Kazuo Ishiguro, The Buried Giant

Kaz 1I didn’t come to The Buried Giant by the standard Ishiguro route, since I’ve not read much of his work. All the descriptions I had read before The Buried Giant arrived in my Christmas stocking agreed that it was an odd and peculiar novel from this modern British novelist because it involved giants and knights and other non-standard things that Serious British Novelists shouldn’t bother with. Unusually, the chattering about The Buried Giant seemed to be about which niche the story should be confined to, rather than whether it was any good. I do love it when the mainstream book reviewers get snooty, because that shows they’re out of their precious little comfort zones.

Kaz 3I liked The Buried Giant, because it is gentle, but springs surprises out of nowhere. It is cunningly written, gripping the attention through its subdued tone describing a journey packed with unexplained wonders. The story is about an elderly couple, Axl and Beatrice, who are travelling away their village, in which they are – oddly – deprived of candles and other useful things, to see their son. They are worried by a mist in the land that is taking away memories, and they worry that this is bad for them and their neighbours. On their journey they meet and travel with Wistan, a dragon-killing warrior who doesn’t want to be recognised, because he is a Saxon and this part of the land is populated by Britons. They rescue Edwin, an outcast boy who has been bitten by a dragon (shades of Ursula Le Guin’s Tehanu?), escape some extraordinarily brutal attacks by Saxons and Britons, and find dubious refuge in a monastery that is well provided with death-traps and defensible positions. There is an underground monster, and mysterious ladies of the lakes who confound reality. They meet Sir Gawain, an elderly, creaking knight who is the famous nephew of King Arthur, wandering around the countryside in an aimless way with a horse called Harold. If he isn’t an affectionate homage to King Pellinore of The Once and Future King I’ll eat my brachet.

Kaz 2Memories surface out of conversations, and chance encounters open up more stories and recollections, until – partway through the novel – we become certain that Axl is also an elderly knight, that Wistan has a mission that he’s not telling anyone about, that Sir Gawain is lying through his horse’s teeth, and that they should all be careful what they wish for. The reign of King Arthur was not as benign and good for the people as we have been led to believe, and Axl, a gentle, loving, dutiful man, devoted to his saintly wife, may have done terrible things in his mist-covered past. Reconciliation seems desperately needed, and as the reader deduces what might be hidden by the mist, perhaps killing the dragon will do more harm than good.

This is a very clever novel. It might also be a fable, or an allegory, but both those labels have too much baggage to work effectively. Think of the episodes in The Buried Giant as moments in a tale described in detail, the reader ushered from one to the next, much like the way Spenser’s The Faerie Queene was constructed, or even Le Morte d’Arthur itself. Ishiguro makes the telling of the story reflect what the plot reveals, and compounds the effect of the events with how the reader experiences the plot’s unfolding. There is a buried giant in the story, but he only appears briefly, towards the end. The alert reader will wonder if the title is also an allegory, since such a short and on the face of it not very relevant appearance of a giant buried in the earth hardly warrants the naming the novel. The things that are buried are indeed giant-like in their implications for the characters, for their world, and for how things might go once the dragon has been killed, for this is the quest that Sir Gawain and Wistan are both resolved to accomplish. But only one of them can do it, and there will be swords.

 

 

Dogged mid-West endurance: Willa Cather’s The Song of the Lark

Cather 1This time in the Really Like This Book’s podcast script catch-up, I’ve gone west, to Willa Cather’s beautiful novel The Song of the Lark from 1915. If ever there was an advertisement for idyllic American settings, this novel is it. The descriptions evoke desert life near the Mexican border, clean and tidy Scandinavian-immigrant town life in Colorado, and the railroad life in mining towns on the edge of the mountains: all in the late nineteenth century. City life in Chicago and New York is, in contrast, seen from confined rooms and vehicles. Cather’s heroine, Thea Kronborg, an aspiring musician and singer, travels to Chicago for two winters to study, and it seems to be raining there all the time. New York, where she sings important parts from Wagner for the first time in public, is a lot more glamorous, since we see her there in hotels, restaurants and theatres, but it always seems dark, and is also wintry.  The sun is in Colorado, where Thea grew up, and that is the heart of the novel.

Cather 2Thea is a woman who really works hard for her career. We first meet her as a young girl lying ill in bed with pneumonia while her mother is giving birth to the seventh child of the family. Thea’s talent as a musician is obvious, and her mother has to protect Thea from the jealousy of her siblings in a rather crowded house. Thea takes piano lessons from an itinerant German musician, Herr Wunsch, who lives with the Kohlers, an old German couple at the edge of the Swedish settlement of Moonstone, where Thea’s father is a rather lazy pastor in the Swedish church. Thea also sings in the church choir and at funerals, but only because these are the only church-related duties that she can stomach.

