pastries.
Five minutes later breakfast came. A comfortable tray with a big potbellied teapot, creamy-looking milk, a silver hot water jug. Two beautifully poached eggs on toast, poached the proper way, not little round hard bullets shaped in tin cups, a good-sized round of butter stamped with a thistle. Marmalade, honey and strawberry jam. Delicious-looking rolls, not the hard kind with papery interiors—they smelt of fresh bread (the most delicious smell in the world!). There was also an apple, a pear and a banana.
This was a fun mystery for other reasons as well – there were three separate subplots here: the robberies that Scotland Yard was trying to solve, the mystery of the missing Canon Pennyfather, and then the murder of the Commissaire (sort of a doorman, I think) which occurred very late in the book.
Bess Sedgewick was a wonderful side-character. She was an adventurous sort of a woman, who was staying at the hotel during the time that Miss Marple was spending her holiday there. This is one of those Christie books where she puts a whole bunch of people in the same place to watch the fireworks ensure – Bess is there, her daughter Elvira, who was raised by an elderly retainer after her father died and after Bess sailed into the great unknown to have adventures, is there, an ethically challenged, but extremely handsome, Italian race-car driver is hanging about, and then we have the ridiculously absent-minded Canon Pennyfather who disappears midway through the book and turns up miles away from where he should have been.
Chief-Inspector Davies, nicknamed “Father,” is the one that puts it all together after Scotland Yard is brought in to figure out what has happened to Canon Pennyfather. He and Miss Marple are perfect together, and I wish that he had shown up in some of the other Marple books. Christie missed an opportunity here. He says to his subordinate:
“I just think I’d like to have a good deal more information about this place. I’d like to know who is behind it, what its financial status is. All that sort of thing.”
Campbell shook his head. “I should have said if there was one place in London that was absolutely above suspicion–”
“I know, I know,” said Father. “And what a useful thing it is to have that reputation!”
The resolution to the book is a bit of a let-down, unfortunately, with the murderer being seemingly free due to a lack of evidence. I don’t want to say too much and spoil the end, though, because Christie’s puzzles are always so much fun to try to solve. I had read this one before, and remembered the identity of the murderer, but the other two subplots were just as mysterious this time as they were the first time I read it! This is one of the reasons that I love Christie so much – between the mouthwatering descriptions of tea and the complicated plotlines, I always find something to enjoy!
Title: Picnic at Hanging Rock
Author: Joan Lindsey
Published in 1967
Plot Summary from Goodreads: It was a cloudless summer day in the year 1900. Everyone at Appleyard College for Young Ladies agreed it was just right for a picnic at Hanging Rock. After lunch, a group of three girls climbed into the blaze of the afternoon sun, pressing on through the scrub into the shadows of the secluded volcanic outcropping. Farther, higher, until at last they disappeared. They never returned. . . .
Mysterious and subtly erotic, Picnic at Hanging Rock inspired the iconic 1975 film of the same name by Peter Weir. A beguiling landmark of Australian literature, it stands with Shirley Jackson’s We Have Always Lived in the Castle, Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca, and Jeffrey Eugenides’ The Virgin Suicides as a masterpiece of intrigue.
Picnic at Hanging Rock is a small book, only 224 pages, that packs an outsize punch. I can’t remember where I stumbled on it – if it was through blogging or goodreads, or just by following one of the bookish rabbit trails that I find myself chasing when I start looking at books. It’s set in Australia, written by an Australian writer, so it fulfills the category “Classic from Africa, Asia or Oceania” for my Back to the Classics Challenge.
It is set up as a mystery – in 1900, three girls from the Appleyard College for Young Ladies, Miranda, Marion and Irma, and one of their instructors, Miss McCraw, disappear on a Valentine’s Day picnic in the Australian countryside, at a place called Hanging Rock. Hanging Rock is a real place, a volcanic rock formation in central Victoria.
Picnic at Hanging Rock is not a true story, but Lindsey presents it as though it is, with newspaper clippings and other bits of ephemera that lend verisimilitude to the story. The book takes off from the disappearance, and follows the ramifications to the school, the headmistress, and the other students.
As the word of the disappearance leaks out, families begin to withdraw their daughters from the school, which leads to the school struggling to stay afloat and creates stress for the headmistress, Miss Appleyard. In addition, one of the girls, Sara, had been in trouble and was not allowed to go to the picnic and her mental health deteriorates rapidly. She disappears as well, although the mystery of her disappearance is solved. One of the girls, Irma, is found alive, but dehydrated and with no memory of what happened to her friends within a few days of the disappearance. She recovers, but is unable to describe or explain what has happened to her friends.
The story is intriguing as the members of the local community grapple with the events and try to understand what has happened. This is not a book that has a neat resolution. It’s not crime fiction, it’s not horror, it is mostly a slim narration of an unexplained, and inexplicable, event that is perfectly satisfied to leave questions unanswered.
