Troubled Daughters, Twisted Wives ed. Sarah Weinman


Who could resist a book with such a fabulous title and cover? Certainly not me. I am very grateful to Lindsay at Penguin for sending this my way, as this is a marvellous collection of short stories by female suspense writers who were popular in the early to mid 20th century, but have now fallen largely out of favour and print. What is so intriguing about these writers is that they form a sub genre called ‘domestic suspense’, as their stories of murder and betrayal all centre around crimes committed in ordinary suburban homes by ordinary suburban people. These are not tales of mob gangsters or supernatural happenings, but explorations of the deeds normal people are capable of when their safe, everyday existence is threatened. The settings of these stories makes them even more chilling; who could imagine a murder in a spotless, checkered linoleum floored kitchen? Who could predict that a stay at home mum wearing a floral cotton dress could bludgeon someone to death? The uncanny juxtaposition of the familiar surroundings of domesticity with the horror of evil, often premeditated crime, makes these incredibly effective at unsettling the reader, and I loved the psychological complexity of these women’s writing and their ability to turn the reader’s expectations entirely on their head.

Vera Caspary’s Sugar and Spice is outstanding; it tells the story of two cousins, one beautiful and poor, one ugly and rich, and their competitive upbringing and early adulthoods. When both fall in love with the same man, there is a surprise coming that I certainly didn’t see on the horizon. Elisabeth Sanxay Holding’s The Stranger in the Car is full of unexpected twists and turns, and is an intriguing portrayal of how far we will go to protect the reputation we hold in our social circles. I very much enjoyed Charlotte Armstrong’s The Splintered Monday; what upset me the most is that I actually sympathised with the murderer far more than anyone else! All are not equal, of course, as is always the case in short story collections. There are some that are a little weaker, with the twists failing to pack a punch. Margaret Millar’s The People Across The Canyon had me on the edge of my seat until its conclusion, which was too unreal to be truly terrifying, and Shirley Jackson’s Louisa, Please Come Home lacked plausibility, which was a shame.

However, overall, this is a superb compendium of stories that kept me up until the wee hours, desperate for more. My only real criticism is that this collection could have been twice as long. Whenever I go into my favourite book shop on the Charing Cross Road, I always see shelves and shelves of battered ‘Crime Classic’ hardbacks, usually written by women, and usually with amazing titles like ‘Black Lipstick’ and ‘A Girl Called Trouble’. Surely there must be hundreds and hundreds of stories written by these women that are worth republishing? I love suspense fiction, and I don’t read enough of it. Persephone have republished two excellent suspense novels; The Blank Wall and The Expendable Man, but I haven’t seen much else in this genre being brought back into print. Why not, I wonder? I am going to be busy searching for books by the authors in this volume over the next few months, and I’m keen to hear any suggestions people may have for other novelists like this to try. Having finally caught up on my unwatched episodes of Sherlock, I’m in the mood for mystery!

The Journal of Dora Damage….and some other stuff

After my slight obsession with Sensation Novels throughout the past couple of months, I thought it was high time I gave a modern attempt at the traditional Victorian Sensation genre a try. A work colleague pressed The Journal of Dora Damage on me ages ago and she has been asking me whether I’ve read it yet for weeks, so just before Christmas my guiltometer reached maximum and I picked it up, much to my colleague’s delight; she can’t wait to hear what I thought of it. I’m sorry to say that I am going to disappoint her when I report back.

Dora Damage started off very promisingly; it is a fresh, breezy novel, with a delightful main character in the eponymous Dora and a very interesting plot. The book is set in Victorian London, in the slums of Lambeth (still a pretty dodgy area for those who don’t know London). Dora is a young married woman with a chronically ill husband, Peter, and an epileptic daughter, Lucinda. Peter and Dora are both from bookbinding dynasties, and Peter runs Damage’s Bookbinders from a workshop attached to the house. However, Peter has an illness that is causing terrible water retention, swelling his body to the point where he can barely move. As he gets sicker, Peter is doing less and less work, the bindery is failing, and he has unwisely borrowed money from an unscrupulous lender to meet his expenses, plunging him into massive debt that he cannot hope to pay. Dora finds out about their difficulties only when the moneylender shows up on the doorstep, and with Peter finally giving up any attempt at working at all, Dora is forced to take on responsibility for the family business herself, otherwise they’ll all be carted off to the workhouse. Of course, this is heavily looked down upon, and Dora quickly becomes a social pariah; even more so when she finds herself caught up in binding illegal pornographic books belonging to, would you believe it, a top secret ring of aristocratic nymphomaniacs. Added into this muddle is the arrival of a Negro slave by the name of Din who is foisted on Dora by the wife of one of her aristocratic patrons, and before she knows it, Dora’s life is spinning out of control. Backed into a corner, coping with the unwanted sexual attention of aristocrats, juggling the work of mother and housewife with that of being a female (tsk, tsk) bookbinder, and struggling with her own increasingly sexual feelings towards Din, Dora doesn’t know which way to turn. How will she get out of it all, and keep Damages Bookbindery running?!

