Old Wounds by Nora Kelly

published 1998  Chapter 20

[The picture was] a portrait of a young girl, though there was a landscape in it, too. She was perhaps twelve, wearing a long dress and petticoats, leaning back in a swing that hung from the branches of a huge, gnarled tree. A complex bower of foliage hung all about the upper space of the picture, the sky visible behind. The swing rose high in the air, and Olympe’s dress flew up, showing a froth of petticoat beneath. She was laughing with glee and kicking off her shoe, alone with the leaves and sky.

‘It’s the painter’s daughter,’ Gillian said. ‘Olympe Delamar. She founded the college.’

‘It looks familiar.’

‘Like the Fragonard.’

‘The one in the Wallace Collection. Yes.’

‘It’s Delamar’s rebuttal, I think. He takes Fragonard’s idea and turns it around. Here, the girl on the swing is an image of American freedom and innocence instead of old-world vice…’

observations: The picture above is the one in the Wallace Collection, the one being put down by the heroine. (The other painter and painting are fictional.) Gillian is a visiting academic at a women’s liberal arts college in New York state – not an organization that British women totally understand as the pole star of feminist liberation: some of us think studying science in a mixed class at London University (and lunchtimes at the Wallace Collection, admission free, or the National Portrait Gallery like  Matron earlier this week) might be more helpful. But still.

This is very much in the classic mode of murder mysteries set in academia, similar to the Cambridge crime in this entry, most of the comments there apply to this one. There are a lot of characters, many of whom turn out to be completely irrelevant, and a feel that the book could have done with another edit (or else one less edit: it feels as though some comments and discussions are in the wrong place, perhaps the order of conversations and clues has been disturbed). The motive is – well, the word ‘unlikely’ is inadequate really. ‘Inadequate’ might in fact be the word. And you know those books where you’re expected to dislike a character, and you keep thinking, surely it’s not going to be that easy…? (Not a terrible spoiler, there are a number of dislikeable types.)

But all that said – the blog always likes an academic murder mystery, and despite all these complaints will probably read another in the series.

Links on the blog: Cedric in Love in a Cold Climate talks of Fragonard – ‘how many yards of canvas…?’ A girl on a swing in this picture.

The picture – Fragonard’s The Happy Accidents of the Swing from the Wallace Collection – can be found on Wikimedia Commons.


  1. Moira - I know what you mean about the pull of academic mysteries. I feel it myself. But still, I may wait on this one. The setting intrigues me: the rest? Maybe not so much...


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