Dress Down Sunday: Miss Silver Intervenes

published 1943


Miss Silver Intervenes

Mrs Spooner’s letter arrived at breakfast time next day. Meade read it, and enquired in a laughing voice, ‘What on earth is a spencer?’

It was a bright sunny morning. Her heart laughed and sang. Her cheeks had colour and her voice lilted *. Everything in the garden was quite extraordinary lovely.

Mrs Underwood, looking across the table, said, ‘Good gracious – he’s not writing to you about underwear, is he?’

‘It’s not Giles – it’s Mrs Spooner. She wants a spencer out of her chest of drawers, and I shouldn’t know one if I saw it. What do I look for?’

‘It’s an underbodice – long sleeves and high neck – at least they’re generally that way. What does she want it for?’

Meade’s eyes danced. ‘To wear under her uniform now that the evenings are getting chilly.’…

She found the spencer at once. It was a horrible affair of natural wool with mother-of-pearl buttons down the front and a crochet edging round the high neck. It smelled of napththalene. It would certainly be warm, but oh dear, how it would tickle! She hung it on her arm and came out upon the landing, to find the door of the opposite flat wide open and Miss Roland standing there.

[ *  note: it actually says ‘filted’ in my edition. I’m guessing lilted? Anyone confirm or have a better idea?]

Miss Silver Intervenes 2

commentary: I read this book for one reason only: to find out if my 1944 book (for Crimes of the Century) The Clock Strikes Midnight spoilers it. In that book (on the blog this month), Miss Silver is praised for having solved another murder, the one here, and someone is named. I was curious as to how much of a spoiler this was. And the answer is – 50/50: the name mentioned does not occur till a long way in, but one element of the name does give a clue. Is that all clear then?

Doesn’t matter. The book was vintage Miss Silver and stands up well. It is wartime: in a small block of flats in London, people are coping as best they can. Mrs Spooner (above) never appears – she has gone into the ATS while her husband does other war work. Meade (where does Wentworth get her heroine names from?) lives with her aunt after a bereavement. There is ‘a very devoted couple – one of those finicky little men, always getting up to open the door for you, and taking the temperature of the bath water, and putting new washers in the taps – got on my nerves.’

There are eight flats, so it is actually just about feasible to keep track of them all.
The lady at the top is no lady: she is up to no good. You can tell because this is her outfit for an evening of bridge-playing:
Black satin trousers, a green and gold top, and emerald earrings about half a yard long.
Eventually there is a murder in the block of flats. Just as with the night-wanderers in The Clock Strikes Twelve, every blessed person of interest manages to put his or her self in the frame by visiting the flat of death at around the vital time.

There is blackmail, amnesia, lost partners, incriminating letters: all the essentials of a good murder story. I guessed one of the plot twists very easily, and the murderer more or less by elimination. But the picture of London in wartime was very nicely done - this is the perfect book for those of us who like homefront books, and I think TracyK over at Bitter Tea and Mystery would enjoy it.  

As always, Wentworth has good clothes descriptions. There is a splendid moment where a putupon daughter, patient slave to a tyrannical mother, finally snaps and breaks free, ready to change her entire life, apparently mostly because of her desire for a beautiful skirt her mother is trying to claim: ‘in one of the soft shades between brown and sand with the least coral fleck in it.’ I think we can all sympathize with that.

I was interested to find an early appearance of this language construction – Miss S is trying to track down the blackmailer:
‘She gave you no clue as to the person’s identity? Not even by the use of a pronoun? She never said he or she?’
Ella shook her head. ‘No, it was always they. “They think they can do this or that, but I’ll show them” – you know how one talks. It isn’t grammar, but everyone does it.’
-people tend to think this is a very modern thing, a sign of the degeneration of life.

As Mrs Underwood says, a spencer should be long-sleeved and high-necked, but it is very difficult to find any picture of exactly that, so this is a selection of skimpier thermals described as spencers. The small second picture that looks right is actually a cheat – note lack of scale in the photo: these two are baby garments.

The Vintage Knitting Lady has a quite splendid collection of knitting patterns to mull over.

Miss Silver’s underwear was the main topic in one of my favourite blogposts of last year, and there are plenty more Wentworth books on the blog - click on label below.


  1. The block-of-flats setting really is an effective one for a novel, isn't it, Moira? And of course, the wartime setting gives a look at that era, too. I had to chuckle at that whole discussion of pronouns. Some things don't really change over time, do they? Glad you enjoyed this one. Oh, and speaking of spoilers? Agatha Christie did that, too, a couple of times.

    1. Oh my goodness, Margot! Dumb Witness should be a MUCH better novel than it is, considering Christie names five murderers BY name in a row!!! At least she had the decency to not attach the names to the books they inhabited! That would have been TOO much!

    2. Thanks,both. I've been shaking my head over those Christie spoilers again lately, such an unlikely thing for her to do. But I suppose, to be fair, that back then she didn't dream that we would still be reading and poring over her books all this time later.

  2. You are so right, Moira, this is the perfect book for me. I will find a copy soon. Her books are easy to find online at a decent price and condition, and maybe I will check the book sale first. Thanks for pointing it out. And that excerpt is perfect for underclothes. I had not heard of a spencer before.

    1. I'm sure you will like it Tracy. And because it was first published during the war, you know there's no benefit of hindsight.
      Apparently some companies refer to a long-sleeved t-shirt with a button neck as a spencer...

  3. I'm currently reading a Miss Silver at the moment in between German self-educating - it is ABSOLUTELY CHOCKERS with clothing stuff, to the extent that even I find myself thinking "I say, this is a bit much on the frock front, what?"

    Looking back at what I just wrote, perhaps I am reacting to the German learning by becoming too, too, tewwibly Bwitish.

    The book is The Brading Collection, by the way.

    1. She really does do the clothes doesn't she? Now I will put the Brading Collection high up the list - I love that she wrote so much, I'll be looking for pics of nice supper frocks for entries till the end of time...and the thought makes me smile...

    2. There is literally one 3-page piece where a maid is assessing everyone's clothes, with an opinion on EVERY SINGLE outfit, and it's interesting but at the same time you can virtually see Col's brain dribbling out of his nostrils at the very idea....

    3. You made me spit out my coffee laughing... yes, terrific for me, but not for everyone.

    4. my coffee didn't quite come out my nostrils...

  4. Daniel, Moira - I've just tracked down a copy! I'll read it a bit later, I'm off to lick a couple of windows now....

  5. I'd forgotten that bit where the daughter snaps about the donated clothes. But mostly I'm still shuddering about wool against the skin.

    1. I loved it, because Wentworth plays it absolutely straight: that IS the last straw when she's put up with all kinds of much worse things from her mother. And yes, modern-day thermals have a lot to offer over wool.


Post a Comment