[David Harben, who is staying on a boat on the Thames, goes out for an early morning walk. He comes to a boathouse]
On the steps was seated a girl. She looked so marble-white and sat so still that she might have been sculptured there; but the moment the mist rolled back, she slid soundlessly into the water, and began to swim lazily downstream.
Believing she had not noticed his approach, Harben pulled off his clothes, dived cleanly into the river, and set himself to swim after her…
[he catches up with her, but she swims off again]
In the water she was more than his match, but
there was never a swimmer yet who could match a runner on the bank.
Regardless of the fact that he was naked, for the river banks were deserted, he swam to the bank, climbed out, and ran along the grassy edge of the river. The wind on his cold, wet body cut like knives.
commentary: My friend Noah Stewart recently decided to read all the Gladys Mitchell books, and proudly announced this binge on his blog. But then, in a shocking twist, he was defeated by them, he has now said he cannot do it – and he piles on a lot of the blame to this specific book. I strongly recommend his hilarious blogpost explaining all this – the original challenge to himself, and his reasons for backing off. It’s important to read the comments too, which give some spirited defences of Mitchell.
I had recently read Sunset Over Soho when Noah laid into it, and it seems to me that in fact we agree about much of it, but that I quite liked it in the end anyway. I did think it was a strange and mixed book – all Mitchell books are somewhat weird, but I found this one exceptionally uneven.
It has a cracker of an opening – London in the Blitz, and series sleuth and terrific heroine Mrs Beatrice Adela Lestrange Bradley is visiting rest centres to check on those suffering in the attacks. A shifting building suddenly reveals a hidden corpse, one that has been there for some time.
Because of the pattern on the victim’s dressing-gown, Mrs B is able to suggest a fruitful line of research, and then we go back to hear a very strange story of events in the summer before the war started.
David Harben, the young man on the boat, is disturbed by a young woman who says there is a dead man in a nearby house. There is some back-and-forthing, people appear and disappear, a boat goes missing, and a message is left on the boat.
Mrs Bradley works with the police to try to find out what is going on. Various people are attacked in Soho, and there are self-consciously sinister foreigners around: sailors with earrings and swarthy complexions. I couldn’t keep track of who was being rightly or wrongly identified.
There’s more about David’s boating adventures, still being recalled by Mrs B. War breaks out, and some nuns and children are evacuated from London. David helps them, and they end up in Mrs Bradley’s house. One of the nuns has some philosophical discussions with David.
Next, Dunkirk. David and the Dominican nun go and rescue a lot of British soldiers. (You weren’t expecting that, were you?)
Then, there is a whole other boating adventure when David is abducted and left adrift, but manages to rescue himself and then get back to England in an adventurous way with some stranded English ladies.
By this time my head was spinning and I wasn’t following the story at all. Police and Mrs B are busy discussing this, and suggesting that David has been economical with the truth – all these stories come from him – and may be guilty of lesser or greater crimes. Certainly we are encouraged to believe he is withholding something in the version we get to read, which was quite disconcerting, as he is a proper hero-type.
In the end everything is sorted out, though Mitchell takes us right up to the closing lines of the book for the full explanation – well, I say full, as full as she ever gives, or as I ever understand. I would in no way ever want to write a detailed explanation of the plots of any of her (highly enjoyable) books.
At one point we have this:
‘The Yellow Slugs,’ said Mrs Bradley with relish. ‘You must have read it.’--which I investigated: it seems to be a short story by HC Bailey, from a 1935 collection called Mr Fortune Objects.
I very much enjoyed the descriptions of London in the blitz, - this 1942 picture from the Imperial War Museum collection shows a Rest Centre like the one in the book:
There was the prostitute saying ‘Makes business chancy, these air raids’, the streets of Soho in all their glory, the sinister pub, the gym, the general air of lowlife and highlife. I was less interested in the description of Dunkirk – although it did remind me of Lissa Evans’ splendid Their Finest (Hour and a Half), book and film (I feel the nun could have been added for propaganda purposes to the boat in the film-within-the-film).