Finishing it was, admittedly, a bit unsatisfying and frustrating. I began googling and found information in Wikipedia that suggested that there had been a final chapter that was left out of the book that contained the solution to the riddle. Having now read a summary of the chapter – and I would recommend waiting until after reading the book to do this – I agree with the publishers that the better decision was to leave the ending ambiguous. Because this is a story about what happens after, not what happened before, and it’s fully realized just taking it from that perspective.
The comparison to Shirley Jackson is not perfect, because Picnic at Hanging Rock lacks the undercurrent of dread that Jackson’s best novels, The Haunting of Hill House and We Have Always Lived in the Castle, created so perfectly. But she’s probably the best comparison that I can come up with, because that sense of pervasive unease is present all through Picnic at Hanging Rock. It’s a slim book, but is one worth reading.
Title: N or M?
Author: Agatha Christie
Series: Tommy and Tuppence #3
Published in 1941
Plot summary from Goodreads: It is World War II, and while the RAF struggles to keep the Luftwaffe at bay, Britain faces an even more sinister threat from “the enemy within”—Nazis posing as ordinary citizens.
With pressure mounting, the intelligence service appoints two unlikely spies, Tommy and Tuppence Beresford. Their mission: to seek out a man and a woman from among the colorful guests at Sans Souci, a seaside hotel. But this assignment is no stroll along the promenade—N and M have just murdered Britain’s finest agent and no one at all can be trusted. . .
This is the year that I will finish reading Agatha Christie, and what that means is that I have just a few left, and the ones that are left are not her best work. I long ago read And Then There Were None, along with all of the rest of the Poirot mysteries. I’ve finished Superintendent Battle and Colonel Race, and most of Marple (although I am saving Sleeping Murder for the end, because I’ve heard that it doesn’t suck).
When I started figuring out which titles I had left, I realized that I had almost all of Tommy and Tuppence Beresford. This is the third in the series, following The Secret Adversary and Partners in Crime. When we left Tommy and Tuppence, at the end of Partners in Crime, Tuppence had just announced to Tommy that she was pregnant (after ridding the world of an espionage ring). In N or M?, many years have passed, and the twins, Deborah and Derek, are both young adults.
N or M? was published in 1941, in the midst of WWII, and, at the beginning of the book, Tommy and Tuppence are feeling their age. They can’t find anyone to give them an opportunity to serve Britain in the war, and they are a bit down in the mouth about it: the secret service doesn’t want Tommy, and Tuppence has been turned down for a nursing slot. Their children, in the inimitable manner of young people, have cheerfully decided that mum and dad should shuffle off and spend the war years in a decline somewhere.
One of the best things about Tommy and Tuppence is Tommy and Tuppence. They still have their signature witty banter, and their relationship is good fun. Even after all these years, they still like each other alot, and it shows in their interactions. Occasionally, things get a bit twee with the pair, and there is an annoyingly adorable plot moppet named Betty who accidentally reveals a secret while she is babbling on with Tuppence. When a man approaches Tommy to take on a job rooting out a pair of German spies (code name N and M) without Tuppence, Tuppence is having none of it. He sneaks off to Sans Souci, a seaside boarding house where intelligence suggests the spies are operative. When he arrives there, Tuppence is sitting in the common room knitting a balaclava. Point one to Tuppence.
Christie’s espionage stories are never as good as her straight up mysteries, and this one dragged for about the first 30%. Things do pick up, though, when Betty is kidnapped, and then Tommy goes missing and Tuppence must figure out the identity of the spies with the help of one of Deborah’s friends, Anthony Marsdon, who is a young code breaker. Bring in their old retainer, Albert, and the book comes to a solid and entertaining conclusion. I figured out half of the solution, which with Christie is about as good as it gets.
If you’ve never read Christie, definitely don’t start here. If you already like Tommy and Tuppence, give this one a go – while they are slightly less effervescent in N or M? than they were all the way back in The Secret Adversary, the characters are still a lot of fun. If you’re looking for a place to start reading Christie, though, start with one of her best: And Then There Were None, Murder on the Orient Express or The Murder of Roger Ackroyd.
Title: Our Spoons Came From Woolworths
Author: Barbara Comyns
Published in 1950
Plot Summary from Goodreads: Sophia is twenty-one and naïve when she marries fellow artist Charles. She seems hardly fonder of her husband than she is of her pet newt; she can’t keep house (everything she cooks tastes of soap); and she mistakes morning sickness for the aftereffects of a bad batch of strawberries. England is in the middle of the Great Depression, and the money Sophia makes from the occasional modeling gig doesn’t make up for her husband’s indifference to paying the rent. Predictably, the marriage falters; not so predictably, Sophia’s artlessness will be the very thing that turns her life around.
“I told Helen my story and she went home and cried.”
Published in 1950, Our Spoons Came From Woolworths is told in the first person by Sophia Fairclough, who meets and marries Charles in the beginning of the book. Her winsome, stream of consciousness narrative is misleading – the early part of the book beguiles the reader into thinking that this is a piece of cheery, lively fiction about a young married couple starting their lives. Charles is an artist, with firmly middle class roots; Sophia is parentless, with a couple of rather uncaring siblings. The book is set in the 1930’s, during the global depression between the two wars.
