I first shared this blog post in 2016. To date, it’s still my best-performing blog post. Not sure if that is because it’s one of my shortest – I am quite a waffler these days.
But I love that line. It’s line 431 from T S Eliot’s The Waste Land. The first time I read the poem, when I got to this line I burst into tears, because it seemed such a beautiful summation, of the poem, of my life, everything. Words do that to me–I’m a very emotional person, I’m glad to say.
I believe that our lives are made up of fragments. We are, in essence, a walking, talking collection of every experience we’ve ever had. This includes what we’ve read. Words.
So often I am out and about–yes, I escape now and again–and I hear something, see something, smell something which provokes a memory of something I’ve read. Most often it is snatches of conversation I overhear, being nosey and a crime writer, which as we all know gives me special dispensation to eavesdrop on others. (‘I ain’t been dropping no eaves, sir, honest.’) Words seem to lead to more words.
I hear someone say, ‘The wonderful thing…’ and mentally I’ve added ‘…about Tiggers is Tiggers are wonderful things.’ (I didn’t promise it was anything erudite!) Or someone may say ‘Wherever I go…’ and I think to myself ‘there’s always Pooh, there’s always Pooh and me.’ (By the way, Winnie the Pooh is not just for kids. Just read the chapter called The Piper At the Gates of Dawn…)
It’s not just A A Milne, though. So often snatches of Shakespeare, Agatha Christie, songs, poems, plays, hymns, prayers, all sorts of words come into my head. I can’t look at spring flowers without thinking ‘A host of golden daffodils’ or ‘April is the cruellest month’. (The Waste Land again!) A tall person becomes ‘thou painted Maypole’. A mouse is a ‘wee sleekit cowrin tim’rous beastie’. (Burns of course, who else?)
If something annoying happens, I hear Miss Marple whisper, ‘Oh dear, how extremely vexing,’ or I hear someone say something stupid, and Mr Bennett’s frustrated, outraged, ‘Until you come back…I shall not hear two words of sense spoken together’ comes to mind. I share his pain. In extremis, ‘I shall be in my library; I’m not to be disturbed.’ (Not unless there’s cake or Midsomer Murders.) Or I might hear Miss Silver’s indulgent, ‘In their own way, men can be quite useful.’
Or if sorrows come in, it’s Matthew Arnold’s painful comment filled with longing, ‘Ah love, let us be true to one another,’ because he believed that one another was all we have. (Dover Beach).
There’s always another wonderful sketch of words from someone who lived many years before my time. Or a contemporary. Or the next generation. We all use and need words.
And because of this, none of us can ever come to a text, for the first time, or the tenth, ‘cold’ or ‘new’. There is really no neutral approach in the human soul. We bring with us the sum of all our experiences and emotions, our world-view and our beliefs, and those inform what we read, and mercifully sometimes, what we read can inform all those things too.
When I was studying literature ‘back in the day’, I remember The Waste Land was one of our set texts. Critics deplored it, dismissing it as a pastiche, a patchwork quilt of other peoples’ work, revealing only a good memory for quotations. Students shuddered and declared it was one of the worst experiences of their life. But for some of us, there was a sense of ‘wow, I never knew poetry could be like this!’
When I read his words, ‘These fragments I have shored against my ruins’ (line 431), I said to my tutor, I think he is saying that literature, that words, will save us in times of crisis, bolster us when we are at a low ebb. I was told I was wrong, but in spite of that, I still choose to believe this could be one meaning of these, for me, immortal words. These fragments of remembered stories, poems, previous experiences, feelings, of words, I have stored up, internalised, to use as a defence, shored against my ruin, my unhappiness, times of want, misery, sorrow and confusion. Ruin.
For me it is a reminder that many things in life are transient, passing, temporary, but I will always carry within me the sum of what I have read. Just read Shakespeare’s sonnet 18 and tell me I’m wrong. It’s short, it’s sweet, it’s got a cheeky grin at the end. It’s perfect, and all human life is there.
I’ve always loved reading, and mysteries have always been my ‘thing’. Of all the authors in all the bookshops and libraries in all the world, Agatha Christie and Patricia Wentworth remain my favourites by a very long chalk, with Patricia a wee bit out in front.
