Monday, 16 November 2015

Skeleton-in-Waiting by Peter Dickinson


published 1989



Grand Duchess Xenia of Russia


[Princess Louise is visiting her grandmother’s former lady-in-waiting when she first meets Mrs Walsh]


The strange woman turned at the voice, acknowledging for the first time that there might be someone else in the lobby. Her movement and attitude, as much as the face that now came into view, revealed the cause of Aunt Bea’s behaviour, which Louise had taken for characteristic fluster at finding a different caller on her doormat from the one she’d been told to expect. There was more to it than that. In this dim light, and seen with Aunt Bea’s vague vision, the woman was Granny.

The moment you looked at her properly, of course, she wasn’t. Granny wouldn’t have used a stick or worn a neat grey suit with a matching toque. The large brooch in the toque would have been more her line, if the diamonds were real. You couldn’t imagine this woman flinging an arm out in one of Granny’s whirling gestures, or calling you by absurd and largely invented Russian-sounding endearments, but she stood as straight and carried her head with the same challenge. Her face was from the same mould.


Skeleton in Waiting 2


commentary: This is the follow-up to the same author’s King and Joker, which I very much enjoyed recently: both books feature an alt-history view of the British Royal Family, and a different line of descent. King Victor and Queen Isabelle now reign, with their two children Prince Albert and Princess Louise – she is our point of entry into the books. More in the previous entry.

Although very much about the same people, this is a totally different book. There is a lot more connection with the actual time it was written – Mrs Thatcher and the Falklands and the IRA well to the fore. Tracy at Bitter Tea and Mystery – who set me on this track – didn’t like this one, but I liked it at least as much; it made more sense to me as a mystery and as a satirical picture of the UK. I liked the idea of investigating an old Romanov family, a history of the lost Royals of Central Europe. There was one plot shard which, weirdly, seemed so identical to the first one that I thought it couldn’t be right, but there it was. But I still enjoyed the characters and the gentle unravelling of Mrs Walsh’s story.

When it was published, Princess Diana was still apparently happily married to Prince Charles and – disregarding tabloid exaggerations – we commoners didn’t know there was anything wrong in the relationship. Reading this book is quite startling: no character is exactly Princess Di, but you would certainly say that Dickinson knew some real insider gossip…. Mind you, I don’t agree with his contention that the mothers of the UK would be influenced in their child-rearing practices by any Princess and her ways. And the book reminded me (tangentially) of one of the things that puzzles me: Diana was one of the most loved, most popular and most famous figures of the past 40 years. So where are all the young Dianas named after her? It’s not a name you come across often at all – the Louise of this book is a far more common name I would say – which somehow seems quite surprising.

I loved Louise’s lady-in-waiting Carrie: ‘street-cred accent, Laura Ashley clothes, cynico-anarchist politics, Filofax-organised days.’ I think we all knew her in London in the 1980s. And I liked the King’s theory that there always had to be a UMRF – Unpopular Member of the Royal Family – so when the current UMRF died, another one needed to be found.

Special Bizarre Theory probably only of interest to other Dickinson fans: I do like these books, and I don’t know if it’s my anti-Royalist sentiments that hold me back from the strongest praise. Dickinson specializes in getting inside the heads of his characters – he tries to describe their flow of thoughts in a remarkable and most unusual way. He puts thoughts and random decisions and observations into his books, which in most literary works would be the actual thoughts of the writer (not sure I’m explaining this very well), and they usually have a great ring of authenticity for the character. But then you know that he never was a Royal Princess in her 20s, so it IS a feat of imagination. So to make a comparison: I love and revere the Bridget Jones books, but the author was a woman of similar age who had lived that life, so they are an achievement in many ways, but not as an outstanding feat of imagination. But Peter Dickinson you could imagine writing a Jones-esque book just out of his head.

So I think my problem with these books is that he’s wasting his time doing this: he should have either done a much denser and longer series of books on this theme – he obviously had his alternate history ready in his head, the detail is astonishing - or spent more of his time on one of his other projects, eg imagining what it would be like to be a young woman who has changed her species (to take an actual example from his oeuvre).

Love to hear what any other Dickinson fans think.

The top picture is Grand Duchess Xenia, sister of the last Tsar of Russia. The lower one is Grand Duchess Tatiana, a Romanov daughter who died in the Russian Revolution.








20 comments:

  1. I really do enjoy books that take you right back to a certain time, Moira. And you and Tracy have both convinced me that I need to get more familiar with Dickenson than I am. It does, as you say, take talent to really see life from the point of view of one's main character, especially if one's quite different to that character.

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    1. Yes, it is a rare ability he has in that particular direction. And I think you would enjoy his crime stories Margot, you should definitely try some (more?) of them.

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  2. I follow Robin McKinley's blog, she's Peter Dickinson's wife, and saw where he'd had a 2nd stroke in September and is now in a care home. I enjoy his books very much, including this one.

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    1. Thanks for the information - I assumed he was rather frail, but didn't know that. He lives in the same area that I do. Nice to find another fan.

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  3. Not tempted by the first, not tempted by the second either! Phew...

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  4. That is such an interesting question about why there are so few Dianas - think how many Elizabeths there are from our generation, Annes, too. And I bet there are a lot of Charlottes to come. Or do you think people are naming their children after celebrities of a different kind now?

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    1. It's something that's been puzzling me for years. I remember the era well, and I think you do too, and given how popular she was... Quite a few Kylies turned up in that era, I'd almost say you find more of them than Dianas.

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    2. My nan is a "Margaret Rose" - same principle as the popularity of Elizabeth. On the other hand, I think it applies to boy's names as much - I don't think I know very many Williams or Harrys from my generation, and definitely don't know a great many Charleses or Edwards from their relevant generations. Andrew has always been a popular name, though....

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    3. Having said that we do have a Diane - of the right age - in a branch of our family.

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    4. I do feel that's (even-if-only-slightly) a different name though! Like Dinah, which also isn't around much these days. I do think the whole story of first names is fascinating - what's in, what's out, and why? some names go on forever.. I think Michael is always acceptable.

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    5. Interesting about the boys' names Daniel - round here it seems everyone and his son and his dog are all called Harry or Will. Charles and Edward not so much. But yes, Andrew goes on and on. Also David.

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    6. Yes, fascinating! In my (now teenage) daughter's play group there was an Ophelia and an Abigail!

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    7. In my daughter's first class there were two girls called Arielle, this was in the USA and I think related to The Little Mermaid. AT least Abigail shortens nicely, not sure you can do much with Ophelia...

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  5. Moira, I haven't read any fictional stories or alternate histories about the British Royal Family but I remember reading a lot about Princess Diana and her marriage to Prince Charles. She was extremely popular in India. Given a choice, though, I'd prefer reading alt. history.

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    1. She was quite the figure, Diana, the whole world practically went into a trance over her - it'll be interesting to see what future generations say about the whole phenomenon.

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  6. I am very glad you liked this book (and thanks for linking to my post), because I am planning to reread it and I hope to like it better this time around. Maybe it was my expectations at the time that affected my opinion. Maybe I wanted a book more similar to the first.

    I do think Dickinson is a very talented writer in that he pulls me into the world he creates, I want to try his fantasy books. Re Diana, I was thinking about her recently and trying to decide why she was so loved. Never could decide what it was, but she sure had it.

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    1. I'm grateful to you, Tracy, because I re-read both books because of you!
      The whole thing about Diana was just so weird....

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  7. I wonder if some 2100s Heyer will write a character set in the 2010s declaiming about Diana:

    "She wore a pearl-encrusted Elvis dress! Fancy!"

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