“All These Things Tell You Something”

devices2From P. D. James’s Devices and Desires:

He followed her down the hall to the kitchen at the back of the house. It was, he judged, almost twenty feet long and obviously served the triple purpose of sitting room, working place and office. The right-hand half of the room was a well-equipped kitchen with a large gas stove and an Aga, a butcher’s chopping block, a dresser to the right of the door holding an assortment of gleaming pots, and a long working surface with a wooden triangle sheathing her assortment of knives. In the centre of the room was a large wooden table holding a stoneware jar of dried flowers. On the left-hand wall was a working fireplace, the two recesses fitted with wall-to-ceiling bookshelves. To each side of the hearth was a high-backed wicker armchair in an intricate closely woven design fitted with patchwork cushions. There was an open roll-top desk facing one of the wide windows and, to its right, a stable door, the top half open, gave a view of the paved courtyard. Dalgliesh could glimpse what was obviously her herb garden planted in elegant terracotta pots carefully disposed to catch the sun. The room, which contained nothing superfluous, nothing pretentious, was both pleasing and extraordinarily comforting and, for a moment, he wondered why. Was it the faint smell of herbs and newly baked dough, the soft ticking of the wall-mounted clock which seemed both to mark the passing seconds and yet to hold time in thrall, the rhythmic moaning of the sea through the half-open door, the sense of well-fed ease conveyed by the two cushioned armchairs, the open hearth? Or was it that the kitchen reminded Dalgliesh of that rectory kitchen where the lonely only child had found warmth and undemanding, uncensorious companionship, been given hot dripping toast and small forbidden treats?

In interviews and in her own writing about her crime novels, P. D. James often remarks on the importance of setting, especially interiors. In an 1986 New York Times Magazine story, Julian Symons quotes her as saying “I believe you can describe people, and understand them, through the houses or apartments they live in,”

the furniture they choose to buy, the way they decorate the rooms. However humble or ordinary the place may be, there are still distinctions between what people do. Do they put wallpaper or emulsion paint on the walls? What’s the design on the paper or the color of the paint? What sort of pictures are on the walls? All these things tell you something.

devicesThis excerpt from Devices and Desires is characteristic of what this conviction looks like in practice. I suppose it could be argued that such long descriptive passages are not strictly necessary, that they are a form of padding in novels otherwise structured very tightly, as all of hers are, around the intricacies of a murder investigation. She treats every room this way, not just ones that clearly lead us towards revelations about the crime: readers who like their mysteries leaner and faster and more plot-driven might feel that the story gets bogged down. I don’t see it (or experience it) that way. For one thing, I enjoy James’s writing–I like the rhythm of her sentences, the meticulous care she takes to create a vivid, tactile sense of place, and the way her catalogs of specifics so often lead, as here, from exterior to interior, from setting to psychology. For another, because James’s crimes are always intensely personal, character is plot for her: thus her attention to setting as a device for exploring character serves the key purpose of her fiction. Finally, here we are seeing through Dalgliesh’s eyes: what this passage tells us is not just how the room’s inhabitant lives (and thus what she is like) but how observant he is, and how his scrupulous detachment as a professional investigator is combined with the self-awareness and sensitivity that make him not just a skilled detective but also a poet.

P. D. James, Death Comes for the Archdeacon

That’s not actually the title of any of P. D. James’s novels, of course: it’s the basic plot of Death in Holy Orders, which I just finished rereading for the first time in a decade or more. Coincidentally, when I picked it more or less randomly out to revisit, I had also just reread Trollope’s The Warden, and so I had rigidly self-righteous Archdeacons on the brain even before James’s Archdeacon Crampton met his bloody end–then James herself made the Trollope connection explicit by having one of her characters read aloud from Barchester Towers with the deliberate intent of “discomforting the Archdeacon.”

The passage he reads is from the novel’s first chapter, in which the gentle and unworldly Bishop (known to us from The Warden as Mr. Harding’s great friend) is on his deathbed. “Nothing could be easier,” Trollope’s narrator assures us, “than the old man’s passage from this world to the next.” Things are more complicated, however, for his ambitious son, Archdeacon Grantly:

By no means easy were the emotions of him who sat there watching. He knew it must be now or never. He was already over fifty, and there was little chance that his friends who were now leaving office would soon return to it. No probable British prime minister but he who was now in, he who was so soon to be out, would think of making a bishop of Dr. Grantly. Thus he thought long and sadly, in deep silence, and then gazed at that still living face, and then at last dared to ask himself whether he really longed for his father’s death.

The effort was a salutary one, and the question was answered in a moment. The proud, wishful, worldly man sank on his knees by the bedside and, taking the bishop’s hand within his own, prayed eagerly that his sins might be forgiven him.

It is, as the provocateur who reads it aloud remarks, “one of the most impressive chapters Trollope ever wrote,” full of pathos, moral tension, and psychological insight. Our disgust at the Archdeacon’s selfishness is quickly countered by his own rueful self-knowledge and sincere penitence–and by Trollope’s explicit rebuttal of those who think he was “wicked to grieve for the loss of episcopal power, wicked to have coveted it, nay, wicked even to have thought about it, in the way and at the moments he had done so.” Ambition is natural in any profession, Trollope notes, and we “can hardly hope to raise the character of the pastor by denying to him the right to entertain the aspirations of a man.”

