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Wednesday 1 August 2018

The Golden Age

Idealised Into Powerlessness:
A Consideration of Golden Age Detectives’ Wives
by Carol Westron

This month’s article is different to my usual exploration of the life and work of a single Golden Age author. It is based on my research for a paper I have just given at Captivating Criminality, Bath Spa University’s crime fiction conference. Erica Jong wrote that ‘Women are the only exploited group in history to have been idealized into owerlessness,’ and I have examined the history of the wives of Golden Age fictional detectives in the light of this statement.

Women’s magazines may have helped to shape the views of their readers, but they were also an accurate gauge of what women wanted to read about and the self-image they desired. In 1911 the first Woman’s Weekly was published, its contents included recipes, knitting patterns, household tips and short stories, usually of a romantic nature, and this is its mission statement: ‘Our one desire is to please the average woman. I say frankly that the women of Mayfair and the lady who lives in the castle are not catered for in this paper. But the woman who lives in the villa or the cottage, in a large house or a small house – the woman who rules the destinies of the home, is going to be helped in her life, her work, and her recreation by this journal.’

This first Woman’s Weekly also had Pin-Money Pages, which offered ‘Half-a crown for everyone printed. This is the generous offer I am making this week to good Cooks and House-keepers everywhere…Send a thrifty, tested idea at once and try to win a Pin-Money prize.’ Those words ‘pin-money’ hammered firmly into place the economic status of women who did not have the financial independence of their own careers.

Despite the incredible work done by women during the First World War, after the War the majority of women were reminded that their employment was only for the duration and hustled back to the domestic and caring roles. In 1919, some women did get the vote, but this didn’t change the general perception of the roles of men and women. In the inter-war years, most people genuinely believed in the separation of gender roles as a legitimate way of avoiding social chaos. It was commonly accepted that women’s brains were unfit to grapple with the rigours of business, politics or study.

In 1923, Georgette Heyer published her lightweight Georgian romance, The Transformation of Philip Jettan, later renamed Powder and Patch. Towards the end of the book, the hero, Philip, is talking to Lady Malmerstoke, the aunt of the young woman he is in love with:
“But surely if she reasons with herself she’ll see how absurd -”
“You’re mad,” said Lady Malmerstoke with conviction. “Women don’t reason. That’s a man’s part. Why do you suppose that if Cleone thought as you think, and had a brain like a man’s, you’d be in love with her? Of course, you’d not. You’d not be able to feel superiority over her. Don’t tell me!”
“I don’t feel -”
Her ladyship chuckled.
“Oh, don’t you, Philip? You think that Clo is reasonable-minded, and able to take care of herself, needing no
“I – no, I don’t.”
“That’s what I say.... If you didn’t consider that you had to care for Cleone and guard her from everyone else and herself, you wouldn’t love her.”

Heyer set her historical novels in the 18th and early 19th centuries, and she was an acknowledged expert on the manners, speech and customs of those times. However, the attitudes she portrayed regarding women were often those of the early 20th Century.

Agatha Christie uses this male assumption of superiority to mischievous effect in her 1931 novel, The Sittaford Mystery, in which Emily Trefusis intends to prove the innocence of her fiancé and is ruthless in her exploitation of male egos to attain her ends: ‘I must have someone to help me. One can’t do anything without a man. Men know so much and are able to get information in so many ways that are simply impossible to women,’ and in the words that she repeats many time to various men, ‘I want to feel I can depend on you.’ The irony of these manipulations is that in the relationship with her fiancé, Emily is the bold, strong-minded one.

In the same way as women were incapable of rigorous mental effort, it was commonly believed that a man was less capable of running a household or caring for children. Many middle-class housewives were content in their role and proud of their home-making skills. Indeed, after the carnage in the trenches of the First World War, a generation of women were grateful to have a husband, family and home.

So how was the wife of the professional police detective portrayed in most Golden Age Police Procedurals? On the whole, she was hardly portrayed at all. She was mentioned as part of his background but played no part in the intellectual or emotional process that leads to the resolution of the case.

Freeman Wills Croft’s Inspector French is an ordinary, middle-class man, whose idea of relaxation is to sit at home, in his slippers, reading stories of sea adventures, and at weekends driving into the countryside for a stroll with his wife, but that is all we know of her. Crofts’ interest in his hero’s domestic life is very limited. In his humorous article, Meet Inspector French (1935), Crofts admits that he thinks he gave Inspector and Mrs French children but that he cannot remember any details about them or where they were mentioned.

