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Wednesday 4 April 2018

Lois Austen-Leigh (1883-1968)

The  Golden Age
Lois Austen-Leigh (1883-1968)
by Carol Westron

Many of the lesser known but recently republished female mystery authors of the Golden Age had literary and artistic antecedents that encouraged them to write, but few had such eminent footsteps to follow in than Lois Austen-Leigh, the great, great-niece of Jane Austen.

Lois Austen-Leigh’s father was the Rector of Winterbourne in Gloucester, and it was here that Austen-Leigh was born and brought up, until the family moved to Wargrave in Berkshire. Austen-Leigh kept diaries throughout her youth and these reveal a middle-class young woman with no money worries, enjoying a comfortable life-style. One unconventional note was that Austen-Leigh apparently livened up her duties in her father’s parish by riding a motor-bike. Austen-Leigh’s uncle, Augustus Austen-Leigh (1840-1905) was Provost of King’s College, Cambridge, and Austen-Leigh’s visits to him laid the groundwork of her knowledge of university life and traditions.

In the First World War, between 1916-1918, Austen-Leigh worked as a gardener for the Red Cross in Reading, while her sister, Honor, was a nurse in Malta and France. After the Great War, Austen-Leigh was a companion to her widowed aunt. After her aunt’s death in 1926, Austen-Leigh had a house built at Aldeburgh on the Suffolk coast for herself and her sister. It is not clear how the daughter of a vicar could afford to have Cob House designed and built. Possibly she received an inheritance from her aunt.

Austen-Leigh and her sister became part of the cultural community of Aldeburgh. The most famous local resident was Benjamin Britten, who played the piano at their home. Author M.R. James was a family friend and set a ghost story at a nearby inn. It was at this time, at Cob House, that Austen Leigh wrote her four mystery stories, using the desk at which her illustrious great, great-aunt had written her immortal books.

Between 1931 and 1938, Austen-Leigh wrote and published four novels: The Incredible Crime (1931,) Haunted Farm (1932,) Rude Justice (1936,) and the The Gobblecock Mystery (1938.)
The title The Gobblecock Mystery has received a lot of humorous comments and some doubts have been expressed about whether any 21st century publisher would dare to publish it without renaming it. However, in defence of the author, Gobblecock is a real place and Gobblecock Hall was an old mansion on the Suffolk coast. I even discovered a soldiers’ song from the Second World War when the Suffolk coast was being prepared to repel invasion. This is the first verse:
Trench digging,
Gobblecock Hall!
Gobblecock Hall!
We’re going out to Gobblecock Hall;
With spade and with maul,
Wire cutters and all,
We’re going to march out to Gobblecock Hall.
(quoted from Londoners on the Western Front by David Martin.)
All of Austen-Leigh’s four books were all published by Herbert Jenkins and received good reviews. Austen-Leigh spoke deprecatingly of her literary ambitions, saying that she only wrote to ‘keep herself in champagne.’

In 1939 the Second World War broke out and Aldeburgh was a crucial area in the efforts to repel a German invasion and Lois and Honor Austen-Leigh both worked for the emergency services throughout the war. Although she lived for twenty-three years after the war, Austen-Leigh did not write any more novels for the last thirty years of her life and her work had been forgotten until The Incredible Crime was republished by the British Library Crime Classics in 2017.

The Incredible Crime is set partly in a fictional college in Cambridge University and partly in the medieval house of Wellende Old Hall in coastal Suffolk, the area where Austen-Leigh had chosen to settle. The heroine of the novel is Prudence Pinsent, ‘the only child of the Master of Prince’s College, a retired bishop.’ Prudence is in her thirties and is ‘singularly good-looking – she had a face that should have adorned, and would have been a valuable asset to, a saint in a stained-glass window, surmounted by a head of glorious red-brown hair, and when on duty in Cambridge she comported herself with the utmost dignity, though she reserved to herself the right to swear like a trooper when she chose.’
Although Prudence is the heroine of the book, there are many other Third Person viewpoint protagonists, ranging from professors at the university through to a Scotland Yard detective who was a Secret Service hero in the First World War and, improbably, although nearing the age of sixty, can still pass himself off in a crowd as an undergraduate.

