Tom Brown’s Body by Gladys Mitchell

published 1949

 

 


There are two very sad things here. The first is that we should be just recovering from the Bodies from the Library conference: it had to be cancelled because of the coronavirus. I was due to take part in a discussion on Gladys Mitchell – by next year (when I hope it will still happen) I will have read even more of her books. (the event was about her earlier books, so reading this post-war one is ‘background research’.)

The second sad thing is that it is one of her better books in terms of plot, comprehensibility, and resemblance to a normal detective story. But there is far too much casual racism in it, and the references to  Jewish and black characters are close to unbearable. The book is set in a boys’ public school, and very likely the racism and bullying are very realistic for the time, but it does spoil the book.

THE REST OF THIS WILL BE SLIGHTLY SPOILERESQUE – the identity of the victim is revealed in the blurb, so that seems fair enough. I will be describing some aspects of the plot as it goes along, but I will not be spoilering the solution. (As ever, my view is that my post would only be  at all spoiler-esque  if you were in the middle of reading it, in which case leave this and look at it later…)

Interestingly, there is some slight nuance: the master who is murdered is first introduced as quite rude and impatient, but with some room to manoeuvre. Perhaps he is a breath of fresh air? Perhaps he has call to be sharp with annoying people? But he is slowly revealed to be absolutely vile, and also to have been imprisoned during WW2 for his fascist, pro-Nazi views. He is an 18B man – arrested under special regulations as a danger to the war effort. (For more on these real-life events, Diana Mitford’s story is always educational, see blogpost here.)  So the Jewish boy, Issachar, says mildly that he didn’t get on with this man, because he was so very pro-Hitler. It is all very uncomfortable.

I thought this might make a nice back-to-school post to go with my recent look at uniform panics. But I cannot separate the racism out from the rest of the book (and this is not a function of recent events – this would have been true any time I read it). 

I think the problem is this: Gladys Mitchell clearly has no time for racism and fascism and pro-Nazi policies. All right and proper. But, she cannot see any connection between those views, and her ‘good-natured’ casual jokes and racial slurs. In 21st Century eyes, these items are on the same spectrum – a view that I think would have been dismissed by many people back then. And I know that you could say that the book should be judged by the standards of the time – I have occasionally and half-heartedly used that argument myself about Golden Age detective stories. But the attitudes in this one are pervasive and make for difficult reading. And ‘attitudes of the time’ – in this particular case I cannot imagine a Jewish or black person reading this book in 1947 and not being horrified (though possibly unsurprised). Objections to racism were not invented this century, and it is insulting to imply that they were.

So what else can I say? The boys’ school presented is, I think, meant to be reasonably bearable, and sounds as though it was appalling. It is a continuing mystery why wealthy upmarket British people thought it was right to send their sons (particularly) to places like this fictional Spey College. Rather like US High Schools, those who survived them do not spend much time trying to tell the rest of us that ‘oh no it wasn’t really like those films or books, that was a wild exaggeration.’ Boys' public [ie posh, private] schools were obviously hotbeds of violence, thuggery, bullying, corporal punishment, squalour and general misery. As well as racism and snobbery.

Mitchell does always do her best to shock in an entertaining way. The headmaster here says the only alternative to employing the horrible master was ‘a young woman. I wish now I had plumped for the girl. At least she wouldn’t have been murdered, although I think she might have committed suicide after a bit.’ The author probably thought this was a more shocking line than the racism.

I was discussing with someone whether ‘Balliol college’ adds anything to a description of someone’s education (see this blogpost here) – my view, factual and not at all approving, is that it does: I said ‘it really did have a rep for the brightest, the poshest and the most Classical’ – of the men of course. (And that is why its most famous alumnus is Lord Peter Wimsey – see this blogpost, and the label below for myriad appearances by him on the blog).  And here in Tom Brown’s Body it is used as shorthand: ‘Oh Micklethwaite! He’ll get a Balliol. Everybody thinks so.’ [Meaning, he’ll get an academic scholarship to Balliol College within the University of Oxford.]

Series sleuth Mrs Bradley turns up to look into the crime, and takes forever – allowing us to view the rhythm of school life over several seasons, and the detail is actually quite compelling. The school has a Roman Baths, a nice touch: could someone be drowned there we wonder? Everyone behaves in wholly unrealistic ways in relation to the crime – some authors may have been moving to more realism at this date, but that was never Mitchell’s selling-point, and absolutely everyone is implicated, under suspicion, covering up, or involved in some sideline that confuses matters.

I never expect pools of clarity in Mitchell’s books, and I would be hard put to explain the plots of most of them even when I have just finished them. There are always questions left at the end…

But I have enjoyed many of her books very much, and you can find posts on them via the label below. But I can only recommend this one if you want to get a picture of casual racism  of its era.

The picture, of schoolboys in the 1950s, is from the New South Wales archives.