There was generally too much messing about in boats – quite different ones from those in The Worsted Viper (published the same year, but set before the war). However as I said then, Mitchell did like to get people swimming in rivers. The two above are forever skinnydipping – they don’t seem to like clothes much at all. (She is called Leda, and has affinities with Melusine and mermaids). As I pointed out before, the poet Philip Larkin commented favourably on naked women swimming in the Mitchell oeuvre, and, again, must have loved this one.
After I’d written this, I looked the book up on the excellent and invaluable Gladys Mitchell tribute site, The Stone House, and was glad to see that the expert reviewer there, Jason Half, had much the same feelings that I did.
One more thought from Noah:
[Sunset Over Soho] contains a paragraph that attempts to communicate that two characters are having sex which is one of the most unintentionally hilarious things I have ever seen in print; like someone describing how to participate in an activity that they’d never actually experienced but only been told about.I'm not going there, but the book did, after all, inspire me to find the second image above: Night Swimming by The Master of the Cite de Dames, from the Athenaeum and what a wonderful picture it is. It is from Christine de Pisan’s 14th century work, the Epistle of Othea, and shows Hermaphroditus bathing with a nymph.
Top picture of The Swimming Hole by Charles Courtney Curran from the Athenaeum website.
Picture of rest centre from the Imperial War Museum collection.
That's the thing about Mitchell's work, Moira. Some of it is really well-written. Some of it...well....at any rate, I'm not surprsied you found your head spinning. I've done much the same thing.ReplyDelete
I first started reading Mitchell years ago, and couldn't get on with her at all. I don't find her any more comprehensible now, but somehow I enjoy the books much more. Don't know why that would be.Delete
Sounds like a really weird book and I can see how it might appeal to some. I do like reading mystery fiction set within WW2 as I think the war can contribute a lot to the mechanics of the murders, but I think my own reading of Mitchell has me off tracking down any more by her. She has a lot of originality but not always the skill to execute it well.ReplyDelete
And she wrote so many! I don't seek them out, I'm not trying to read them all, but when one pops up, or someone recommends one, I will try to read it. But - I need gaps in between them. She is so NOT an author where I instantly want to read another by!Delete
I started to read this during the course of WWII research - the London Library very usefully has the publication date stamped on the spines of its books, so I used to enjoy pouncing at random on novels published during 1941/42, though most of them, disappointingly, tended to deal with 'historical' topics. (A great exception being a couple of highly enjoyable JB Priestley crime pot-boilers, Black Out in Gretley and Daylight on Saturday) Having read your (attempted!) plot summary, I definitely recall the corpse being found after a raid - and I probably shouted 'bingo' when I came across that bit, as being highly relevant to what I was writing - but I'm pretty certain that I abandoned it as too bonkers. It's a pity, as I obviously missed the nun bit, and who knows what plot tangent that might have triggered!ReplyDelete
I like the thought of the nun wandering into other books of the era, a kind of missing motif. I'm not surprised you gave up, it really is quite a whirligig of strangeness. But I did love the details, and there was enough of them to keep me reading.Delete
Incidentally, The Worsted Viper must be one of the greatest ever titles!ReplyDelete
Yes! I almost didn't want to read it, because I couldn't imagine what I meant, and thought it was bound to be a disappointment. But it wasn't! There was a discussion recently of how the viper itself was made - I think on Noah Stewart's blog - a form of what we called French knitting when I was a child, a way of producing woollen tubes using an old cotton reel and nails - did you do that? Although it seemed to me the resulting viper would be too small...Delete
Yes! There was quite a craze of making those "snakes" when I was in elementary school. I think the point was the make a long enough length, then, sew it into a circle to make a table mat or a hat? Something. Anyway, I think most of my friends and I got bored with it long before fabricating a usable viper.Delete
Yup, I could have wrapped Nelson's column in the amount of French knitting I did as a child. A few lengths were coiled into hideous table mats, but the rest just gathered dust...Delete
Having said that, isn't 'worsted' a sort of cloth?