Cather 4Thea likes Moonstone, but she doesn’t like the people much, except for her particular friends, who are all older than her, and understand her musicianship. Dr Archie is the most respectable of these friends – respectability matters in Moonstone – but even he is gossiped about because of his dreadful stingy wife, and his habit of sitting for long hours in his office late at night rather than going home. Ray Kennedy is also respectable, but he’s a working man, a brakeman on the freight railroad, who has plans to marry Thea when she’s 20. Thea doesn’t know this, of course, and scarcely thinks of Ray except as a means of seeing the country around the town when she can travel with him in short trips to Flagstaff or further afield. The kind Kohlers, whom Thea sees every time she takes her lesson from Wunsch, are semi-respectable, but they don’t live in town, they live in a little house surrounded by a garden on the edge of the desert, and grow German trees and flowers, and keep doves in a dovecot, to remind them of home. Wunsch is not respectable, but he has talent, so the town tolerates him, and let him lead the town orchestra and give their daughters piano lessons. But when he goes on a drinking binge, and starts to chop down the dovecot, and is found in a stupor lying under the railway bridge, he loses his pupils, and he leaves town to go travelling again, all respectability lost. The fact that he is a musician worth nurturing and protecting means nothing to the town. Thea’s least respectable friends are the Mexicans in their community outside the town. The townsfolk are smugly superior about the Mexicans, calling them dirty and lazy, but they can’t appreciate what Thea hears in their music. Thea sings and dances with the Mexicans, and learns songs from Johnny Tellamantez, who is as big a binge drinker as Wunsch, and a passionate wanderer.

Cather 8Thea grows out of Moonstone. She leaves school at 15 to teach piano, and earns money from extra singing at funerals, but she is trapped. She doesn’t know what she can do to release the talent inside her. Her horizons are very limited: she only knows about the local towns of Flagstaff, and Denver. Wunsch’s eccentric teaching has missed out important areas of musical theory and the great composers, but even though she isn’t aware of these gaps, she knows that music is her life. Ray gives her the way out, by leaving her his life insurance. His six hundred dollars, the price of a man’s life, gives Thea a winter in Chicago where she expects to learn a little more piano, enough to set her up as a professional music teacher. She works like a demon at her lessons with Andor Harsanyi, a concert pianist of great kindness and perception, and is so focused on piano that she forgets she has a voice. Harsanyi discovers her voice when she casually mentions that she sings in a church choir in Chicago to pay her rent. Her lessons with him become part voice, part piano, until Harsanyi can do no more with her and sends her to Bowers, an unpleasant man but the best voice teacher in Chicago. Again, Thea works like a demon, playing accompaniments for Bowers’ rich society pupils to pay for her own lessons. She takes no care of her appearance, she is too naïve to understand how to dress or where to buy things, so she looks like a scarecrow when she meets Fred Ottenburg, the rich son of a brewing dynasty. He is also a passionate devotee of music, and makes sure that she eats properly, sends her flowers when she’s ill, and introduces her to the great music-loving Jewish families in Chicago. He shows Thea how to enjoy life as well as work. Not that she stops working: Fred’s care doubles her energy, but she’s still lost, looking for a way to express her talent.

Cather 6After a long second winter being ill and still struggling with her voice, despite Fred’s nurturing, Thea spends two summer months in Arizona. She’s staying at Fred’s family farm, and recovers her health and interest in life by simply soaking up sun and playing among the rock caves in a long double-sided canyon. Fred comes down to visit, they explore, they play, they grow and they are quite aware that they are in love but that’s not important. The important thing is that Thea’s music is getting a sense of direction: she knows now what she must do. But the love thing complicates matters. They want to marry, but Fred urges Thea to keep considering her options, to not rush into anything, and suggests that they go down to Mexico and live together to see if he suits her. For a novel set over a century ago, this is an outrageous modern suggestion, but in the context of being a music student, and as a mighty contrast to the demand of respectability, Cather pitches the reader into a dilemma. Fred is from a very rich family, but also a musical one. Thea’s comparative poverty might be a drawback, but Fred’s German mother would embrace her talent. Why don’t they just get married?

I’ll skip over that bit: the upshot is that Thea asks Dr Archie for three thousand dollars to allow her to study singing in Germany: it’s time for her to take music more seriously than Chicago can allow her to. She disappears from sight for a while, and we only hear about her successes and unexpected triumphs through Dr Archie’s reminiscences, ten years on, and his conversations with Fred, now a close friend. Thea has become a vibrant emerging operatic talent, and she’s singing in New York. Fred and Dr Archie see her performance, and the next evening are about to take her out to dinner, when a phone call comes through to her hotel room. Mme Gloeckler has been taken ill and cannot complete her performance: could Miss Kronborg take over the part of Sieglinde for the final acts of Die Walküre? Thea has an hour before she would have to go on stage: she has never sung Sieglinde in public though she’s rehearsed the part in Germany. She’s in the cab in seven minutes, with her wig and shoes, and she studies the part in the twenty minutes it takes to get to the theatre. And, of course, she is a triumph.

