After bouncing round the country like a yo-yo for ten days, penetrating some of the less glamorous outer reaches of bookselling (Don’t ask: it’s nothing you’d ever see on the high street!), on Saturday we spent another wonderful day with Priscilla and Rupert in Lancashire. This time our walk – with two frisky dogs – entailed walking across fields and along a canal bank to Rufford Old Hall, a fine Tudor building.
This in itself was a great treat. An Elizabethan manor-house, it made me realise that, if I could return to the past, I’d have no desire to be a great lady (fat chance – I’m sure all my ancestors were peasants, probably of the most primitive kind; my family name actually means ‘sheep-shearer’ and we are all squat, blue-eyed Saxons, not tall, interesting Normans, fiery, red-haired Danes or exotic, white-blond Flemings).
But I digress. I’d have no desire to be a great lady, at the mercy of political fortune, likely to have a husband who would either leave me for long periods while he fought in wars (expecting me on occasion to raise militia to protect our estate), or be obliged to entertain the monarch on a tour of ‘progress’ and therefore invite my own financial ruin. It would have been much pleasanter and more settled to have been one of the fortunate Hesketh family, who owned Rufford for many generations, and lady of the manor of a substantial but not pretentious house like theirs.
When we visited, the upstairs of the house (which is now owned by the National Trust) was being renovated and therefore out of bounds, but the downstairs, including the wonderful Great Hall (which is not too ‘great’ to be cosy when lit by an open fire) and various rooms of later dates, was open to the public. I was especially fascinated by the screen at the entrance to the Hall, the only survivor of its kind, which acted as a joint draught-excluder and obscurer of servants bearing away unsightly dirty dishes. It is a beautiful piece of carved oak, complete with quirks that say so much about the early Heskeths who commissioned it: for example, one of its panels is upside down and one of the angels it depicts has a supernumerary finger: A tribute to Anne Boleyn, also supposed to have had this ‘blemish’ (which was later produced as evidence that she was a witch)? Or, more probably, an observance of the mediaeval belief that no work of art should be perfect, lest it offend God? Also intriguing was the signature carved in the original Elizabethan glass of the bay window of the Hall, dated 1513 (so it was five centuries old this year). I’d love to have met its author!
The National Trust guardians of the Hall were sympathetic, cheerful folk, not at all forbidding or restrictive, as some of their counterparts at other NT houses have been. They’d decked the Hall to celebrate Dickens. Placards with quotations from A Christmas Carol were everywhere, and the guides themselves had dressed up in mid-Victorian garb.
And so back to Priscilla and Rupert’s, to sample their sloe gin and blackberry brandy: the good life, indeed, and the best foretaste of Christmas we could ever have dreamt of! Not forgetting a trip to see the huge willow tree that the weather had part tumbled and Rupert had finished off, at great risk to his life, while Priscilla was in bed with ‘flu. What is it about men and trees? Never mind OK lumberjacks in high heels: it seems to me that every man contains within his soul a death-wish – not just a desire to perish in any old way, but by having a tree fall on him, or (to me) worse horror, by means of a chain-saw or axe. Fortunately, although Rupert fell fifteen feet, he survived with a few scratches… and suffered more from the (just) excoriation of Priscilla’s wrath.
I feel I haven’t done full justice to male folly and trees in this post: I’ll come back to it again. Remind me to tell you of a monster ‘useful piece of hardboard’; of Fred (of bird impersonation fame), thirty feet up a ladder, his grasp firmly around the top of a tree he was in the act of chopping off; of Ken, who made our dining-room table, almost sawing off his index finger ‘by mistake’!
In the course of doing his job, my son visits many countries. Often, all he sees is the inside of airports, offices and hotels, but, if he has a few hours to spare, he always tries to bring back a present. In consequence, I am the appreciative owner of a wide variety of gifts from diverse parts of the world. They include a dressing-gown of old gold silk, beautifully embroidered in blues and reds, from China, and a compelling kingfisher-swallowing-catch, made of pieces of scrap metal, from South Africa.
Before he came to visit this weekend, I had barely registered that his most recent trip away had been to the United Arab Emirates and he told me that in fact he had spent barely forty-eight hours there. Nevertheless, he managed to carve out a few minutes to discover and purchase a very fine pair of brass lamps. Shaped not unlike miners’ lamps, they are decorated with cut-outs, and designed to take household candles.