In Georgette Heyer’s contemporary detective novels, set in the 1930s and 1940s, she likes to introduce a romance, usually endangered by the murder that has occurred, but the star-crossed lovers are one-show-only parts, imported for the purpose, and the wives of Heyer’s two solid but competent detectives, Hannasyde and Hemingway, are not allowed to intrude by more than the most fleeting of mentions.

George Bellairs’ most famous creation is Detective Inspector Thomas Littlejohn. Littlejohn is married to Letty, an attractive and intelligent woman, who is consistently supportive of her husband and his career and, in one case, is able to assist him by her knowledge of old china. One of the most endearing aspects of Littlejohn’s character is that when he is away from home, he makes a habit of phoning Letty to check that she is all right, but also because talking to her provides comfort and stability in his life. The Littlejohns have a much-loved dog, Meg. They have no children but, in one book it is mentioned that they had a daughter who died while still a child. Letty’s role is definitely that of the comforter and nurturer. She is constantly disappearing to aid her sister, an unfortunate woman who always seems to be expecting yet another child, and when Littlejohn’s second-in-command and friend, Sergeant Cromwell, is wounded, it is Letty who supports and comforts Cromwell’s wife, while Littlejohn hunts down the perpetrator. This background of quiet domesticity is a hallmark of Bellairs’ books. Both Littlejohn and Cromwell are happily married and loving and attentive husbands, and, Cromwell is also a doting father who feels a natural outrage when he suspects a spying postman has steamed open a family letter:
‘“Looks as if it might be from your best girl.”
Cromwell stared straight into the cunning eyes regarding him from under their ambush of eyebrows and put the letter in his pocket. It was from his best girl; his eldest daughter, aged six, who always kept up a regular and
loving correspondence with him when he was away from home. Cromwell looked at Fothergill’s dirty tobacco-stained fingers with their cruel nails and felt like socking the postman on the jaw for daring to handle the precious letter at all.’
(Death Drops the Pilot, 1955.)

The police detective variations on the theme of the stay-at-home wife are too numerous to list, but one barely mentioned wife does deserve recognition. She is 'a plain, spectacled, sensible little woman, incongruously called Dolly' (The Case of the Gilded Fly, 1944), the wife of Edmund Crispin’s Gervase Fen. She is very much a wife in the background, mentioned occasionally when Fen steals her bicycle to pursue villains, or cowering in the kitchen with the family when he is conducting explosive experiments in the attics; or as the reason that Fen never pursues attractive young women like the one described here. 'She wore a light dress of plain black, with white collar and cuffs, which modelled her figure to perfection. Even Fen, who being comfortably married, had some time ago, more from a sense of wasted effort than from any moral scruples, given up looking at girls' figures, was manifestly impressed.' (Holy Disorders 1946.)

When Dolly Fen makes one of her rare cameo appearances, two things are evident, her independent mind and her intelligence. In The Case of the Gilded Fly (1944) she is asked her opinion of a ghost story that has just been told and responds in a way that puts the more credulous listeners to shame, ‘“I thought it was a good story … and very well told.... But it sounded, if you’ll forgive me, a little too neat and artificial to be true. As Mr Wilkes said, real ghosts appear to be tedious and unenterprising, though I’m sure I’ve never come across one myself, and never want to.” She resumed her knitting.
Fen gazed at her with something of the triumphant and sentimental pride of a dog-owner whose pet has succeeded in balancing a biscuit on its nose.’

Back to the women’s magazines: in 1932 Woman's Own was launched. To promote the first issue there was a free cover-mounted gift - three skeins of wool with every copy. And that brings us to a common factor of the domestic wives – they knit. Of course, for the detectives’ stay-at-home wives, knitting is an extension of their domesticity, but in the right hands it is a tool for investigation. Our famous spinster detectives, Miss Marple, Miss Silver and Lord Peter Wimsey’s Miss Climpson, all disarm suspicion by asking their questions while creating ‘a long woolly jumper on knitting needles.’