That's what I thought -- a type of wool cloth? I usually only see it in reference to suiting material.Delete
We did so much of that knitting too, think of that wasted effort, those long ropes we could have done something with... (killed random people on the Norfolk Broads and stuffed snakes in their wounds.Delete
Worsted nearly always means the fabric - BUT is actually the way the yarn is twisted, I think, to make something very firm and solid. And, in America they actually sell Worsted knitting wool. (or 'worsted weight'). It is - and really, you can't do better than consult me on these matters - approximately equal to 'aran weight' in UK knitting circles.
Now that you mention, it "worsted weight" sounds familiar. I can't knit. I've tried. I just end up with really odd looking pieces, but I'm actually quite a whiz at crochet.Delete
I'm the opposite, never been able to crochet but can knit...Delete
Interesting, because I've known a lot of people who can do one but not the other. A particular way you use your hands? Is it something to do with spatial intelligence? But I've found it's true more often than not.Delete
I have done both, but I have crocheted for nearly 50 years and I knit for only about 2. When I was knitting I loved it and I love the results more, but for me knittin requires too much concentration, and I only did small projects.Delete
I know what you mean. When I crochet (and especially when I was doing it regularly) I'm almost on auto-pilot...don't need to even look at what I'm doing unless it's a particularly tricky pattern. When I tried to knit I'd always end eventually going off the road and running into a tree.Delete
Tracy & Paula: Interesting points, someone should do proper research. As you say, most people are a lot keener on one than the other, and find one easy. I do wonder what that shows...Delete
This was one of the first Mitchell novels that I picked up when they were reprinted back at the end of the '80s. I had been pre-warned about her idiosyncrasies after reading the Larkin article about her, and that was lucky as it is definitely one of her crazier efforts. It does almost read as if she simply followed her stream of consciousness rather than trying to impose any real order. One of the things that I do admire about Mitchell was her bravery in simply doing her own thing. Some of the novels are very clear and lucid, whilst others feel rather experimental, but she had no fear about losing her audience and simply wrote what she wanted to.ReplyDelete
Mitchell said in an interview that any descriptions of intimate Male/Female couplings were not based on actual experience, and there is certainly a school of thought that she was a lesbian. It's not something that matters one way or the other, but there do seem to be a lot of strapping, skinny-dipping young women in her books, and you have to wonder if she enjoyed writing them for the same reason that Larkin enjoyed reading about them. It's probably wrong to try and work out a writers personality from their works, but it's ineveitable. I know that Mitchell's sister was a nun, and you can't help but wonder how that affected her depictions of nuns. It doesn't really matter, but it is fscinating!
Absolutely fascinating! And what an interesting woman she must have been. the books are crazy weird, and while having a faint framework like other crime books of the era, they actually bear no resemblance to anything else. I used to try to make sense of them, and got annoyed with them, but now I just try to enjoy the ride...Delete
Was not quite convinced at first, but after reading the comments at Noah Stewart's blog, I've purchased a few of her e-books. We shall see what we shall see!ReplyDelete
Will be most interested to hear...Delete
Glads Mitchell I tend to prefer in segments and isolated passages rather than in whole books.But she's definitely an original and the experience of reading her is not quite like anything else.ReplyDelete
I know what you mean - my theory is, as I said above, one at a time, never try to read two in a row!Delete
So far, I have only read the book you sent me: A Hearse on May Day, and it was good although a little more fanciful than I like. I plan to try more. But I think this one would be very challenging, hard to sustain interest. I agree with you that Jason Half's tribute site is very worthwhile and I admire all the work he has put into it.ReplyDelete
Saying it is a little too 'fanciful' for you means you should probably stop reading her at once! Fanciful is her middle name...Delete