That sense of optimism rapidly devolves into something more akin to horror. Sophia conceives, and having never received even the tiniest bit of education about the reproduction process, is surprised. She believed that just wishing to NOT have a baby would work to counteract conception. No one is happy about this baby – they are too young and too poor and no one is willing to see Charles clearly for what he is.
Which is a dead loss as a human being. He, initially, lives off of Sophia, his father having stopped his allowance once he married. Sophia is working at a commercial studio, and is fired once she has to admit she is pregnant. Her sense of pride prevents her from admitting that this is a terrible hardship. Even after she is let go, Charles does nothing to try to contribute the family coffers.
His family is terrible, blaming Sophia both for the pregnancy, as though she managed that on her own, and for interfering with his ability to develop his great artistic talent. Everyone, including Sophia, seems to accept that it is Sophia’s responsibility to keep the young couple in food and housing. This is infuriating, because it literally never seems to occur to anyone that a man should not allow his wife and child to starve, especially during a time period which does not allow pregnant women/young mothers of Sophia’s class to work.
The chapters that address the birth of Sophia’s son, Sandro, are harrowing. Comyns describes the process of labor in a charity hospital in both explicit and horrifying detail. She is dragged from room to room, never told what to expect, and subjected to the most awful indignities, and once the birth is over, her son is removed to the infant room and she doesn’t see him for two days.
It actually gets worse from here. Her marriage is a disaster, her husband is a loser, and their extended family is completely blind to the poverty and hunger that she suffers. Through it all, Sophia’s voice remains mostly optimistic and always convincing.
This is, more or less, a book about poverty – about how it grinds and about the experience of being completely powerless due to structural inequalities, such as male supremacy and class-based oppression. Reading it pissed me off, I was so angry at everyone: Charles, for being such an irredeemable asshole; Charles’s family for being so monstrously uncaring, and, even, Sophia, for not seeming to find her situation as intolerable as I did. She was so captive to her own circumstances that it seemingly never occurred to her that she should’ve been able to expect more from her husband and family.
There is one briefly satisfying moment when she loses her temper. She has started a new job and has to walk to work because there is no money in the house. Charles promises to bring her some money in time for lunch, but he blows her off. When it comes time to leave
“I waited to see if he would come fetch me, but again he failed me, so I had to walk home, getting more and more hungry on the way, and angry too. When I arrived home, I saw Charles through the uncurtained window. He was sitting reading with a tray of tea-things beside him. He looked so comfortable, I became even more angry, and dashed in like a whirlwind and picked up a chair and hit him with it.”
Even then, though, Sophia is made to feel that she is in the wrong. “I was ashamed of myself, too, but felt too tired to apologize, so just went to bed and wished I was dead.”
It took me some significant contemplation yesterday to figure out why I had such an emotional response to this book, and it was only after I admitted to myself that I felt a strong sympathy for Sophia based upon a bit of my personal history that it made sense. When I was 21, I married my own Charles – a man who was just fine with living off of me while he attended (and ultimately failed to graduate from) law school, as I worked full-time and went to college to support us.
After I graduated from undergraduate, I applied to and was accepted to law school and left the city where I had done my undergrad. My husband was, originally, supposed to move with me, but he had mucked up his final year in law school badly and had to complete an additional term, so I went alone. Back then, first year law students had to sign a contract that they couldn’t work. Our agreement was that he would get a job and send me money for food. I needed that money to eat.
I had a scholarship to cover my tuition, and some of my rent, and I had some savings, but I was wary of running out of money. My entire financial house of cards was built on getting a little bit of money from my husband, a couple of hundred dollars a month, who hadn’t worked during our entire marriage, but who was able to work because he only had a couple of classes to finish that term.
He sent me one check. It bounced. I had never experienced hunger before, and like Sophia, I was far too proud to tell anyone how broke I was. In retrospect, that is such an act of callousness that I would have been more than justified in ending the marriage. I didn’t. I took a few things that I could scrape together and I pawned them for $50.00 so I could buy some food, and then I began secretly temping for about 10 hours a week to make a little bit of money. I ate nothing but macaroni and cheese for a couple of weeks until my first paycheck came through. No one at the school found out, so I was able to do enough of this to pay for my groceries.
As you can probably imagine at this point in the story, the marriage failed completely about six months later. But reading this book brought it all back – the rage, the helplessness, the sense of confusion, the reality no one knew that I was married to a child and I was suffering. And I was 24, and it was a completely different time. Women were able to work, and I didn’t have children (thank god I didn’t have children), but I was still tied to this worthless asshole who didn’t care that I was hungry. And I internalized all of this by concluding that, somehow, I was at fault for all of it, and my loyalty to this failure of a person prevented me from asking anyone for help.
I think probably all women have a story like this.
Even with the grim subject matter, though, there is something fresh and appealing about both Sophia and the book that I can’t really explain. It was very frustrating to read, and, although Sophia does get a happy ending, Charles did not get run over by an omnibus, nor did he artistically starve to death, which were the two proper endings for him.
So, I do recommend Our Spoons Came From Woolworths, even if it made me want to hit something.