The book starts off as a comedy of manners as Prudence is introduced decrying modern detective fiction: ‘“What im-possible... in-credible... unutterable bilge; and that,” said Prudence Pinsent, pitching the book across the room, “is modern detective fiction.”’ Prudence is attending a weekly Bridge party with three wives of university professors, but the main purpose of the gathering seems to be gossip rather than cards, which gives Prudence the opportunity to complain about the hardships of her extremely comfortable lifestyle as her father’s hostess:
“... Fellows’ wives that are, and Fellows’ wives to be, and the Lodge run like a private hotel for them all.”... “why, d- it all, after the war even undergraduates had wives.!”’
Later in the chapter the conversation turns to Professor Temple, a family connection of Prudence, and a scientist of genius, who had enjoyed too much port after a college dinner and had boasted of having created a vegetable alkaloid poison that can kill without leaving a trace. To make it even easier for a killer to remain undetected, the poisoner could make himself immune by taking small, regular doses of the poison. Prudence spends as much time as possible visiting Lord Wellende of Old Wellende Hall, who is also a family connection and a cousin of Professor Temple. The main purpose of these visits is hunting, which obsesses both Prudence and Lord Wellende. On the way to Old Wellende Hall, Prudence encounters an old acquaintance, Captain Harry Studde, who was once a naval captain and is now a coastguard. Studde confides in her that there is smuggling going on around the Suffolk coast, as there has been for generations, but this time it is smuggling in a particularly dangerous and addictive hallucinogenic drug. He tells her that the servants of her relation, Lord Wellende, are suspected of being involved, although he does not tell her that he suspects his lordship of being behind the smuggling scheme. Both Prudence and the Coastguard condemn drug smuggling, but both are happy to ignore, indeed condone, the smuggling of other goods as traditional and good sport. ‘Decent smuggling Studde would have had plenty of sympathy with.’ In fact, they confess that they have both smuggled items through customs in their younger days.

Tracing the drug smugglers is the main crime thrust of the book. However, there is also the fear, confided to Prudence by an elderly maid at Old Wellende Hall, that she suspects Lord Wellende is being poisoned by his cousin, Professor Temple. This, of course, ties in with the reports of Professor Temple’s drunken claims that he had created an untraceable poison.

Although The Incredible Crime is, in part, a mystery story, the plot is by far the weakest element and is often very confusing and rambling and the ending is unsatisfactory. It cannot be accurately described as a murder mystery, as the only death occurs at the very end of Chapter 29 and is solved by the police officers by the middle of the final chapter, Chapter 31. The murder was not what the police or Prudence had been investigating and the drug smuggling is wrapped up in a couple of paragraphs and involves a very peripheral character. The actual crime that was committed by two of the major characters was very weak, and possibly not even a crime at the time. The heroine, Prudence, was not responsible for solving any of the crimes, major or minor. I found myself in agreement with the Amazon reviewer who stated, ‘It needed a stronger plot and a lot less fox hunting.’

One of the most interesting things about The Incredible Crime are its links back to the writing of Jane Austen. At one point a professor who is reluctantly helping the police, counters the detective’s suspicions of evil-doing by quoting from Northanger Abbey and the improbability of such terrible deeds happening in ‘the country and age in which we live.’ However, neither the title of the book nor the author are named, Jane Austen being referred to merely as ‘A parson’s daughter.’ More subtle is the likeness between Austen-Leigh’s Prudence Pinsent and Jane Austen’s Emma (1816.) Both are the daughters of reasonably wealthy men who depend upon them to act as their hostess and can give them a comfortable lifestyle, and both fathers allow a great deal of latitude in their behaviour. Both Emma and Prudence are self-satisfied and determined to have their own way, buoyed up by the certainty of their own infallibility. As one friend says to another about Prudence, ‘“- yes, I quite agree with you, she is not a snob as so many people say, she’s very fastidious.”’ Another close friend confides to her husband, ‘“I can’t quite imagine Prudence in love with anyone, you know. I wouldn’t criticise her to anyone but you, but there’s something hard about her.”’ Austen-Leigh is skilled at creating character both by what they do and say, and by the way other people speak about them, and the Prudence she reveals is a self-centred snob who, like Jane Austen’s Emma, has no idea of how she may appear to other people. At the start of the book Prudence is, quite frankly showing off, confident that whatever she says or does cannot be criticised.