Frankly, by the end, I didn’t care. As Dora’s life begins unravelling, so does the plot, and I gave up without even finishing. There were just too many subplots and I couldn’t stand the deliberateness of it all. This is what I find difficult about historical novels; in the desire to evoke a period, I think authors make their characters far too self conscious, and every stereotypical social concern of the time is wheeled out to demonstrate how well researched the author is. In Dora Damage we have the Victorian preoccupation with death, the underworld of Victorian London, the secret aristocratic pornographic clubs, the problems of the working classes, the accepted role of women; all very obviously introduced to ‘set’ the period; every character is very aware that they are Victorian and of what is socially and morally acceptable for the period. It’s just not natural. In a Wilkie Collins novel, these ideas are subtly interwoven into the very fabric of the characters lives; they are not explicitly mentioned, because they were just part of life. No one in a Wilkie Collins novel says ‘I suppose it’s just the way we Victorians are, obsessed with death and sexually repressed’, yet this kind of self aware attitude is all over historical novels, such as this line from Dora Damage: ‘We had perpetrated a terrible sin; we had violated every moral, social and religious taboo’. Everything is just so carefully placed and thought through; characters are stereotypes of what we now perceive to be typical of the period they are supposed to be from. They lack authenticity, and I can’t get on with that at all. I’d much rather read the genuine article.

So Dora Damage was a bit disappointing for me, really, and it reminded me of why I don’t normally read historical novels. My best friend loves them and is always urging me to read Philippa Gregory et al, but they really aren’t my cup of tea. I should have guessed that after my excruciating experience of reading A S Byatt’s dissertation novel on the Victorian period earlier this year, I suppose…

However, the Christmas period hasn’t been wholly wasted from a reading point of view; I got some lovely books for Christmas, one of which was A Homemade Life; Stories and Recipes from My Kitchen Table by Molly Wizenburg, the author of the cookery blog Orangette. I came across this blog before I even started mine, and was enchanted by the story of a twentysomething American coming to a crossroads in her life, chucking in her job to start a new career in food, and starting a blog to practice her writing. Little did she know that her blog would change her life; not only did she meet her husband through it, but she got a book deal, and now she and her husband run a successful restaurant in Seattle. The blog is still going and I highly recommend you visiting if you haven’t heard of it already; the writing is exquisite, and I love how she introduces her recipes with a wonderful, personal story that is usually more than a little tearjerking. I have stormed through the book; there are some terrific recipes for food I never even thought about making, as well as some traditional favourites, such as a perfect chocolate cake and deliciously different potato salad. However, this is no straight recipe book; each recipe comes at the end of a short chapter in which Molly writes about the experience that led up to her first trying the food in the recipe, or why the dish means so much to her. She’s just a perfectly ordinary woman, but her stories contain the stuff that makes ordinary lives such extraordinary and beautiful journeys; the memories of childhood summers, the joy of first love, the magical feeling of walking the streets of a foreign city for the first time, the grief of losing those who are dearest to us. Pairing these lovely vignettes from a life that could be anybody’s with a delicious recipe, a physical taste of her emotion, is terrific, individual, and delightful, and I absolutely adore it. It’s going to be a book I come back to time and time again, and I highly recommend it.

Finally, my one and only book related resolution for 2010 is that I am not going to buy any more books. Absolutely none. I have so many unread books that I can’t justify buying any more. It makes no sense whatsoever. Plus, I need to save my pennies for a very special adventure I am planning on taking towards the end of the year…but more on that another time. I am going to use the library to borrow any book I don’t own and feel I simply must read, but my first priority is going to be reading the books I already have on my shelves. It’s going to be incredibly difficult, but I am going to stick to it. Perhaps I’ll write a book about my experiences…‘Too Many Books on the Landing; A Year of Reading from Home’. Do you think Susan Hill would mind?!

