Recent Events

Monday 4 June 2018

Mary Fullerton (aka Gordon Manners) (1868-1956)

The  Golden Age
by Carol Westron

Photograph from the collection of the State Library of New South  Wales. 

Mary Fullerton is one of the most unusual Golden Age detective novelists that I have written about because she only wrote one detective story, under the pseudonym Gordon Manners, and was far better known as a poet, although one who used several pseudonyms. For this reason, I will refer to her by her real name throughout this article.

Mary Eliza Fullerton was born in 1868 in Glenmaggie, Victoria, Australia. Her father, Robert Fullerton, was of Scottish extraction and her mother, Eliza, was English. Her father took over a remote section of bushland and built the bark house in which Mary Fullerton was born. She was educated by her mother and at the local state school, and her childhood reading included Milton’s Paradise Lost, Shelley and Byron and the Bible.

When Fullerton was in her early twenties she moved to Melbourne. In the early 1900s she and her family were living in Prahran and then Hawthorn, two suburbs of Melbourne, and Fullerton became involved in local politics and gained election to the Prahran School Board of Advice (1899-1902.) She became a committed socialist and suffragist and was vocal in the woman’s suffrage movement. She addressed women’s progressive league meetings and became Vice-President of the Women’s Political Association. During this period, Fullerton wrote stories articles and verse for magazines and periodicals. She usually used the pseudonym Alpenstock. In 1908 she published a collection of thirty-seven sonnets and nine lyrics under the title Moods and Melodies, and in 1921 she published more verse, The Breaking Furrow and, in the same year, published Bark House Days, reminiscences of her childhood, which were reprinted in 1931 and 1962.

In 1922 Fullerton moved to England to live with her friend Mabel Singleton. The two women had met when both were serving the Women’s Political Association in the official positions of Vice-President and Secretary. When they first met, Mabel Singleton was married but her elderly husband died in 1913. However, Mabel and her young son did not return to Mabel’s native England until 1921.

Fullerton’s public persona is that of a loner who had never made or desired romantic ties. In her unpublished autobiography she wrote that ‘My nature really intended me to be the “go alone” that I’ve been.’ In her published poetry, she maintains this stance of the loner. This is evident in the first and last verses of Lovers, published in the volume Moles do so little with their privacy (1942.)
To be unloved brings sweet relief:
The strong adoring eyes
Play the eternal thief
With the soul’s disguise.

To be unloved gives sweet relief;
The one integrity
Of soul to be lone,
Inviolate, and free.

However, the scholar Sylvia Martin, author of Passionate Friends: Mary Fullerton, Mabel Singleton and Miles Franklin (1990) has discovered around eighty unpublished poems that Fullerton wrote to Mabel Singleton that tell a very different story:
Foolish, defiant, and weak
Knowing some day you must,
Come to me, come to me dear
Give me your trust.
Trust me who feels the truth,
Even hard difficult truth
Since the first day we met
With love and with ruth …
I too o love, my love
Who make deeper appeal
Because past all I know
Is all I feel
No one knows you so well

The flash was mine
That knew the splendid Soul
And knew it thine.
Instant I recognized
In and beneath your face,
The beauty, and good, and power
The more than grace.

The love that Fullerton clearly felt for Mabel explains why she was willing to spend the last twenty-four years of her life in England, even though she longed for her native country. Fullerton had met the well-known Australian writer Miles Franklin (Stella Maria Sarah Miles Franklin) and the two writers felt an immediate rapport, which is evident by the correspondence that they maintained for over twenty-five years, although, unlike Fullerton’s relationship with Mabel Singleton, it is clear that her friendship with Franklin was purely intellectual.

When in England there are records that indicate that Franklin stayed with Fullerton and Mabel Singleton. Like Fullerton, Franklin was a committed feminist. Franklin was also eager to encourage and support other writers and she arranged for Fullerton’s verse to be published in two volumes, Moles do so little with their privacy (1942) and The Wonder and the Apple (1946.) It is said that Fullerton was both sensitive about her lack of formal education and certain that publishers were prejudiced against women writers, so she published her work under the initial E, in homage to her mother Eliza and two female writers that she revered, Emily Brontë and Emily Dickinson. The latter was a poet who had great influence upon Fullerton’s own poetry.

In the decade after she arrived to live in England, Fullerton wrote three novels under her own name, Two women (1923); The people of the timber belt (1925); and A Juno of the bush (1930); as well as a descriptive piece, The Australian bush (1928.) She also wrote two novels under male pseudonyms: Rufus Sterne (1932) under the pseudonym Robin Grey and Murders at the Crab Apple Café (1933) as Gordon Manners.

