Sunday, July 24, 2016

The Wonderful World Of Patricia Wentworh

I think nearly everyone knows Agatha Christie and her Miss Marple. However, few people ever heard about her rival Miss Silver, an Edwardian governess turned private detective, the character created by another English lady author Patricia Wentworth.

She first appears on the scene in 1929, and plays a rather insignificant role in a story called Grey Mask which is not the best one out of the whole Miss Silver series which comprises 31 books, but is nevertheless important since here we  meet Miss Silver for the first time. Her description never varies from book to book though they are stretched over the period of more than 30 years.  She stays a neat, quiet lady wearing old-fashioned, awfully decent clothes and possessing "a good deal of soft mousy hair with only a little grey in it."

Patricia Wentworth, a rather prolific writer, apparently lost her interest in the character she created for nearly a decade, but returned to her in 1937 with the book called The case is closed and kept publishing new books about Miss Silver till her death in 1961. While Grey Mask dealt with a topic of secret societies so typical for the 1920s, The case closed is a story of a man framed for murder by his own relatives and it falls to his wife's niece Hilary and her fiance Captain Cunningham to prove his innocence.

This book was followed in 1939 by Lonesome Road, a novel about a wealthy heiress in her late thirties plagued by her insufferable relatives who in the end finds the love of her life. The theme of "middle-aged" romance is persistent in Mrs Wentworth's  books, with heroines in their early forties marrying and having children which proves that it wasn't unusual in those times. The other theme is post-Victorian UMC family, the disintegration of the old bands between relatives, the intrigues and jealousies between various family members and the changing face of British society after war.

While Agatha Cristie's stories are often unpredictable, in Miss Silver novels it is sometimes evident from the beginning who the criminal is, but it's very difficult to prove it, and here Miss Silver comes in handy, since everybody trusts her and keeps telling her things they wouldn't repeat to the police. She is often described as the person of razor-sharp intellect and she is admired by the police inspectors she works with who are sometimes men of her own circle such as Frank Abbot of Scotland Yard and Randall March, whose love story forms the basis of the novel Miss Silver comes to stay, published in 1951.

The series creates the world of its own as the characters of one book often reappear in others, in some minor role, plus there are Miss Silver's nieces who never  play any active part but their lives are always in the background. One of the nieces, Ethel Burkett is a dutiful wife of a bank manager with 4 children, but her sister has married a man twenty years older for his money and when the money partly disappears after the war and she has to do her own housekeeping, complains incessantly and even tries to leave him because he is "dull" though in the end the family achieves reconciliation between the two.

Herein lies another difference with Agatha Christie. Her books were sometimes rather slippery in moral department, she had a taste for grisly details and even dabbled in occult in some of her stories. Patricia Wentworth usually omits all the descriptions of the agony and death and the books preach unmistakably Christian morals. She makes a clear distinction between right and wrong, especially considering sexual mores. Any sexual relationships outside marriage are sinful (though less for a man than for a woman), and her heroines all go to the altar as blushing virgins.

She also portrays women who use their sexual charms to influence men around them as foolish and wicked and often getting the due comeuppance. Divorce, too, comes in her stories but it's always depicted negatively. Often it's a result of a jealous rival driving the spouses apart and they will reconcile in the end. Good men are invariably chivalrous and will offer financial support even to the wives who abandoned them, but decent women would rather earn their own income than be a gold-digger.

Interesting enough, most murderers in her books are women, sometimes a sort of Femme fatale, sometimes a person nobody would ever suspect. In one story, a formidable old maid is the leader of a criminal gang, intimidating men around her and mistreating her niece.  On the other hand, the author   portrays enough abused wives living in fear of their husbands, mostly among the lower classes of society.

Though Miss Silver is a private detective in her own right, quite unlike Miss Marple, the books aren't at all feminist with one exception where Miss Silver claims that women still don't have enough rights in society. Curiously though, as the series progressed, in the 1950s, the books grew more conservative instead of less. In one of them, Mrs Wentworth even decried the use of contraception as the means for foolish young women to avoid consequences of their actions.