When I saw them, I was immediately reminded of the smoky corridors and dusky but splendidly-furnished lamp-lit private rooms of the King in One Thousand and One Nights to whom Scheherazade spun her nightly tale, each time leaving the King spellbound until she resumed her narrative the next evening. This is an art that has been somewhat lost to modern storytelling, though it was, of course, practised to perfection by Dickens and other famous Victorian writers who serialised their work in newspapers and magazines. I’ve read that Dickens and Thackeray were often still scribbling frantically while a boy from the magazine in question waited for copy on the other side of the door. I’d love to be able to write a crime novel in this fashion, but I suspect that it would be beyond my powers. I wonder if these writers plotted each work out in its entirety, or just made it up as they went along? And, if the latter, how did they manage to avoid the litany of inconsistencies and anachronisms that I have to iron out of my own novels once the first draft has been completed?
As for Scheherazade, what an example of a very clever woman, refined, charming, witty, knowledgeable across the disciplines and multi-talented! But her most remarkable skill was in her storytelling!
Yesterday, London was in the grip of one of those gloomy, fog-bound days of which Dickens wrote so eloquently. The streets were grey and obscured by swirling mists so heavy that they fell like grubby rain on clothes and hair. People were scurrying about, heads down, doing damage with their umbrellas.
The British Library shone, as always, an oasis of light, heat, calm and coffee… and, importantly, cakes. I went to the café there to meet a colleague and, our business done in ten minutes, we had a wonderful time drinking in the power of George III’s magnificent book collection (which is displayed behind glass and occupies the full height of the building) while eating chocolate pastries.
My colleague had to leave at midday, which gave me an hour to kill before my next meeting. This was just as I had planned, because I had picked up from Twitter that a Crime Writing exhibition is currently on display there.
Sponsored by the Folio Society (which has apparently published quite a lot in the genre, a point to remember when trawling secondhand bookshops for old Folio Society titles), the exhibition takes an alphabetical approach to crime writing. It consists of twenty-six glass showcases, one for each letter of the alphabet, each one showing or explaining some aspect of the crime writer’s craft. Unsurprisingly, ‘A’ is for Agatha Christie; ‘Z’, less obviously, for ‘Zodiac’ – i.e. for crime writing based on the occult.
It is an inspired way of celebrating the genre. My favourite letters included ‘L’ for lady crime writers – I had not realised that until P.D. James published her debut crime novel, Cover her Face, in 1962, the fictional lady sleuth had pretty much dropped out of sight since Victorian times – and, of course, ‘B’ for Baker Street. The Holmes showcase included some specimens of Conan Doyle’s manuscripts (which I photographed before I was told to put away my camera by a security guard – I honestly had not realised that photography was not allowed!). I revisited many crime-related topics that I’ve researched myself, often presented in ways that made me regard them anew, and discovered some fascinating facts; for example, that Wilkie Collins’ estimated annual income from The Woman in White (published in 1860) was £60,000 p.a.
This equates to about £4.5m today. It and many of the other exhibits served to prove that, right from the start of its inception as a genre, crime writing could be made to pay. The exhibition, which is free, takes about half an hour to absorb. I highly recommend a visit if you get the opportunity – especially if it is raining and you are struck down by a pressing need for coffee… and cake.
I first heard of Sheridan Le Fanu when I was a postgraduate student. The supervisor of my thesis, Bill McCormack, had just completed his own thesis on Le Fanu and he gave it to me to read; it was a brilliant exegesis which managed to fuse literary criticism with a succinct account of the historical background of Le Fanu’s work (a much more common approach now than it was then). I was impressed and a little cowed by Bill’s accomplishment (as he probably intended).
I did not, however, attempt to read any of Le Fanu’s novels, either then or later, until this winter I embarked upon my project of interspersing my reviews of contemporary crime writers with occasional pieces on the work of some of their predecessors. Wylder’s Hand, which was first published in 1864, is now available from Atlantic Books (Classic Crime series); I discovered it in the bookshop opposite the British Library which I have written about previously.
As a work that sits historically between Jane Austen and the Brontës and George Eliot later in the century, and that was published just after Wilkie Collins’ The Woman in White (1859) and a few years before Dickens died, leaving The Mystery of Edwin Drood (1870) unfinished, it fascinates with the mishmash of old and new fictional devices that Le Fanu manages to embrace.