Comments

  1. I read this one too recently and felt similarly uncomfortable with those aspects of the book. As someone who attended a public school (albeit one a little less posh than this one where only a small section of students boarded) several decades after this was set, I can only say that I sadly recognized a lot of this setting and these characters. I consider this to be a accurate depiction of that experience.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thanks Aidan - as I say, it is rare that anyone argues with this kind of portrayal, but it is depressing that it went on so long. Pity about the bok, which definitely had its good aspects.

      Delete
  2. Of course, as you say, that casual racism which is invisible to a lot of people is never invisible to those on the receiving end. I learnt this at my first "real" job, when I worked at a bank for a year after leaving school in 1973. There it wasn't the racism but the sexism that hit me - though the word sexism didn't even exist then. Growing up with a strong feminist (and atheist and communist and anti-racist) mother and attending an enlightened school I really believed at that time that we had achieved complete equality between men and women. Well, the year at the bank opened my eyes not only to the fact that this was not the case, but also to the difficulty of fighting that kind of "invisible", systemic sexism, which consists of so many small things: attitudes, assumptions, comments, jokes - each one of them too small to comment on or object to in itself but altogether almost drowning me. And there was nothing I could to about it. If I had objected to every little thing/joke/comment as it occurred I would have been branded as an angry, humourless feminist, thus confirming everybody's prejudice that this is what feminists are like. And yet, by not objecting, I in effect condoned those attitudes. It was a no-win situation. However, I realised even at the time what a valuable experience it was, and that I would never after this think that a black person (for instance) who objected to a joke with racist overtones was over-sensitive; that it is not one single joke that breaks you, it is the continuous repetition of such things until even the tiniest thing makes you explode.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Yes I am totally with you on that, and I often make this point to my daughter to try to convince her that things have imrproved. When I tell her stories about me and my friends in our first jobs I think we must sound like Victorians: people felt they could say anything, and there was no comeback. And 'can't you take a joke?' was the final insult. Plus, we vaguely felt we had to be tough and good sports to pave the way for other women, so they couldn't say 'well we tried a woman and she was nothing but trouble.' Bleurgh. And yes, we need to be open to how things sound to other people, and always willing to learn.

      Delete
  3. Have you read Simon Raven? His novels or memoirs set in school at about the same time as this book was written (Fielding Gray, Shadows on the Grass, The English Gentlemen, for instance) incorporate the bullying and racism (We're assured they're dead now, but I doubt it.) which seems to have been endemic in English public-schools for most of their history and throws in homosexuality as a bonus.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I read one of the school series and didn't take to it, perhaps I should read it again. HIs lifestory was full of incident, no wonder he used it as source material so much...
      I have just had a sudden realization, which is that Simon Grey and Simon Raven are not the same person. May have to think this over.

      Delete
    2. Raven's school stories weren't quite what you mean by school stories, I expect. The chalet School wouldn't welcome him.
      Simon Gray's - if that's who you're thinking of - obsessive vice was smoking. I don't think Raven would have regarded that as a vice at all.

      Delete
    3. I have read something by both - I just hadn't really cleared up they were the same person!

      Delete
  4. I always have a hard time with those casual '-isms,' Moira. As you say, they are related to other forms of '-isms' and that unsettles me. Still, it's good to hear that you found the structure of the book to be clearer and easier to follow. I know that there are some excellent books out there that don't have so much structure, but I prefer it (my own bias, I suppose).

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Those of us who read a lot of Western literature written in that era are going to find a lot of problems, and I guess we have to deal with that. While always disliking it, sometimes it doesn't spoil my enjoyment of the whole book, and sometimes it does. I guess we all have our own rules and instincts.

      Delete
  5. Certain attitudes in those days were indeed palpable, but is it Mitchell's fault to depict it as what it was
    ? Are we now only accepting books that offer a sanitised view of the world?
    Where I draw the line is if an author uses these stereotypes to convey a message that it is OK to be racist or antisemitic and drums up propaganda for such attitudes.
    But depicting the status quo of a certain period in history can be found in many seminal works of world literature, starting with Shakespeare.
    I guess we soon will see the suppression of literature that does not fulfill today's standards.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I am not suggesting the book should be suppressed, just making people aware that I was uncomfortable with it. As I say in a comment above, I read a lot, and come across attitudes like this all the time. Sometimes I find it passable, and sometimes not. In this case, not. My personal view was that she was not simply trying to describe a way of thinking: she was trying to entertain the reader with racist jokes and stereotypes, make us laugh. I found that unacceptable, but that is my subjective opinion, and of course yours may vary.

      Delete
  6. Sounds quite similar to my reaction to The Echoing Strangers, actually! Interesting to go back and revisit what I said about it in the comments elsewhere. I don't really remember this one that well, although I have read it, and now I've seen your review, I'm wondering why it was one of the titles that was chosen for republication.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Yes I remember that, I had to read the book (Echoing Strangers) after seeing your fascinating discussion with John Norris. I think the comments on both books suggest it is a very personal thing. I guess those republishing lost books have to work out a policy and overview on how they will treat these matters.