No Name by Wilkie Collins

So No Name is finally finished. This behemoth of a sensation novel that has fallen by the wayside by misfortune of being published in between Collins’ name making blockbusters, The Woman in White and The Moonstone, has actually become my favourite sensation novel so far. Even suspending my disbelief did not entirely eradicate the unconvincing and frankly easy to guess ‘mystery’ at the heart of The Moonstone, and The Woman in White was excellent, but, again, by half way through, if you haven’t guessed the finale, I’d worry for you. No Name is different from these in the fact that it doesn’t actually have a central mystery; the plot centres around two sisters (though only the younger sister’s story is really told), Norah and Magdalen, who, due to very unfortunate legal loop hole circumstances end up penniless after the sudden and tragic deaths of their parents. Their father’s money has gone to his older brother, who hated him, and he refuses to part with any of this money to support his estranged nieces. So, accustomed to living in luxury and with everything they hold dear swept away from them overnight, the girls are cast out into the world with nothing except what they can carry in a few boxes. They go to live with their governess, the wonderful Miss Garth, in London, but shortly afterwards Magdalen disappears, and Norah and Miss Garth are left distraught. Norah, a good, kind and sensible girl, takes the only course open to her and becomes a governess. But Magdalen has other ideas; she is determined to get her father’s money back, and she will do anything to get it.

The book follows Magdalen’s journey to reclaim this money; false identities, shady deals, crooks with hearts, nice but dim giantesses (yes!), incredibly brilliant villainesses and the best dodgy coincidences ever all build up to a cracking ending. As, unusually for Collins, there is no mystery element to this, and it’s more based on suspense and fear of what will happen to Magdalen than finding out a secret, it’s much more involving and also more convincing as a story. At some points I didn’t want to read on because I was so afraid of what Mrs Lecount, the villainess of the piece, was going to do, and unlike with the other novels of his I have read, it was difficult to predict what Magdalen’s next step would be. The plot is highly inventive and very unusual; it takes you off down numerous different paths and is so entertaining that I am disappointed I have left the world it created.

It’s also a very interesting exploration of the helplessness of women; once Norah and Magdalen have lost the protection of their father, and his money, they are cast out on the world, with very little means of supporting themselves except for becoming governesses or marrying someone who can put a roof over their head. Magdalen is forced into desperate measures because she cannot bear the degradation of living in someone else’s home as nothing better than a servant, when she was brought up to expect so much more from her life. Magdalen and Norah have had a life of ease and pleasantries, where money was no object and their future involved marriage to a suitable man who would give them the safe lifestyle their father had worked so hard to provide. They have not been taught how to live in the real world, and they are naive and delicate, totally unprepared for a life outside of their comfortable surroundings and social circle. Women like these girls, who, through no fault of their own, found themselves cast out of the only world they knew, were thrust upon a hostile and frightening environment, unable to even travel by themselves without causing suspicion or personal danger. I hate to think of the desperate situations women must have faced in these times, and the frustration of knowing they had so few avenues to support themselves if left alone, most of them impossibly degrading. It was also very eye opening for me to realise just how dependent upon men Victorian women were. It is humbling to see how far we have come, and to appreciate just how much freedom women have today to pursue careers, to live independently, to be educated and to support themselves, able to live meaningful, comfortable existences without having to rely on a man to be there to legitimise us or provide financial support. Wilkie Collins was really quite controversial, and forward thinking, in portraying a female heroine so independent and determined to get her own way; her intelligence and cunning show there is far more to her than the usual fainting madam who needs smelling salts at every opportunity, even if she does have the odd melodramatic breakdown now and again.

I think this is one of the more interesting sensation novels, in that it has a lot going on underneath the surface. There are the issues of a woman’s place, of how money buys security, of madness and of social problems such as domestic abuse and poverty. Outside of the central mystery there are many characters who have fascinating stories and are depicted so vividly that I felt they were completely real; the world of No Name is really a microcosm of Victorian England and I absolutely adored it. If you want to read a Sensation Novel, you can’t go wrong with this one.

ps. I had a bit of an exciting discovery with my copy of No Name – it’s an old pocket Collins Clear Type that was absolutely falling apart – I can’t show a photo because it’s currently with Bloomsbury Bell who’s going to rebind it for me. Inside I found two bookplates – one belonging to C R Ashbee and inscribed ‘E H P’ and the other ‘Felicity Ashbee‘. Just for fun I googled them and it turns out that C R Ashbee was one of the most famous devotees of the Arts and Craft movement and founded the Essex House Press – the ‘E H P’. It was wonderful to discover such history and from the state of the book the family must have loved it very much – I suspect the book came straight from the estate of Felicity as she died around the time I bought it. Felicity wrote a biography of her mother, Janet Ashbee, and the trials of a life living in an arts and crafts commune with a homosexual husband which sounds absolutely fascinating and I’d love to read it.

