[Dame Beatrice] went up to her room, presumably to dress for dinner, but, having put on her dark fur coat and matching toque so she did not, in Laura Gavin’s partly-idiomatic expression, ‘stand out against the sky-line’, she slipped downstairs by way of the servants’ staircase at the far end of the long gallery and left the house with a secrecy which went unmarked except by Ethel, who had conceived a strange, protective affection for her elderly inquisitor.
‘And I’ll not give you away,’ muttered Ethel, ‘seeing you be about your lawful occasions.’
‘And what are you muttering about? Saying your prayers?’ demanded a housemaid, who, more intelligent than Ethel, grudged that lover of tomatoes her superior position in the household.
‘P’raps,’ said Ethel, ‘and p’raps not.’
commentary: This is my 1959 book for the Crimes of the Century meme over at Rich Westwood’s Past Offences blog.
The crime queens Ngaio Marsh and Agatha Christie produced books in that year, and particular favourites of mine too, but I have already featured Singing in the Shrouds and Cat Among the Pigeons on the blog. So I looked to see what Gladys Mitchell had done, and came across this title, which I had never heard of. (I feel you would remember it if you had read it.) It is quite hard to get hold of, but I stuck with it, found one and read it, and was very glad I had. Gladys Mitchell and Dame Beatrice Bradley had both dialled down the eccentricities this time, and it was an enjoyable and entertaining read. (The eccentricities, surrealism and endless pointless tangents are occasionally beguiling, but other times I find them too much). In fact for the first quarter or so if you read it blind you wouldn’t guess it was a Mitchell story – and you can’t say that about many of her books.
Hugh Camber has inherited the family estate, after the unexpected deaths of his cousins, a father and son. When he moves to the big house he finds the servants are all in the process of fleeing, and the village is semi-hostile. Anonymous letters appear, and he also has to fight off the encroaching moves of another family member – the widowed Mrs Hal and her delicate son. When it all gets too much for him he sensibly calls in Mrs Bradley.
The action mostly takes place in Norfolk, with some dashing off to Scotland, and Mitchell manages to make the rurals’ dialect forms endearing – unlike Ngaio Marsh who somehow never brings off her West Country yokels. ‘That’ seems to be an all-purpose word in the local talk:
‘Oh sir! That happen.’The business of the tomatoes is all-pervading, as you would guess from the title. It seems possible that Mitchell found out an interesting fact or possibility about tomatoes and built the whole book round it – normally at this point I’d be grumping that she should have made it a short story, not a full-length entry, but I reckon she just about gets away with it.
‘I know. Where is Mrs Hal?’
‘That put the drawing-room to rights. I only do it this morning, Mr Camber, but it seems that isn’t satisfied.’
My favourite part of the book has nothing to do with tomatoes or (really) the murder. Mrs B is investigating a former boyfriend of the heroine, who explains that he had proposed to Catherine Tolley at a Ball in the Assembly Rooms in Norwich during the Festival of Britain in 1951. He explains his role in the many different local Festival celebrations -‘hoped I’d be Parson Woodforde in the pageant but a better man got it’ - and discusses the choirs: ‘Interesting Magnificat and a really beautiful Nunc Dimittis.’
And then we get this:
‘I cannot imagine,’ said Dame Beatrice, gazing with mild benevolence at Maitland, ‘why Miss Tolley did not wish to marry you.’--which I choose to understand as a straight comment, no irony. The Man Who Grew Tomatoes is very funny in a quiet, witty way.
As a book of 1959: it is full of class-consciousness, some very odd views on heredity, and a hero who drinks an awful lot of whiskey before driving to the station.
The passage above could scarcely be more 1959 – the maids, the servants’ staircase, dressing for dinner, and wearing a fur coat so you won’t be noticeable.
Mitchell sometimes is very good on clothes, but in this particular book they scarcely feature – a missed opportunity, I felt, with the awful Mrs Hal. We get her Dresden-china make-up and 5-inch high heels, and I’d love to know what she wore inbetween.
Anyway, happy to find this splendid fur coat picture, which I felt had a look of Mrs Bradley. It’s of Florence Julia Bach, an American painter and sculptor, and comes from the Smithsonian.
There are plenty more Mitchell books on the blog – click on the label below.