He rose with even greater vehemence to Archdeacon Grantly’s defense at the end of The Warden, a defense not against imagined external critics but against his own authorial choices:

We fear that he is represented in these pages as being worse than he is; but we have had to do with his foibles, and not with his virtues. We have seen only the weak side of the man, and have lacked the opportunity of bringing him forward on his strong ground. . . . On the whole, the Archdeacon of Barchester is a man doing more good than harm,—a man to be furthered and supported, though perhaps also to be controlled; and it is matter of regret to us that the course of our narrative has required that we should see more of his weakness than his strength.

Trollope typically resists absolutes of either virtue or vice–and that is one reason murder of the particularly calculated and brutal kind that takes place in Death in Holy Orders is so unimaginable in his world. Its cruelty and its finality obliterate ethical ambiguity; such an act disallows the nuance that is Trollope’s moral stock-in-trade.

That said, James and Trollope  do have a lot in common. James herself points to Austen, Eliot, and Trollope, rather than the Gothic or sensation novelists, as her chief fictional influences, and you see it in her patient, probing characterization as well as her meticulous attention to setting. Reading Death in Holy Orders so soon after The Warden I was struck by their shared interest in the Anglican Church as an institution defined both by its corporate identity and by the characters of the individual men who embody it, with their ideals and their faith but also their ambition, greed, and vanity. Both novels also depict the Church as an institution in which continuity and tradition are under constant pressure from changes without and within, and in which the laudable aim of preserving what is good can too easily be twisted into a justification for tolerating what is bad.

In both books, too, it is the self-righteous Archdeacon who epitomizes many of the worst tendencies of the priesthood they belong to, including self-righteousness, arrogance, and a preoccupation with worldly practicalities. While Trollope, as shown, wraps Archdeacon Grantly in the protective padding of his own humane understanding, James and her characters show no such forgiveness towards Archdeacon Crampton, who is universally hated. This is a formal necessity in a murder mystery, to be sure: more than one person must have a sufficient motive to be a plausible suspect, or where’s the puzzle? But it’s the specifics that are thematically revealing–and that turn out, in James’s case, to be a bit disturbing.

If Crampton, like Dr. Grantly, were “a fitting impersonation of the church militant here on earth,” a rigid defender of the status quo, the dislike both Archdeacons provoke could be neatly interpreted (as I think it can be, in Trollope’s case) as a call for the Church to reform, to live up to its professed spiritual ideals rather than insisting indignantly on its worldly authority and privilege. Instead, however, it turns out that one of the main reasons Crampton is disliked is that he was overzealous (as the other characters see it) in prosecuting a priest, Father John, accused of sexually molesting young boys. “The offences had been more a question of inappropriate fondling and caresses than of serious sexual abuse,” reflects Father Martin, another of the priests at the Seminary where Father John now resides, and the punishment might have been light if Crampton hadn’t “busied himself in finding additional evidence,” as a result of which Father John ended up serving time in jail. Father Martin considers Crampton’s pursuit of Father John “inexplicable”: “there was something irrational about the whole business.”

Everyone at the Seminary is sympathetic towards Father John, who seems as kind and unworldly as Trollope’s aged Bishop. If their tolerance were shown as priests closing ranks to protect one of their own, or the Church more generally, from damaging exposure, that would be one thing: then, again, a critical inference could be drawn–especially if solving the murder required them eventually to confront and regret their defense of a convicted pedophile, however otherwise likable he might be. Alternatively, I suppose, Father John’s case could have been used as an explicit model of sin, penance, and forgiveness: he has done his time, and if he were remorseful it could be worth exploring how or whether he was entitled to regain his standing in the Church. Unfortunately, though, the novel overall offers nothing to counter Father Martin’s perspective that Father John has been hard done by: that he has been punished with undue severity for a little harmless “fondling” of choir boys. It’s not just his fellow priests but also Emma Lavenham, English professor and emergent love interest for Commander Dalgliesh, who treats him with indulgent kindness; Dalgliesh himself, James’s moral avatar, expresses more concern about Father John’s trial and imprisonment (“which must,” he reflects, “have been an appallingly traumatic experience”) than he does about the priest’s young victims, whose trauma goes unacknowledged by anyone. Apparently it’s not that the Church needs to be held accountable for enabling and sheltering Father John but that his accusers, the Archdeacon among them, by making much ado about almost nothing, should be ashamed for blighting a good man’s life.

Death in Holy Orders does not ultimately turn on Father John’s history with the Archdeacon; his backstory is not central to the murder investigation but simply adds another (supposedly) unpleasant dimension to what we know about the murder victim. I suppose that could be an argument for not paying too much attention to it, except that the more I think about it, the more creepy that makes its treatment. It’s hard not to conclude that James herself considers accusations of that sort incidental–a lot of unnecessary and damaging fuss in a world, and a Church, with bigger problems. Surely, though, her reforming Archdeacon deserved at least as vigorous a defense as Trollope’s: that James allows Crampton to die cruelly and unmourned puts James out of step with the literary lineage she claimed.

What P. D. James Talks About When She Talks About Detective Fiction*

pdjamestalkingaboutI finally picked up P. D. James’s Talking About Detective Fiction, which I’ve been mildly interested in reading ever since it came out in 2009. I say ‘mildly’ because I’ve read all of James’s novels (some of them multiple times) as well as her autobiography and numerous interviews with her, not to mention essays, critical articles, and reviews about her work. I’ve also read quite a bit of historical and critical material on detective fiction more generally. So I didn’t expect any revelations from this little volume.

And there really aren’t any, although (because after all, James is both sharp and experienced!) her potted history of the genre is enriched by some interesting digressions on issues or writers of particular interest to her. She opens with a disclaimer — that she has “no wish to add to, and less to emulate, the many distinguished studies of the last two centuries,” aiming only at a “short personal account.” I actually wished her account had been more personal, as the survey material was so very familiar to me, whereas her commentary on, say, Ngaio Marsh, was more idiosyncratic and thus more thought-provoking:

Reading the best of Ngaio Marsh, I feel that there was always a dichotomy between her talent and the genre she chose. So why did she pursue it with such regularity, producing thirty-two novels in forty-eight years? . . . Marsh was a deeply reserved, indeed in some respects a private person, and she may well have felt that to extend the scope of her talent would be to betray aspects of her personality which she profoundly wished to remain secret.

 Her chapter on “four formidable women” of the Golden Age was in fact one of the most interesting parts of the book for me, along with her remark – made quite in passing – that if she’d begun her own series today “it is likely that I would choose a woman [detective]” as the main character. I find James somewhat evasive (here and elsewhere) on the gender politics of crime fiction. She says very little here about the woman detective she did create, Cordelia Gray (I think the only explicit reference to An Unsuitable Job for a Woman is in her discussion of setting), but I think it is widely agreed that in the second Cordelia Gray book she backed away from the feminist potential of the first, making Cordelia a much more conventional character and also much less effectual as an investigator. In the context of Kate Miskin, James has talked about the Met being a “very masculine organization,” though, and about the different experience women have of policing than men. In her chapter on the “four formidable women,” she emphasizes their work as “social history,” but also what they tell us of “the status of women in the years between the wars.” Then about Sara Paretsky (whom she calls “the most remarkable of the moderns”) she says,

No other female crime writer has so powerfully and effectively combined a well-crafted detective story with the novel of social realism and protest.

To me, James seems tempted towards a more explicitly feminist approach, but her Dalgleish novels, rich as they are as examples of social (and especially moral) exploration, have no air of “social protest.” It’s fun to imagine what kind of books — what kind of female protagonist — she would have given us if she had, as she imagines, started writing today!

But Talking About Detective Fiction is not the place to look for sustained analysis of either feminism and detection in general or of gender issues in James’s novels — or, indeed, of any aspect of detective fiction. Overall, the book is just an amiably brisk tour of the genre, and not even a very thorough one, as it spends a lot of its time on Golden Age figures, a bit on the hard-boiled turn, but none explicitly on, say, the police procedural (the subgenre to which most of James’s own novels belong). The discussion of recent developments in the genre has a haphazard quality because James draws her examples only from the writers she happens to have read –she makes the disarmingly honest comment that “new novels are being reviewed with respect, many of them by names unfamiliar to me.”

Still, if you didn’t know anything about detective fiction beyond the examples you yourself happened to have read, this would be a fine place to start, and it would give you lots of leads to follow up for further reading. (She completely convinced me that one Father Brown story is not enough.) And I admit that the absence of surprises or revelations was actually reassuring for me: it means I’m probably doing a decent job sorting things out for my Mystery & Detective Fiction class. As it happens, it turns out I’ve actually been using an excerpt from the book as the epigraph for my syllabus for many years — because I transcribed it from a lecture James gave in 1995 at the Smithsonian (once available online):

In his book Aspects of the Novel, E. M. Forster writes,

‘The king died, and then the queen died’ is a story. ‘The king died, and then the queen died of grief’ is a plot. . . . ‘The queen died, no one knew why, until it was discovered that it was through grief at the death of the king.’ This is a plot with a mystery in it, a form capable of high development.

To that I would add, ‘Everyone thought that the queen had died of grief until they discovered the puncture mark in her throat.’ That is a murder mystery, and it too is capable of high development.

*I feel as if I should apologize for reworking this tired titling trope. That the book really is called Talking About Detective Fiction made the temptation irresistible, but I promise not to do it again. Twice is enough! And, as my penance for being so unimaginative, I also promise never to title a post with any variation on the “Keep Calm and Carry On” meme either — fair enough?

This Week in My Classes: The Morals and the Stories

Though everyone is looking a bit peaked around the department these days–students and faculty alike–and I’m certainly feeling the usual pressures as we move into the term’s final phase, I am also finding myself intellectually invigorated by the novels we’re working through in all of my classes. It is just such a pleasure to be spending time reading and thinking about them, even under less than optimal conditions.

In The Victorian ‘Woman Question,’ we are finishing up The Mill on the Floss. Although I love the early volumes of this novel, with their evocative (if also rather vexed) representation of childhood, and their wonderful blend of sly humor and philosophical reflection (not to mention, of course, the brilliant characterizations of Tom and Maggie and their whole mish-mash of a family life), Books VI and VII really get me excited. I know they are disproportionately short, and who wouldn’t love it if Eliot had written out the great conflict between duty and desire more fully–but then, there’s something apt, too, about the headlong rush to the ending. Though we had read only to the kiss on the arm for today, it was clear from our discussion that the students both grasp the complexity of Maggie’s situation and are interested in it: there aren’t easy answers, the way there are in Tenant of Wildfell Hall, for instance. Brontë’s narrative is complex in other ways, but that there is a right way out of Helen’s difficulties is far less difficult to grasp, just as it is easier to see where she went wrong in the first place. Her attraction to Arthur Huntingdon, while understandable, is a sign of her moral immaturity. Maggie’s attraction to Stephen Guest, on the other hand, while equally misguided in its own way, is a symptom of something much deeper and much further from her control. I was struck on this reading with how much Eliot emphasizes that Maggie and Stephen are initially motivated by unconscious forces, feeling as if “in a dream,” unable to recognize or articulate the “laws of attraction” that compel them. Their drifting down the river is hardly a deliberate act, or at least its impelling motives are hardly clear to them–which of course is much of the use Eliot is making of the metaphorical pattern of rivers and water and currents and drifting right to the end of the book. Once Maggie wakes up, though, into full consciousness, then sexual attraction ceases to be an accidental cause and becomes a force to be reckoned with, and that reckoning is the process of morality–the engagement of human reason in “the labor of choice.” Though it’s possible (I reluctantly suppose!) to find something mechanical in Maggie and Stephen’s impassioned debate, I find it very moving precisely because it represents that struggle to think through feeling to right action:

Maggie trembled. She felt that the parting could not be effected suddenly. She must rely on a slower appeal to Stephen’s better self – she must be prepared for a harder task than that of rushing away while resolution was fresh. She sat down. Stephen, watching her with that look of desperation which had come over him like a lurid light, approached slowly from the door, seated himself close beside her and grasped her hand. Her heart beat like the heart of a frightened bird; but this direct opposition helped her – she felt her determination growing stronger.

‘Remember what you felt weeks ago,’ she began, with beseeching earnestness – ‘remember what we both felt – that we owed ourselves to others, and must conquer every inclination which could make us false to that debt. We have failed to keep our resolutions – but the wrong remains the same.’

‘No, it does not remain the same,’ said Stephen. ‘We have proved that it was impossible to keep our resolutions. We have proved that the feeling which draws us towards each other is too strong to be overcome. That natural law surmounts every other, – we can’t help what it clashes with.’

‘It is not so, Stephen – I’m quite sure that is wrong. I have tried to think it again and again – but I see, if we judged in that way, there would be a warrant for all treachery and cruelty – we should justify breaking the most sacred ties that can ever be formed on earth. If the past is not to bind us, where can duty lie? We should have no law but the inclination of the moment.’

‘But there are ties that can’t be kept by mere resolution,’ said Stephen, starting up and walking about again. ‘What is outward faithfulness? Would they have thanked us for anything so hollow as constancy without love?’

Maggie did not answer immediately. She was undergoing an inward as well as an outward contest. At last she said, with a passionate assertion of her conviction as much against herself as against him,

‘That seems right – at first – but when I look further, I’m sure it is not right. Faithfulness and constancy mean something else besides doing what is easiest and pleasantest to ourselves. They mean renouncing whatever is opposed to the reliance others have in us – whatever would cause misery to those whom the course of our lives has made dependent on us. If we – if I had been better, nobler – those claims would have been so strongly present with me, I should have felt them pressing on my heart so continually, just as they do now in the moments when my conscience is awake – that the opposite feeling would never have grown in me, as it has done – it would have been quenched at once – I should have prayed for help so earnestly – I should have rushed away, as we rush from hideous danger. I feel no excuse for myself – none – I should never have failed towards Lucy and Philip as I have done, if I had not been weak and selfish and hard – able to think of their pain without a pain to myself that would have destroyed all temptation. O, what is Lucy feeling now? – She believed in me – she loved me – she was so good to me – think of her….’

One of my students remarked that when she studied The Mill on the Floss in another class, they discussed Maggie and Stephen’s relationship as a great romantic love story–thwarted, I suppose, by “society,” though she didn’t go into detail about their interpretation. I admit, I find that a puzzling take on these two, who seem so ill-suited to each other in character and taste, and also, as we see here, in values. That their passion cuts across these factors is precisely what makes it so surprising and dangerous. If only there were a great romantic option for Maggie in the novel! Instead, she’s torn between three loves (Tom, Philip, and Stephen), each with his own demand on her feelings and loyalties. Where is she to go–what is she to do? Short of leaving them all behind and starting over, there is no way forward for her, and she can’t cut them off because as she tells Philip (become, poor fellow, her “external conscience” rather than her beloved), she “desires no future that will break the ties of the past.” Given that, her final choice is as inevitable as its result.

In 19th-Century Fiction we are nearly finished with Hard Times. I was wondering about my decision to rotate it into the reading list again after a few years of Great Expectations and a special turn for Bleak House, but I’m actually finding it really compelling. The structure is taut (if every so often the sentiment is a bit flabby) and it’s such a very dark novel. We were discussing Louisa today and her descent down Mrs Sparsit’s staircase. I don’t know another novelist who could (or would!) stretch out a conceit like that across not just paragraphs but whole chapters. And throughout the novel there is such a tight integration between Dickens’s prose and his thinking, every thought infused with fancy so that as we read we live the novel’s principles. It’s not his most subtle novel, but subtlety will get you only so far, as Trollope conceded when he wrote about “Mr Popular Sentiment” in The Warden: the artist who paints for the millions must use glaring colours, and might make more difference than all his own fine shades of gray. And what subtle novelist could make me cry the way Dickens does every time I read the chapter called “The Starlight”? Before the week is out I want to bring in some excerpts from Martha Nussbaum’s Poetic Justice: it occurred to me during today’s discussion that we could think in more contemporary terms about the social effects of his literary strategies.

In Mystery and Detective Fiction it’s a Victorian kind of week too, because we’ve moved on to P. D. James’s An Unsuitable Job for a Woman. James has always been explicit about her interest in 19th-century fiction, especially Austen, Eliot, and Trollope, and I think in many ways Unsuitable Job is very much in their tradition. It is a kind of Bildungsroman, or so I will propose in Wednesday’s class, and the central conflict is between a calculating kind of utilitarianism (on the villain’s part, of course!) and Cordelia’s passionate humanitarianism: “what use is it to make the world more beautiful if the people in it can’t love one another?” she exclaims, and in that moment she is close kin to Louisa as she falls on the floor before her father, Mr. Gradgrind, proclaiming “your philosophy and your teaching will not save me.” Both make the case for the wisdom of the heart over the wisdom of the head.

This Week in My Classes: Worlds in Crisis–Mary Barton and P. D. James

After last week’s big effort towards launching the students in my survey class on their research assignments, we spent our first two classes this week with Mary Barton: no PowerPoint, no overheads, just me, them, and the novel. My impression (though it is necessarily impressionistic, since I can’t even really focus on most of their faces in our particular room) is that they are finding the reading a bit of a slog right now. This is not really surprising, since for many of them this is their first experience reading Victorian fiction (probably, any long fiction, though since many of them are English majors, I shouldn’t assume the worst, I suppose). And even those who have ventured into the nineteenth century before are more likely to have read Austen or the Brontes than any Gaskell, much less Gaskell at her most sentimental and didactic. Wait–that’s probably Ruth, so they should consider themselves lucky to be reading a novel in which there is a lot of action, including a fire (with a daring rescue), a murder, a boat chase, a trial scene, and a touching deathbed reconciliation. In Ruth, as I actually told them yesterday, the basic story is that Ruth is seduced and then spends 400 pages being very, very sorry. On Monday I focused on Gaskell’s strategies for softening her readers up to the working-class families who make up the large majority of the novel’s population, only, once she’s made us all cozy with them, to start bumping them off in large numbers. The string of deaths in the first 90 pages of the novel really is quite shocking, which of course is the point: we need to ask, as the characters themselves as, why their lives are so precarious. We looked also at John Barton and the process by which he becomes a radical, a Chartist, and eventually a [spoiler alert!] murderer. Gaskell is careful to show the social and economic causes of his alienation, hostility, and violence: his Chartism is not the result of any moral failing on his part, but of his desperate circumstances, and, most important to her analysis, of his perception (largely justified) that those around him with power and money do not listen or care. Communication between the classes: this is, essentially, Gaskell’s prescription for solving the ‘condition of England’ problem, and of course her novel is explicitly offered as an aid to that conciliatory process. Mary Barton is another example, that is, of a novel in which the characters have difficulties that would be solved if only they had the opportunity to read the novel they inhabit. (Vanity Fair is another one, or so I have argued.) Is there a name for this kind of self-referential intertextuality?

If Mary Barton were called John Barton, as Gaskell once planned, then it would be a more radical book than it is, but in Mary Barton John’s story is–not sidelined, exactly, but nearly overwhelmed by Mary’s story, which is in some ways a predictable love triangle. Yesterday we (well, I–Monday, I hope to really bring them into the discussion, since by then they should have read the whole book!) focused on how that story, and women more generally, fit into the novel’s larger interests. I looked especially at Mary’s Aunt Esther, who is lured by her experience of financial independence (she worked in a factory) to desire more social mobility than the novel sees fit: she eventually falls for a rich man and then becomes a fallen woman, and she wanders the margins of the town, and the novel, as a cautionary tale for Mary. Tomorrow we will spend our tutorials on the ever-exciting topic of proper MLA-style citations, then Monday we wrap up our class work on the novel with, I hope, some vigorous debate about the novel’s proposed solution to its problems.

In Women and Detective Fiction we’re reading P. D. James’s An Unsuitable Job for a Woman. I very much admire this novel, which exemplifies James’s desire to use the structure of the mystery novel as a frame on which to hang (an unfortunate verb, in this particular case!) issues of character and theme. I was rereading its conclusion today soon after reading this eloquent and depressing post at Tales from the Reading Room about the recent catastrophic budget cuts being proposed for higher education in the UK, which include potentially reductions of as much as 100% for humanities education. This juxtaposition gave unusual resonance to the confrontation between Cordelia and Sir Ronald Callender, who has murdered his own son in order to protect the funding for his laboratory. In response to Cordelia’s appeal to love, Callender makes an overtly utilitarian argument for his crime:

[D]on’t say that what I’m doing here isn’t worth one single human life. . . The greatest good of the greatest number. Beside that fundamental declaration of common sense all other philosophies are metaphysical abstractions.

Callender is a ‘conservationist,’ that is, an environmentalist. So in some sense he is pursuing the ‘greatest good of the greatest number.’ But Cordelia confronts his narrow definition of ‘good’ with an appeal to humanity (‘what is the use of making the world more beautiful if the people who live in it can’t love one another?’), and it’s surely no accident that the individual victim here is a humanist and that one of the battlegrounds is Cambridge, which Cordelia idealizes as “ordered beauty for the service of learning” before she realizes that its scholarly pursuits have at least two faces: in Bunyan’s words, which she quotes, “then I saw that there was a way to hell even from the gates of heaven.” That James takes Cordelia’s side is suggested by Sir Ronald’s role as the villain of the piece. He has created his own Frankenstein’s monster in the person of his lab assistant, Lunn, whose subservience to his scientific master nearly leads to Cordelia’s death. In a genre that typically rewards objectivity and detachment, Cordelia (though just barely) survives and succeeds because of her attachments and loyalties, her refusal to allow love to be devalued, even after death. Though in the end she causes at least one, arguably two, deaths, and lies even to the point of becoming an accomplice to a murder, Dalgliesh concludes that “she’s absolutely without guilt.” Using the skeletal apparatus of a crime novel, then, James has in fact written a novel about values, and in particular about the conflict between two visions of learning, one coldly scientific and the other youthful, naive, idealistic, but ultimately worth fighting for–a novel, as it turns out, well suited for the current moment.

Who Cares Who Killed … Whoever It Was?

I’ve just finished reading the latest releases by two of my favourite mystery novelists, P. D. James‘s The Private Patient and Elizabeth George‘s Careless in Red. (I know they’ve been out for a while; I was waiting for the paperback editions.) Both books are better than fine as examples of their type–though George is in fact American, both authors write what we could call highbrow British police procedurals, leisurely in pace, attentive to setting, driven by character more than plot. Both write well; James’s prose is more economical, while George’s would (IMHO) benefit from more stringent editing, but both offer their readers intelligent complexity of language and thought. The depth of character and theme both achieve justifies James’s repeated assertion that crime fiction provides a useful structure for the novelist without necessarily limiting the literary potential of her work.

Yet for all their virtues, I found myself unexpectedly dissatisfied with both of these novels, for reasons that are based in their form. Often in my course on mystery and detective fiction we talk about the limits working in this genre sets on certain literary elements, chief among them characterization. A mystery novelist can not afford to mine the depths of her characters as long as they are suspects in the case. This technical limitation is most apparent in writers of ‘puzzle mysteries,’ such as Agatha Christie, but even with writers who develop their people quite fully, as James and George do, an element of opacity is required, not just about their actions, but about their feelings and values, else we will know too quickly “whodunnit.” (There are exceptions, of course, as when some of the novel is openly from the point of view of the criminal, though often then we have inside knowledge without knowing the character’s outward identity.) The same limits do not, however, apply to the detectives–which is one reason, as historians and critics of the genre have pointed out, for the appeal of the mystery series. Across a series of novels, we can come to know the detectives very well, and a developmental arc much longer than that of any single case emerges. Though the case provides the occasion, after a while the real interest lies with the detective.

That, I think, is very much what has happened with both James’s Adam Dalgliesh and George’s Thomas Lynley. Every one of their books is populated by a new array of people, but they are the ones with whom we have longstanding relationships–remarkably longstanding, indeed, as James has been publishing Dalgliesh mysteries since Cover Her Face in 1962, and the first Lynley novel, A Great Deliverance, was published in 1988. And though Dalgliesh and Lynley have always been complex and interesting protagonists, in recent books so much of significance has happened in their lives that I turned to these latest instalments motivated far less by curiosity about the latest corpse than by the desire to know how things are going with them. While actually reading the books, I took a fairly perfunctory interest in the investigations but I was keenly interested in what came to seem the regrettably few sections focusing on, for instance, Dalgliesh’s relationship with Emma Lavenham (and not just because it’s a little victory for English professors everywhere). The real novelistic potential of The Private Patient emerges, I think, in the scene in which Emma confronts Dalgliesh in his professional capacity and we see, fleetingly, the difficulty that even these two extremely intelligent and independent people might have reconciling law and love, justice and humanity. But this material is not developed, and in fact the novel in which it does become the focus would have to leave the genre of detection quite far behind. (Gaudy Night is a rare example of a novel that I believe successfully balances human and literary interests with mystery elements, partly by integrating the case so thoroughly with the personal aspects of the story and making both the detection and the romance converge on the same themes.) Careless in Red spends more time on Lynley’s personal situation, but again his struggle to move forward after the tragedy of two novels ago (see how I’m avoiding spoilers, in case anyone hasn’t already read this excellent series?) is subordinated to the case at hand–though George does set the case up with thematic echoes of his tragedy.

I can hardly fault either author for the relative weight they give to the professional, rather than personal, business of their characters. That’s the kind of book they have undertaken to write. Also, as their protagonists are professional detectives, policing is integral not just to their work, but to their identities. But I do wonder if even James, the acknowledged Grande Dame of the genre, hasn’t finally shown us the end point (dare I say the dead end?) of a commitment to this genre. Just introducing the kind of story arcs they have given their protagonists recently suggests that James and George might be chafing at the constraints of detective fiction, wanting to write a straight novel of psychological and moral development, a novel in which incident is second to character, a novel squarely in the tradition James has always claimed as hers–that of Austen and George Eliot and Trollope. At any rate, that’s the kind of novel I find I wish they would write. Over the years they have succeeded in getting me quite emotionally involved in the lives of their main characters (and not just Dalgliesh and Lynley, either, but Kate Miskin, Barbara Havers, Simon and Deborah St. James…). The corpse and suspects, however, are never more than passing acquaintances.

On a somewhat tangential note, I was struck reading The Private Patient by the elegaic note on which it ends, in a passage which also echoes the wonderful ‘squirrel’s heartbeat’ passage from Chapter XX of Middlemarch:

She thought, The world is a beautiful and terrible place. Deeds of horror are committed every minute and in the end those we love die. If the screams of all the earth’s living creatures were one scream of pain, surely it would shake the stars. But we have love. It may seem a frail defense against the horrors of the world but we must hold fast and believe in it, for it is all we have.

Though of course I would not rush to assume that a character’s views are those of the author, it is hard not to read this final paragraph from a novelist who has spent nearly five decades telling us about “deeds of horror” as a reminder, even a consolation, that even in a murder mystery, death need not define life.

Weekend Miscellany: P. D. James, Persephone Books, James Wood

Some articles and reviews of interest:

At The Times, there’s an interesting interview with P. D. James, who has a new Adam Dalgleish novel coming out. James has often remarked that she sees herself working in the tradition of 19th-century domestic realism as much as the detective novel; her interest in the Victorians shows up again here, as does her conviction that writing mystery fiction frees up an author to focus on character and theme:

“There’s huge fascination in examining the human personality under the trauma of a murder investigation. All of us present a carapace to the world that conceals things we wish to keep to ourselves. In a murder investigation, these defences are often torn down.” This gives a novelist “a huge opportunity”, one particularly valued by this writer, who, besides filling notebooks with “plotting and planning”, sets store by knowing her characters intimately. “I move in with them. I sympathise with the view Trollope expressed that you have to get up with your characters and live with them all day.” (read the rest here)

Also at The Times, there’s a piece on Persephone Books:

There can be little doubt that Persephone, which reprints lost or forgotten women’s classics, has filled a gap left by the bigger Virago. Quieter, more interior and less obviously feminist than the latter, it celebrates its first decade as the champion of the kind of book trendy that literati like to dismiss as dull and domestic.

Virago’s founder, Carmen Callil, when recently describing how her team chose whether or not to reissue a particular author, would dismiss rejects as “below the Whipple line”, referring to what she called, with withering dismissal, “a popular novelist of the 1930s and 1940s whose prose and content absolutely defeated us”. Persephone, as it happens, has Dorothy Whipple as one of its star authors, alongside Virginia Woolf, Mollie Panter-Downes and classic children’s authors such as Noel Streatfeild and Richmal Crompton, whose adult novels have long been out of print.

“I think Dorothy Whipple is compulsively readable and perceptive, and the 20th-century Mrs Gaskell,” Beauman says. “I’m passionate about her work.”

So, indeed are Persephone’s customers, who have fallen upon its 78 reissued novels with joy and ensure sales of between 3,000 and 10,000 a book. As the shop – which sells Persephone mugs, dressing gowns and cards behind a window dressed with a felt cloche hat and an old typewriter – suggests, being a Persephone reader is almost a lifestyle choice for intelligent women who want to settle down with what has been described as “a hot-water-bottle novel”.

Yet alongside bestselling nostalgia collections such as Kay Smallshaw’s How to Run Your Home Without Help are darker tales, such as Penelope Mortimer’s Daddy’s Gone A-Hunting, and wholly enchanting adult fairytales such as The Making of a Marchioness by Frances Hodgson Burnett.

These are the kind of tremendously English books often enjoyed (and parodied) by the heroines in Nancy Mitford and Stella Gibbons. They do, however, have a serious readership, and Persephone’s list of those who have written prefaces for the reissues include Penelope Fitzgerald, P.D. James and Valerie Grove. (read the whole story here)

I don’t remember seeing any Persephone titles in bookstores here, but now I’ll have my eyes open. And if they don’t have Canadian distribution, there’s always the excellent Book Depository (free international shipping!).

Better late than never: the New York Times weighs in on James Wood’s How Fiction Works:

The grosser elements of fiction — story, plot and setting, as well as the powerful drive of certain authors to expand or alter perception by exalting the vernacular, absorbing the anarchic and ennobling the vulgar that has impelled such messy master­works as “Huckleberry Finn,” “On the Road” and Denis Johnson’s “Jesus’ Son” — intrude not at all on Wood’s presentation, which proceeds in the steady, dark-gowned, unruffled manner of a high-court judge. Wood seems firm in his conviction that accounting for How Fiction Works needn’t involve bewildering digressions into Why Writers Write or Why Readers Read. For him, that matter seems settled. They do it to perfect the union of Wood’s vaunted “artifice and verisimilitude,” two virtues he treats as though carved on a stone tablet, and thereby to promote the cause of civilization; not, as is so frequently the case outside the leathery environs of the private library, to escape the constrictions of civilization, redraw its boundaries, decalcify its customs, or revive the writer’s or reader’s own spirits by dancing on its debris. (read the whole review here)

This review (which concludes with blog-worthy snarkiness, “there is one question this volume answers conclusively: Why Readers Nap”) is not nearly as favorable as Frank Kermode‘s in The New Republic a little while back. How Fiction Works has certainly received a great deal of attention, in print and on blogs: here are a few more links, in case you just can’t get enough criticism of criticism. You have to give the man credit for getting a lot of people talking about what makes good literary criticism.

P. D. James, Time to Be in Earnest

It’s Reading Week here, which means a slight break from the day-to-day pressures of the term. Still, one’s pedagogical conscience is never easy, so I’ve been balancing work and relaxation by reviewing P. D. James’s memoir, Time to Be in Earnest, with an eye to teaching An Unsuitable Job for a Woman again in a week or two. James’s subtitle is “A Fragment of an Autobiography,” which rightly suggests a work that is neither tightly crafted nor expansive; it is an uneven but ultimately, I think, engaging mix of simple diary entries (her success has made her a very busy woman, we learn), recollections of her earlier life, and reflections on subjects of interest to her, from the history of crime fiction (of course) to current events such as the death of Princess Diana (the memoir begins in August 1997) or her experience serving on the jury for the Booker Prize, about which she is certainly frank (“Our final choice of Penelope Lively’s Moon Tiger was only arrived at after a long argument which nearly made us late for the Guildhall dinner, and the choice was not unanimous”). (For what it’s worth, Moon Tiger is one of my favourite books, and would probably have gotten my vote!) Throughout, her strong, if slightly crotchety, personality provides the unifying thread; she is opinionated and decisive, especially in her literary judgments (on The God of Small Things, for instance, she remarks that “it seems to me somewhat lush and overwritten, a beginner’s attempt at a Naipaul or a Rushdie”), impatient with pretense and show, and unapologetic about her own chosen form:

I love structure in a novel and the detective story is probably the most structured of popular fiction. Some would say that it is the most artificial, but then all fiction is artificial, a careful rearrangement by selection of the writer’s internal life in a form designed to make it accessible and attractive to a reader. The construction of a detective story might be formulaic; the writing need not be. And I was setting out, I remember, with high artistic ambitions. I didn’t expect to make a fortune, but I did hope one day to be regarded as a good and serious novelist. It seemed to me, as it has to others, that there can be no better apprenticeship for an aspiring novelist than a classical detective story with its technical problems of balancing a credible mystery with believable characters and a setting which both complements and integrates the action. And I may have needed to write detective fiction for the same reasons as aficionados enjoy the genre: the catharsis of carefully controlled terror, the bringing of order out of disorder, the reassurance that we live in a comprehensible and moral universe and that, although we may not achieve justice, we can at least achieve an explanation and a solution. (12-13)

She talks often, actually, about the particular importance of setting in her novels; this is a topic we will address at length in class as we work on Unsuitable Job, in which the beauty of Cambridge provides a particularly poignant (as well as thematically significant) backdrop for the horrors of the story. An expert on the history of her own genre, James is also widely read in Victorian and contemporary fiction, though she is generally more enthusiastic about the former than the latter. Here, in a passage that exemplifies the bookish, even erudite, yet somewhat meandering or incidental quality of the book, she quotes one of my own favourite lines about the novel, Henry James writing on Trollope (an unlikely alliance, perhaps?) then finds herself meditating on the changing role of fiction in society:

One quotation I would most like to see in any revised edition [of the Oxford Dictionary of Literary Quotations, which she was reviewing for the Sunday Times] are the words of Henry James, writing of Anthony Trollope, “We trust to novels to maintain us in the practice of great indignations and great generosities.” It is an elevanted ideal of fiction, but, thinking it over, I am not sure that it is any longer true. Dickens could write a novel which would move his readers to pity or outrage and act as a spur to action, but surely today it is television which, sometimes powerfully, sometimes superficially, examines for us the dilemmas and concerns of our age, reflects our lives and opens us to the lives of others. . . .

In particular, the so-called literary novel too often seems removed from the day-to-day concerns of ordinary people. The very description ‘literary novel’ is, for many readers, an indication that the work is not intended for them. With some notable exceptions–David Lodge is one–the worlds of industry and commerce, the very means by which society gains the wealth which supports our art and literature, are alien to the modern novelist, perhaps because they are worlds few of us have experienced. Have we a responsibility to break free from our cabined preoccupations, our fascination with history and our literary exploitations of the evils of the past and address ourselves to more contemporary themes? Is there a novelist today who could write–or would try to write–War and Peace or Trollope’s The Way We Live Now with its brilliant portrayal of the financier Melmotte, the nineteenth-century Robert Maxwell?

Unless the novel, particularly the so-called literary novel, can reach the hearts and minds of ordinary people, reading will increasingly become a minority interest. . . It would be futile, and indeed silly, to suggest that novelists today can recover the hierarchical and moral certainties of Victorian England. Some writers would argue that we can no longer comfortably write in the tradition of social realism because we no longer know what we mean by reality. I suppose the extremes of literary experimentation are some novelists’ ways of explaining the arbitrariness and chaos of human existence, an attempt to express the inexpressible. Thomas Hardy wrote that the secret of fiction lies in the adjustment of things uneven to things eternal and universal. But what adjustment can a writer make if, in a world governed for him by chance and chaos, he is no longer able to believe in things eternal and universal? (77-78)

On that note, it’s interesting to note that James herself is a devoted, but not pious, Anglican, meaning she appreciates and participates in religious ritual but finds that compatible with what seems a fairly loose commitment to specific doctrines.

There’s much more of interest in the book, especially for fans of her novels or of detective fiction more generally. I’ll end here with some of the rules she provides, first for reviewers, and second for those adapting books for television. First, from her advice for reviewers:

  1. Always read the whole of the book before you write your review.
  2. Don’t undertake to review a book if it is written in a genre you particularly dislike.
  3. Review the book the author has written, not the one you think he/she should have written.
  4. If you have prejudices–and you’re entitled to them–face them frankly and, if appropriate, acknowledge them.

And some sage words for TV people:

  1. [her #6] Must we always have a car chase? Men may like them (although I can’t think why); most women find them boring in the extreme. And if you must have a car chase, must it go on for so long? It need last only as long as it takes us to go and make the tea.

The book itself ends with her engaging address to the Jane Austen Society of North America on “Emma Considered as a Detective Story,” well worth reading. Finally, if you want to listen to James speak for herself, try this excellent lecture on “The Craft of the Mystery Story,” which she gave at the Smithsonian in 1995.