There is also a certain sly humour in the book, which is occasionally worthy of Jane Austen herself, as in the last pages, when Prudence, like Emma, has succumbed to love for a masterful man. A hunting friend is shocked when ‘she once heard Prudence maintain in public, and that without a blush of shame, that a good seat on a horse was not a necessity to a good man,’ and comes to the conclusion that, ‘Prudence with all the makings of a fine woman had been ruined; and that by the pernicious influences of Cambridge.’
Another strong point of Austen-Leigh’s writing are her excellent descriptions of the Suffolk countryside and the ancient Old Wellende Hall. Equally vivid are the descriptions of fox hunting and the strong authorial assumption that hunting is not merely right and proper but the highest form of sport. ‘Non-hunting man as he was himself, Studde yet had good blood in him – and there was something that responded to the music of a hound’s first whimper on the line and the wild joy of the sudden discordant screech of “gone away.”

It is interesting to note that the well-known writer and academic, M.R. James was a friend of the Austen-Leigh family and succeeded Austen-Leigh’s father as Provost of King’s College, but he refused to write a review of The Incredible Crime. This came to light quite recently, when some of James’ letters were published posthumously. The reason for this refusal was apparently James’ dislike of the description of Prudence, the daughter of a bishop, swearing for two minutes, without stopping and without repeating herself, in a manner that startled even Studde, a retired naval officer. It is easy to dismiss James’ objections to Prudence’s swearing (which is merely stated, no bad language is actually used in the book apart from ‘d-’) as the prejudices of a reactionary. Certainly, James condemned the work of Aldous Huxley and James Joyce and supported the ban on Radcliffe Hall’s exploration of lesbian relationships, The Well of Loneliness (1928,) although he did enjoy a good detective novel, such as those written by Agatha Christie. However, James was also an extremely skilled and experienced writer, who in a 1929 essay advocates reticence in writing. ‘Reticence may be an elderly doctrine to preach, yet from the artistic point of view, I am sure it is a sound one. Reticence conduces to effect, blatancy ruins it, and there is much blatancy in a lot of recent stories.’ Perhaps James had a point that could be applied to The Incredible Crime.

After the Second World War, a lot of the lesser known writers of the Golden Age were forgotten, although the more successful continued to write and to flourish. Of the five ‘Queens of Crime’ only Dorothy L. Sayers gave up detective fiction, preferring to devote her last years to classical and religious translation. However, Sayers’ reputation was already well established, and she had been too active in organisations such as the Detective Club to be forgotten. Agatha Christie, Ngaio Marsh, Josephine Tey and Margery Allingham kept on writing through the Second World War and after, indeed Christie wrote and published at least twelve books between 1939 and 1945, while working in a hospital pharmacy in London. Austen-Leigh had a great deal going for her, including the money and leisure to write and a ‘celebrity author’ in her ancestry, whose fame she had exploited, albeit subtly, in her first book. It is possible that if she had continued writing through the Second World War, or had taken it up again afterwards, she would have retained a place in the public’s memory, but that is something that no-one will ever know.

Thanks to Kirsten T. Saxton for her excellent introduction at the beginning of The Incredible Crime, which supplied me with useful information about an author whose biographical details are extremely elusive, as are copies of Austen-Leigh’s three later books.

The Incredible Crime
Published by The British Library. ISBN: 978-0712356022. ASIN: B06ZXYRRR8

Carol Westron is a successful short story writer and a Creative Writing teacher.  She is the moderator for the cosy/historical crime panel, The Deadly Dames. 
Her crime novels are set both in contemporary and Victorian times. 
The Terminal Velocity of Cats the first in her Scene of Crimes novels, was published July 2013. Carol recently gave an interview to Mystery People. To read the interview click on the link below.

To read a review of Carol latest book Strangers and Angels click on the title.

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