There is another category of detectives’ wives, those who marry a romantic detective hero. These women usually meet their husbands in the course of an investigation or adventure. The hero detective as portrayed by Dorothy L. Sayers, Ngaio Marsh and Margery Allingham have certain traits in common. Wimsey, Alleyn and Campion are all younger scions of aristocratic houses, with the advantages of intelligence, education, skill in moving in society and the connections to do so.

Albert Campion does not fit into this pattern as well as his more conventional contemporaries because he starts his literary life as an adventurer and little is known about his background, although it is revealed that his pseudonym conceals noble, even royal, origins. Indeed, Allingham takes a mischievous delight in teasing her readers, not to mention her fellow novelists. She had never intended Campion to be her series hero. He was intended to be a minor villain, 'a mere muddying of the waters.' The hero’s role had been reserved for the rather dull pathologist who was the central character in The Crime at Black Dudley (1929.) Campion was introduced as 'he's quite inoffensive, just a silly ass,' until he staged a rather daring coup. Campion meets his wife, Lady Amanda Fitton, in the fourth book featuring him, Sweet Danger (1933), when she is not quite eighteen, but they do not marry for many years, until in the powerful wartime novel, Traitor’s Purse (1941), Campion comes to terms with his own vulnerabilities and his need for this extraordinary woman.
Flame-haired and forceful, Amanda is a successful engineer, and her marriage to Campion is a partnership of equals. Allingham was very good at thinking outside the box.

The romantic detective heroes of Sayers and Marsh are ideally placed, with the advantages of family and wealth and the freedom of being younger sons. They are both far more intelligent than the older brother who inherited the title and have dowager mothers who favour them.

So what sort of wife does such a hero detective require? A woman who is attractive to look at, although not necessarily a beauty, it is far more important that these wives are creative, independent, intelligent and career women in their own right. Thus, Wimsey woos and weds the novelist Harriet Vane and Alleyn marries the artist Agatha Troy. It is worth noting that these wives come from the middle-classes, while Wimsey and Alleyn are firmly in the aristocracy. A touch of King Cophetua is essential when you have a hero in the mix.

The Cophetua tale is referenced in the first two novels exploring the relationship between Wimsey and Harriet Vane, Strong Poison (1930) and Have His Carcase (1932), but Sayers’ last two Wimsey novels, Gaudy Night (1935) and Busman’s Honeymoon (1937), focus on the feasibility of marriage between ‘two independent and equally irritable intelligences.’ (Gaudy Night 1935)

Busman’s Honeymoon is the only Sayers’ novel in which Wimsey and Harriet are married, but in the short story Talboys (1942), the Wimseys have been married for seven years and have three sons. Harriet is still a
professional novelist, but she is also settled into the domestic role, although she has taken up patchwork rather than knitting. Alleyn and Agatha Troy were brought together by crime, when a murder takes place in Troy’s art studio in
Artists in Crime (1938) and they had several detective adventures together during their married life, many of which were initiated by Troy’s profession – who would think that being a successful artist was so dangerous? Despite her habit of discovering violent crime, Troy tends to revert to the nurturing role, leaving Alleyn to investigate. Alleyn makes his attitude to his wife’s involvement in detection very clear in A Clutch of Constables (1968): ‘Those of you who are married will understand my position. In the Force our wives are not called upon to serve in James-Bondage and I imagine most of you would agree that any notion of their
involvement in our work would be outlandish, ludicrous and extremely unpalatable.’

It is interesting to note that the romantic detective heroes and their wives all have sons. Coincidence? Maybe. But it seems strange that the Wimseys, Campions and Alleyns failed to produce one daughter between them. Was this because sons were a sign of greater virility? Or was it because both Sayers and Marsh have been suspected of being in love with their fictional heroes and of using Harriet Vane and Troy as romantic surrogates? In this case, a girl child might well take more of their father’s attention than either author wished to share.

E.R. Punshon’s Bobby Owen has the correct credentials for the romantic detective hero: aristocratic origins, intelligent, educated, good manners and excellent social connections, although his mentor, Superintendent Mitchell doesn’t think that this is necessarily an advantage: 'education just naturally chokes initiative. He's 'Varsity and public school, you know, and you can't expect to have an education like that and initiative as well.' (Death Among the Sunbathers, 1934). When Bobby meets his future wife, Olive, in Dictator’s Way (1938), she is a suspect in a murder enquiry, a businesswoman with her own hat shop, and a political activist who is courageous and determined even under fire. Indeed, Bobby first declares his love during a battle at sea, with the enemy closing in on them.