Cather 7This is the moment that all her work has led up to: to show American audiences what an American singer can do after many sacrifices a life of continual hard work. Her performance makes her one of the new stars, ready to displace the old and ailing divas, if they will only make room for her, and if the management of the New York will offer Thea a contract for forty performances. The epilogue to the book shows Thea ten years later, through the eyes of Moonstone and her eccentric aunt Tillie. Thea is now touring with the New York company, she is married, she is a great American opera singer. She never stops working, throughout the whole novel, but the definition of her work is completely misunderstood and underestimated by Moonstone. Is Moonstone the only community that matters? Thea never returns there, she has no interest in its people, because Dr Archie has moved, and her mother and the Kohlers are dead. But Moonstone opinion is small-town American opinion: they admire hard work when they see it, but they don’t often understand what it means.

Thea is a marvellous character. She’s a nerd until she matures, she’s prickly, focused and blinkered about music, so that her life is unbalanced and uncultivated until Fred takes her in hand. We might like her, but would she like us? I don’t like Wagner’s music so it’s often surprised me that I love this book so much, when I have so little appreciation for the music at its heart. Thea’s passion for working hard at the one thing that really matters is what resonates with me most.

 

 

Edith Wharton and The Custom of the Country

custom 1Novels about American women and work, number 2. This Really Like This Book podcast script revisit is about the story of a classic American social climber, Edith Wharton’s magnificent and chilling novel The Custom of the Country, from 1913. I hesitate to call Undine Spragg the heroine, since she is a horrible person, and a monster of ambition and selfishness. But she is undeniably the protagonist in this novel about the invasion of the American upper classes by money, and about the brash new ways of the stock market, of business methods only just on the right side of the law, and of the appalling economic realities of life that drive a man of good family to have to work in an office.

Undine Spragg only exists to enjoy herself, which means that she lives off the work of her father, and the men she marries. And my goodness, she marries. Serial marriage is quite usual behaviour where she comes from, the invented town of Apex, somewhere in the mid-West, and her ideas about the rightness of Apex morality clash resolutely with the refined ways  of old money New York and the French aristocracy. Undine’s problem is that she doesn’t realise that divorce is a disgrace, and spells the end of social life for any decent woman in those societies into which she eventually marries. She can’t see the difficulty in divorcing a difficult or disappointing husband to make a better deal for herself elsewhere. She certainly won’t become anyone’s mistress, which would be the French solution, unless there is no alternative. The problem for the upper class New York Marvell family, and of the family of the Marquis de Chelles, into which she does marry, is that Undine refuses to consider anyone’s needs as more important than her own, and she needs money, all the time. She resents economy as a personal insult, and cannot understand why her husband will not sell the tapestries given to his ancestor by the King, when she needs money for a season in Paris.

custom 2Undine works so hard in this novel, but not with her hands. She is learning all the time, but her tragedy is that almost until the end of her story (which ends triumphantly for her) she is only able to learn what she thinks she needs to know, and she cannot see beyond her own needs. Her reason for learning new ways of behaving is to enter fashionable society, and she must work at breaking into successive layers of society by understanding their values and adapting her own to match. She works to learn the rules constantly, and then follows them skilfully, shedding her old self to fit in. But her way is so plodding, she cannot see beyond the next step because she is simply incapable of thinking beyond her own situation.

In Apex she gets into a spot of bother from which her father’s money rescues her, and decides she has to leave town. She’s already sampled life out of town by dragging her parents to hotels, further and further east, but nothing came of these summer trips except an increasing awareness of how little there was for her in Apex, and how much there was waiting for her in New York. So the Spragg family go to New York, and for two years Undine and her mother work hard hanging around on the fringes of New York society as seen in the illustrated magazines, which is their only frame of reference.

custom 3At last there is a breakthrough: Undine meets Ralph Marvell at a party, and his sister writes to Mrs Spragg the next day asking if Undine may be allowed to come to dinner. Undine thinks this is bizarre: why should her mother have any say in where she goes and who she meets? Again, she simply doesn’t know about refined New York ideas about a girl being protected and in chaperonage until marriage. Her Apex behaviour is considered vulgar and too free in New York: her required New York manners would be considered ridiculously old-fashioned and prim in Apex. In so many ways, this is a novel of two worlds colliding. At the dinner Undine encounters more peculiar behaviour: she is asked what pictures she has seen or which books she read, and she has no idea why this should be worth talking about. Her remarks about divorce cause an unexpected hush, and Undine goes home having learned a bit more about the half-lights and half-tones by which Ralph’s world is illuminated. She also learns that the really smart people, so she thinks, rent a box at the opera. She tells her father to rent one for her, and he overdoes things and rents one for the whole season, because nothing is too good for his Undine, and anything is worth doing to keep that look of stormy aggression off her face  when she hasn’t got her own way. Marooned in the box, where Undine looks at her best, Ralph comes to see her, and she is very willing to be rescued by a real gentleman from the déclassé hotel society that she now realises is beneath her. They marry, and her social climbing begins: working incessantly to learn the custom of each new country, or social level, that she wants to invade.

