Friday, 15 May 2015

Post-War Books: The Spinster’s Secret by Anthony Gilbert


published 1946



AFTER LAST WEEK’S LIST OF WARTIME HOMEFRONT BOOKS, AND THE COMMEMORATION OF THE VE DAY 70TH ANNIVERSARY, THE BLOG IS GOING TO FEATURE SOME POST-WAR BOOKS



Spinsters secret1


[Miss Martin, the lonely spinster of the title, has been invited for tea by neighbours]


Miss Martin was touched almost to tears, It was years since she had been asked to a party. It took her nearly twenty-four hours to get ready. She washed her nice grey hair – she had never been to a hairdresser in her life – and she got out her best lace blouse and a black skirt, and the good old-fashioned black coat with its squirrel collar that she kept for best – for she had grown up in an era when ladies wore one set of clothes on weed-days and another on Sundays – and her last pair of real skin gloves, and her glace kid shoes, and looking like a reminder of gentler and more gracious world, she walked slowly round to Swan House at four o’clock. She wished she knew a little more about the household, but she suppose it didn’t matter really.


 
D 15094


observations: I’ve now read two of Anthony Gilbert’s books (‘he’ is a woman, real name Lucy Malleson) and was surprised by how different they were, though published only a year apart. The other one was The Black Stage, on the blog here. This one is much better: I enjoyed it very much.

Gilbert isn’t really in the zone with Josephine Tey, but when I was looking at Tey’s Miss Pym Disposes recently I commented that though it was a wonderful book, it got zero points for being a book of 1946; there was nothing to pin it to that date. This book is the opposite, with lovely contemporary details of the period just after the war has ended. People re-use envelopes, they comment on war service, they remember the air-raids.

Miss Martin sits at her window watching the goings-on in the street outside. She makes friends with a little girl and her nanny, and on the wonderful occasion above is invited to their house and has tea and meets the girl’s guardian.

But then everything goes wrong, for everyone. Miss Martin ends up in an old people’s home, and the other household has been broken up too. But what has happened to the old man’s will? Why is the little girl now called Mary? Can Miss Martin get anyone to believe her when she says there is something badly wrong? Eventually she finds Arthur Crook, Gilbert’s rather splendid series character, and he takes her seriously, and the former nanny comes to help too. But there is still a long way to go.

Miss Martin’s plight is very well done, and is heart-wrenching: she is like Miss Pettigrew from the Winifred Watson book, but without the fairy-tale ending. She has no money, no prospects, and no-one who really cares for her: the grimness is not relieved by her good heart. This book, in fact, has all the trappings of a cozy, but it really isn’t cosy at all. And, there is no messing around with the murderer’s fate: executed within a few weeks of Mr Crook solving the case…. Very 1946.

I have tried to choose pictures to cheer Miss Martin up. The top one, from the Smithsonian, is a 1946 picture of a physicist called Lise Meitner. (This is a sweeping generalization: the photos of women scientists from their collection nearly always show them looking happy and satisfied, just as you would hope – a lot more so than, say, showgirls of the time.) The bottom picture, from the Imperial War Museum, shows the oldest member of a wartime sewing party.

The question of Miss Martin’s hats is important, to herself and to her detecting activities: they will need a whole entry of their own, coming soon.









24 comments:

  1. I must investigate these, not heard of them before.

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    1. The books are full of fascinating details of their eras, and are entertaining reads.

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  2. This one sounds like it has some real depth to it, Moira. And I do like books that reflect their times like this - real looks at the era. The mental image of Miss Martin is so sad, though: I think I'll have to save this for when I'm ready for that.

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    1. Yes, as I say - not as cozy as it sounds, but a book of some depth with real characters. Worth reading at the right moment...

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  3. Moira, I did not know Anthony Gilbert was the pseudonym of Lucy Malleson, a woman. Thanks for clearing that bit for me. Thanks to my ignorance, I have got into awkward situations over names in the past. Clearly, I need to read Gilbert's novels.

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    1. I get confused by names too - I have to distinguish between this Gilbert, and Michael Gilbert, who was on the blog last week.

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  4. Moira: The word "spinster" has a powerful evocative meaning for women of generations past. I doubt young women becoming adults today could define the word. When I started as a lawyer 40 years ago we would list a woman as a spinster in a divorce who had not been married before the marriage now ending. Spinster persisted as a description in my divorce documents until but a few years ago when I finally decided it was an anachronism.

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    1. Oh that's so interesting Bill, thanks. So what do you say now? Woman? And was the male party always just a man?

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    2. Moira: We now use "single" for women and men. In the past we used bachelor for a man. The portion of the Petition where the entry takes place sets out the marital status of each party at the time of marriage.

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    3. Thanks Bill. I wonder if it's the same in the UK?

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  5. "This book, in fact, has all the trappings of a cozy, but it really isn’t cosy at all."

    So true about Gilbert's work! She felt the economic pitfalls of the so-called spinster's station quite keenly.

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    1. Yes, these are not light-hearted moments, and she does a very convincing job of showing her grim situation.

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  6. Sounds like something I'd enjoy - I like books that truly reflect the time period.

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    1. Yes I think so - though as I said, I have had varying experiences with Gilbert's books.

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  7. I can't keep up with all your Gilbert's so I'm not even going to try!

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    1. I have to admit that even I was getting confused between my Gilberts, so you are officially let off.

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  8. In the States, legal documents ask marital status as: Single, Married, Divorced, Widowed. Ir doesn't leave a lot of wiggle room in terms of status, for example if people have been married, but separated for 10 years. Also, it doesn't include partnerships without marriage, but I think with civil unions among gay people, that may also be a category on some documents.

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    1. It's a complex business isn't it? I guess it's reasonable that legal documents need to know, but people should be able to define their own status....

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  9. When I read A Case for Mr. Crook, I found the older woman who was the central character (Miss Pinnegar) and her nephew to be interesting characters, but did not particularly care for Mr. Crook. It seems that he rescues a lot of older women. This one does sound interesting; I will look out for it.

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    1. I've jut been reading something about Anthony Gilbert/Lucy Malleson's real life in Martin Edwards' new book - very interesting. I think I will read more about her. I must say I did like Mr Crook!

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  10. Yes! People should be able to define their own status and also should be able to marry or not marry, as they choose, if they are in partnerships. The governments should recognize the status that individuals choose.

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  11. The need to own a bit of fur recurs with these spinsters, doesn't it - like Miss Silver's mangy fur 'tippet'. As a spinster myself, I can see that will need to be my next clothing purchase. ;-)

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    1. Oh that's an excellent topic Vicki, we need to look out for more examples. I bought a hat with a fur trim to give as a present, but decided vegetarian friend would not appreciate it, so had to keep it for myself. Not at all sure about the morals of that story...

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