Death on the Cherwell by Mavis Doriel Hay

published 1935

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[Undergraduate Gwyneth is to visit a friend’s aunt, and is choosing the right hat…]

Gwyneth picked from amongst a multi-coloured debris on her bed a small contraption of bright blue cloth and poised it at a remarkable angle on her golden curls, so that it became a hat; not a prosaic covering for the head or shade for the eyes, of course, but something which would have been instantly recognized in Bond Street as a hat. She considered her image in the dim mirror let into the narrow door of the wardrobe. “Definitely stir-making, but perhaps too much for Aunt Sophia,” she told the image, which shook its head mournfully.

She tried another headpiece, which looked as if its creator, in despair of making it fit, had gathered up the slack at the top into casual folds and transfixed them anyhow with a quill just to keep them from flopping over the wearer’s ears…. She at last selected something which so far conformed to the old-fashioned idea of hat as to have a distinguishable crown and brim.

[Eventually, after changing her mind several times] Gwyneth reached for the bright blue device which she had first rejected.

[she arrives at the house[The maid] Lizzie surveyed Gwyneth with disfavour and seemed at first disinclined to let her in... Lizzie caught her by the sleeve.

“There’s a glass in the hall, miss, if you’d like to put your hat straight!”

[But in conversation with her hostess…]

Consider your own hat!” [Aunt Sophia] suddenly advised Gwyneth. “You think a North Oxford frump doesn’t know anything about modern hats, but I know that if that were put in a museum it wouldn’t give anyone a hundred years hence the ghost of a notion of what you look like, unless it were set at the right angle on a millinery model with the proper coiffure. Isn’t that so?”

“You’ve absolutely got it taped!” Gwyneth declared.

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commentary: A very nice sequence: not essential to the plot, but a true Clothes in Books moment there: Aunt Sophia is going to offer a useful line of investigation, based on her perception of hats... 

This murder story has two different modes: after the death of Miss Denning of Persephone College (great name!), her body found in a boat on the eponymous river, some of the undergraduettes investigate in a very light-hearted manner. But the other half of the book looks quite seriously at the morals of the time, and the depth of people’s feelings. So there is an uneasy variation in tone there…

These are some actual Oxford undergraduates in the 1930s:

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- but these women look twice the age of the girls (and I use the word advisedly) in this book, who sound and act like 4th formers in a traditional school story. They are frightfully keen on their food and they plot against the bursar just as schoolgirls worked against Mamzelle in Enid Blyton.

And here are more Oxford students of the era:

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Not at all sure about those hats. But then I did wonder – in Agatha Christie’s 1935 Death in the Clouds there is this:
Lady Horbury wore one of the new collegian hats and fox furs.
--this mystified me when I wrote about the book, but perhaps these are collegian hats.

The book is enjoyable enough, with an interesting plot, but what I really loved were the details of daily life, which seemed very convincing. Look at this early attempt at fat-shaming, and the spirited defence:
Sally was disapproving. “Daphne ought never to eat suet pudding, with her figure.” 
“My figure stands comparison with any in Oxford,” declared Daphne. “All those straight up-and-down, can’t tell whether you’re going or coming affairs, have definitely gone out. The crumpets are in my bureau, Nina, if you are being so kind as to fetch them.”
There are some great details about driving a car round Oxford: ‘look out for the one-way streets!’ , and a reference to Oxford being advanced enough to have a speed limit. Then there is this:
I understand it costs you about £4 an hour to leave your car standing by the kerb in this place
I think we have to allow for exaggeration – this would be approx. £150 in modern money.

And there are plenty of excellent clothes descriptions:
Nina, with her brown hair in its customary twist at the nape of her neck, in a long, slim frock of brown velvet, looked very demure. Sally, in the perky yellow jersey which she had not changed for her early dinner, was collected and alert.
So – a good book for fans of academic mysteries, and death on the Cherwell 4another great reprint by the British Library Crime Classics. Martin Edwards, who has worked so hard to keep the Golden Age classics in our hearts and libraries, wrote about Mavis Doriel Hay in this blogpost.

The hat pictures – which I originally collected for a blogpost on  ‘coquettish’ hats in Freeman Wills Croft – are from the marvellous fashion archive at the NYPL.

The 1st b/w photograph, from Flickr, is a 1927 picture of Tatiana Doubassof, who studied at Newnham College Cambridge.


  1. Well, the 'academic mystery' part got me right away, Moira, as you could guess. And I do like those looks at daily life. Lots for you there, too, in terms of clothes and, oh, hats, too...

    1. I knew you'd like the idea Margot! And of course the hats really caught me...

  2. For that very reason, I have this book on my TBR pile, Moira, along with The Santa Klaus Murder. But I'm not sure I will read them this winter. I'd rather wait till summer and make Hay while the sun shines . . . :)

    1. Surely you have to read Santa Klaus at Xmas Brad! I lazily keep meaning to find out why it's spelled like that, and if that was once standard. Perhaps you could find out for me! Next summer maybe....

  3. The hats are part of academic dress, and go with the commoners' gowns the girls are wearing (or carrying). You can just see the skinny fake "sleeves" (which go back to the Scythians, see the British Museum). Lady Horbury's "collegian" hat was probably modelled on these. Harriet wears one in Gaudy Night. I think in the 30s (and 60s) students had to wear the clobber to lectures.

    1. The beginning of Gaudy Night has Harriet remembering "Students dashing to lectures, their gowns hitched hurriedly over light summer frocks, the wind jerking their flat caps into the absurd likeness of so many jesters' cockscombs." The photo looks more wintry but it's a lovely example of the caps.

    2. Thanks both! I don't think I completely realized they wore the hats all the time as well as the gowns. And I thought I knew Gaudy Night practically by heart, but had forgotten that bit...

  4. Read this one a while ago and wasn't a fan but I do love that quote of Daphne rightly scorning the attempt at bullying. Bring on the crumpets!

    1. I also remembered that particular passage, partly because of the phrase "those straight up-and-down, can’t tell whether you’re going or coming affairs", which I thought was lovely, but also because there was something about the way they talked about possibly being too chubby that was very - relaxed, somehow. It didn't seem to be a loaded topic at all and Daphne is obviously quite pleased with her body. Somehow I cannot imagine this exchange between two girls (who are friends and like each other) today. It seems as if saying "With your figure you shouldn't eat pudding" is no worse than saying "With your green eyes you shouldn't wear blue."

    2. Yes to both of you! Exactly, they are so relaxed about it. And as you say, Birgitta - why is it any different from saying 'you're tall enough to carry it off - I am shorter and couldn't'...

  5. Food writers Jane and Michael Stern described ladies in a 1930's advertisement as wearing hats that looked like Flash Gordon rocket ships.

    If you are not familiar with the Purple Kitty website, they post digitally restored vintage knitting and crochet pattern books. The crocheted hats in some of their 1930's restorations are a wow.

    1. I love vintage patterns, but hadn't seen the Purple Kitty site. And, oh my goodness, those hat patterns are INCREDIBLE. I had to keep clicking, I absolutely couldn't understand how they made them, they are unreal...

  6. I think that this is an author I will read eventually, but not in a hurry to do that right now. Very interesting comments about the hats.

    1. Probably her books will turn up in the sale sometime! I would read another by her, but am not hurrying to do so. I just particularly liked the setting of this one.


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