The Moonstone by Wilkie Collins

I am loving reading Sensation novels at the moment. I just can’t get enough! I love the mystery, the suspense, and the fact that I feel really clever every time I finish them because I haven’t failed to guess the guilty party yet!

I’ll start by saying that I didn’t find The Moonstone as good as The Woman in White. It lacked the compelling, all consuming central mystery of the latter; it also wasn’t particularly menacing in the way that I found TWIW to be.It was a tad unconvincing too, and rather easy to guess who the guilty party was, but even with all these things considered, it was still a gripping and very entertaining read.

As with all novels of this type it’s hard to give a proper synopsis without ruining the plot for those who haven’t read it, but I shall try my best. The book opens with a transcript of a ‘family paper’ detailing the stealing of a famous Indian diamond, known as the Moonstone, from a ransacked temple during a battle between the English and the Indians in the late 18th century. Fast forward to the ‘present’ day (the mid 1800s) and we have Gabriel Betteredge, the faithful retainer of the good Lady Verinder and her beautiful teenage daughter Rachel, narrating the story of how the said Moonstone comes into the Verinder household.

It is important to know that the Moonstone was stolen from a Hindu temple; it is sacred and was always guarded by three Hindus who would fight to the death to protect it. They are supposed to follow it everywhere, and this duty is passed down the generations. Wherever the Moonstone goes, the guards follow. Now, Lady Verinder’s brother was part of the group of officers ransacking the temple, and he brought the Moonstone back with him after stealing it. There is a vague fear of curses etc associated with the diamond and so it is kept locked away during Lady Verinder’s brother’s lifetime. When he dies it emerges he has left it to his niece Rachel to be given on her 18th birthday; is this as a revenge to his sister who refused to acknowledge him because of his dastardly ways or an atonement (the diamond is worth £20,000, a collossal amount at the time)? No one is sure. But, Franklin Blake, Rachel’s cousin and Lady Verinder’s nephew, is trusted by the family solicitor to deliver the Moonstone to Rachel on her 18th birthday, as instructed, and this is where the problems begin.

Rachel is duly given the Moonstone, but not without plenty of misgivings on Lady Verinder, Franklin Blake and Gabriel Betteredge’s parts; three Indian conjurors have been hanging about the house since Franklin arrived, and knowing Lady Verinder’s brother’s hatred of her, everyone is concerned that the Moonstone is indeed cursed, and could bring harm to the lovely Rachel. On the morning after her birthday, Rachel wakes to find the diamond gone, but after preliminary investigations it emerges that the suspicious looking Indians have an alibi, and there is no sign of a break in; the theft had to be an inside job. Inside the house at the time were Rachel, Lady Verinder, Franklin, another cousin, Godfrey Ablewhite, an upstanding do gooder who longs for Rachel’s hand in marriage (as does Franklin), plus a large crowd of servants, some of whom have plenty of secrets of their own. Who could have done it? And why? And if it has been stolen by a member of the household, where has it gone? A famous detective from London, Sergeant Cuff, is called up to give his assistance, but there is great resistance from Rachel, who doesn’t seem to want the identity of the thief to be discovered, and is acting very strangely. As the mystery grows deeper, even the Sergeant is left baffled, and with various changes of narrator down the line, we are left hanging almost to the very end, a year later in the story, until all of the clues are unravelled to find out who stole the Moonstone, and why.

It’s a gripping read, with plenty of twists and turns, and some very interesting characters. I liked the way the narrator kept changing; it was interesting to see how different a take the various story tellers had on the events and the people involved. The most exciting thing for me though was that Wilkie Collins took part of his inspiration from the murder described in The Suspicions of Mr Whicher; Sergeant Cuff is based on Mr Whicher, and the idea of the perpetrator of the crime being within the household was taken from the same situation in the Road Hill House murder. This aspect is fascinating; the idea that you can have people you trust living under your roof without really knowing them at all is something that must have sent a chill down contemporary readers’ spines, especially with the saga of the Road Hill House murder being all over the papers at the time, and with most households employing at least one servant, whose private life was usually an enigma to its employers.

All in all, I greatly enjoyed The Moonstone, but I did find in places it betrayed its serial origins; inconsistencies abound where Collins clearly changed his mind about people half way through, plot lines are tidied up too hastily and in places too much is given away too early. It certainly wasn’t as slick as The Woman in White. Even so, this is still a brilliant, suspenseful and marvellously wintry read; perfect to curl up in front of the fire with on a dark and dreary November afternoon. It’s left me with a longing for even MORE sensation novels, too; my next is going to be No Name.

p.s. The image I’ve used is by an artist called Alfred Stevens, who painted the picture OUP have used for their Oxford World’s Classics edition. Personally I think the painting of his I have used is far more appropriate!

The Suspicions of Mr Whicher by Kate Summerscale

I have been reading a good amount of sensation novels lately; it is these ever darkening October nights that are attracting me to good old fashioned tales of melodrama and suspense, I think. I am thoroughly enjoying exploring this genre; from its very beginnings in the Victorian times to the present day, there are no end of wonderful books out there to keep you up into the wee small hours, hooked, desperate to unravel the mystery that is unfolding, and endlessly promising yourself  ‘just one more chapter’…or perhaps five…

So what better way to complement my recent love of all things sensation than by reading a real life version? The Suspicions of Mr Whicher has been on my wish list for a while; a lot of people have been talking about it, reading it on the train, and generally shoving it in my face, and it has intrigued me ever since it came out. However, I don’t like to read what everyone else is reading, so I like to leave a decent interval between a book’s initial hype before I deign to read it myself. I’m not called Book Snob for nothing! So, this weekend, while in Highgate with Bloomsbury Bell (more on this later in the week), when I spotted this book for just £1 in an amazing tat filled charity shop opposite Archway tube station, I couldn’t resist picking it up and taking it home with me. I started it immediately and was absolutely riveted from page one; the murder this book depicts had Victorian England mesmerised in the 1860s, and happened just when sensation fiction was really taking off. Dickens and Wilkie Collins were two famous faces obsessed with it; plots in their novels can be traced back to this case.

The book is about the murder of three year old Francis Saville Kent, taken from his cot in the middle of the night and found the following morning, his little body shoved down the servant’s privy, his throat savagely slit from ear to ear. It was a cruel and seemingly motiveless crime, and yet it soon emerges that it must have been committed by someone in the house. The inhabitants of the large Georgian villa, Road Hill House, deep in the Somerset countryside, in which the crime was committed, contained his parents, his three half sisters and half brother, the children of his father’s previous marriage, his two sisters, his nursemaid, in whose room he slept, and two servant girls. Who, out of this group, could have wanted to kill Saville? And how could they have removed him from his cot without waking his nurse, or his baby sister, who was also in the room?

After the local police force have failed to come up with any leads, they send for the celebrated London Detective, Inspector Whicher, one of the eight founding detectives of Scotland Yard, and who hasn’t failed to solve a case yet. He soon thinks he’s solved the case, but because of who he suspects the criminal to be, his findings are ridiculed, his reputation is ruined, and it is beginning to look like this is a mystery that will never be solved…

Obviously I can’t go into too much detail because it will give it all away, but this really was such a fascinating and engrossing read, as much for the social history the book contains as the central mystery itself. This isn’t really a ‘whodunnit’, because it’s based on real life and Summerscale can’t hide the obvious clues as to the identity of the criminal; I had figured it out after the first few pages. However, it is a wonderful exploration of the rise of the detective in the 19th century; of the vogue for sensation and mystery novels, of the sanctity of the Victorian home, of the reverence of femininity, of the strange irony of the Victorian cult of privacy and domesticity, undermined by the presence of a silent army of ever watchful servants living within most homes; of the fear of surveillance, of the secrets hidden within ordinary looking homes, and of the obsession with madness that meant those who couldn’t live within the ‘normal’ bounds of society were locked up, shunned by a world that couldn’t handle any deviance from their perceived notion of normality. These undercurrents emerging in Victorian society made murders like the one at Road Hill House both shocking and mesmerising to the public. To think that the idealised, private, secure sphere of the home, an Englishman’s Castle, could be penetrated by evil; to think that, of all people, a woman, that gentle, docile, saintly, domesticated figure of Victorian literature, could be the perpetrator…well, it shook the foundations of society. It also provided a terrific basis for a sensation novel plot; the country house mystery started at Road Hill House.

When I looked this up on Amazon, I was surprised to see so many negative reviews. It seems that many people were misled into thinking The Suspicions of Mr Whicher was an Agatha Christie style thriller; it isn’t. If that is what you want, don’t read this. It’s far more a social history of the detective story, of Victorian values, and of the popularity of sensation novels than it is a whodunnit, and personally, the blend of mystery story and history really worked for me. It does get bogged down with a fair bit of unnecessary detail in places, but all in all, this is a must read for anyone interested in the Victorian period and the origins of the detective story. I have found it a fascinating piece of background reading to complement my season of sensational reading. Highly recommended!