Not all of the stories are equally interesting, at least I didn't find them so, and the last one in the series which I just finished reading yesterday, was particularly vague. Besides those I mentioned, I especially liked Danger Point (an older aristocratic man whose first wife died under the strange circumstances marries a young girl as he needs her money to maintain his estate), The Chinese Shawl (depicting a family feud between a rich aunt and her niece), Miss Silver intervenes (a war time romance), The Key (a WWII espionage story set in a village), Pilgrim's Rest (a family curse falls on anyone trying to sell the family house), Latter End (a man marries a heartless gold-digger and has to face the consequences) and some others.

I could recommend Miss Silver series to anyone who loves detective stories and is interested in mid-20th century Britain, though I should add that women would probably find them more entertaining than men.


  1. Housewife from FinlandJuly 28, 2016 at 4:49 AM

    Thank you very much! I had to check immediately, wether our library has those books. No, but I can order them from another one. Most of these books seemed to be in library archives, not in "active use".

    I really do not understand what is wrong with our libraries here in Finland. For example "my" library just moved ALL books from L. M. Montogomery, L. M. Alcott, Laura Ingalls Wilder etc. to archives! And there is very few Christie's and no Dorothy Sayers at all.

    On the other hand, S/M -pornographic literacy is very well represented...

    I actually like Christie because her characters usually have very flexible morals. It makes them so humane.

    BTW, which is your favourite Christie novel? Mine is "the Moving Finger". I just love those two love stories in that book. And the murderer is very hard to guess. "Cat among the Pidgeons" is also very good, but there is no romance...

  2. May be, English literature just isn't popular in Finland? With Agatha Christie, it appears to me that it was her who had flexible morals herself, by some of her statements in her books. I used to like her very much but I really can't tell you which book is my favourite as I have read so many plus the Dutch translators routinely changed the titles. In the 1930s she wrote a lot of pulp fiction about Poirot and Hastings fighting secret societies and even some espionage stuff. She was pretty feminist, too.

  3. I should add that it's not that Mrs Wentworth's characters are all ideal, it's just that she comes across as less cynical, probably due to her Christian faith. And she has clearer distinctions between right and wrong in the sexual mores department.

  4. Housewife from FinlandJuly 28, 2016 at 6:17 AM

    The situation has changed in libraries; even in small libraries all those books I listed used to be on display. I am afraid that people stopped borrowing them and that is why they were removed to archives. That is very, very sad.

    Christie was devorced herself, so maybe her own morals were not that high. :) But it does not bother me, because even low morals of those times were high compared to modern morals.

    Do you like Mma Ramotswe?

  5. I think nowadays a lot of people choose e-books, as well. I have an e-reader but prefer to have a real book in my hands, it just feels different:)

    Never heard about Mma Ramotswe, so had to check Wiki. I don't think it's exactly the stuff I would like, to be honest.

    About Agatha, I'll just give you an example of what I meant: her Miss Marple is in the habit of saying that she always thinks the worst of everyone, until proven otherwise or something to the point. It's not that I don't like her, I do, it's just that her stories are a shade darker. Her themes were also somewhat different, Miss Silver books are primarily about mid-20th century middle and UMC family and everyone of them is a love story as well. They give us a great insight in the way the people of this class used to live and how important family connections used to be to them.

  6. Housewife from FinlandJuly 28, 2016 at 9:55 AM

    I am quite sure I would love Miss Silver books. :) They sound like perfect escapism. :) I really have to order some of them to our library.

  7. I was lucky enough to find nearly the whole series dumped in a local thrift store, 28 of them, for the cost of 50c each. The last three I ordered online. They are escapist a bit, but show the society changing, old families losing money due to high taxes, more women forced to take a job etc. The best thing, imo, is to start from the very beginning because then you get a clearer picture of how things used to be and how they have become.

    You can trace the roots of modern feminism to the changes in society after WWII, but still in better families they tried to keep even single women out of the workforce.

    It also shows how before the onset of the welfare state, if something happened you were on your own, unless you had family to take care of you. In one of the earlier books, a lady is starving since her last male cousin died fighting in war, she lost all her investments and is too old to work and too proud to beg.