      Delete
  7. Oh dear! Another case of your taking one for the team, Moira! There is only a certain amount that can be tolerated on the grounds that those were the attitudes of the times.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Yes indeed. There are plenty of books around, you don't have to read one that you think may be a concern! I don't remember having many concerns with other Mitchell books, so can carry on...

      Delete
  8. I suspect my views on this are affected by the fact that I first read this back in 2009 by Vintage and perhaps even then there was more grounds for optimism that we were learning things form the past. For myself this one falls on the side of the line where it reflects the times in an interesting manner and the author reasonably clearly does not share the views expressed. However, I can certainly understand anyone who feels uncomfortable with it being dealt with in a book which is primarily an entertainment. Also Mitchell did seem to enjoy throwing in a few paragraphs a book designed either to wind people up or amuse here friends (including Philip Larkin).
    Generally it comes over that Prince Takhobali is good natured and popular with his fellow pupils. The treatment is significantly better than in the Saltmarsh Murders where what in some ways an attempt to stress that a black character has a well justified fear of racism is spoilt by giving the character an overdose of superstition..
    Issaucher and (especially) Mr. Kay are more difficult, but the former is presented in a manner which to my mind makes him sympathetic and stresses his intelligence - also making it clear that blatant as well as casual anti-semitism was around in the late 1940s seems like an anvil worth dropping.
    For me the treatment of Mr. Kay is more difficult to justify - having recently reread Plain Tales from the Hills the reference to him claiming to be half Portuguese and his mother having been born in Brazil clearly are similar to the anna in the rupee discussions.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thanks for these clear and interesting thoughts. I can absolutely see that the book might come on the other side of the line for others. It is a touchy business deciding! And even the news outside and the way one is feeling that day might affect how it strikes the reader. But always good to have a discussion and share views.

      Delete
  9. I did not read all of the post here, due to spoilers, although since there are over 60 Mrs. Bradley books, the likelihood that I would remember any spoiler by the time I get to it is small. (Plus the fact that my memory is eroding anyway.)

    I am still reading Laurels are Poison by Mitchell. (It is a group read and I am reading a chunk at a time.) I am uncomfortable with the depiction of Lulu, the maid, in that book, but it is a comparatively small part of the book in that case.

    I have found that racial and ethnic slurs have sometimes been bothersome in Agatha Christie's books, but in most of them this is not an issue. Not sure in that case whether it is the prevalence of the slurs throughout the book, or that they are truly offensive. Anyway, if they pull me out of a book, then it bothers me, no matter how whether they reflect the times or not.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Yes, that's a good description Tracy about 'pulling you out' - that's also how I feel about anachronisms and mistakes - if they distract you that's bad.
      I don't remember the maid in Mitchell, but it doesn't surprise me.

      Delete
    2. I wonder if there's some sort of autobiographical or family aspect to Mitchell's portrait of non-English characters. I came across one which featured - without explanation - a clichéed black American woman as a maid in a teachers' training college in England in the 1940s(?). Miscegenation and illegitimacy crop up regularly - often together.

      Delete
    3. I wonder generally whether there were many black characters dealt with well in 1920s/30s UK books (although there is at least one Thorndyke book where a student barrister from the Gold Coast is presented sympathetically). My suspicion is that she was merely using the then equivalent of TV Tropes or Commedia Dell 'Arte stock characters (Lulu and Foster Warrington Yorke seem to come out of 1930s US films), but trying to err on the side of making then likeable. Even then Laurels was an improvement on Saltmarsh and Tom Brown on both of them.

      The one book I recall of hers where miscegenation was openly discussed had overtones of those holding those views as being uneducated, and for me jarred less than a Margery Allingham book of a similar vintage where a character holding these views was generally portrayed as admirable, if of of a bygone age.

      On illegitimacy it was a regular refrain in her books that pre-marital sex was natural and normal and that local morality meant that normally the father did the "right thing" even if the parents and vicar had to lend moral persuasion. I suspect many people who have researched their family trees have found that this attitude reflected reality.

      Delete
    4. In Mitchell's books, though - Watson's Choice; Death and the Maiden, for example - characters are illegitimate, without the father "doing the right thing". It's partly to drive the plot, of course, but it's curious she chooses that particular ploy.
      It was Laurels are Poison I was thinking of with the black character. I actually wonder if Mitchell introduced her simply to practise writing dialect.

      Delete
    5. This is a fascinating discussion, thanks for your comments. I'm going to have your views in my head when I read more of her, and will be looking out for these themes...

      Delete
  10. Interesting discussion in the comments. I don't think I have my Mitchell on my list of authors to try. Undoubtedly I've come across similar things in my own reading.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. She's definitely not, ever, cosy, but probably not noir enough for you. But the question of how these past authors dealt with touchy issues invades all our reading, and isn't going away any time soon...

      Delete

Post a comment