His heroines, for example. There are two of them: Dorcas Brandon and Rachel Lake. Dorcas is sultrily and mysteriously beautiful (even though her name belongs to a famous literary shepherdess and is made yet more banal by the use of the diminutive ‘Dorkie’, which to modern ears has unfortunate overtones of ‘oddball’ and ‘odd dog’). Rachel is intelligent, independent, strong-minded and in the Jane Austen mould of heroine who thinks nothing of tramping several miles to the next village in a long dress, though also prone to fits of the vapours when accosted by some too-rude reality that distresses her. Then there is Uncle Lorne, who at first convinces as a sinister supernatural wanderer from the Melmoth stable, although he shows up unexpectedly so many times, making dire pronouncements before his keeper leads him away, that he eventually comes to resemble an extra who has wandered in off the set of The Life of Brian. To extend the anachronism, the elderly crone, Tamar, issues repeated dire warnings akin to those of Grandma in Cold Comfort Farm, though the nasty thing that she sees is wandering about, rather than confined to the woodshed.
If the heroines are alternately presented as ‘modern’ and objects of sentiment, there is no similar confusion over the two children who appear in the book. Little Margery ‘courtesies’ and says ‘please’ every other word, especially to gentlemen (no incipient emancipation for her), whilst the portrayal of the Vicar’s son surpasses every other instance of Victorian mawkishness that I can think of. If you find that Tiny Tim turns your stomach and decide to read this book, I recommend that you omit the chapters about ‘Little Fairy’ (his parents’ nickname for him – we never discover his real name) and his cloying relationship with his father (whom he dubs ‘Wapsie’, hilarious to 21st century ears). His mother is always referred to as ‘good’ Dolly, an epithet that she seems to have earned by being extraordinarily plain and not a little silly; she is a paler reflection of Mrs. Palmer in Sense and Sensibility. Also slightly sickly is the way in which Dorcas and Rachel pepper their conversations with each other with extravagant endearments – though this doesn’t worry me too much, because I remember that my grandmother and her friends used to address each other in a similar way. I long ago came to the conclusion that it was born of a kind of guerrilla feminism, a stratagem used by earlier generations of women to shut men out from female confidences as a retort to the way in which they were often excluded from men’s.
Le Fanu’s vocabulary at times shows a certain paucity. At first, I was impressed when he used the verb ‘glided’ to describe the way in which Stanley Lake, the anti-hero, moves, because I thought that it was a skilful way of conveying his insidious grace. However, as the story progresses, almost everyone is said to glide, including Rachel, Dorcas, the ghost/lunatic and the old nurse. I conclude, therefore, that Le Fanu just liked the sound of it!
I’ve been a little harsh in my judgment so far, or at least tongue-in-cheek; yet I finished this long novel and – despite the blemishes that I’ve indicated – was gripped by it to the end. So what do I think its good qualities are? What does it have to offer modern writers in search of example? Well, in the first place, there is Le Fanu’s detailed and convincing depiction of topography and what, for want of a better word, might be called ‘atmosphere’ to convey depth and mood. Secondly, there is the plot itself. It is a murder story which the reader thinks that he or she may have solved in the first quarter of the novel; yet Le Fanu succeeds in maintaining the suspense and keeping you guessing until almost the last page. Then there are the evil characters – basically, all of the men except the silly Vicar and Lord Chelford, who has only a bit-part. Although not fully-rounded in the manner of, say, Trollope’s tortured protagonists, there is an energy and enigmatic quality to their evil – and each exhibits a different kind of evil – that captivates. I particularly admire the portrayal of Jos Larkin, one of a long tradition of rapacious and pompous lawyers whose antecedents include Chaucer’s Man of Law and Dickens’s Tulkinghorn.
Anyone who is interested in crime writing and its history and the history of the novel itself is likely to enjoy and profit from reading Wylder’s Hand. I’m sure that Le Fanu wouldn’t mind our laughing at some of its more obsolete excesses. Perhaps we should leave a message to posterity that we don’t mind if succeeding generations laugh at ours. After all, the worst thing that can befall a writer is to be ignored altogether. I am grateful to Atlantic Books for helping to rescue Le Fanu from this fate.