Why do I love them so much when a) there are thousands—literally–of modern authors out there, and b) these traditional mysteries seem rather tired and old-fashioned by today’s standards?
Obviously I don’t believe they are tired and old-fashioned. I mean, yes, the author styles are out of touch with our era, and the roles and attitudes of characters are sometimes really horrifying. But for me, it’s the irresistible lure of the era: a time of long frocks, a time of afternoon tea, dinner parties, bridge evenings (I can’t even play bridge) and so forth. Yes, the plots can seem tame, contrived and are often insular, but as Christie’s Miss Marple often comments, ‘you see every aspect of life in a small village.’ And what we need to remember is that these stories were written, some of them, almost hundred years ago, and were fresh, new and very exciting at that time—the plots weren’t overdone or overused – they were more or less brand new, and I’m sure at the time, many of the plots would have seemed innovative.
Patricia Wentworth’s works are a wee bit tamer and even more moralistic than Agatha Christie’s, but we need to remember that there is a little over twenty years between their dates of birth, so I would definitely place Wentworth squarely in the previous generation of mid-Victorian Britain. Like many of Christie’s settings, Wentworth’s stories often revolve around a country house, and a small village, and her sleuth, Miss Silver is in many respects quite similar to Miss Marple. I like a village or country house setting; for me it’s like viewing a sample of the whole of society under a microscope. I love to see how ordinary (kind of, if rather posher than me!) people react in an apparently ‘safe’ setting when something goes horribly wrong.
I often reread these books. I have read all of Christie’s works at least twice, often many more times than that, and the majority of Wentworth’s many more times than that, although I’m still working my way through her non-series books. I have five or six different copies of some of Wentworth’s books, all with different covers, from different eras, and one of them is quite valuable. I won’t tell you which in case you nick it. (Clue 1: It cost nearly as much as my wedding dress. Clue 2: I got married in 1981 and my wedding dress didn’t cost nearly as much as it would have done today, but even so my mother gasped…)
I recently decided to reread The Chinese Shawl by Patricia Wentworth. As you can see, I used quite a few sticky notes as I read it and made notes for my own fun/blog writing at the same time. I wish I could say there was a special coded reason for using pink then yellow sticky notes, but it’s simply that I ran out of pink!
The Chinese Shawl was published in 1943, placing it in the latter third of Wentworth’s writing career. Her first novel, a romance, was published in 1910. She died at the beginning of 1961.
There’s something a bit different about reading a book if you are a writer, and also, if you’ve read it several times before. As well as an enjoyable read, it’s been an interesting, and useful experience. Different things struck me this time. Here are a few of them: (btw – contains spoilers!)
Point 1. Wentworth is a great one for setting the scene. Her murders seldom happen as quickly as, for example, Christie’s. We get a lot of background—sometimes I feel maybe there’s too much, but it does mean that by the time the reader reaches the murder scene, they know the main characters quite well, and are deeply immersed in the story. The murder quite often doesn’t take place until almost halfway through the book, and sometimes we don’t meet the sleuth, Miss Silver, until that point, and often even later, although in this one, she is already there, in situ as a house guest, from chapter ten.
I also feel quite often in Wentworth’s books, that you can see the murder coming. But it’s not in an annoying, ‘Der—I knew that was going to happen’ kind of way. It’s more like watching a car crash in slow motion: you can see the inevitable outcome and are powerless to stop it. You can only watch it happen in a kind of fascinated horror. (Not that they are gory or horrifying in that sense.)
Point 2. The ‘sleuth’ is Miss Maud Silver. Like Christie’s Miss Marple, Miss Silver is an elderly lady, a retired former governess who primly knits her way through interviews and afternoon teas and picks up all sorts of gossip, clues and insights as she does so. She is an acute observer of human life, and a highly moral, highly principled person. In fact sometimes she’s a bit annoying in her manner which can seem outmoded by today’s standards. But she is a treasure, too. Her main advantage is that she is often ignored, overlooked or just plain underestimated. Miss Silver often makes remarks that I find hilarious, such as this one from Lonesome Road (pub. 1939) ‘In their own way, men can be quite useful.’ Men as a breed are for Miss Silver largely a closed book. She remarks somewhere that the chief difference between men and women is that men require two eggs for breakfast instead of one.
