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.