Thursday, February 16, 2012

Patricia Wentworth and Miss Silver

Elizabeth Zelvin

British mystery writer Patricia Wentworth, creator of the beloved Miss Silver, was born in 1878, the same year as my grandmother, and published dozens of novels from an early age to her death in 1961. I’ve always preferred Miss Silver to Miss Marple, and Wentworth’s books, of which I have more than forty, are still among my comfort reads. As the genteel whodunit falls further and further out of fashion, I keep checking my emotional temperature to see if my response to books like these is diminishing or if they still hold my interest. To this end, I’ve reread quite a few of them in a row recently and can share my latest observations.

In the 1940s and 1950s, when most of the Miss Silver books were written, it was acceptable to write to a formula. Today, even in a long-running series, the author is challenged both to sustain interest in the formula (because we and our publishers still want readers to get attached ot our characters and come back for more) and to break the mold in some way in every book. Wentworth uses stock epithets to describe Miss Silver, from the intelligent and perceptive gaze that sees through the human race “as if they were glass-fronted” to her dowdy Victorian mode of dress and her flat with its curly-legged yellow maple furniture and bright (or faded, depending on the date) peacock-blue curtains. (How many times in the Iliad did Homer refer to “rosy-fingered Dawn”? Stock epithets are a literary fashion that evidently ebbs and flows.)

In Miss Silver’s traditional world, like Miss Marple’s, the classes know their place. Girls are either good or bad, intelligent or silly, filled with integrity, venal, or what we would now call wimpy. Men are gentlemen or not, though some of the gentlemen are bounders or villains. Housemaids and charwomen are never clever. Working class men are never brave or talented above their station. On this round of re-reading, the women’s limitations annoyed me a little more than they used to. Too many of the romances feature girls who, underneath a fa├žade of independence, long for their menfolk to be high-handed. This is a romantic convention that I have to accept for what it is if I want to read pre-feminist novels at all, but it does get a little wearisome.

Certain themes and literary devices recur frequently in these books. Amnesia and blackmail crop up again and again. Many of the books included extended descriptions of a character’s dreams, not as a plot device or to be analyzed in any way, but as an expression of character. While Miss Silver lives in London, the setting is more likely to be a seaside village or a big house set above forbidding cliffs. Part of the appeal of Golden Age mysteries was the portrayal of country-house life. The upper classes had endless leisure time to pay extended visits to beautifully furnished homes with extensive grounds and large staffs of servants. In Wentworth’s era, spanning World War II, that life was vanishing, which might even increase its charm for the nostalgic reader.

Some of these books were written or published during or just after the War. One feature of them that fascinates me in a bizarre kind of way is the curiously naive view of the Nazis, persisting as late as 1945. There are references to the fifth column and the Blitz, spies, secret formulas or weapons, and German concentration camps. But no mention is made of gas ovens or slave labor. In one story, when a young woman who got stuck in France and interned reappears in England three years later, she explains that she was put in a concentration camp, but they let her out because she got sick! My fascination with this innocent scenario suggests that I experience reading a book written in that era, limited by what people knew at the time, as a kind of time travel into a past in which widespread ignorance of atrocities like the Nazis’ was possible, whereas today it's as extinct as those armies of servants attending the country houseparty.


caryn said...

I love Miss Silver and find that I go back to her every few years and read a few of the books.
Your point in the last paragraph really hammers home the difference between "historical fiction" written today but taking place in a different time period and "vintage fiction" which was written in a different time. I much perfer the latter as it gives a more accurate view of life-at least as seen by the author-than historical fiction which has a tendency to try to "clean up" some of the messier things of the past.

JJM said...

Interesting post, thank you.

In my reading, I find the reflections of a pre-feminist age much more acceptable in 19th century literature than in 20th century, perhaps simply because the latter is far too recent for comfort. Possibly, the effect is lessened if the books are familiar and beloved books of my youth. Of course, pre-feminist sensibilities are still in evidence in romances, which is why I tend to avoid them like the plague.

One small observation, however: the stock epithets in Homer (classicists refer to them as "formulas") aren't so much literary fashion as a sign of oral composition. If you are composing, and reciting, narratives that last for hours and hours, you do what you can to make them easier to memorize. So: poetry, with music, becomes the standard form; the formulas can be plugged into the metrical patterns easily, especially handy if are revising / editing / composing on-the-fly; and the repetitive nature of formulae gives the singer / reciter a space of time to think ahead. You can see the same sort of thing at work even today with popular songs, especially the ones with refrains.--Mario

Elizabeth Zelvin said...

Good point, Mario. Also true of traditional Appalachian ballads based on Scottish and English ballads. There are not only transferable lines but what they call "zipper" verses:
"Don't you see that lonesome dove/flies from pine to pine/mourning for his own true love/just like I mourn for mine."

JJM said...

"Zipper" verses ... I'll have to look into that. The technique's obvious, but wasn't aware of its having a formal name and recognition. Thank you. :)

Carola Dunn said...

I much prefer Miss Silver to Miss Marple.

Anonymous said...

Liz, be sure to read my blog for Sunday Feb. 26... you will enjoy it!!! Thelma Straw

Julia Buckley said...

Liz, thanks for this! I'm a long-time Patricia Wentworth fan. And what an interesting philosophy about her inability to see her era for what it was. I think it makes sense that Hitler's sort of evil had to be realized over time.