In 1933 most publishers had a very healthy respect for women detective fiction authors. Agatha Christie, Dorothy L. Sayers, Patricia Wentworth, Annie Haynes, Molly Thynne, Margery Allingham, Ianthe Jerrold and several other female crime writers were forging successful careers under their own names. However, a few women, such as E.C.R. Lorac, the prolific author of police procedurals, did use pseudonyms that masked their gender. It is impossible to tell whether Fullerton felt that her style of crime fiction required a male pseudonym or whether this was intended to be her only novel in the crime fiction genre and she wished to separate it from her other novels.

So why did an Australian poet and ardent feminist undertake, in her mid-sixties, write a detective story set in an English village? By this time, the majority of detective stories, written by both men and women, featured a clever detective (whether amateur, private investigator or police) who followed the clues and unmasked the villain, usually within a middle-class or upper-class setting. At this time, Dorothy L. Sayers had published seven novels featuring Lord Peter Wimsey, inviting readers to accompany an aristocratic sleuth into a world of privilege and wealth. Even more impressively, Agatha Christie had written and published twelve full length detective novels, as well as numerous short stories, the majority of which were set amongst the well-off middle classes and a large number in English country villages. When considering Murders at the Crab Apple Café in this context, possibly the most significant of these books may be Christie’s Murder at the Vicarage. Published in 1930, Murder at the Vicarage is the first full length novel to feature Miss Marple and the quintessential English country village of St Mary Mead.

Miles Franklin had a great influence on Fullerton’s literary life, including introducing her to publishers and facilitating the publication of her later poetry anthologies and some of her novels. It must be significant that, in 1933, Franklin published Bring the Monkey, a comic mystery novel that satirised the wealthy, country house detective stories which were so popular at that time. It seems incredible to claim that it was pure coincidence that, in the same year, Fullerton published her only detective story, Murders at the Crab Apple Café. Fullerton’s book does not satirise the English village murder mystery in a light and comic manner, as Franklin did the country house mystery, but it certainly subverts it. Fullerton’s village of Roseneath is a very different place to Christie’s St Mary Mead.

In my opinion, Murders at the Crab Apple Café is not a great detective novel, the central characters are unendearing and the plot has an unsatisfying ending. However, as the mirror of the attitudes held by a Australian feminist, born in the 19th Century, who was also an ‘outsider’ living in just such a country village, I found it fascinating.Murders at the Crab Apple Café starts with a scene of escalating confusion, as Mrs Tiddy, who was delivering home made cakes to the café, discovers the murdered bodies of the café owner, Mrs Ebury and her grand-daughter Beryl, lying in the hallway of their home. They have both been shot in the head. Mrs Tiddy summons a neighbour, Mr Ernshaw, and they both go back to examine the bodies and trample over the crime scene before Mr Ernshaw eventually goes to summon the village police constable, PC Galton. Because Galton is in bed with a cold, a large number of the inhabitants of the village have explored the house and garden before the police are on the scene.

Mrs Ebury is a wealthy elderly lady who started the café to give her grand-daughter an occupation when she came to live with her, but being fond of making money she soon made the café profitable.

Soon Galton is joined by Sergeant Mellor from he nearest town. He is a pompous and pretentious man who over-estimates his own abilities and sees this as an opportunity to gain promotion because he is sure that he can solve the murders without calling in Scotland Yard. As he explains to the local doctor, ‘You know, Doctor, it never does to jump to conclusions; it’s a thing I never do; closes one’s eyes to other possibilities. A crude thing to jump to conclusions. But I have an intuitional gift, Doctor. I am able to sense things and so to come to the truth quicker than most.’ Needless to say, Mellor’s intuition tends to lead him astray more frequently than it sheds light on the case and, even when his observations are correct, his interpretation of them fails to reveal the truth.

Quite quickly, even Mellor realises that he is out of his depth and appeals to Scotland Yard. However, when Inspector Hotchkiss arrives, he seems to have no more inspiration regarding solving the murders than his country subordinates. The motive for the killings remains unclear. Mrs Ebury had formed a distrust of banks and had withdrawn all her money and concealed it somewhere on her premises. This makes it probable that it was a robbery that went horribly wrong. However, Beryl Ebury had lived in London and taken part in some tempestuous relationships and, since moving to the village, has attracted many new admirers, ranging from the vicar to PC Galton’s ne’er do well son, Dick. Hotchkiss and Mellor flail between theories about the motive and pursue an exhausting number of suspects without coming any closer to identifying the murderer. Everybody has a secret they want to conceal, even the dead woman’s apparently respectable solicitor and the Reverend Latimer, the vicar, a pitiable figure who is clearly suffering from some sort of mental ailment, (there is an interesting parallel here between Latimer and Christopher Hawes, the curate in Murder at the Vicarage) and Latimer’s doctor and faithful servants, not to mention Mrs Ebury’s thoroughly unlikeable heir.

