Thursday, 1 May 2014

May Day Special: A Hearse on May-Day by Gladys Mitchell

published 1972







[Fenella has found herself in a traditional village on May Day]

Hearing a sound which did not come from the streams, she turned round to find a tall man standing a few yards behind her. He was so twined about with leafy branches that little of him was visible except his face, his hands and his shoes. Staring at him, Fenella saw that the branches were woven in and out of a sort of basketwork cage made of green withies… He was the traditional Jack-in-the-green.





There was the distant sound of what seemed to be a drum and fife band and then came the first of the villagers. Where they had all sprung from Fenella could not imagine, for the village street had been empty as she came through… Wherever the music was coming from, it did not approach any nearer. .. A kind of litter [was] borne aloft by six stalwart men, on which were enthroned the women from the post office. .. It was ceremonially lowered to with a foot of the grass and four girls detached themselves from the crowd, ran forward and assisted the women to alight. They then curtsied to the women and returned to be lost in the quiet crowd.


observations: The first half of this book is quite wonderful, perhaps the best Mitchell I have read. Fenella stops for lunch while passing through a village ‘on Mayering Eve’, but then her car won’t start and she is trapped there for 24 hours or so, while the villagers will be having their mysterious, secret, and very long-lasting May Day celebrations, combined for extra joy this year with a funeral. As she retires to her bedroom, she is warned by the pub landlady ‘whatever happens don’t you open that door to nobody’. She wonders if the staff are being bucolic or impudent; people make mysterious but meaningless remarks such as ‘time passes when you be out of the swim of it.’ There is some impudent/bucolic speculation about Fenella’s status – ‘if maiden ’er be. Didn’t seem so very sure of it’ – and a sweeping declaration that there are never many older virgins in the village, and as proof of the respectability of the younger women: ‘they always marry as soon as there is a baby on the way.’ It’s all very Wicker Man.

The whole thing is done with matching attention to conviction and irony – I kept thinking it would make an absolutely terrific lavish film. Fenella escapes from the village unharmed, but puzzled by many things that have happened, and very interested in the young man above.

Mrs Bradley (Mitchell’s series detective and Fenella’s great-aunt) comes to investigate and then nothing much seems to happen till suddenly the solution to a rather dull mystery is announced, to nobody’s great surprise. But it is a nice short book, and well worth reading for the first half.

And there is a mention of ‘mafficking yokels’ – mafficking is a word I found in the dictionary years ago, but have never seen used before: it means to celebrate in a rambunctious way in the manner of people celebrating the Relief of Mafeking in 1900, obviously a benchmark in noisy exuberance. We should all resolve to use this word more.

The dancing women are part of a May Day pageant at Oregon State University.

The Green Man picture is by Lauren Raine and is from Wikimedia Commons. In fact the character in the book probably looked like a cross between the mask above and some of the dancers mentioned in this entry, as he has blackened his face and hands with soot. 



From that entry (well worth a look anyway, and full of folk customs and costumes), this is a member of the Pig Dyke Molly, at the Sidmouth Festival in 2012. The photo is used here with the very kind permission of the photographer Richard Powell. You can see more of his work here. 

Morris dancing features in this entry, and there’s more folkdancing and Maying in this Mayday entry.

16 comments:

  1. I'll avoid the book, but initial glance at the second photo gave me pause. For a micro-second it reminded me of those vile black and white images I have ingrained in the memory of KKK rallies. The children's wavey bits were the same shape as the Klansmen's dunces hats.......thankfully I was wrong.

    Morris dancing/folk dancing is not a pastime of mine and won't ever be.

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    1. OMG - I didn't see that at all myself, but now you've pointed it out it is rather disconcerting. I think Gladys Mitchell is probably a bit cozy for you, but at least it's a step in the right direction, away from embroidery.

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  2. Moira - I do like the Mrs. Bradley novels. She's an unusual kind of sleuth, and that in itself appeals to me. And the setup of this one really does draw one in. I especially like those cryptic phrases - such great use of dialect and local speech! An excellent choice for May Day.

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    1. Thanks Margot - I like to read a Gladys Mitchell now and again, and she wrote so many, I've still got a long way to go. I think she herself was very interested in local customs and folk rituals.

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  3. I enjoy Mitchell's wicked sense of humor, though I have to admit she's an acquired taste. i agree with you that the first half of the book is the better half, but I did enjoy all of the book.

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    1. She takes some getting used to, especially compared with her contemporaries, but I find her well worth the effort. Slowly working my way through the oeuvre.

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  4. 'mafficking' is definitely my word du jour Moira! I have only read a few Mitchell books and was not very impressed, but from what I gather she was so prolific as to be very variable and that it really depends which one you pick up - this one certainly sounds like a real game of two halves (two mix one's whatsits) - I remember quite liking the YV version with Diana Rigg, though apparently it seriously mucked around with the plots.

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    1. I enjoyed the TV versions in themselves, but they bore little relation to the books, and, the whole point about Mrs Bradley is that she is hideously ugly (resembling a lizard) and very badly dressed. Diana Rigg could never be either! I admired her wardrobe from a fashion point of view, but that wasn't Mrs B...

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  5. Moira: Your post reminded me of May 1 a few years ago when Sharon, Michael and I were in the village on the German / Austrian border where one of her grandfathers grew up. Sharon was able to experience the traditional celebration of putting up a maypole. We watched the pole brought in and erected and then enjoyed some beer and wurst while watching traditional dancing. Sharon loved watching the women in the dirndls and the men in their lederhosen.

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    1. That's so interesting Bill, it must be a goosebump experience to see that in the place your ancestors come from. I believe that traditional dress has survived in those areas much more than in most Western countries.

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  6. Probably repeating myself, but I will be trying the Mrs Bradley books sometime. I don't know why I have never stumbled on any. But the TBR piles are so big, I will not put a time limit on it... That Pig Dyke Molly photo is one of my favorites.

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    1. Me too! and she's a funny one, Gladys Mitchell: there's a shed-load of books, but I spent years reading GA mysteries, famous and obscure, without really coming across her. But I think when I was younger I wouldn't have liked them: they're too hazy and strange and unresolved. In those days I liked the crispness of Agatha C, where everything has a point. Now I like both...

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  7. Regrettably, a lot of later Mitchell doesn't live up to the opening situations, I think. the earlier books really do tend to keep up the splendidly bizarre elements, however, I think,

    Among confusing things in lthe Mtichells, just how many relatives and offspring did Dame Beatrice have, anyway?

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    1. Yes indeed - there's often that moment, a bit of the way in, where a new character we've been following suddenly thinks that perhaps it would be a good idea to consult/visit a godmother/cousin/mother's friend, and you know that here comes Mrs B....

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  8. Interesting post, Moira. I love green men. I have one on my wall at home and love looking out for them in churches.

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    1. Thanks Sarah - me too, there's something fascinating about them. I absolutely loved this picture.

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