Devil at Westease by Vita Sackville-West

published 1947




[The narrator is visiting a country village]

The landlord came out with me to give me directions, and as we stood together in the sunny street where the Jaguar patiently and incongruously waited, a girl came along riding on a sleek pony. Bareheaded, with short dark curls, a yellow jersey clipping her slim figure, well-cut jodhpurs encasing her long slim legs, she rode with a careless grace, long stirrups, and an easy rein. On seeing the landlord, she stopped.

“Morning, Mr Sivewright,” she called out. “I’ll be coming down presently with the trap to fetch Fathers’s beer.” Then she looked at me, the stranger. “Is that your car?” she said, pointing at the Jaguar with her whip.

I was a little surprised, since the English, although a most individualistic and even eccentric race when you get to know them, are superficially conventional about such things as taking the initiative without an introduction.




observations: Various surprises here. Vita Sackville-West, a fairly iconic figure of the first half of the 20th century, wrote a lot (see here, or click on the label below, for blog entries on her books or about her, or about Violet Trefusis) but until I read this I had no idea the oeuvre included a straightforward murder story – thanks to Kate Walker, who also suggested The Agony Column. As a 1947 murder story goes, it is quite clever, but at the same time strangely conventional and pedestrian – I was expecting something more – what? Theatrical? Metaphysical? Poetical? It is none of those things, and if I’d read it blind I would never in a million years have guessed who wrote it.

The narrator, Roger Liddiard, is revealed casually on p57 to be Sir Roger: the policeman is about to ask if he wouldn’t mind ‘stepping round [great Golden Age phrase of motion] to the Manor House’ to inspect the body. Vita S-W was truly a most tremendous snob – even her friends and defenders don’t argue with that. The book is quite like the recent ones I have read by Thurman Warriner, of a similar era, here and here, and goodness knows I didn’t ever think I’d be looking back nostalgically on them for their egalitarian socialism, but VS-W would have benefited a lot from the introduction of a spiv and his moll – extra investigators in the Warriner books.

Late on a character says to the hero: ‘there’s a streak of grudging ungraciousness in you, Liddiard, which I have often deplored.’ Perhaps one is not meant to take this character’s comments entirely seriously, but I felt like applauding.

The woman with the horse is from the Helen Richey collection at the San Diego Aviation archives, a fruitful source of wonderful photos for the blog. This one is plainly the same woman as above, though not actually Helen Richey I think.

The other two women, in trousers and yellow tops, are from the Dovima is Devine photostream, and for sure Mary looks a lot more like the San Diego woman (horsey Englishwomen don’t do Vogue), but I couldn’t resist the pictures.

I’m sure they have never lived in the same sentence before, but Enid Blyton, like Vita Sackville-West, always puts people into yellow jerseys if they are going riding – was there a secret dress code?

A yellow sweater goes skiing in this entry

Comments

  1. Not for me, on a sidenote - just started shaking uncontrollably ............. diagnosis? Mitford withdrawal syndrome!

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    1. I'll have to see what I can do - as you say, I haven't done NEARLY enough about them lately.

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  2. Moira - This one does certainly sound like a conventional GA sort of murder mystery, especially coming from such a colourful sort of author. Interesting.... And it's also interesting how the author's personality can come through in characters. Just from the snippet you shared I could sense Sackville-West's views about her fellow humans. But I have to say I have a bit of a soft spot for country village murders...

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    1. Me too, I kept waiting warily for it turn into something else, but it didn't... and I did enjoy some aspects of it.

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  3. Perhaps the yellow jerseys are so that the rescue squad can find you after you've been bucked off and are lying unconscious somewhere in the fens?

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    1. I think that's an excellent suggestion. A kind of early version of a high-vis vest?

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  4. Interesting. I was a horse-mad child and I do seem to remember a yellow jersey being the appropriate thing. No idea why.

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    1. I'm getting intrigued now - I'll have to try to find out...

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  5. Oh yes, do track down the yellow jersey! I must look in my 'Jill' books as I can't remember if yellow was the horsey thing there. And everything Jill did was the horsey thing.

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    1. I like to think we're all on yellow-jersey-watch now. There must be a reason somewhere.

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  6. A yellow jersey does look very good with a tweed hacking jacket. I never did get to own a horse, but I did manage the hacking jacket.

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    1. I never did any horse-riding of any kind, but I have twice had fashion hacking jackets, and loved them both to bits. Does that count?

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  7. Ruby Ferguson series Jill had Two Ponies (etc) and I think also the Pat Smythe pony books had yellow polo neck jerseys de rigeur. As I child I thought my happiness was complete when I was finally given one,

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    1. I remember cutout dolls having yellow jerseys as part of the riding outfit, with jodhpurs....

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  8. We have just returned from a holiday in Kent and visited Vita Sackville-West's superb garden at Sissinghurst. I didn't climb up the tower!

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    1. I've never been there, but would like to visit some time.

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  9. A good find. Very interesting review.

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    1. Thanks Martin - worth reading as an oddity.

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