As the sleuth’s bustle around England in pursuit of witnesses and suspects, dismantle the dead women’s home in hope of finding the hidden wealth and follow one abortive lead after the other, this reader longed for the arrival of an amateur detective who would reach the truth by insightful deduction. Alas, no aristocratic detective passed through Roseneath, pausing just long enough to solve the crime, nor did an elderly woman emerge from amongst the village residents, with knowledge of all the local scandals, a keen awareness of human frailty and a nose for evil. It is strange that Fullerton’s strong feminist opinions do not reveal themselves by the introduction of a powerful female protagonist, indeed all the women in the book are singularly ineffectual, although it must be admitted that they are not more inept than the men. Instead of a strong female lead, Fullerton describes a strong vein of male superiority, which runs throughout the book. Mr Ernshaw had been more timorous than Mrs Tiddy when it came to touching the bodies to ensure that they were dead but when he arrives at the police house he adopts a superior tone and refuses to explain to PC Galton’s wife why she should rouse her sick husband. ‘“Nothing much; not a female’s affair. Perhaps your son is in, Mrs Galton.”’ On being told that her son is absent: ‘“Then I must see your husband at once.”’
Inspector Hotchkiss, the central investigator, dislikes and distrusts women: ‘The Inspector, verging upon forty, had not yet met his fate. Hotchkiss had actually accounted himself a misanthrope, or more particularly a woman-hater; his ideas came to him through the unhappy experiences of his profession. He was wont to say of women that there were but two kinds; the tempter and the tempted. The wicked and the gullible! “Women are weak, women are strong,” was one of his sayings, and he would go on to illustrate his meaning by examples. “Intriguers or the tools of designing men?” So he epigramatized the sex. In practice, however, he often failed to live up to his philosophy.’
When Hotchkiss finds himself attracted to the postmistress, he has to abandon his low opinion of all females, but only in her case. ‘Hotchkiss, approving more than ever, exempted Miss Preston from the ruck of womanhood.’ Miss Preston is a suitable woman for Hotchkiss to be attracted to, as she is a spiritless young woman of unimpeachable respectability. When Hotchkiss assures her he will keep her informed of the progress of the investigation, ‘The Post Mistress flushed with gratification at the compliment. The blush made the Inspector self-conscious. He wondered if he were going too far, being too bold in his ardour, so unsophisticated was he.’

In contrast to this restrained wooing, Beryl Ebury is reported to have had several close male friends when she was living in London and had clearly had at least one sexual relationship as she had had an abortion. One of her male friends was a young Jew, who had frequently borrowed money from her. The persistent anti-Semitism that was obvious throughout the sections referring to this young man, who never actually appears in person, was one of the most distasteful features of the book.

In my opinion, Murders at the Crab Apple Café suffers by the lack of a central character that is interesting and engaging, either by being a likeable person or a brilliant detective. Unfortunately, Hotchkiss is neither. 

Therefore, it is not surprising that the case is solved by a confession. In fact, there are two confessions, the first false one having caused the guilt-ridden murderer to commit suicide, leaving a detailed description of the crime. Christie’s St Mary Mead was a bustling place and, as a reader, I get the impression that Christie enjoyed bringing it to life and liked the people who lived there, regarding even the most busy and bumptious gossip with humour. By contrast, Roseneath seems grey and sad and I gained the impression that the author liked neither the village nor its inhabitants. However, I also wondered whether this was deliberate, and that Fullerton was attempting to describe both the country village and English society as she, an outsider, saw them, and the detectives as bumbling and opinionated, as in reality so many of them were. Murders at the Crab Apple Café is not a great detective novel but it is an interesting read and intriguing from a social history aspect, regarding the attitudes that still prevailed in the 1930s. I found it curious that a male reviewer on Amazon posted that Murders at the Crab Apple Café is ‘A good mystery for the female reader... it centres around the ladies who lunch and run the village gossip network - all good, clean whodunnit stuff without any harsh grittiness.’ Obviously the mental health issues, abortion, male-chauvinism and anti-Semitism did not impinge on this gentleman. Perhaps some men’s attitudes have not changed fundamentally in the last eighty-five years and that ardent Feminist Mary Fullerton, aka Gordon Manners, is spinning in her Sussex grave.  Fullerton lived for another thirteen years, but wrote no more novels. She died in 1946.

Murders at the Crab Apple Café
Published by Black Heath editions. ASIN: B0768LMQ3T
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 her  first 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, and on the tile to read a review of Carol’s latest book Strangers and Angels

No comments:

Post a Comment