From this adventurous starting point to domesticity is a major change in itself, but as Olive becomes a harried housewife, obsessed by rationing, it is hard to tell if it is marriage or World War that has wrought the change. Certainly, Bobby is never an overbearing husband
‘Olive... said, “That’s the week’s meat ration I got today. Will you have it all now, or shall we leave some for tomorrow?”
“Let us eat today and be merry,” Bobby answered, “for tomorrow there may be fish.”
“Dreamer,” said Olive.
“Well, anyhow,” Bobby said, “today is here and now, and let tomorrow take care of itself.”
So, he spoke, but what he really meant in his carefree, masculine way was that not itself but the woman should look after it. However, on second thoughts he left enough on the dish for next day. (Night’s Cloak, 1944.)
The dialogue between Bobby and Olive is always a delight, insightful and tinged with humour, and reveals Punshon as a shrewd social observer, as here in Night’s Cloak (1944) where Olive steps out of her routine.
‘Olive, a little surprised to see him home so soon, told him she herself had only just got back from town. “Shopping,” she explained, and added with a slight swagger: “While I was there I dropped in at a pub for a drink.”
“You did – what?” Bobby asked, staring. “What on earth for?”
“There,” complained Olive. “if a man tells you he dropped in at a pub for a drink, you don’t say, ‘What on earth for?’ do you?”
“Well, no,” admitted Bobby. “that’s different.”
“That’s a man all over,” said Olive bitterly. “They can do what they like. We’ve got to explain. It was a very nice pub, too, except for the smell and the way people stared and it’s all being so technical. What’s a bottle-and-jug department?”’
Can an intelligent, strong-willed woman be content in the domestic role? Punshon leads us to think so, although always with that trademark wry humour, as when Bobby is discussing a suspect with Olive, in The House of Godwinsson (1948),‘“One thing certain is that she is in love with Leofric. Love can lead into strange places.”
“It can,” agreed Olive, slightly vicious now. “To darning socks, for instance, and washing up, and sweeping floors. And even,” said Olive, looking very bewildered, “it can make you rather like it – at least sometimes.”’
Agatha Christie did not go in for romantic detective heroes, but she did create the most perfect husband-and-wife detective partnership, Tommy and Tuppence Beresford, the only characters she aged in real time. From when they get together just after the First World War, in The Secret Adversary (1922), through their joyous adventures as undercover agents masquerading as Private Investigators in Partners in Crime (1929), and taking on Nazi spies in N or M? (1941), to the elderly Tuppence, undertaking a bit of private sleuthing in By the Pricking of My Thumbs (1968), they are united and complement each other’s skills. Postern of Fate (1973) was the last book that Christie wrote. It is a muddled and repetitive narrative that demonstrates very clearly the toll that old age takes upon both author and her characters.

In N or M?, in my opinion one of Christie’s finest books, the powers that be try to exclude Tuppence from a hunt for German spies. She tricks them with ease and, when Tommy arrives at the residential hotel to start his solo investigation, he finds her there before him, firmly entrenched amongst the female residents and, following the example of Miss Marple and company, she has used knitting as a way of breaking the ice. Tuppence is an active detective who is also a domestic wife and mother. Tommy and Tuppence have a son and a daughter, and, in middle-age, they adopt another small girl. And, as already stated, Tuppence knits. Although, in N or M? when Tommy offers knitting as an alternative to counter-espionage she is not impressed.
‘“After all,” said Tommy feebly, “you can knit, you know.”
“Knit?” said Tuppence. “Knit?”
Seizing her Balaclava helmet she flung it on the ground. “I hate khaki wool,” said Tuppence, “and Navy wool and Air Force blue. I should like to knit something magenta.”’

Although it is commonly accepted that Christie wrote the character of crime writer Ariadne Oliver as a joke against herself, it must be considered that Christie is the unparalleled mistress of the double and triple bluff, and I wonder if bold, warm-hearted, loyal, ingenious Tuppence, secure in her loving marriage, wasn’t really the character that Christie would have liked to be.

As Tuppence says to Tommy at the end of N or M?, “We always do want the same things.”
It is interesting that Christie, whose best-known detectives have little involvement with relationships, should be the author who created the perfect detective and marital partnership.

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

  To read the interview click here. Interview

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