Still a few special Christmas and New Year posts to go… today it is that seasonal winter walk….
There Came Both Mist and Snow by Michael Innes
I do not think that my walk that morning was much disturbed by the mysterious currents which were beginning to stir in my cousin’s house-party. A powdering of snow had fallen, and in the park the trees, bare and soot-begrimed, showed like frozen fountains of ebony. Everywhere the eye saw silence; the hubbub from without, itself, something diminished at this hour, was doubly an invasion and a wrong: against it a single hidden storm-cock, the missel thrush of the north, sang a clear defiant strain. A gardener’s boy, breaking off from the satisfied contemplation of frost on his recently dug beds, trundled his barrow over to greet me; I had known his father and could just remember his grandfather too. I felt at home. Many of my school holidays had been spent at Belrive; indeed, it was the nearest thing to a fixed centre that I had known.
commentary: This seasonal book seems to me to contain both the best and the worst of Michael Innes. It is a (relatively) gentle story, but with a lot of sharp & ill-natured, though rather pointless, smart dialogue. Some of the characters are satirizing the writing style of the narrator, a well-known novelist (of all the annoying features imaginable). It is the book that contains the notorious (to me) parlour game in which the family members compete as to who can remember the most Shakespeare quotes about bells. The title comes from a poem, and Inspector Appleby conscientiously tries to remember where it is from: his eventual identification will give him a clue as to what happened. (Though frankly I could tell you the answer, and quote you the whole stanza, and I don’t think it would do you the slightest good. No offence. It didn’t do me any good.)
But - while not being very festive, the book does do a wonderful atmosphere of a slice of English countryside tucked in between two large factories – the outside world is encroaching on the estate. The house-party is well-drawn:
“Do I gather then that it is an unrelievedly family party?”
There are some good turns of phrase, like the character who ‘did contrive to give rather obviously an impression of being one of the lilies of the field.’
“Just that. A nice old-fashioned Christmas. I am to talk climbs with Basil; Hubert is to start on a portrait of Cecil; Geoffrey and Anne are to make love; and Lucy is going to pursue you into corners and elicit your views on the interior monologue and on chapterisation.”
There is this extraordinary conversation, with a headmaster starting the discussion: I had to read it twice to check that it means what it seems to mean:
Cecil was addressing himself to the delicate theme of the Emotional Life. “At the beginning of the spring term,” he was saying; “—for it seems particularly necessary then—I give them a little talk on what I call Control.” He paused. “And we stop sausages or anything of that sort for breakfast.”
The narrator is Arthur Ferryman, and as I said, he is a novelist - apparently in the mode of Henry James. I think by 1940 it was jaw-dropping of Innes to use this excuse to get Ferryman ‘helping’ Appleby in an investigation into a death. This is Appleby speaking:
Anne Grainger, sitting on the other side of Cecil, was not at all disposed to let this opportunity for outrageous commentary pass. “Don’t Cecil and his housemasters,” she asked the table in her clear voice, “just sit pretty? Every pound of sausages knocked off the butcher’s order one more stroke in the cause of virginity.”
“An investigation of this sort is largely a matter of probing human conduct, of penetrating human character. Here you are our natural ally—and one of the most effective we could find in England, if I may be impertinent enough to say so.”ie Appleby is claiming that Ferryman (known to him only through his books) is so obviously an expert on human character that he will have useful insights to offer in solving the crime.
The atmosphere is wintry rather than Christmas-y, but the best part of the book. It is very satirical about the arts, and a real Dons’ Delight.
The picture is A Winter Walk by Sanford Robinson Gifford from The Athenaeum website.