Point 3. In this book, the victim is not a very nice person, and so it’s hard to mourn her fate. But Wentworth never condones murder or violence, and even in the death of a nasty piece of work, there is a righteous indignation and a determination to get to the bottom of things. For Wentworth and her detectives, nothing ever justifies murder, and that’s a position I thoroughly applaud.
Point 4. Obviously, we have a sidekick. Usually a sidekick is a ‘Watson’ type character. In this case, it’s the official investigator – Randal March. He is not my favourite sidekick for Miss Silver—he is arrogant, pompous and (usually) far too self-satisfied. But then, maybe that’s more realistic for the era? All I can say is, thank goodness for Miss Silver, his former governess, as she usually takes him down a peg of two. In this book he has risen to the rank of Superintendent. When it comes to a supporting cast for Miss Silver, I prefer her other sidekick, Sergeant Frank Abbott, and if absolutely necessary, I can even put up with Abbott’s boss, Inspector Ernest Lamb, who is devoted to his three daughters. It’s a refreshing change to have a detective who is a family man with no massive issues.
Point 5. There is a wealth of period detail in this book, from fashion and etiquette to black-out regulations of WW2. I love this stuff, we get a really strong sense of the era and feel so deeply entrenched in the book. There is always a strong romantic, (quite an old-fashioned, polite romance,) thread running through the mystery. What I particularly like is the contrast between the dutiful ‘war work’ of bitter Miss Agnes Fane and that of Miss Silver:
Miss Fane surveyed it (Miss Silver’s knitting) with disfavour.
‘You should be knitting comforts for the troops.’
Miss Silver’s needles clicked.
‘Babies must have vests,’ she remarked in a mild but stubborn tone.
For me this sums up perfectly the difference between Miss Silver and Agnes Fane, the alpha female of the story. Agnes Fane is all about being seen to be right and perfect in every way, and above reproach. She craves status, yet her heart is in many ways cold though obsessive. Miss Silver, dowdy, slightly irritating, definitely overly moralistic and governessy, nevertheless does everything she does from a place of love, which is why, for me, she is the best sleuth. She is devoted to her former charges, their loved ones and their growing families.
And lest we forget, she’s a working girl, a gentlewoman come down in the world due the premature death of her parents and the very real need to earn her own living. Unlike, for example, Miss Marple, she is not an amateur detective who does it because she’s nosy or in the right place at the right time, she hires herself out at a decent rate as a ‘private enquiry agent’. This has given her the means to afford a nice flat in London and a maid to take care of her. Girl power! She don’t need no man!
Point 6. As in any good mystery, there are a number of suspects. The murdered woman leaves behind her a slew of cast aside lovers, a divorced husband, the wife of a cast aside lover and another chap’s girlfriend, not to mention other possibilities. It seems as though almost anyone could have carried out the dastardly deed. And then of course, comes the twist—maybe she was killed by mistake? That leaves the already wide door thrown even wider. Who killed her, and why?
Point 7. Actually, when I said sidekick, I should have said sidekicks, because front and centre in this story is our heroine, Laura Fane, and her new beau, a former lover of the murder victim, all-round war hero, Carey Desborough. Actually the romance between these two flourishes within the space of a day or two—it is love at first sight, and it’s essential for the lovebirds that they help Miss Silver get to the bottom of the crime so everyone can live happily ever after. Well, almost everyone. And a rather unbelievable attempt to set up first one of these as the baddie then the other fails to convince the reader, and so we know we can rest happily in the fact of their happiness.
Point 8. Really my only criticism of Wentworth’s books generally, and this one in particular is her frequent use of that hateful tool ‘the had I but known/little did they know’. I hate this ploy with a passion. And it crops up here several times. On top of that, we almost always have a phrase along the lines of ‘little did they know but the events of that evening were to be sifted and gone over with the utmost care, and everything they did and said would be held up to the light and examined.’ *sigh* Moving on…
Point 9. Wentworth loves a dramatic ending. And so do I. Although I knew ‘whodunnit’ because I’ve read this book loads of times, I still savoured the outcome. There is too, generally a nice ‘wrap-up’ scene where the good guys take tea with Miss Silver at the end and she expounds and moralises, a good egg teaching her pupils. This one is slightly different as the wrap-up is with Randal March, but it’s still good to get insight into their thoughts about the crime and its resolution. And of course, the two lovebirds go off together into the sunset, but it’s a slightly scaled back happiness—after all, there’s still a war on. A very satisfying ending.