I feel for the men in this novel because they earn all the money, working hard for no thanks, and all struggle to supply Undine’s wants. She has not married wisely in Ralph, because although his family is old and distinguished, he is poor and not at all cut out for working in an office, though he does this diligently and not very effectively after their marriage. Undine is bored by him, and longs only for parties and balls. She spends his income and her father’s allowance as fast as it can be earned. Her father is forced to take risky extremes on the stock market on her behalf. Half a book later, her second husband, the Marquis de Chelles, refuses to allow her to sell his tapestries but she lets a buyer know when he is forced to put them on the market, and they end up in her own ballroom. The only man she can’t take money from is her son Paul, but she even gets around that, when Paul’s inheritance from his father is calmly spent by Undine on her own amusements.

custom 4Undine’s rise in society, and also her inability to learn unaided and her lack of any sense of things greater than herself, are rather caustic symbols of the new rich in American society at the turn of the century. Edith Wharton’s own family was old rich, and even though she herself divorced, had a lover, and lived a raffish life in Paris, far away from Washington Square, she writes about the American old rich with as much pride and affection as she describes Undine and her risqué friends with loathing. These are not simply pictures in black and white. Wharton is critical of how the old rich fail to adapt when they ought to fight the invaders. The aristocratic Ralph Marvell is a lovely man, but he is useless in the new world of Undine and her father, and never even realises, until the very last days of his life, how closely the shadowy moneyman and risk-taker Elmer Moffatt is linked to Undine’s past. The hotel society of the new rich invaders may be a little vulgar, but they have life, energy, imagination, aesthetic appreciation for new forms of art, and give employment to thousands making commodities for them to buy, even if they don’t always pay very quickly. Undine is also a lovely thing: she knows how to dress, and how to be delightful, charming, beautiful and fun. She is a callous and uninterested mother, but my word she can throw terrific parties. Her philistinism, as an ignorant American lost in Europe, somehow doesn’t matter, because she is a work of art in herself, and her life’s work is presenting her perfect self for the highest bidder. But she makes mistakes in her job. She runs away with her next lover on the day she gets a telegram saying that her husband is dangerously ill, which is enough for the lover to decide not to stay with her, since his turn might also come to be abandoned.

custom 5Once she’s left adrift in France and exposed to a different way of doing things than in stuffy old New York, Undine learns to capitalise her assets. These are her beauty, her youth, her virtue (which she plays impeccably while reeling the Marquis in), and finally her son, whom she has long abandoned with his father. Once she is a widow, and magically suitable for marriage into the Roman Catholic aristocracy, when a day before she had only been a divorced woman with a husband still living, her son becomes a valuable prop for the new-look Undine: gently sad in mourning and in need of a good Marquis for consolation.

Of all her activities in this story, Undine’s passion for working her world dominates the action. We learn with her how things are done, and much of the time we wince as Undine fails to realise her errors, or only just saves herself from making hideous mistakes by her increasingly wary sense of self-preservation. Social class, good breeding, social manners and constant vigilance are desperately important in this novel. Undine’s work is to learn to pretend she knows them all intimately, and she very nearly gets it all right. But ultimately, she is the epitome of selfishness, as seen when she throws a tantrum in Paris. All her fittings for her first Paris wardrobe are useless and the fortune spent on her dresses for her next season will be wasted: she is pregnant. That’s one aspect of her job that she cannot get out of, or avoid.

Next time, I wallow in Willa Cather’s beautiful classic The Song of the Lark from 1915.

 

The performances of Roderick Alleyn: Ngaio Marsh at her best

I accidentally began rereading Ngaio Marsh’s Roderick Alleyn detective novels before Christmas, and have now, a month later, read them all, bar the four that I didn’t have which have yet to arrive via Abebooks. These novels are Marsh’s most well-known works, superb Golden Age detective novels in the classic whodunit style, published from the 1930s right up to 1982. Rereading them in order brought me the enjoyment of favourite situations and snatches of dialogue, the rediscovery of details that I’d forgotten, and happy encounters with things that I’d missed on previous, gobbling readings the first time around. This time, wallowing in her character delineation, I’ve been struck by how Marsh tells the reader, quite forcefully, what she wants them to think and feel. I haven’t covered every novel in what follows, just the ones which tie into my theory of Ngaio Marsh as a novelist of performance. [Be advised: this is a long post.]

Patrick Malahide as Roderick Alleyn in the TV series
Patrick Malahide as Roderick Alleyn in the TV series

It is crucial for the dynamics between Roderick Alleyn and everyone else in the novels that he is a gentleman. His brother holds the family title, and Alleyn was at Eton, Oxford, the Foreign Office, and served as an army officer in the First World War. Then, inexplicably for his class, he began in the police force as a beat constable in the East End of London. He is working in a traditionally ungentlemanly trade, crossing class boundaries in a way that Holmes and Watson never did. Other, more senior, policemen in the Alleyn novels are clearly also gentlemen, since offended gentry folk betray their ill-breeding by threatening to report Alleyn to these senior officers with whom they claim to be on close terms. Marsh is very interested in showing how class can be used to indicate moral worth, strength of character, simple good manners, and general dastardliness. As a New Zealander she was extremely well placed to observe how the English (the Irish, Scots and Welsh are not singled out for their criminal propensities) used social class in their lives. By placing Alleyn in an unusual cross-class role, the characters’ reactions to his challenge to class boundaries become a gauge of their common sense and human decency, and their own class allegiances.

Marsh 1Marsh took a while to get the hang of constructing her plots. Her first novel, A Man Lay Dead (1934), has the technical flaw of hiding too much from the reader, with previously unknown facts being brought out of a hat like rabbits by Alleyn for his reconstruction of the murder. This will not do: the dissatisfaction we feel in being asked to praise rabbits we’d never known existed proves an important rule for satisfying detective fiction: the reader must be able to solve the crime themselves, and have all the relevant facts available.

In Enter A Murderer (1935), the first of her theatrical novels (in her day job Marsh would become a distinguished theatre director in New Zealand), is a strong whodunit that respects the rules and simply hums with authenticity. Alleyn’s interest in a leading lady of the stage seems misplaced, since her mannerisms and effects are superficial. There is no integrity in her responses to him, so clearly she is No Good, even though she may be innocent. We are learning that Alleyn requires utter honesty in his relations with women, and though he might respond to forceful femininity, that just shows us what a masculine man he is. Marsh is keen to point out his asceticism, and his intellectual background.

marsh 2Vintage Murder (1937), in which Alleyn travels round the world to recover from an operation and finds himself solving a theatrical crime in New Zealand, is the novel in which Marsh really begins to write. It’s a novel of feeling and emotion rather an analytical whodunit to a recognised formula. For the first time Alleyn is written in the first person, and there is a proper setting of landscape and culture and language to which the characters respond and relate. New Zealand is also a subject of the plot. Marsh’s feelings about her own country when set beside England and the English are revealed by how Alleyn is respectful in his admiration for the landscape, and bewildered by the dialect. Marsh’s depiction of the Maori doctor Dr Te Pokiha is startlingly crude, for all that she intends him to be read as a gentleman, her highest accolade. ‘Savage’ is only one of the words used to describe him (this atavistic comparison returns some thirty years later in 1969 in A Clutch of Constables, in As Black As He’s Painted in 1974, and in Light Thickens, in 1982).

marsh 3Now that we have Alleyn the full man, so to speak, rather than the two-dimensional detective, he’s allowed to develop as a personality. In Artists in Crime (1938) Agatha Troy the celebrated artist and Academician (unusual but aspirational for the 1930s art scene in Britain) is a second narrative focaliser, the object of Alleyn’s helpless adoration, and the owner of the studio in which the artist’s model is most foully done to death. Tension rises, over whodunit, and will they or won’t they. It takes a second novel, Death In A White Tie (1938), mixing crime and passion to settle things between Alleyn and Troy. The novel reinforces Troy’s suitability for Alleyn since she is of the same social class, lives near his mother, and they have friends in common. The murder in Death In A White Tie is less violent than Marsh’s usual style (so far we’ve had two stabbings, one shooting, three poisons, and a blow to the head), but the most upsetting so far. This is because the victim is a focalising character, and we see his perspective for some time (Marsh does this again in Death At The Bar, in 1940), while he works for Alleyn to determine which of the high society ladies in the Season are being blackmailed and by whom. We come to like this nice little man, and so we feel completely convinced of the horror of the crime and Alleyn’s shock and distress on being presented with the body of his friend.

marsh 4The reader has to invest in Alleyn as the moral centre of these novels, otherwise the effects are lost. In the next novel, Overture to Death (1939), Alleyn arrives only in the second half of the novel to solve the crime of who shot the pianist, so we have already had a lot of exposure to the characters who may or may not have planted the gun. When Alleyn thinks that X is unpleasant or that Y is reliable, this is what we must believe, no matter what Marsh may have encouraged us to decide from our own observations. We can’t disagree with Alleyn, because he is the only moral arbiter in the novel. He is also now a celebrity within his own world, since he has written a standard text on policing, and is famous by his class position and his marriage. He is expected to be brilliant, which he knows and deplores, and neatly demonstrates in a delightful, self-deprecating performance of a perfect Holmes on his first appearance in the village, to the open-mouthed delight of the local police. It’s a shame to make such a distinction between the capabilities of country and city policemen, but it seems to have been a mark of the genre. Sayers did it all the time, Allingham too, and T H White guyed these expectations beautifully in Darkness at Pemberley in 1932.

marsh 5In Death at the Bar (1940) a fairly unpleasant character is murdered, so to reinforce the horror properly, to remind us that unexpected death is a crime, not waste disposal, Marsh nearly kills off one of her detectives, which is a bit of a shock. In both this novel and in Overture to Death, actors become part of the cast of suspects, which reopens opportunities for class arguments again, over whether a properly middle- or upper-class woman can also be an actress, whether an actor who never stops acting is ever trustworthy. We’re also seeing an increasingly dominant theme in the Alleyn novels that morality is based on public performance, either how one conducts oneself in public (which is where social class is used to trap the unskilled), or the art and profession of performing as an expression of a person’s moral values.

In the Second World War, Alleyn – bizarrely – has been sent to New Zealand to track down traitors who are signalling to enemy submarines. In Colour Scheme (1943) he is in a transparent disguise, investigating a really unpleasant murder by immersion in boiling mud. In Died In The Wool (1945) (my favourite of Marsh’s tasteless punning titles) he’s tracking down the murderous Nazi sympathiser who’s after the plans for a secret weapon. Both novels are conversation pieces, where the characters and readers talk through and work out the solutions to the murders together, with Alleyn coming on rather late to reveal the truth. Died in the Wool is particularly effective for how Marsh uses her murder plot to work out ideas about New Zealand class-consciousness and political idealism, set in a mountain sheep farm.

marsh 6I think Marsh must have had an immersion into nightclub society at this time in her life, as she produces some louche background characters in Final Curtain (1947), and for the events in Swing, Brother, Swing (1949). Class is all over the shop in both novels, too, because the main objections to two characters marrying are their totally different class and cultural backgrounds, and so, of course, it cannot be allowed to happen. Performance is still strong as a setting, though Marsh’s distaste for 1950s boogie-woogie is very apparent: obviously nothing good will come of such a racket.

Opening Night (1951) is a stunningly good thriller, the kind that you are compelled to read to the end without stopping, your teeth chattering with its tension. Helena Hamilton, another magnificent leading lady of the stage, dominates the moral temperature of the novel. She has to tolerate a drunken husband, so consoles herself with serial love affairs: the murder takes place just as she is about to end one and begin another. She has two foils: the modest and determinedly obscure ingénue understudy who takes on the leading role with half an hour to spare, and the melodramatic upstagey chorus girl who should never have been cast in the first place, but she will milk all the drama out of the situation for her personal gain. This novel presents performance as a moral indicator again, with Alleyn reinforcing the values that Marsh wants the reader to observe: class-based, as ever.

marsh 7Spinsters in Jeopardy (1953) takes us back to the drug-addled faux-religious milieu of Death in Ecstacy (1936), in a tremendous thriller made powerfully urgent by the introduction of the Alleyns’ small son. Marsh simply piles on the obstacles in this novel – Troy being unable to speak French, cars driving fast around winding roads to reach fortified castles, spotting the kidnap victim across the rooftops in a crowded hilltop town – so the detection rather takes second place to an almost Bond-like feel to the plot. In fact, we see Alleyn having his first bout of fisticuffs, and winning. Since he is chronologically in his 60s, at least, in this novel, we should tactfully assume that Marsh has allowed him to remain at 40ish for a decade or two, and Troy must be in her mid-30s.

Off With His Head (1956) feels like an hommage to early Margery Allingham from the 1920s, with its plot about an unexplained folk dance of such extreme ritual significance that the mythic murder it enacts actually happens. One of the characters even has Campion as a surname, and the village is dominated by an imperious county lady: it’s all very Pontisbright. Modern characters are allowed in, as are garages and betting shops, so the effect is a curiously time-slipping mixture, grounded by the ancient rituals of the dance at midwinter. And once again, moral values are purified and tested by the act of performance, this time in public view in the dance.

marsh 8False Scent (1960) takes us back to glamorous London theatreland, and a spectacularly effective theatrical party with artistic and business temperaments at full blast. The ingénue actress appears at a party looking like Audrey Hepburn, and is, naturally, a social success, to the ruling leading lady Mary Bellamy’s furious displeasure. Her histrionics are made unforgettably effective because the reader doesn’t hear them: our imaginations fill in the truly awful things she says and does, a very economic way to suggest the depths no-one should ever go to. Hidden performances are suggested by the glimpses of Mary’s shocking behaviour and (again) theatrical excesses.

Death at the Dolphin (1967) is similarly packed with truly unpleasant people. This novel of the revival of an abandoned London theatre is one of Marsh’s great classics, a really clever and emotional hommage to acting and producing, something on which she was now an authority. She had used a travesty of performance in Dead Water (1963) to very gruesome effect: in Death at the Dolphin the characters’ performances all contribute to the unravelling of the clues. Nobody isn’t acting, at all.

It’s the same with A Clutch of Constables (1969): almost no-one isn’t playing a role. Troy takes the unexpectedly cancelled cabin in a Broads riverboat cruise, without realising that its occupant had also died unexpectedly. Out of a crew of three and six passengers, two are murdered and several could be the murderers. Alleyn is performing in this novel, far away in time and space as he lectures on this case to eager constables at the Police College. This is a truly innovative way of telling the story, by holding up the reading to keep the tension at peak while he explains the back story to this or that point of deduction. It’s another thriller with detection introduced on the side.

marsh 9When In Rome (1970) and As Black As He’s Painted (1974) are fascinating as period pieces depicting the end of the swinging sixties and the funky seventies. There is no more pretence that Alleyn is ageing: he is now permanently in his early forties and speaking the slang of his day. Drugs are the main concern in Rome, and post-colonial birth pangs in Kensington. Marsh tackles casual ex-colonial racism as best she can, since Alleyn is most emphatically not a racist, unlike the cabal of villains, but he and other sympathetic characters says things that are still eyebrow-raisingly Not On by our standards now. Marsh was now in her eighties, she wrote as she had always done, and – as we’ve already seen with her Maori characters – if you weren’t white, you were definitely Other, no matter how noble and distinguished you might be otherwise.

In Light Thickens (1982) Marsh is almost completely back on form, if we read this novel as being set in the 1960s, not twenty years later. It’s her last novel, another great evocation of the working theatre and the transformative power of Shakespeare. The excellent emotional triangle of a leading lady and two leading men is subverted by the lady refusing to have anything to do with a love affair with either man, but focusing on her roles instead, a true professional. Marsh enjoys herself by delivering cutting things about the Equity representative who degrades his talents with unprofessional sabotage, and wasting police time. No stronger message could be sent about the responsibilities of the performer.

It’s invidious to compare Marsh to Christie or Sayers or Allingham: all four are tremendous Queens of Crime, supported by the slightly less prolific Josephine Tey. Personally, I find Christie’s novels too short and simplistic, and if I had to admit to finding a flaw in Dorothy L Sayers’ novels, I do get bogged down in the endless literary references, never mind the extensive extracts in French. Of the remaining three, I love Tey’s work for the way each novel she writes is a standalone work, no others need be read. I love Allingham for her spectacular cleverness in evoking eccentricity and unique characters, and for inventing parts of London and Essex that ought to exist. But I love Marsh’s novels for simple reading pleasure. She wrote no duds, every novel is rereadable and engrossing, and her standards of writing and plotting never stumble. She was a great writer of character and setting, which I think I enjoy reading more than whodunit plot. I really don’t mind who saw the footprint or left the dagger in the library, but I revel in how her characters react to these discoveries, because in each novel they inhabit a perfectly formed world.

Working is good for you: Louisa May Alcott’s An Old-Fashioned Girl

Girl 7Louisa May Alcott’s most famous novel, Little Women, and its three sequels make her still a highly popular author, but until fairly recently these were her only novels that most people could name. Many of her Gothic thrillers and sensational potboilers have been resurrected by scholars, the most well-known of which is a rather depressing adult novel of moral rectitude called Work (1873). The novel that I reread most often – certainly more often than I go back to Little Women – is An Old-Fashioned Girl from 1870. Apparently it was made into a film in 1949, starring nobody that I’ve ever heard of.

It’s a morality tale, it’s the town mouse and the country mouse, it’s a romantic love story with a happy ending and with some satisfactory twists to keep it fresh, and it’s a novel of women’s emancipation in the Gilded Age of America in the late 19th century. It is also a novel that wants its readers – who were originally Victorian teenage girls – to learn about work and the American Victorian way. When I first read it (one of my mother’s Sunday School prizes) I was transfixed by its century-old American slang. For years I was worried what ‘coasting’ meant, because this is not a word for sledging that ever came near my vocabulary. As well as enlarging my vocabulary, the story kept opening out for me as I got older. From being just the story of a family, it became a story of Boston, then of business and making a living, and then of men’s worlds and women’s worlds. Now I read it as a novel of life in a small college town, packed with the names of things I can’t recognise, and with the routines and rhythms of life seen from the domestic perspective.

Girl 3We don’t see very much of the world of men in this novel. Tom Shaw and Will Milton go to college, and Mr Shaw and Mr Sidney go to their offices. Frank Moore and other nameless young men about town don’t seem to do much of anything, and when Tom isn’t in class, which is most of the time because he’s an easily distracted student, he’s at the club, at balls and parties and at the opera. Sometimes he’s on a horse; he’s usually with a friend or a girl. But all this is on the fringes of the story: the central characters of An Old-Fashioned Girl are his sister Fanny Shaw, and her country friend Polly Milton, who is the old-fashioned girl of the title. The story is of their friendship, their friends and their lives, but above all the novel is about how women work.

The story is full of how work is desirable for a balanced life, and how too much work is bad for a normal life. Working leads to desirable independence, but also does not mix with moving in high society, which does think work at all desirable for ladies. Working and being independent are excellent goals, but achieving them will mean sacrifices. Those who can’t or won’t or don’t work lead useless and fruitless lives (this message seems a bit harsh). To work hard repays the trust of others. Above all other characters in the novel, Polly is a paragon in working for others.

Girl 1The novel is in two parts: it begins when the girls are aged around 14, and Polly comes from her country home to pay Fanny a month-long visit in Boston. She is unused to city life and fashionable ways, and so we the readers explore the routines of life for rich Bostonians along with Polly. Like Polly we find much to puzzle us, and there is much that is downright inexplicable to 21st-century readers. The episodes in the story are often just bald little morality tales, but they present an unfolding narrative – how Fanny follows her fashionable friends but isn’t as bad as some of them; how Tom is neglected by his father and laughed at by the rest of the family, and so is turning into a lazy dilettante; and how their little sister Maud is constantly demanding and cross because no-one pays her any attention or even plays with her, except Katy the maid.

Where are the rich parents in this obviously dysfunctional family? Mrs Shaw is not, as we might have expected from other Victorian morality tales, always out dancing and neglecting her maternal duties. She’s a hypochondriac, so illness and weakness is her profession, and she stays in bed, or on sofas, demanding attention. She’s a burden, and unlike that other great American sickbed sufferer, Katy Carr in Susan Coolidge’s What Katy Did, she does not make her sickroom the centre of the home for her family. She just sucks attention from others and is needy and weak where Alcott thinks she should be selfless, caring and giving. Mr Shaw works too hard to enjoy and nurture his family, so he is a shadowy authority figure whom Polly has to fuss over when she sees that he’s tired, since his own children are too scared of his autocratic temper. Polly works to bring everyone together throughout the first section of the novel, with upsets and hurt feelings along the way. She isn’t perfect, but she’s very lovable, and her anxiety to learn how to behave properly frames the second half of the novel.

Girl 4This begins six years later, when Fanny, Tom and Polly are all young adults, and romances are the focus of their lives. Well, not Polly’s life – she is firmly fixed on earning a living as a music teacher, since her family are not rich like the Shaws. Her brother Will can go to college if Polly can earn her own living, so he attends class alongside Tom, or would do if Tom were not so often absent from class. Will refuses to play as hard as Tom, but Polly mothers him. There isn’t much sophisticated fun for these two country mice, but they are perfectly satisfied with cheap concerts and country walks, until Polly starts to break out to have fun and flirtation. Her good intentions and hard work are frustrated when she sees Fanny, and Tom, constantly out on the razzle. Trouble begins when Polly’s innocence, wisdom and beauty attract Fanny’s young man away from Fanny, and away from Tom’s own girlfriends. Fanny is a lovely and kind girl, but society manners dictate that she must be sharp and snappy, and she can be both when Polly starts attracting the attention of the man Fanny loves. Through Polly’s frivolity Alcott seems determined to show her girl readers that a woman earning her own living is making a virtuous sacrifice, but never has fun compared with the lives of the social butterflies. To appreciate the real beauty and value of women working we need to look at a different corner of Boston society.

Girl 6The antidote to these episodes of lavish dresses and misunderstandings comes when Polly takes Fanny to meet her own friends. She lodges in the house of Miss Mills, who opens her house to the needy and unwanted, and sews for the poor. Polly and Fanny visit a studio shared by Bess the engraver and Becky the sculptor, where they are shown that women’s work is about the representation of truth and beauty. They meet Kate King the authoress – a rather nice self-portrait of Alcott herself – who is worn out by work, and buffeted by the stresses of fame that the unexpected success of one of her novels has brought her.

The novel comes to its climax when Mr Shaw’s business fails, the family moves into a smaller house without servants, and Maud and Fanny have to do all the work of keeping house themselves. Tom goes out West to earn his living with Polly’s older brother, and Polly guides the family through the mysteries of how poor gentlefolk must live. My absolute favourite part of the novel is when Polly shows Fanny how to renovate and make over her worn-out clothes to keep her nicely dressed for the first year of comparative poverty. It’s very rare in Victorian fiction to get such fascinating practical details of how dresses were made and remade, and how their construction allowed the reuse of fabric by turning and retrimming. In due course the pretty dresses and virtuous hard work do their work, marriages take place, and all ends happily.

whoops, different girl
whoops, a different old-fashioned girl

An Old-Fashioned Girl is a very satisfying novel, with thoroughly enjoyable characters and plot. The moralising is not as intrusive as you might expect, because it is so obviously from the author’s heart and not from a box of standard Victorian precepts shaken out over the story as perfunctory seasoning to taste. Alcott really believed in her message, that working was good and necessary for a healthy and happy life. Nothing to quarrel with there, I think.

This was part of a mini-series in my podcast Why I Really Like This Book, on novels by American women writers about work. Next time, I’m dragged in the wake of a classic American social climber, in Edith Wharton’s magnificent and chilling novel The Custom of the Country, from 1913. Undine Spragg only exists to enjoy herself, which means that she lives off the work of her father, and any man she marries.