I’ve been a Ruth Rendell fan for a very long time; in fact, since before she was famous. I remember a conversation that I had with the Hutchinson rep (a delightful man called Frank Storey, who was then on the verge of retirement) when I was the purchasing manager for a library supply company in the early 1980s; I enthused about The Master of the Moor. Frank had given me a proof copy of the novel on his previous visit. I told him that I thought Rendell had huge possibilities, especially for the library market; he said that Hutchinson was committed to her, but that sales were still disappointing.
They must have improved dramatically soon afterwards. I no longer have the proof of The Master of the Moor (nor several other Rendell proofs that have passed through my hands, probably because I gave them to librarians), but I’ve just taken down from my bookshelf a proof of The Bridesmaid (published in 1989) and see that on the title page is inscribed ‘No 413 in a limited edition of 500’. I think that it’s safe to assume that an author who can prompt her publisher to pay for a proof-copy print run of 500 and then take the trouble to number each volume has arrived! In the intervening years, I’ve continued to read Ruth Rendell and also enjoy (perhaps even prefer) the psychological thrillers she writes as Barbara Vine.
Opening The Saint Zita Society, her latest book, at its title page, I see that Rendell’s been loyal to Hutchinson and Arrow, both now Random House imprints. I’ve just completed this novel; it has been a fascinating read. It’s about the owners of the houses in a well-heeled street in London, Hexham Place, and (especially) their servants. (Saint Zita, apparently, is the patron saint of servants.) One of the key characters in the novel, June, is that fictional stereotype, the elderly female retainer. She’s worked loyally for her employer (a sort of fake princess) for more than sixty years. June is one of the prime movers in the Saint Zita Society, which the servants of Hexham Place decide to set up as the vehicle of a collaborative effort to improve their lives. I’m certain that the portrayal of June is deliberately hackneyed, because the other servants in the novel are anything but stereotypes. They range from the exotically-named Montserrat, who is supposed to be an au pair but never seems to do any work, to the mentally challenged and rather sinister Dex, a jobbing gardener who takes instructions from a deity called Peach who lives in his mobile phone. Dex has served time in an institution for the criminally insane for attempting to murder his mother. Rendell has always excelled at black humour and the scenes featuring Dex are some of her best. Then there is Thea, who insists that she is not a servant, yet nevertheless acts in that capacity (unofficially and unpaid) to her landlords, a gay couple. Thea is a professional doormat. Even though she knows that people are making use of her, she can’t say no and thus ends up romantically entangled with Jimmy, the chauffeur of an eminent academic who is soft on his servants – and incidentally responsible for introducing Dex into the community – because he started life in humble circumstances. It is another of the novel’s delights that the many gradations of snobbery pertaining in Hexham Place are captured to a ‘t’. My favourite character is the beautiful and tragic nanny, Rabia, a Muslim woman whose children and husband are all dead because of a genetic disorder perpetuated through intermarrying. Her father wishes her to give up her post and return home so that another marriage can be arranged for her with a certain Mr Iqbal. Iqbal himself is a nurseryman whose work brings him several times to Hexham Place.
If all of this is beginning to sound more like a comedy of manners than a modern crime novel, it means I have managed to capture some small part of its essence. Hexham Place and the characters who frequent it – despite their wholeheartedly embracing the paraphernalia of twenty-first century life, including Smartphones, satnavs and civil partnerships – do not really belong to a particular time or place. There is an elegiac quality to The Saint Zita Society and a timelessness that puts me in mind of the later works of another female writer whom I greatly admire: Muriel Spark. Rendell’s novel has much in common with Spark’s The Finishing School (2005), another work that takes a traditional subject – in this instance life in a girls’ boarding school, instead of Rendell’s tale of servants – and whisks it to a higher plane. Neither of these books is really about the everyday situations with which they purport to deal. Both are timeless studies of humanity itself. There is, however, an additional twist to The Saint Zita Society, because although it deserves to take its place alongside some of the greatest human comedies in the language, it is also, as the reader expects from Rendell and then almost forgets, a crime novel. Among its many other qualities, The Saint Zita Society is a fiendishly clever murder story.
One of the most interesting things about proof copies is that you don’t own them. Most have printed on the cover that they cannot be sold. Some publishers also say: ‘This is the property of the publisher and not for sale.’ Yet I have never heard of a publisher who asked for a proof to be returned. The ones that I have, which represent some of my happiest years, working as the purchaser for a library supplier, will probably stay on my shelves until I die. Then they will be my son’s problem: will he ‘own’ them, or not? I suppose that he will take them on and become their guardian, just as I have been their châtelaine since they were young and untried.
I remember how I acquired some of them. Publishers’ reps get to know their customers’ tastes in literature, of course, and often they would produce two or three proofs from their bags and give them to me; or I would be sent one by post in advance of a launch. The biggest haul always came from Cape, Chatto and Bodley Head. These three companies (which were later swallowed up by Random House) jointly used the same sales team. For a number of years, the representative whom I saw, David Moore, used to drive across the Pennines from his home in Lytham St Annes, spend the night at a hotel in Wakefield and ‘travel’ the Leeds bookshops the next day. As my office was close to the hotel, he would call on me towards the end of the afternoon, just after he’d completed his journey (and in time for a cup of tea). When I’d given him his order, I’d ask if I could have a look in the boot of his car, which always contained two or three boxes of the next season’s titles in proof. I would come away with a rich haul; I was never disappointed.
I keep the proofs on the bookshelves in my study, not downstairs with the finished books. They are actually more precious to me than their suaver counterparts – I have finished copies of some of the titles as well. I have just lifted some of them down. Strange to think that, when they were printed, some of them were obscure titles from young unknown authors who have since become very famous. Of course, some of the authors were famous then: my collection includes The Dwarfs, by Harold Pinter, Mantissa, by John Fowles, Black Dogs, by Ian McEwan and The Temptation of Eileen Hughes, by Brian Moore. I think that all of these writers were well-established at the time. However, I also have 1982, Janine by Alasdair Gray and The White Hotel, by D M Thomas; each of these books catapulted its author into acclaim. Curious to think that I read and liked these brilliant but then unknown works and myself made a small contribution towards launching them upon the world.
I still have a couple of proof copies of In the Family. I don’t flatter myself that in years to come they will be sought after in the way in which some of the titles in my collection are. Nevertheless, it amuses me to allow them to rub shoulders with the great and famous, in some cases in the augenblick before fame came. It is almost like putting In the Family into a time machine.