As a review, I know this isn’t much cop. I’m hopeless at reviewing, but if it’s made you think, ‘I might read that’, then my work here is done. Enjoy!
Other of Wentworth’s best works include:
The Listening Eye
The Alington Inheritance
The Clock Strikes Twelve
And there are loads more, both series, and non-series.
At the end of last year, I made a little foray into the world of Golden Age mystery writers, looking briefly at the work of several well-known exponents of the genre, and in more depth at Agatha Christie, her life and her work.
This week I want to tell you a little bit about my favourite detective story writer, Patricia Wentworth, known mainly for her mysteries, but who also wrote romances.
Patricia Wentworth was her pen name. She was born as Dora Amy Elles in 1878 in India, and was educated at Blackheath School for Girls, now Blackheath High School, London.
She married quite young and had her first daughter. Her husband had two sons from a former relationship, one (or possibly both) of whom died in WWI. Her husband died in 1906, when she was still only in her late twenties. Wentworth moved to Camberley, Surrey, England, where she would live until her death in 1961. Wentworth met her second husband and married in 1920, and had another daughter. It was in Camberley Wentworth wrote most of her novels, with her second husband George writing down what she dictated.
Today she is mostly remembered for her 32 murder mysteries featuring private inquiry agent Miss Maud Silver, a former governess, keen observer of human nature and quoter of Tennyson and the Bible. But there are more than 40 other books which don’t feature detective Miss Silver, mostly mysteries, but there are some historical romances, and some poetry and stories for children.
For many years, I found it very difficult to obtain Wentworth’s books. But with the recent rise of small print runs and small presses, and the resurgence in interest in Golden Age and traditional mysteries, her work is enjoying a new popularity and reaching new audiences. Hodder have reissued the majority of the Miss Silver books over the last ten years, with Open Road Media and Dean Street Press publishing virtually all of the other books between them. Readers are often frustrated to find that the books have different titles in the UK and the USA, so please check carefully that you’re not buying the same book twice under different titles. There is an excellent bibliography on the Patricia Wentworth page in Wikipedia, along with publication dates.
Her work has often dismissed as being ‘old-fashioned’, ‘middle-class’, ‘tame’ and dated, but nevertheless I would say these books should not be so easily set aside.
To begin with, some of these books first appeared more than a hundred years ago, and are still popular. A Marriage Under The Terror won the Andrew Melrose prize in 1910, which earned her the handsome reward of two hundred and fifty guineas, quite a sum in those days. There was much speculation about her use of a pseudonym, claiming that it was impossible to keep her real identity a secret.
So we need to see them within their own era. I would agree with critics that some of the novels are not as strong, or as innovative, as others, that several plot devices reoccur (notably the indoor, uncovered well), and that from time to time, ‘the butler did it’. They are strongly romantic, which for me is a good thing, so they don’t fit comfortably into traditional generic categories, but again that is something that current trends are more flexible about. I know some readers find them too sweet, too and that there is not enough guts and gore—but hey, they’re cosies, get used to it.
The strengths of the books lies in the portrayal of the era, and in the way many of the characters are forced to find their way through unfamiliar and difficult circumstances. They are not all wealthy, they are not all high-born, artistic, celebrities or otherwise fortunate. The mysteries are pleasing, often very clever, and the reader can detect along with the protagonist. The writing is intelligent, clear, and lacking in long flowery descriptions, which I personally detest.
I recommend them for students of creative writing who want to improve their dialogue and character writing skills, their plotting skills or anyone who wants to write novels set in the recent past, or for readers who love a traditional mystery without body parts being lopped off, or strong language, or who prefers romance without sex scenes, or who likes something with a strong sense of morality and a satisfying mystery.
If you want to give them a go, below are a couple of my favourite titles: