The stories in this issue of John Lehmann’s Penguin New Writing are pretty grim, but the photographs and artwork lighten the mood. In his introduction Lehmann talks about the ‘young men and women who for six years had lived on dreams of devoting their time and energies to writing … I would take a bet that most of them have the notes for a war book or an escape book in their pockets‘. This issue is drenched in wartime experiences interpreted by male writers: no women authors were chosen, unless they are some of the poets published here under their initials, and only one woman artist. Women are the subjects, however, of most of the short stories: sexualised, sex-obsessed or objects for sexual transaction. It’s depressing, as I said.
Nigel Heseltine’s ‘Break away if you can’ is a horrible and powerful story about a not-so-young woman struggling to get away from her mother’s Welsh tenant farm, existing on dreams of having once been kissed, before the war began. The girl’s experience is bitter, the setting and other characters are uniformly hopeless and trapped, the social codes are relentless, and it reads as a wallow in the awfulness of being a girl left behind by life because she is denied the chances that men have and take, and oppressed by the emotional demands of older women. It is more or less sympathetic, but also sub-Lawrentian, and somehow also gives the impression of taking Cold Comfort Farm seriously. If a woman had written this it would be less pompous and good deal more practical.
Oliver Messel’s ‘Design for the film Caesar and Cleopatra’: simply gorgeous.
Oliver Walker’s ‘Kaffir truck’ is the story of the end of Robert Ncgobo’s life, when he goes to Pretoria to meet his brother who has a job for him. He doesn’t have the right pass, is thrown in jail, and dies at the hands of a hungover prison guard. Nonetheless, this is a beautiful story, uplifting and resolute in the face of South African apartheid. Walker must have been one of the first novelists to write about apartheid as a political system of repression from the perspective of black Africans: it succeeds on every level.
William Chappell’s ‘The Sleeping Beauty‘ is a summary of all that is wrong and right with the way dance is taught and executed in Britain by one of the leading dancers and (later) a designer and director of British ballet. ‘No-one admired Markova more than I.’ It’s accompanied by some glorious photographs of Margot Fonteyn and Robert Helpmann and other cast members performing in The Sleeping Beauty.
Clifford Hornby’s ‘The Tin Box’ tells of an encounter between a French prostitute in London and a man who has survived a Japanese internment camp. He tells her what has happened to him, and why he was searching on the pavement for the tin box he’d thought he’d seen, and why it was so important for him to be scavenging the streets. The narrative is desperate, and heartbreaking. I would have guessed that this author would be the one most likely to have gone on to greater things after this issue, though he seems to have become a film director rather than a novelist.
Denny Mackintosh in collaboration with Naomi Mitchison, ‘The Eel and the Whiskers’. All my Mitchison books are in another country so I can’t check up on this story, but she and Denny Mackintosh were close friends, possibly occasional lovers, and lived in Carradale where Naomi and her husband Dick Mitchison were the owners of the ‘Big House’ of the estate. Denny was a fisherman and occasional actor, and a powerful influence on Naomi’s understanding of the Highland culture and history she had reclaimed (her father was a Haldane) on moving to Carradale from London in 1939. This story is told in direct speech, about the night fishing fleet going out after herring with an unwanted passenger whose request to accompany them they feel they can’t refuse out of politeness. The story is about town-rural relations, as well as the contrast between summer seaside visitors and working fishermen. There is an eel, and the whiskers are drawn on in kettle-black while the visitor is asleep.
This time, in the Really Like This Book podcast scripts catch-up, I’m in Ancient Rome, rereading Naomi Mitchison’s excellent novel about very early Christians in the reign of the Emperor Nero, The Blood of the Martyrs, from 1939. You can probably guess the ending already from the clues in the title, but, trust me: it may be a weepy, but it is an outstanding philosophical and theological thriller. It’s set around the beginnings of the Pisonian conspiracy of AD65, which tried but failed to assassinate Nero. The novel’s main protagonists have no idea that a plot is being hatched, because they’re mostly slaves or Romans struggling to earn enough to eat, and the real-life plot only emerges when the main plot of the novel is thundering to its climax.
It’s typical of Naomi Mitchison’s fiction to concentrate on the lives and ambitions of the working-classes and those without power. She was a Scottish socialist novelist who first began to be published in the 1920s and 1930s, and who died in 1999. She published over 90 books, and is most famous for her epic novel The Corn King and the Spring Queen (1931), which was about prehistoric fertility rites in Anatolia, heavily influenced by J G Frazer’s The Golden Bough, and Jane Harrison’s pioneering studies of classical Greek myth and religion. Mitchison took research seriously. She wrote many novels set in prehistory and early classical and Roman history, and was a pioneer in using a pure and undateable vocabulary spoken in a modern style so her characters sound unalienatingly familiar. No hists and thous for her: her Roman matron chatters like an English society lady of the 1930s, and figures from the New Testament sound like normal people.
This plot is about slaves and the very poor in Rome who are or who have become Christian, and are struggling to maintain their tiny Churches in an increasing atmosphere of suspicion. The economy of the Roman Empire is based on slave labour, and must continually acquire more slaves to replace those who die from starvation and ill-treatment. Slaves are not considered to be human, though some of their more benign masters, such as Flavius Crispus in the novel, do see the benefit of treating their property with care to have a better return for their investment in long-term service. Sometimes the worn-out slaves who can no longer carry a litter, say, or who have lost a hand in an accident, are not thrown out or sold, but given light work or retired to the family farm as a useful labourer. But most slaves get sold again once they’ve outlived their use to one master.
Another category of non-Roman citizen were the captured children of enemy nobles, who were brought up as fosterlings in nice Roman homes, until the day came when they needed to be put out of the way, perhaps into the army, or married off to someone who would be grateful. The novel begins in a sultry post-coital scene between Beric, a captive Gaulish prince who has grown up in the house of Flavius Crispus, who has just been doing what he’s been told to by his foster sister Flavia, a beautiful, spoiled and very nasty young woman, who hasn’t yet told the besotted Beric about her betrothal, to be announced that evening. Thus the novel begins with an uneven demonstration of power, between the Roman citizen and the non-citizen, between the emotionally cold and the hopelessly dreamy, and between a young woman with a very assured manner and young man who doesn’t know how shaky the certainties of his life are becoming. We can sense his vulnerability right from the first page, and can tell that things are not going to go well.
As Flavius’s de facto son, Beric runs the house for him, and manages the slaves. But once she’s established his life for us, Mitchison changes tack and begins to tell another story, of Manasses and Josias who were captured in a raid, and grew up as slaves in Rome. Their father had known Jesus’s younger brother James, so they were brought up as Christians, and by luck have managed to find other Christians while in captivity. In a third chapter we hear about a beautiful Persian girl born into slavery and taken from her mother (that’s the second girl the poor woman has lost) when she’s old enough to sell. She becomes Flavia’s newest and most tortured maid. And so on. Each chapter in the first half of the novel puts you inside the experience of sixteen slaves or freedmen and women, and gives you their stories in their own words or from their perspective. This technique of multiple voices isn’t nearly as confusing as you think it might be because Mitchison’s control of her material is absolute, and very subtle.
Reading these chapters, and learning how each story fits into the others, and how their tiny Church grew, is a bit like walking around the outside of a building with many windows. Each time you look through a window, or read a chapter, you see characters you’ve already met, or will meet, doing something slightly different or new or in the past or future, so that the composite picture becomes more detailed, and more nuanced. Some of the characters are already Christian when they arrive in Rome; others become convinced that Jesus’s words are for them, to give them something to live for. It’s quite acceptable at this point in the story to look out a New Testament, to read Paul’s letters to the Romans, to the Corinthians, to the Galatians, Ephesians, Colossians, Thessalonians, Timothy, Titus and Philemon. The tiny group of worshippers that Manasses serves as its deacon is the kind of Church that St Paul was supporting by letters on his travels. He’s in the novel too, in Part Three, when they’re all waiting for the lions, but we’ll get to that.
Every narrative voice in the novel belongs to a character. There is no third-person omniscient narrator, no authorial voice who knows more than the characters or the readers. It’s an egalitarian way to tell a story, which fits beautifully with the Christian ethos that the story illustrates, that everyone is equal and that every person is as important as each other. It’s also a technical tour de force, brilliantly executed, because it’s hard to spot the seamless change in perspectives from one character to another, when – zip – you’re out of Eunice’s bakery and back into Crispus’s house, or into the cellar where the Church meets to worship and receive strength from their beliefs. For a 1930s novel it is also egalitarian in gender and sexuality. Some characters love each other and happen to be men, and also love women: later fans of Mary Renault would have appreciated the delicacy of Mitchison’s touch, who wrote this novel when homosexuality was still illegal in Britain. Women too have equal status in the Church. A dancing girl called Lalage is a deacon alongside Manasses, because those who are strongest in the spirit become leaders, and she is strong.
When Beric is suffering most from the crumbling of his world’s foundations, he becomes aware that some of the slaves that he commands in Crispus’s household have some kind of belief that gives them strength. He joins their Church just as Nero arranges for some areas of Rome to be set on fire to clear the way for his latest architectural experiments. The blame for the fire falls on the Christians, who are enthusiastically rounded up by Praetorian chief Tigellinus, who is also seducing Flavia, now that she is a safely married and under-occupied woman. One by one the members of this small Church are arrested, beaten up, released, and then arrested again, because Nero and Tigellinus want to please the Roman crowds with a really spectacular Games, featuring burning women, chariot races, Christians and wild beasts and animal hunts. Other Churches exist in Rome as well as Manasses’ Church, but they are widely scattered, and rightly cautious about making contact in case they are betrayed by a smiling stranger. The novel ushers or pulls all the characters towards the Coliseum, some of them towards the spectator seats, and some of them towards the cells as the entertainment.
I mentioned that The Blood of the Martyrs is a philosophical and theological thriller. Many of the conversations are between characters trying to explain to each other what Christianity is, and what you do when you are one. In the third part of the novel Paul is in prison with the other characters, and is arguing with them about what needs to be done, and how baptism should be performed. He dictates his letters to other churches to Luke, the doctor who does his best for the prisoners after their torture, but really there is very little he can do for a raped woman who is about to be torn apart by tigers. Stoics and Epicurian characters are also present in the prison, political prisoners lofty in the knowledge that their intellectually superior beliefs do not let them in for such degrading and brutal treatment. But they are shaken by their inability to watch another person suffer and remain unmoved. By witnessing the deaths in the arena, people begin to be converted, and the seed of belief is transmitted by example and by loving kindness. It is a very moving image, drenched with sadness.
Underneath these small stories is our historical awareness of the Christian church at its beginnings, and of the other faiths prospering in Rome at the same time. The Roman Jews do not receive the persecution meted out to the Christians, but when Mitchison was writing this novel, the Jews were being persecuted mercilessly in Nazi Germany, and worse was to come. It’s pretty clear that Mitchison intended this novel to be read as a parable for the contemporary persecution of the Jews as well.
When I began to reread The Blood of the Martyrs I knew that I had not carried it with me through countless house moves for nothing: it is a marvellous, gripping read. But I also knew why I had not wanted to reread it for over twenty years; it is desperately sad, and full of tragic moments you can see coming, agonisingly, several pages off. Find your handkerchief.
This weekend, I lost what was happening in the rest of my world because I was immersed in the first Historical Fictions Research Network conference, in Cambridge at Anglia Ruskin University. The CFP for the second one, in February 2017 at the National Maritime Museum in London, will be sent out in the next week or so. There are conferences for historical novelists, but until now, there has been nothing for researchers studying how fictions and history work together. Science fiction professor Farah Mendlesohn and the Royal Holloway classicist Nick Lowe set it up with a team of postgraduate students and Anglia Ruskin colleagues, and I did my bit by running out to buy the biscuits. Next year I hope to be working on the new scholarly journal that the network is planning.
Normally at academic research conferences I bail out for one session, conferenced-out by too much earnest density in the papers. Show-off point scoring in the questions is also damned irritating. None of that happened this weekend. High points were:
Nick Lowe’s revelation that far more historical fiction is written about Ancient Rome than Ancient Greece
Abi Hunt’s recovery of the forgotten agricultural work of Lincolnshire women and children, refuting the post-Second World War fiction from local history that they never worked on the land at all
Victoria Whitworth‘s detective work tracing influences from the Book of Kells in an obscure roadside memorial plaque above Loch Ness
Debbie Challis’s unpeeling of Flinders Petrie’s Victorian fictions about ancient Egyptian pharoah Akhenaten
Jerome de Groot’s energetic attack on history, calling it an absence of the past, and a traumatic experience of seeing a void
Rowan Ramsey’s creation of Agincourt, Iowa: the Mid-West town that never was, but whose history and structures are built every year by North Dakota architecture students
There was also my paper, about how Naomi Mitchison and Nicola Griffith both use science and scientific research methods to give women characters agency in their historical novels. Cultural differences caused a minor kerfuffle in the questions afterwards, over the apparent marginalisation of men in these novels (which is not what I had said at all), and so a few people have asked me to post the paper as a pdf. Here it is: K Macdonald on N Mitchison and N Griffith
In this Really Like This Book podcast script catch-up from the King Arthur mini-series, I’m going to pause briefly to remind you that Sir Thomas Malory’s Morte Darthur is the main source for modern retellings of the stories about King Arthur. The best twentieth-century retelling, in my considered opinion, is the tetralogy by T H White called The Once and Future King. White has recently had unexpected publicity for one of his least accessible works, The Goshawk, on which Helen Macdonald draws extensively in her tremendously successful H is For Hawk.
White first Arthurian novel was published in 1939, The Sword in the Stone. It tells the story of the boy Arthur’s childhood and training under the tuition of Merlin. This is the most famous of the novels in the tetralogy, and was made into a musical called Camelot in the 1960s, and a 1970s Disney cartoon that I loved as a child. Its charm is that Merlin turns Arthur into things so that he can learn what a king needs to know: he experiences life as a fish, and as a bird, and lives with Robin Hood, watches a joust, gets captured by a giant, and hunts boar.
Finally, he goes to London with Sir Ector and Kay, pulls the sword out of the stone, and becomes, to his great confusion, king. The basic story comes from the Malorian sources, except for magical twists by White, including all the animal parts. Most imaginatively, in White’s version of the Arthur story, Merlin is living his life backwards, When Merlin meets Arthur as a small boy, that is the last time he will see him, because he has already observed all of Arthur’s life, and knows what will happen in Arthur’s future. This explains, beautifully and neatly, how second sight works. White writes in a gloriously anachronistic style, mixing up Latin, medieval lore, the irritated precision of a Cambridge don, and comments to the reader about what we need to understand about medieval life. When he stops making intellectual jokes, White’s prose is very beautiful, and direct. His style is engaging, and makes the characters as real as you or I, rather than cardboard cut-outs speaking an archaic language. For this he owes a lot to Naomi Mitchison’s experiments in writing historical fiction in purified modern language.
The Sword in the Stone ends at Arthur’s crowning, but White continued to think about Arthur, why this king had become a symbol for knightly perfection, and what power and restraint meant for humanity. This thinking continued all the way through the Second World War (which White spent living in exile in rural southern Ireland, working through powerful feelings about pacifism, which were part of his philosophical crisis about manifestations of power). By the 1950s White had written three more novels about how Arthur grew into kingship, and how the fatal strands of his story evolved. The Sword in the Stone was not so much rewritten as shaken up a bit, with some episodes removed to be used elsewhere, and new ones inserted because they were needed to make The Sword in the Stone part of a larger whole.
So, in the tetralogy proper, The Sword in the Stone was still about the boy Arthur growing up, and was followed by its new sequel, The Queen of Air and Darkness (or, The Witch in the Wood). This was about the childhood and early manhood of the Lothian family, the knights Gawain, Gareth, Agravain and Gaheris. They were the sons of Morgause, the Queen of Orkney and wife of King Lot, and Arthur’s half-sister, though nobody knows this except Merlyn, who has forgotten to tell Arthur, and Morgause herself, who is a witch. This is a very dark novel, where hopeful characters are disappointed, and the weather is usually cold and wet. It begins with an agonising scene of the children’s love for their mother, who ignores them, and a cold vignette of her boiling a cat alive to find the magic bone that will render her invisible when placed in the mouth. None of the bones work. The lives of the Lothians are centred about the draughty heathlands about their cold, primitive and tumbledown tower, until they go south with their father to fight Arthur, after which they will join Arthur’s company. The novel ends with the critical moment in the Aristotelian tragedy that is the story of Arthur: he sleeps with his half-sister without knowing it, and the boy who is born will be his death.
Novel number three is The Ill-Made Knight, which is all about Sir Launcelot, a miserable man who cannot help being the best of Arthur’s knights, and Sir Galahad, who is perfection and cannot help that either. This novel is also very sad, because Arthur’s hopeful plan to stop war and violence and brutality by inventing the Round Table, has been knocked sideways by the simple facts of human nature. The women also begin to gain importance, with Guinevere and Elaine competing for Lancelot’s affections, and end up by being hated by him, even though he loves them hopelessly. As a man suffering compelling psychiatric disorders, poor T H White wrote a lot of himself into the suffering masochist Lancelot. His loathing of his own mother also comes across hot and strong in this novel: women really don’t do well in this story, despite their stronger presence, but they don’t do well in the whole Arthurian saga. The feminist rewriting of Arthur would have to wait until Marion Zimmer Bradley and her ground-breaking but painfully gushing The Mists of Avalon, in the 1980s.
The last novel of the tetralogy is The Candle in the Wind, which brings in Mordred to the story, the betrayal of Arthur, and break-up of the Round Table. We read, painfully, of the fulfilment of many destinies on the field of battle, and of magical foresight as well. The novel ends with a charming invention by White, of the old king Arthur on the eve of his last battle talking to a young and frightened page, who is called young Tom Malory. But this is not the end of the story. After White’s death, a fifth novel was found in his papers, which turns the tetralogy into a pentalogy.
This last, posthumous novel was published in the 1980s as The Book of Merlyn, and is a return to all that White’s admirers loved best about The Sword in the Stone, when Arthur goes to live among the animals to understand better what it is to be human. Arthur is now an old man with much experience behind him, and his encounters with animals are desperately sad. He goes to live with the geese, and falls in love with a female goose, because bird love is pure, eternally loyal, and uncomplicated. (This episode had already appeared in, I think, the revised Sword In The Stone. He did keep moving sections about.) But just as Arthur has realised what love, acceptance and peaceful contentment actually feel like, he is dragged away by Merlyn to return to the badger’s sett.
Here he must sit in council with the animals to understand why homo sapiens (wise man) has turned into homo ferox (ferocious man). Arthur is a king, so he accepts this abrupt and heartbreaking rejection of being in love, but it is a painful transition, saying much about the responsibilities of leadership and sacrifice of personal feelings. His next trip is to an ant-hill, a vision of a totalitarian society, clearly influenced by the fascist dictatorships attempting to take over the world in the war. White wrote a seriously frightening episode of science fiction here, with the ants’ instructions picked up by their pheromones in a horrific vision out of Orwell’s 1984, Just as Arthur rebels against the incessant instructions in his head, and turns to prevent ant war, expecting to be torn apart by his fellow workers, Merlyn picks him out of the ant-hill and brings him back again to the sett.
Arthur’s last visit is to a hedgehog in the woods outside, who represents the common man, ignorant man, or (as we now might see it) man viewed with more than a touch of patrician condescension by White, writing against his times in the rebellious 1960s. He had tremendous difficulties with class and women all his life, and could not stop being a product of Cambridge and a teacher in the public school system in the 1920s. The hedgehog episode ends with a rendition of Jerusalem which breaks me up every time I read it. The Book of Merlyn comes to no conclusions about how man should be reclassified in the animal phylae because it ends with Arthur’s kingly rejection of theory and discussion, believing that with love he can only do his best. The novel ends with the movement of a snake in the grass, as Mordred and Arthur stand staring at each other at the heads of their armies, and someone draws a sword to kill it.
White was an erratic and wayward genius, an eccentric writer but a brilliant one. This evocation of the story of Arthur is the most serious that I know of, since it digs deeper than just jousts and chivalry and the eternal tragic love triangle between Lancelot, Guinevere and Arthur. This is probably because White was not really interested in love between men and women, but was traumatised by the power that (he thought) women employ to control men. He wrote fiction to work out ideas and to teach people, to educate and to show by example. He was a strange and forceful persuader, intemperate and uncontrolled in so many areas of his life, and a violent perfectionist in writing. He applied a unique vision to this most English of myths, producing five powerful, marvellous novels.
Martin Edwards’ The Golden Age of Murder is a fat and heavy hardback (the paperback is due out in 2016) endorsed by Len Deighton, as a study of the British writers who created the Golden Age of detective fiction in the 1920s and 1930s. It’s an absolute treasure chest of writers’ names and novels that have disappeared into oblivion, and a useful though patchy outline of the evolution of the detective story market between the wars. It is also a ramshackle mess, and shockingly badly written.
Martin Edwards is a former solicitor and an award-winning (so says his personal website) author of many detective novels. His lifetime of reading detective fiction has certainly formed the basis for this book, since only a true fan and a devoted reader could amass so much information. There are many nuggets: my favourite two are that A G Macdonell wrote as Neil Gordon! Edward VIII played erotic jigsaw puzzles! Unfortunately, this book also needed an editor. Edwards has skimmed the work of many biographers and critics by presenting their views with his own in an unattributed mass of statements, supported, some of the time, with a vague endnote saying that he has benefited from the work of X and Y. I am appalled that Harper Collins allowed him to get away with such sloppy non-attributions.
He was also in need of a fact-checker. Monsignor Ronald Knox’s sister was Lady Peck, not Lady Winifred Peck (their father was not noble), and she was the author of 25 books, not ‘several’. Naomi Mitchison and her husband Dick did not have ‘an oysters and champagne lifestyle’, nor a ‘Scottish baronial castle’ (it was just a big house). There were many ‘lady detectives’ predating Lady Molly of the Yard, in Victorian fiction magazines. St Giles in Oxford is not usually described as a ‘boulevard’. As Prince of Wales, Edward VIII was called David before his accession, not Edward, but the correct way to refer to him would be ‘the Prince’.
The structure of the book is bizarre, as noted by Simon in his Vulpes Libris review. Book titles float in and out of time, unconnected to their date of publication, so although we can sense that the book begins sometime in the 1920s, it wanders towards the 1950s in and out of chronology, with episodes and authors’ biographies beginning in the middle of their lives, jerking back and forth without any sense that history matters when you are discussing real lives or publications. The second half of the story behind The Detection Club’s Behind The Screen is given on pp.89-90, yet the first half is finally told on pp.162-3. Perhaps Edwards was playing with an alternate theory of time in which ‘the Three Cups Hotel – a favourite of Jane Austen, Tennyson and Tolkien’ (p.217) relocates itself outside time so that all three authors could chat together. Edwards certainly doesn’t bother to refresh his understanding of history by reading any: he cites two detective novelists’ memoirs as his only sources for the history of the 1930s.
There is a colossal imbalance between the amount of attention given to Anthony Berkeley, Dorothy L Sayers and Agatha Christie, compared to that given to all the other authors. The life and odd habits of Anthony Berkeley in particular, clearly Edwards’ special subject, are pressed upon the reader throughout the book, like an irritating chorus. It is certainly very useful to learn so much about this author whose works have not remained in the public’s affection so much as those by Sayers and Christie. However, I was not persuaded by Edwards’ culminating theory (mostly imaginary, as he admits) that Berkeley and his great friend the novelist E M Delafield conducted a chaste but passionate affair by ‘planting clues to their mutual devotion in plain sight’ in their novels: ‘She inspired and obsessed him. Without her, he was finished as a crime writer’ (p.425). Edwards’ exposition of this theory smacks of Mr Mybug insisting that Branwell Bronte wrote his sisters’ novels because they were all drunk (see Cold Comfort Farm). Edwards then goes on to criticise a Gaylord Larsen novel about the Detection Club as ‘a masterclass in howlers so extraordinary that the reader’s initial astonishment turns to hilarity’ (p. 431). Pot: meet kettle.
Nor am I persuaded by Edwards’ suggestions that random lines used by Berkeley in his novels (or his initials) inspired much more famous works by Christie and Sayers. If he bothered to give evidence, or publication dates, his case might be strengthened, but without them I am not. With so much noise being made about Berkeley, Sayers and Christie, we hear very little about the works of other Detection Club authors, from the still famous such as Ngaio Marsh, or the totally forgotten, such as Newton Gale. This is a disappointment. It is definitely useful to learn so much about Helen Simpson and Clemence Dane, for example, but in The Golden Age of Murder they and their works exist in isolation. There is no integration, and no sense of assessing a body of work across authors or time, or of trying to present a coherent and balanced picture of the writers who drove the detective novel industry.
Instead, the book presses scandal and personal drama upon us. Edwards insists, over and over, that Sayers had felt perpetual shame and guilt about the existence of her illegitimate son. All the Sayers biographies have already dealt with this in a far more balanced fashion, so what is Edwards’ point? His interest in the bodies of his subjects and what they do with them is repetitive and prurient. Sayers’ and Christie’s appearance, weight and shape are brought to our attention, repeatedly, as if their waist size or choice of hairstyle influenced their writing. If any author exhibits non-standard sexual interests in their lives or fiction (particularly whippings), we are sure to be told about it. Authors who did not marry have their sexuality speculated upon as a matter of course. These are wearying preoccupations to put up with if all we want to know is how they wrote their books and what inspired them.
Throughout The Golden Age of Murder there are many, sometimes lengthy, retellings of true crimes from the past, because they apparently influenced certain novels from the period. Given that Edwards has, rightly, sought to avoid plot spoilers in his discussion, it makes no sense at all to give the true crime origins of these plots as well. But most of the time he doesn’t bother connecting the history with the novel, he just enjoys indulging this sideline of antiquarian true crime for its own sake.
My final grumble is that Edwards’ passion for using all his research produces crass, or ludicrous, non sequiturs. On P G Wodehouse’s step-daughter Leonora: Her sudden death in 1944 was a crushing blow. “I really feel that nothing matters much now.” Her widowed husband, Peter Cazalet, went on to train Devon Loch, the Queen Mother’s racehorse that mysteriously collapsed fifty yards short of winning the 1956 Grand National while being ridden by Dick Francis (later, like his son Felix, as a member of the Detection Club) (pp.129-30). Why connect horse-racing with her death, except to show off about your research?
On the ‘Hay-on-Wye Poisoner’ Major Armstrong: Armstrong was found guilty. He remains the only English solicitor to have died on the scaffold. True to type, he was wearing his best tweed suit (p.136). We have to ask: did murderers, or solicitors, routinely wear tweed?
On the novelist J R Ackerley: Joe Ackerley was the illegitimate half-brother of the future Duchess of Westminster, and his fondness for sailors and guardsmen caused E M Forster to warn him to give up looking for ‘gold in coal mines’ (pp.167-8). It’s nice to know that having a lively illegitimate half-brother did not prevent a ducal marriage.
On Agatha Christie: Christie was Ackerley’s favourite detective novelist. He regarded her persistent lateness in delivering her contributions as tiresome, but found her “surprisingly good-looking”. Yet he did not rate her highly as a broadcaster (171). They were broadcasting on radio, so I can see that lateness might be tricky, but why would Christie’s looks even be relevant?
On Helen Simpson: Helen de Guerry Simpson was an astonishingly high achiever, who seemed to dedicate her life to proving that women could have it all. Convent-educated, she was a keen snuff-taker with a love of fencing and witchcraft (p.214). We need to know how the convent led her to epées and broomsticks.
It’s not a bad book, just ridiculously distracting, with all these monstrous elephants flirting in the room in front of the interesting stuff. I wish Edwards had followed his obvious urge to write Anthony Berkeley’s biography instead.
I’ve read two biographies of Naomi Mitchison in the past week (working up some conference papers). Both lean very heavily on Mitchison’s published memoirs, and note that her record of her interwar life, You May Well Ask (1979), is deliberately vague about some important matters. Jill Benton’s Naomi Mitchison. A Biography (1990) is both rather too personal and unsettlingly gappy. Jenni Calder’s The Nine Lives of Naomi Mitchison (1997) begins as an almost straight copy of Benton until we reach the Second World War, when Calder frees herself from the pattern her predecessor set down, and from Mitchison’s own memoirs, and begins to write independently and fully, almost to the end of Mitchison’s life in 1999.
Both the biographies are feminist, in that they were published by leading British feminist publishing houses of their day, Pandora Press and Virago. Benton’s focus on Mitchison as a feminist figure makes the parts of her biography which don’t concern women’s rights or sexual politics very underwritten, almost amateur in the way they are skated over or ignored. Compared with Calder’s extensive and really fascinating treatment of Mitchison the Highland politician, the colonial matriarch in Botswana, and of her increasingly domineering presence as a political gadfly from the 1960s, Benton’s approach seems inappropriately and obliviously worshipful. She prints a photo of herself with Mitchison with one of her photos of Mitchison digging potatoes in the garden, pushing her privileged access into the reader’s attention. She writes about being able to go through her heroine’s private papers in her bedroom chest of drawers with an almost cloying smugness, but doesn’t critique her own subjectivity. In contrast, Calder discusses her awareness of being drawn into Mitchison’s theatricality, and acknowledges her worries about her diminishing objectivity once she had met Mitchison and stayed at her house. The glamour of a powerful mind and impressive literary achievements is palpable in both biographies, but I think Calder deals with it best: it is not easy to write a biography when the subject is alive, energetic, and giving you her strong opinions from her own sofa.
As you see, I don’t care for the tone in Benton’s book, or her subjectivity. I don’t feel that I trust her judgement of her subject, nor do I trust her choice of what to write about and what to ignore or obscure. Her admiration for Mitchison as a twentieth-century feminist and literary heroine has diminished her critical sense. I also get pernickety about the lack of rigour, or simple fact-checking, in Benton’s biography. The words and names that are misspelled and misunderstood (not many, but some are important) give a pretty clear indication that this enthusiastic and eager American literature professor did not take enough trouble to understand Mitchison’s Scottish context or British Left culture adequately.
The similarity between both biographies until they reach 1940 is startling when one thinks that Calder was only writing seven years after Benton. She only acknowledges the existence of Benton’s book once, following the same trail while ignoring Benton’s footprints running ahead of her in time. But something happens when she reaches the Second World War, as if Calder begins to use sources that Benton had no access to (or did not bother to search out). More importantly, Calder starts to write at this point as an independent critic: not another Mitchison fan, but a proper biographer, capable of making judgements about Mitchison’s emergence as a dogged political idealist and an indomitable and undoubtedly aggravating opponent.
Calder’s understanding of Scottish culture and geography gives her a huge advantage over Benton, explaining and unpacking periods of Mitchison’s life in detail that Benton had skipped over in half a sentence. She shows how much of Mitchison’s life in the 1950s and 1950s was taken up with work as a local councillor and advocate for Highland development: Benton barely mentions this at all, in comparison. Calder is equally good in the long section about Mitchison’s African life, which Benton discussed briefly and without comment, leaving me mystified as to how Mitchison had ended up in such a role and place, so different from anything she had done before. Calder digs down into the detail of how Mitchison arrived at her self-appointed role as the ‘mother’ of the Botswana tribe whose chief she had been kind to when he was at school in England. I admire the even-handed way that Calder links Mitchison’s earlier life and political concerns with her busyness with tribal affairs and attempts to equip the Bakgatla for modern life. Calder also dares to discuss her doubts that Mitchison had achieved anything useful during her membership of the tribe, and gives a fairly even-handed assessment, with a small balance in Mitchison’s favour: a library, sowing the seeds of a women’s movement, support to the young chief and protection and influence used against the former colonial authorities in Botswana’s early independence.
How these aspects of her life relate to Mitchison’s novels? Calder does a very good job of integrating Mitchison’s political writing with how and why she wrote her fiction, and makes a proper effort to assess Mitchison’s many, many later novels and her short stories. Benton does attempt this but soon gives up, as if she didn’t have access to copies of all the novels (which, to be fair, most of us don’t). Probably some of Mitchison’s novels are better than others, but the quality of The Corn King and the Spring Queen and The Blood of the Martyrs, two of her three major works (I haven’t yet read The Bull Calves, but it’s held to be equally important) make it imperative that all her fiction be discussed properly, to show how these towering works fit into her literary output. Calder discusses title after title from the 1960s to the 1990s, putting them in their place in Mitchison’s vast oeuvre. I could have improved my own reviews of Mitchison’s three science fiction novels (reviewed here, here and here) if I had read first what Calder has to say. Her biography not a full literary assessment, but its the best we have of all that Mitchison wrote.
Overall, if you want to buy a biography of Naomi Mitchison, get Calder’s, because there isn’t much that Benton tell us that Calder does not. If you want a feminist assessment of Mitchison’s life, Benton may have the edge, because she got there first in describing Mitchison’s life outside the memoirs, but Calder beats her hands down for history and literature.
Jill Benton, Naomi Mitchison. A Biography (Pandora Press, 1990, paperback 1992), ISBN 0-04-440862-5
Jenni Calder, The Nine Lives of Naomi Mitchison (Virago Books, 1997), ISBN 1-85381-724-4
If you like elliptical, immersive, euphemistic strangeness in your science-fiction narrative, this novel is for you. Published in 1975, Naomi Mitchison’s Solution Three retains some slang that was archaic even then, like ‘cat’ for person, which made this reader jump, and certainly adds to the strangeness in the dialogue. Could you ever empathise with a character who says of another that ‘this cat told me’? The setting is a strange combination of the modern British National Health Service, Maoist self-denunciation and the insouciant babbling cheerfulness of Brave New World (Naomi Mitchison was great friends with Aldous Huxley in the 1930s). Homosexuality is the social norm for relationships, heterosexuals are more or less tolerated but labelled as ‘deviants’, and clones are born to surrogate Clone Mums, who have to watch their children carefully for when they start showing ‘the signs’, at which point the children are taken away from the nursery and ‘strengthened’. ‘Strengthening’ is such a horrible process for these four and five-year olds that no-one ever asks what it is; they simply accept it as part of Solution Three, which is the Way We Live Now.
This is a post-something society: not post-apocalyptic or post-nuclear, but post-Aggressions. These appear to have been a long-ago total war, after which two far-seeing male and female scientists evolved a social pattern for future society to save humankind, decreeing that homosexual relationships would thenceforth be the norm as this would avoid future Aggressions. Thus the population of the civilised parts of the world is paired off whether they like it or not. Uncivilised areas continue to practice aggressive heterosexuality, which is a cause for concern and stern treatment. The characters in the novel are crop scientists, investigating outbreaks of agricultural viruses and struggling to maintain food supplies for a very crowded planet. This concern about the genetic modification of food sources is something Mitchison would go on to write about more fully in Not By Bread Alone in the 1980s. in this novel, she’s much more concerned about social engineering, the rights of maternity and enforced sexual norms.
The storytelling is engaging and chatty, creating an immersive reading experience, but this is a hard novel to understand. The elliptical dialogue glides across the surface of meaning, so it’s tricky to work out what is going on and what the consequences will be. The subplot about Miryam the deviant and her husband struggling to raise their two children in their one-room flats (they’re not allowed to live together) reaches a happy ending when she is awarded a two-room apartment with a little balcony. Her feelings on being given such riches and forgiveness for her deviancy say as much about the society she’s living in as the actions that lead to this largesse. Mitchison writes from the heart outwards, concentrating on women and who they love, to sketch out an outline of this experimental dystopic future. It really is just an outline: there isn’t enough depth in this novel to produce a solid impression of how this society works, or even how it got to be this way. The details are in full focus, the rest is a bit foggy. But given the rarity of fiction of this period (of any period?) that tackles sexuality and ecology with such fair-minded objectivity, this novel is a literary historical treasure.