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.